A pleasing arrangement of movement can help your horse make beautiful music.
Clinician and trainer Richard Winters of Reno, Nevada, orchestrates four areas of the equine body, then blends them into harmonious spins, stops, circles, lead changes and even cow work.
The key, says Winters, is having a methodical training plan.
“I have come to realize that I have to control the body parts to get the big maneuvers,” he says. “You can wish it to happen, you can go out and try 50 flying lead changes, like rolling the dice. If you roll enough times, sevens will come up once in awhile, but to do things right you need a plan.”
Part of this plan is what Winters describes as his “four-part harmony” program that segregates and controls four areas of the horse- the head and neck, shoulders, ribcage and hindquarters-before integrating the whole horse into managed physical movement. When a horse is not turning around properly, the trainer claims that it makes more sense to break down the maneuver and learn which part is out of tune, than to continue with a less than acceptable turn.
“I need to recognize that I’m not keeping the horse’s hip in place or he has a block in his shoulders or he’s ‘bracey’ in his face,” says Winters. “Fix the part that is out of sync, then you can come back and have some harmony.”
To properly tune his equine instruments, Winters uses a specific sequence of exercises that helps make each of the four body segments more supple.
Head and Neck
Step one for Winters is suppling the horse’s head and neck, getting the face very soft. Keeping that face light and responsive will be a lifelong endeavor, according to Winters, whether the horse is in a snaffle, hackamore, two-rein or bridle.
“No matter what your horse does, even if he slides 30 feet down the arena, if he doesn’t feel good in the face while he’s sliding, you are not going to like the maneuver,” he says. “When I pick up the bridle reins, the horse needs to be soft vertically and laterally and follow that nose.”
Putting the horse into motion in a circle, Winters keeps the horse engaged, driving from behind for propulsion. He calls the sphere a “train track circle” because he wants the horse’s nose to be the engine, his tail the caboose and his hind feet to step into the same tracks as the front feet, all the while remaining soft in the face.
“When his face is soft and he is driving from behind, we begin to get collection, almost like an accordion” Winters says. “Then, the horse is in a position to do something athletic.”
While still in the train track circle, Winters asks the horse to bend its neck, first in one direction, then the other. When the correct amount of bend is achieved, the rider should see the corner of the horse’s eye in the direction he is traveling.
“I’m going to maintain this circle,” Winters says, “but I’m going to draw my outside rein toward my inside shoulder. Now I can see the corner of my horse’s outside eye. I want to be able to pick up the horse’s shoulders and move them over. As he steps over, he is learning how to cross his feet over and get comfortable in that maneuver.”
“If I can’t get those shoulders out of the way, then I’m not going to be able to do a flying lead change,” Winters says. “So many times you’re loping along on the left lead and when you go to change leads the horse drops the shoulder. Once you get those shoulders picked up and cleared out of the way, then you are in a position to change leads. You ask that hip to come over and lope off the other direction on the new lead.”
Colts learn to yield to leg pressures in “kindergarten,” according to Winters. But the trainer also explains the fine line between that basic maneuver and an actual side pass.
“The leg yield was in a counter bend,” says Winters, “and that is great for opening gates and picking up soda cans off the fence. But now I’m going to ask this horse to side pass with straightness.
“Traveling toward the right, I draw my right rein towards my left shoulder and ask this horse to step over with straightness. In the counter bend I could see the horse’s outside eye; now I see his inside eye.”
Side passing back to the left, Richard pulls his left rein toward his right shoulder and pushes the rib cage over using his right leg. If the horse tends to drift slightly forward instead of traveling only latterly, he says it does not bother him.
“Going forward as you side pass is called a half-pass and your dressage friends will be impressed,” Winters says with a laugh. “If your horse is rocked back a little bit, you’re not going to like that. The horse will start stepping over behind; they need to step over cleanly in front. We know that a spin is a forward momentum maneuver. The old fashion rocking back and hopping around spin doesn’t cut it anymore.”
By late summer, Winters is asking his 2 -year-olds to move their hindquarters over with straightness, holding the body straight much like he used the shoulders in the side pass. He insists that the head, neck and shoulders stay perfectly straight as he moves the hindquarters around. To do that, however, the rider must get out of the horse’s way, possibly in an exaggerated way in the beginning.
“It’s as if I stood up in my right stirrup and you ask me to pick up my right leg,” Winters says. “I can’t do it. All my weight is on it.”
Loping off on a left lead departure, Richard shifts his body weight to the right side of his saddle, his right leg close to the horse, while opening his left leg away from the horse. This frees up the left side of the horse to make a clean left lead departure.
“Whichever direction you are going, open up that leg,” Winters says. “Get your leg away from them. On the colts, I’ll really exaggerate shifting my weight away, but I’ll be sitting right in the middle of them by this time next year. I’m still opening up the direction I want to go, closing the direction I don’t want to go.”
A turn on the forehand teaches horses to move the hips while keeping the body straight. Winters doesn’t need forward motion for this drill.
“I’m going to open up this right side,” he says.
“I want to hold those front feet as still as I can, I’m reaching back with my [outside] leg, and I want to rock those hindquarters out of the way.
“All the problems we will ever have with a horse go back to a lack of control of the basic body parts. It starts with the head and neck, because I’m not going to like the way my horse feels in the other three parts if he is not soft in the face. No maneuver will feel right if any of the four body parts are out of harmony.”
Richard, a saught-after clinician, continues to make presentations around the world. His credentials include National Reined Cow Horse Association world championships, and he is an AA-rated judge. The 2009 Road to the Horse Champion, Richard has since been back to that event every year as the Horseman’s Host and commentator. In addition, he continues to share his brand of horsemanship through clinics, expos and his television show, which airs on RFD-TV. When not on the road, Richard and his wife, Cheryl, reside in Reno, Nevada. There he develops his own horses and trains a select number of reined cow horses for clients.