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Trainer’s Tip: Using your space

by Brent Winston, head trainer, Harmony Equine Center

Hello again! I hope everyone is staying warm and safe out there playing with horses. With the addition of the Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center’s owner surrender program, we have been busy evaluating and training horses. One problem that we’re seeing more often is the horses cheating and throwing their shoulders to the inside as they go around the arena. Potentially, this problem can cause other troubles and even in some cases become dangerous, so let’s talk about it.

In the Staying balanced and Riding with confidence articles, we discussed the importance of balanced centered riding, and we’re going to expand on that topic a little bit now. When we’re going around the arena or riding outside, it’s not uncommon for our horses to drift one direction or the other. In the arena, drifting usually happens to the inside because the rail gives a boundary.

When we’re out in a field, drifting can happen in either direction. The common correction for drifting is to pull the horse’s head back toward the direction we want them to go. This approach works if it’s just a very subtle correction that’s needed; however, this is usually not the case. Quite often, drifting occurs when the horse wants to go back to the barn, to a buddy or to the arena gate, and the correction will need to mean more.

When our horses drift in a certain direction and we pull their head the opposite direction, we’re causing them to become more off balance by pushing their shoulders and ribs away from their head. Doing so can lead to stumbling, falling, or crashing into objects and other riders because now the horse is unable to see where its shoulders and ribs are going.

Instead of pulling their head back, try to ride centered with the horse between your hands and legs using them as barriers. For example, if your horse drifts left, lift and block with your left rein and your left leg, asking the horse to move back over. The very instant the horse straightens or moves just a touch, release your leg off the horse and drop your left hand. Sometimes when the horse straightens, and we release, the horse isn’t quite where we want him to be. This is ok; just ask again the same way, as lightly as possible at first and then increasing intensity until you get another effort to move over. This process starts to teach your horse a cue to straighten its body and move, and you can build from there.

An exercise that’s helpful with this approach is riding to a spot and focusing on that spot or riding to the corners of the arena, utilizing the entire space. If you’re riding centered and riding your horse between your hands and legs, you’ll feel when your horse starts to drift before they commit to it and be able to stop it.

Don’t be discouraged if your horse drifts away from your spot and you aren’t able to get them back. It’s more important that you start to teach the “move over cue” and your horse understands it, by releasing your hand and leg when you start to get the effort.

If your horse has a tough time understanding and completely ignores your leg, you can break it down for them in my favorite exercise, straight circles. A circle is simply a straight line bent around. When you are practicing straight circles, you use your inside leg and hand a little more to encourage your horse to lift its shoulder and rib cage away from your leg. You might have to give the release when they do it for just a step or two and go back to it. Be careful not to be so critical that you have to make the full circle perfectly before you release the pressure and let your horse know they did it right, small victories build to the big one.

Drifting is a common, correctable problem if addressed early. Ride centered keeping the horse between your hands and legs, using them as barriers. Ride to a spot, ride to the corners and use your space. Always remember to reward the successes even if they’re small and not what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. Until next time, stay warm, stay safe and keep riding with a smile.

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