Understanding Horses: Basic Movement #1

Champion reining horse owner/trainer Dick Pieper is my hero. I was showing and winning, but I wasn't completely happy with my reiners. In less than an hour under Dick's tutelage, I learned more than I had in the last 20 years. He said I was making this whole training thing too complicated.

"You should teach the horse to do three things and expand on those," he told me. Dick laid the three basics on me--and I got it. He taught me that there are three things every horse needs to know to make his rider happy. This is true if you're riding a reiner, hunt horse, dressage horse, or whatever.

When the light bulb comes on over your head, that's when you go, "Oh yeah." I've tried to teach this to people; some get it, and some never do.

Over the years there were a couple of times I had problems with a horse. Once, I jumped in my truck with a mare in the trailer and drove four hours to Dick's. Her turnaround (spin) was just not happening. He said, "Hop on her, and let's see what you've got." I really just wanted him to fix her.

Right off, Dick asked me to show him "Basic #1" to the left (to be discussed in a moment), and the mare wandered off to the right. I loaded up and went home. I'd spent eight hours in a truck because I forgot the basics. I thought I had the basics on the mare, but something got lost. I went back and fixed Basic #1 to the left, and we were good. It took 10 minutes.

There were a couple of trips like that when I felt really stupid. But I haven't been to Dick's for 10 years. I've learned to diagnose the underlying problem.

Basic #1

Basic #1 is a useful tool for improving communication with your horse. (As with any disobedience, be sure to always rule out an underlying medical condition, such as lameness, before continuing training.)

Start by have the horse at a walk in a small circle to the left and gently pick up the left (inside) rein. Do not pull your hand way out to the side, which overbends her and gets her hip "flopping" to the outside.

Then, just hold what you've got and encourage her to keep her feet moving until she makes some attempt to step across in front. When she does, release the rein pressure completely and continue to circle left. Do this walking, not from a standstill.

Get her feet moving and decide where you want to go. The horse shouldn't be just wandering off to the left, there should be a definite moving of the front feet over each other. The reining horse's trademark spin is nothing but an extension of Basic #1.

With a young horse it's important to reward any attempt by turning him loose (dropping the rein) and continuing on the circle. Gradually, you can add a step.

Any horse can turn around with four or five steps. That's nonthreatening. The horse just keeps turning around until you turn him loose. You don't have to scare him or beat him up. (More on training young horses will appear in future columns.)

Do this on both sides. Most people's horses are better going left because they work them more that way. I'm so aware of one-sidedness that at the first indication I see that my horse is becoming one-sided, I spend more time on the other side.

At the hunter/jumper stable I work with, one of the girls came over with a hunt mare to help me make a video showing the three basics. She picked up her rein and asked the mare to step across. The mare got fussy, swished her tail, and jerked at the reins. She made no attempt to step to the right.

This is a horse that gets up and goes to work every day, is safe, and wouldn't hurt anybody, but she isn't very competitive. This mare never makes the first attempt to step over when asked. She'll be a better horse when she gets the basics.

I demonstrated the basics with one of my mares. I walked a little circle, and all I did with my legs was ask her to go forward. I knew that when I picked up my rein, she should step that direction. And the minute that she felt the slack coming out of that rein she sat back, gave me her nose, and stepped left. There should never be an argument; it's automatic.

My mare isn't really pretty or very impressive, but she owns Basic #1.

Take-Home Message

If a horse fusses and fights when you ask her to turn, there could be an underlying medical problem, or the horse could be disrespecting her rider. First rule out any medical causes, then work on Basic #1 to improve communication and lighten the horse on your hands so she becomes more respectful of your request.

Next month, Basics #2 and #3.

By Andy Anderson, DVM, with Kimberly S. Brown

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