Cow horse trainer Ron Emmons likes his horses to turn around fast and low.

A quick, correct turnaround will always gain credit from the judges, but reined cow horse trainer Ron Emmons likes his horses to sweep through their turns in a smooth,  flat motion that includes a bit of bend through the neck and body. It’s a  fluid motion that also translates to the cow work. 

That turnaround used to be a sore subject for Emmons, who lives in Ione, California.

“I used to be terrible about turning a horse around, but over time I just kept playing with it,” he says. “When I first started [in the reined cow horse] consistently in 2004, my horses didn’t turn around well enough to win.”

Ron Emmons walking horse in a circle
To begin teaching the turnaround, Ron Emmons walks his horse in a circle, tipping its nose slightly to the inside. Photo by Jennifer Denison

Now, however, he’s developed a training method that develops solid spins. It’s helped Emmons earn National Reined Cow Horse Association world championships, along with two World’s Greatest Horseman titles on Olena Oak.

“From the beginning, I teach them a little differently than a lot of people,” he says. “I want them to do a flat, sweeping turn. To do that, I use a lot of forward motion to begin with and then start to draw them back, and I do it with a lot of bend.”

A good turnaround begins with basic footwork that Emmons teaches from the start.

Forward and Back
Forward motion is essential to a good turnaround, with a horse reaching its outside front leg over its inside front leg, and its inside rear leg remaining nearly stationary. Emmons first focuses on teaching a horse to step over in front.

“I start by stepping a horse in a circle and getting him to follow his nose,” he says. “I use my inside rein and press the outside rib to get the horse to walk in a circle. I want to feel him give his nose when I pick up on the reins.  Then I’ll walk a circle that’s just large enough that he’ll start crossing his leg over. On a [2-year-old] the circle will be larger than on an older horse, but if he takes that outside front foot and tries to step over, and he thinks about the direction you’re pulling him in, that’s the size of circle I need.”

When teaching a young horse, the last thing he thinks about is speed.

“Like any maneuver, you have to teach all the parts,” he says. “You don’t teach a horse to spin without first teaching him the [correct] footwork. I want to feel him reach with his front foot. When he starts to reach with his outside front leg, that’s the start for the turnaround.”

Later, he wants a horse to think about planting its hindquarters, but at this point he focuses on the front end.

“I don’t worry about the back feet [at this stage],” he says. “As his front feet start to go faster, the back feet will slow down.”

Ron Emmons getting horse to step across
As he tightens the circle, the horse begins to step across with its outside front foot. Photo by Jennifer Denison

In fact, Emmons spends months on the basic steps that lead to a turnaround.

“I don’t do this in a hurry,” he says. “I spend four months or so with my 2-year-olds just teaching them to soften and follow their nose, and then get the front feet moving. Nothing is fast. I don’t ask for speed. I just want to instill that step in them. If you stay structured and take your time, the horse will learn [the turnaround]. If you start to push too hard, too quick, the horse will hop [through the turn], get nervous and worry about it. You have to give a horse time and let him think about it.”

Once the young horse understands the steps, Emmons begins using his inside rein to encourage a bit of bend and quicken the horse’s footwork.

“I’ll grab the [inside] rein, set the horse back slightly [over its hindquarters] and move him around,” he explains. “That keeps a little bend in him, but makes him move. Pretty soon it clicks that when you pull that rein, you want the horse to come back and into the turn.”

The biggest challenge, he says, is keeping the horse moving forward.

“The trouble you’ll run into is that a lot of horses don’t want to move that front end when you draw that rein; they want to back around instead,” Emmons says.

To combat that problem, he adds outside leg pressure. “If he doesn’t want to do that, I draw the [inside] rein back. At first it kind of binds him up, but then I put my outside leg on him, and he comes out of it,” he says. “You have to teach them to move their shoulders across by using your leg. Pretty soon a horse will figure out what the leg means, and you can take it from a large circle to a small circle over time.”

When the horse has figured out what Emmons wants, the trainer trots a circle and gradually tightens it, asking the horse to consistently step across with its outside front foot.

Ron Emmons turns horse by planting its back leg
The trainer’s goal is a horse that plants its inside back leg and sweeps through the turn in a fluid motion with slight bend in its body. Photo by Jennifer Denison

“He’ll figure out that it’s easier to step around, and a lot more work to trot in a circle,” he says.

Emmons never asks for speed until the steps are consistent.

“Once a horse gets it in his brain, then you can start stepping him up,” he says. “He’ll tell you if you go too fast. When I warm up [at a show], I don’t spin a horse fast. I just make sure he’s thinking about the proper method, because I know I’ve got the speed. When I go show I can get him to step properly. It’s not something you have to do fast all the time.”

When a horse learns Emmons’ turnaround, he says, it translates well to working a cow.

“It’s not like a cutter pivot; the cutters want a horse to stand more on the outside hind leg when they’re turning, and back before the turn,” he says. “I want the horse pushing off that outside hind leg on a cow, but I use that forward motion to get more of a sweeping turn instead of a backup. I want a horse to sit back and bring his front feet back, and then flatten into the turn and sweep around.”

Each horse, he stresses, has to find its own comfort zone in the turnaround, and that takes time.

“Once you’ve taught a horse to step, you’ve got to let him find his balance,” Emmons says. “We can’t create that. We can show them how to do it, and the horse has to find his balance. When you start out, all of the horse’s balance is forward, and you have to get ahold of him and shift him back. Then he learns to balance himself in that turn where it’s easiest for him.

“Horses travel with 60 percent of their weight on their front feet— always have, always will. All you have to do is get them to balance that weight. If their feet are in the right spot and they’ve found that balance, the speed will come.”

This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of Western Horseman. 

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