Could your body position be impeding your horse’s performance? Unleash his movement with these balance pointers from horseman Martin Black.
To be successful at anything he does on the ranch, on the trail or in the arena, your horse must have confidence. The key to developing his self-assurance is eliminating confusion and fear, and creating a positive experience he’ll willingly repeat.
In this exclusive, six-part series on developing a confident cow horse, you’ll read about philosophies and techniques for getting a horse and cow to do what you want in the most logical and efficient way possible. You’ll learn how you influence your horse’s abilities, how to analyze situations from your horse’s perspective and reason with him, how to capitalize on his instinctive behavior and past experiences, and ways to use cattle as a training aide. By the end of the sixth lesson, you and your horse will have the foundation skills necessary to bring in the herd, load it into a stock trailer, and sort and doctor cattle.
The theories and methods will be related in terms of developing a cow horse, but much of the information can be applied to any discipline, especially this month’s lesson on rider position.
In order for your horse to perform at his peak ability, you need to remain in a neutral position, or one that enhances your horse’s abilities. Being able to feel how your horse reacts to your weight and position is an important and often overlooked aide. In this article, you’ll get the tools you need to understand and feel how your body position, as well as your rein aides, help and hinder your horse’s balance and movement. Then you can make the necessary adjustments to your riding to help your horse reach his full potential.
A Different Way of Thinking
The premise of my training program is to make things as easy and as natural as possible for a horse to understand and implement. For years, I’ve studied how to motivate a horse by making sure he understands his job; by capitalizing on prior experiences with his dam, in the herd or in the pasture; and by using body position and a soft feel on the reins to encourage a horse to move freely in the direction I want.
Many people interpret a horse’s motivation as speed, but that’s not true. Motivation is just as much about willingness. Your horse needs to be motivated to do something, and if he’s unprepared, confused, nervous or uncomfortable, he probably won’t want to do it again.
Confidence comes from gradually exposing the horse to the job you want him to do, and relating it to past experiences, so he has a clear understanding of what you’re asking him to do. Before your horse was saddled for the first time, he already had experience tracking his mother or a herd, changing leads, turning, stopping and doing other maneuvers. A horse naturally knows how to do these things, until you add a rider’s weight to the equation.
Most of the problems I see people having with their horses relate to head position and lateral movement. For the most part, these problems stem from poor rider position, and the horse compensating to avoid being off balance.
A horse balances with his head and neck. If your weight distribution or rein aides alter your horse’s head position, balance and body position the slightest bit, you’ll also affect his foot placement and cause unnatural effects, such as undesirable head position and a dropped shoulder. That’s because a horse must be able to move its head in a natural way in order to move its feet freely. If you have a tight hold on the reins, your horse will raise his head, brace against the pressure and stop, instead of lowering his head or tipping his nose to one side and moving his feet in the direction of travel, the way he does in the pasture.
It’s a common belief that a horse’s instinct is to go against pressure. I’m not of this opinion. I believe that a horse instinctively moves away from pressure. This relates to the way horses evolved as prey animals. The horse’s first reaction to a threat is to flee, which is essentially going away from pressure. If the horse can’t escape the predator, or pressure, he’ll go against it.
Watch Your Weight
When I was younger, an excellent bridle horseman in Nevada told me that the key to moving a horse to the left is to put more weight on his right side, and vice versa. I grew up with this philosophy and, as I got older and tested it on thousands of horses, I discovered that his theory is sound and applies to other things we do with our horses.
It’s fairly simple for your horse to remain balanced on a straight line. Even if you shift your weight to the front, back, left or right, he can usually compensate for you without altering his path of travel. Most balance-related issues occur while a horse is changing direction or doing a lateral movement.
These movements are the foundation of just about anything you do with a horse, including lead changes and turnarounds.
If you want to maximize your horse’s potential in any discipline, you must learn to position your body so that it helps, rather than hinders, his movement. You can eliminate several training issues by simply staying out of your horse’s way.
Think of your horse’s spinal column as a chain. If you grasp the end of the chain, which represents your horse’s nose, and drag it to the left, all of the links, or vertebrae, will follow the same path in an arced manner.
Now, watch your horse change direction on his own in the pasture. He first tips his nose in the direction he wants to go, then his feet and the rest of his body follow. If he’s turning to the left, it’s natural for his body, from poll to loin, to be arced in the direction of the turn. His sacrum, the wedge-shaped bone that lies below the lumbar vertebrae and makes up the pelvic wall, is straight and doesn’t bend.
Basically, as the horse turns to the left, the muscles on the left side of his body contract to help him stay balanced and pull himself through the turn. The muscles on the right are relaxed.
When you add the weight of a saddle and your body to his back, you must learn how to remain positioned to the outside of your horse’s center of gravity, the point where there are equal gravitational forces in all directions, to avoid impeding his movement.
To understand center of gravity, think about skiing or riding a four-wheeler. You must place more weight on the outside ski or the outside of the vehicle to lighten the load on the inside to turn smoothly.
The same is true with your horse. If you ride him in a circle to the left and distribute more weight on the inside (left) stirrup than the outside (right) stirrup, you’re pushing him in the direction he’s already pulling himself. He’ll have to contract the muscles on his right side to pull himself, and you, through the turn without getting off balance.
You often see horses that lean to the inside, or drop their inside shoulders. That’s usually the result of the rider leaning to the inside, which adds weight to the horse’s front end, disengaging his hindquarters. Furthermore, the horse tips his head to the outside to help stay balanced. The rider applies firmer direct-rein pressure to pull the horse’s head into the turn, which causes the horse to brace and resist the pressure.
I see this a lot in amateur cutting competitions. A rider anticipates the cow’s movement and leans in the direction of the cow. The horse stops, throws up his head and disconnects his focus from the cow, because he can’t move agilely if the rider is weighing him down.
On the other hand, if you place a little more weight into the outside stirrup during the turn, your horse’s inside muscles can pull him through the turn. And, without the interference of your weight, he’ll work off his hindquarters, which lightens his front end so he can move freely and balanced.
These principles also apply to backing your horse and encouraging him to move forward. I’ve found that it’s more natural for a horse to back up if you shift your weight slightly forward, removing the pressure from his hindquarters. When riding a green horse that’s hesitant to transition to a trot or lope, I’ve discovered that if I shift my weight backward and sit deeply in the saddle seat, the horse will move forward freely and willingly. That indicates that having your weight on the horse’s front end blocks forward movement, and, if you remove the obstacle, it frees up the horse’s front end so he can drive himself forward from the hindquarters.
You can feel this if you sit on an exercise ball. If you lean forward, the ball will push backward. If you lean backward, it’ll push forward. And, if you lean to one side, the ball will push in the opposite direction.
A horse can learn to compensate for, and push, an unbalanced rider. I see it all the time in amateur performance classes. But it’s the opposite of what your horse does naturally, and he must go through a “rehab” program to learn this new way of thinking and moving. I always try to consider what’s easiest and most natural for the horse, and if I can remove my weight as an obstacle, then I don’t have to put him through “rehab.”
Head in the Right Direction
Your horse’s head position is another factor that influences his balance. If your weight isn’t hindering your horse, and you have his nose pointed in the right direction, the rest of the “chain” will fall into place. But if your weight is shifted to the inside of a left-hand circle and you’re having to pull his nose to the left, chances are his poll will be in position to move to the right, rather than the left.
The vertebra that connects to a horse’s skull is called the atlas, and it allows vertical flexion. The second vertebra is the axis, and it allows the horse to flex to each side. If the axis is pointed to the right, even though the rest of the vertebrae between there and the withers are arced to the left, your horse probably isn’t prepared to move to the left, because head position isn’t about flexing the neck—it’s about positioning the poll.
I’ve found that the poll and loin almost always work simultaneously. A horse can engage his hindquarters and collect if he’s soft in his poll, and vice versa. Imagine a line extending from your horse’s poll through his tail head. If you apply a soft feel on the rein, asking the horse to tip his nose slightly to the right of the line until you can see just the corner of his eye, his poll will also move slightly to the right of the line. And the back of the saddle will slide slightly to the left of the line. This indicates that his loin moves with his poll.
People fail to recognize this slight give through the poll, and keep asking for more flexion without allowing him to realize relief. This only teaches the horse to pull against pressure, because his instinct is to move away from pressure, not go against it. And, if he can’t get away from the pressure, then he’ll instinctively fight it.
Rather than teaching a horse to respond to pressure, I believe in teaching him to seek relief. To do this, apply soft direct-rein pressure with your fingers, and focus on your horse’s bridle path, not his neck. Regardless of whether his neck flexes, if that bridle path (or axis) moves, that’s the first sign he’s responding to the soft feel. Allow him to feel the relief, then reapply the pressure, asking for just a little more give without removing the slack from your reins.
If you feel him pull against you, rather than holding the pressure, apply tension on the direct rein. Then quickly and firmly tug on the rein, and release it just as quickly, because the release is just as important as the pull. This tug may be ounces or pounds of pressure, but use no more or no less than it takes to discourage your horse from pulling on the rein. After correcting your horse, establish your soft feel again. Your horse will soon learn to maintain the slack in the reins, and that’s how you develop my definition of a soft feel.
Recognize the Remedy
As you train your horse, never settle for just treating the symptoms of a training issue; find the cause and a cure.
Paying attention to your body position and recognizing how it influences your horse’s movement is the start of developing a willing, confident partnership between you and your horse, as well as eliminating training problems. Without you hindering him with your weight, or by pulling on the reins, he’ll be better able to learn what parts of his body to engage to accomplish his job than if you try to force anything upon him. Then, in the heat of working a cow or competing, he can compensate for any errors you make, because he has the foundation and confidence of a competent cow horse.
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. For tips on maneuvering your horse’s front- and hindquarters, visit westernhorseman.com. Send comments on this story to [email protected].