Being able to move each part of your horse’s body is very important when riding in any equine sport. If you can’t move a show jumping horse’s body sideways while on course you won’t have a straight approach to each jump. The same is true of a barrel racer, if you don’t have control of each part you will knock down barrels and make turns that are too wide.
The horse has five main body parts. They are the head and neck, the poll, the shoulders, the ribcage, and the hindquarters. It is essential that you have control over all five body parts of the horse on the ground and under saddle. The basic groundwork lessons that I have described earlier will give you control of all the body parts on the ground. Here we will talk more about moving all the parts while riding.
The Head and Neck
The head and neck are probably the part of the horse that most riders and trainers focus predominantly on. Many riders want to put their horse in a head set and forget about the rest of the body of the horse which directly influences the horse having their head in the correct place. Horses need to push from their hindquarters and lighten the forehand which properly engages the horse’s body so he can then carry his head in a nice comfortable position. Before you can do that you need to gain control of each of the body parts.
To begin with every horse needs to be taught to flex laterally from side to side. Slide your hand down one rein, grip it about half way to the bit then pull it gently up to your hip. Start slowly at first and don’t ask for a lot of bend in your horse’s neck. Build up to having your horse bring his head all the way around to your girth arena. Do this on both sides.
When you can lightly bend your horse’s head around you can move on to picking up both reins, shortening them to make light contact with his mouth, and asking him to lower his head and tuck his chin in. Only release the pressure when he does this even a little bit. He will then learn to flex at the poll. This is vertical flexsion and it directly builds off of lateral flexsion. When you start teaching your horse vertical flexsion at the walk you can help him by squeezing with your legs at the same time you apply pressure with your reins. It is a different kind of pressure then the leg pressure you use to ask your horse to go forward.
This kind of pressure should be a little squeeze with your heels and calves but with your toes out to the side a little more than usual so you can use your heels properly. This is different than when you squeeze with your legs on your horse’s sides as a go forward cue because you are asking your horse to lift his back with your heels. When you ask your horse to go forward you want to keep your toes pointed ahead, toward the horse’s ears. The same is true when asking your horse to move any other body part with your leg aids.
Control of the shoulders mainly comes from the legs but there are some rein aids that can affect them as well. Positioning your leg in front of the girth and squeezing with for example the left leg to move the shoulders to the right and vice versa will move your horse’s shoulders over to the side. Remember that when you ask him to move his shoulders over to have your toe pointed out. This will make your aid more effective.
A rein aid that will move your horse’s shoulder in the same way is an opening rein. To use an opening rein hold one rein in each rein, then to move your horse’s shoulder to the right turn your right wrist as if you were turning a key in a lock, toward the direction you want him to step. Hold this position with pressure on the rein until your horse find the correct answer and moves his shoulders over. Once he does even a step release the pressure and slowly add more steps.
Being able to move your horse’s ribcage to the side allows you to set him up for lead changes, preform dressage maneuvers, and sidepass. When you first start teaching your horse this lesson it is easier to start having your horse face a fence to help block forward movement. Ask you both get better at moving sideways you can perform the lesson away from the fence. To ask for sideways movement; look in the direction you want to go, let’s say the left, apply pressure with the calf and heel of your right leg. Remember to keep your toes pointed out when asking him to step across. Once he moves just a step release the leg cue and look straight ahead. If your horse gets confused keep applying your aids until he even thinks of moving in the correct direction he will catch on and you can slowly build on it and add more sideways steps.
The hindquarters are the most important part of the horse to have control over as they act as your emergency brake if your horse would spook, bolt, or buck. When you feel unsafe on your horse flex your horse’s head to the side as I described above. This movement gives you control of your horse’s head and neck as well as his hindquarters. By bending his head and neck you disengage your horse’s hindquarters and that puts him in a position where he can’t run away, buck, or rear.
Moving the hindquarters is also important for lead changes, dressage maneuvers, barrel racing, and much more. To move the hindquarters to the right apply pressure with your right calf and heel behind the girth. Your horse should cross his right hind leg over his left hind. To help your horse if he is having trouble moving his feet you can bend his head around to the right and then ask him to move his hindquarters over. Once he has moved a step release the pressure with your leg while still keeping his head bent until he completely stops moving his feet. Then, release and start again. Soon you can ask him to move his hindquarters over with only your leg cue.