Understanding Horses: Basics #2 and #3

Last month we started talking about the three things every horse needs to know to make his rider happy. My hero, champion reining horse owner and trainer Dick Pieper, told me I had been making the training of my horses way too complicated. "You should teach the horse to do three things and expand on those," he told me.

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, a hunt horse, a dressage horse, or whatever.

Last month we talked about Basic #1. This month we'll talk about Basic #2 and Basic #3.

First, I want to remind you that one thing you should do as a rider is ask a horse to go forward, and allow the horse to slow down by taking the leg away, not by using the hands. You teach the horse: "I can make you go fast, but I allow you to slow down." When I take my legs away, the horse should slow down until I tell him what speed I prefer. That's the response I want.

Also, remember that for any problem, make sure you eliminate a physical source before trying to work on behav-ior/training.

Basic #2

Pick up both reins and squeeze with both legs. We call it "give at the face," some people call it "soften at the poll," and others call it "yield to the bit" or "come on the bit." The horse must do all this and go forward. Having a horse at a stand-still that gives you his face is a parlor trick. It doesn't accomplish anything. It has no practical value.

You have got to get this at a walk, jog (trot), and lope (canter) every time.

I had one of the girls from the local hunt barn bring over a mare to help me do a video on these three basics. The gal riding the mare picked up both reins and squeezed with her legs as hard as she could. She was asking for Basic #2, but got nothing. She said maybe the mare was better at a trot.

She squeezed with her legs, had a death grip on this mare's face, and this mare did not make any attempt to give to the girl's hands. The mare was opening her mouth and wringing her tail, but not yielding. The mare made an ugly face that I bet many of you have seen before.

Then I showed the young lady my mare that has the three basics. For basic #2 I squeeze with both legs, pick up both hands softly--I don't have a hold on this mare, and I don't have three or four ounces of horse in my hand--and she does-n't push on my hands or lose momentum. I can do this with my hands open. The fact that she'll even allow me to put her head behind vertical and keep moving forward tells me how soft and compliant she is. She's never going to take hold and root on my hand.

Dressage people want their horses "on the bit." As far as I'm concerned, she's on the bit, and she's not pulling on my hands.

I can do the same thing at a walk, jog, or lope. A young horse might fuss with her poll to show disobedience, but she should never push on my hands. I don't want a horse to challenge the rein by pulling on my hands or rooting on the rein.

With Basic #2 you don't put a face on them with your hands or pull their face back to a headset. You take your hands and put your imaginary wall in front of the horse and drive the horse into the wall, compressing her body into that wall. Then the wall (your hands) moves along in front of you. When a horse is rooting on your hands and pulling the reins, your pulling harder on the reins isn't the answer. Driving with the legs is the answer.

When you do Basic #2 at a trot, don't slow down. A young horse will not be as good at a trot as a walk, but that's what you expect at that age.

The horse really needs to be good at Basic #1 and Basic #2 before working on #3.

Basic #3

There isn't a dressage maneuver that corresponds directly with Basic #3. It's not a leg yield. It's not a shoulder-in. It's not truly a haunches-in.

You ask the horse to get her hip over: "Get away from my leg." The horse's body becomes an arc with the hip first, nose second, and shoulder last. The arc leads with the hip while going forward.

It's easier to get a horse to move to the right if you tip her head to the left, but this causes problems later. In reining, when you are coming across the center line at a gallop and you have to change leads, you have to change exactly on the right spot or it's a penalty. If your horse changes in front and not behind, it's a penalty. If you get one penalty point in a reining class today, you might as well pull up, throw your money out the window, and go to the house. It's that competitive.

If I'm loping a circle to the right, I've got my horse bent so the arc in her body matches the circle. I've got a little outside left leg supporting that lead and keeping her hip pushed over. I've got my inside leg at the girth, and she's wrapped around my inside leg.

When I get to where we're going to change leads, I simply switch legs. My right leg moves to the girth and the left leg moves back to push her hip over. The horse's arc goes from right to left immediately. Her hip pushes over, so she's al-ways going to change behind.

It's a dead-sure, fool-proof, get-a-Jersey-cow-to-change-leads-on-command system. It's easy to do.

When I polled my clients--and remember that they are mostly hunter and dressage folks--getting lead changes was their number one problem. Basic #3 will solve that.

Owners like to give their horses medical reasons for not doing what they should. You should examine the horse from a medical standpoint. Then, if you don't find anything, take the horse to the round pen. You'd be amazed how many of these horses can take the "problem" lead in the round pen, and they can also do all kinds of flying changes.

I had one colt that had fractured his tuber coxae (point of the hip) 70 days before his owners put him in training. An owner could have given him a medical excuse for that "knocked-down" hip, but the colt's problem was that he just didn't have the basics.

Once he got the basics, he could do it all. In medical terms you need to make the right diagnosis before you do the opera-tion.

You don't have to practice Basic #3 at home at the lope; try this with you horse at the walk, then at a trot, and you will always get the lead change at the lope. If you can go down the arena and do this effortlessly at a trot and never change cadence--never speed up or slow down--or have the horse fuss at you, you can just load her up and go to a horse show. The first time you go to a show and ask her to change leads, it will happen.

When I have a young horse that won't pick up a lead, it's not the youngster's fault. It means I don't have Basics #2 and #3 on her. She runs through my hands and doesn't yield to my leg. These are both sins. If I ask for Basic #1 and she doesn't move her feet, that's a problem.

However, if you ask a young horse a question, you should expect a kindergarten answer. Don't punish her for not know-ing.

My friend Gary Carpenter (head of the American Quarter Horse Foundation) came to visit me one time and rode all my horses, and he gave me the greatest compliment.

He said, "Andy, you know what I like about your horses--the babies to the finished show horses? You ask them the same question, you get the same answer."


Training horses should be really boring. If it's not, you are doing something wrong. The more exciting it gets, the worse you are doing. Boring and monotonous are good.

When I put a foot in the stirrup, my horses are ready to go to work. I don't longe them to wear them out.

Older horses can work 30-45 minutes. Young horses should work only 15-20 minutes. Babies shouldn't even know they've been worked. With young horses, work on Basics #1, #2, and #3. If one gets frazzled, back off and get started again when she's quiet. If you lose quiet, you've lost everything.

If you see a horse at the end of a training session that's more rattled than when she started, she didn't learn anything. You had a bad session. The young horse didn't have fun, and she's not looking forward to tomorrow.

My horses all live outside. They are all easy to catch. When I turn up the heat on one 30 days before a show to get him on the edge--just between perfection and disaster--I can tell when I've tweaked a little too much. The next time I go to the pasture, he drops his head and eases away like he is invisible, and he says, "I'd like to not play today."

Owners should listen to their horses. When horses don't look forward to work and are not having fun, you need to back off a bit. If you are paying attention and know your horses, they will tell you a lot.

Take-Home Message

Have Basics #1, #2, and #3 on your horses. When problems do arise, figure out which one of these has failed, and train on it. Don't overwork your horses, don't get mad, and make sure you understand what they are telling you.

By Andy Anderson, DVM, with Kimberly S. Brown

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