Developing Power Steering in Your Horse with Tommy Garland
Having great steering and feather-light response to your cues begins in your legs. Confused about your leg cues? You’re not alone, your horse is probably confused about your leg cues too! Here’s how to change that, with some easy visualization and exercises from clinician Tommy Garland.
Open the Door/Close the Door Leg Cues
One thing that all beginning riders seem to struggle with is proper leg position. Who can blame them? When you are first learning to ride, figuring out what to do with your legs, while at the same time trying to concentrate on everything else the horse is doing can be pretty intimidating!
I like to teach riders to think of their legs as open and closed doors.
When you want to turn right for instance, you take off your right leg to create a space for the horse to move into (open the door) and apply your left leg to urge him into that space (close the door). When you take pressure off your leg that allows your horse to move in that direction. Pretty simple!
Assuming your horse knows how to move off of leg pressure, if your leg is on the horse, you have closed the door to your horse moving that direction. In contrast, if your leg is off the horse, you open the door for your horse to move in that direction.
Now if you take your leg off on the right and you’ve already had your leg off on the left, then what is going to happen? More than likely, your horse is going to walk straight forward. If you have pressure on both sides, he is also going to walk straight forward.
You can think Open the Door/Close the Door leg cues as giving your horse an escape route by opening the door (taking your leg pressure off) in the direction you want him to move. You wouldn’t stand in your horse’s stall and try and pressure him to go out a closed door would you? In the same way, when you ask your horse to change direction, or move his ribcage, you need to create an escape route for him before you pressure him to move.
Correct Leg Position
When people start riding, they often ride in a “fetal position.” They raise their knees up and do not push their heels down in their stirrups. Then the horse doesn’t get the correct signals from their legs and gets confused. To ask your horse to move successfully off the pressure from your legs, your legs must first be in the correct position. What is the correct position? Heels down, weight on your feet, with the pressure in your legs on your horse coming from your calf and heel.
It is very important to put your heels down in your stirrups and put the weight on your feet. Think of your ankles as shock absorbers. They will help absorb shock so if a horse jumps sideways and you have weight down in your stirrups then it will help you stay centered in your saddle. If you have your heels up and are holding on with your knees, then your center of gravity is larger on the top part of your body. That is often why a lot of people fall off.
Practice Builds Confidence
A great exercise to perfect your steering and leg cues is to create a zigzag pattern down your arena or pasture. Set out cones and spread them out every 20 to 30 feet. You will start the exercise by walking toward the first cone and then turn left. To move left you will take your left leg off the horse’s side and apply pressure with your right leg so you’ve opened the door on the left. As you’re going to the next cone you will be moving to the right. You’ll take your right leg off and put pressure on the horse with your left leg.
Before you tell your horse to move in the opposite direction, make sure you take pressure off of both legs. This will open up communication with him and when you apply pressure with one leg he will understand you want him to move away from it. We want clear communication and very decisive signals that your horse will understand.
First do the zig-zag exercise at a walk. Really understand how to make your horse move between cones and maybe do some patterns or figure 8’s. There are a lot of patterns you can practice, and the better you get at each pattern the more confidence you will gain. Always remember that you can do it. Don’t doubt yourself because every time you doubt yourself then you’ve failed before you’ve even begun.
Be Conscience of Your Body Position, Not Just Your Legs
Oftentimes you will see people leaning with the horse to make him turn. That does not help make the horse turn. What happens is the person will start bending all the way down to their hips. This applies a lot of weight to their outside stirrup and can be a signal that will confuse the horse. You need to sit up straight in your saddle and make sure the saddle is down the middle of your horse’s back.
When you are getting ready to turn and you apply pressure, then shift your hips to the side and push down in the stirrup. As you add pressure, your horse will move off your leg. Some horses will move over with slight pressure, while others you may have to push rhythmically or tap a few times to get them to move off your leg.
Be Patient Introducing Spurs
If you are going to use spurs and your horse has never had a pair of spurs used on him before, you need to be very patient. The horse will feel that spur poke into his ribcage and at first he may push against it. The reason he may push back against the spur pressure is because it feels different and he doesn’t understand it.
Even if the horse knows how to move off of leg pressure, a spur is a more precise and not as forgiving. Just tap very gently and keep asking until they understand it. Do not just keep jabbing on the horse’s side with your spur thinking that more is better.
Remember to be patient. The more patient you are with your horse in trying to achieve these types of movements, the better success you will have. Stick with it because the more patient you are the better you’ll get. This will build the confidence between you and your horse and you’ll start gaining your horse’s respect. Pretty soon, you’ve put together the whole package with your horse: CPR (Confidence, Patience, Respect)!
About Tommy Garland
Translating the experience of a 30 year training career into his universal CPR (Confidence, Patience, Respect) Horsemanship methods, Garland offers horse owners unique and innovative training techniques. For more information, visit tommygarland.com
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