Riding Serpentines to Improve Your Communication

Riding Serpentines to Improve Your Communication

Riding serpentines is one of five basic exercises that will help you communicate with your horse no matter what discipline you ride.

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 By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Carla Wennberg with Abigail Boatwright  for The American Quarter Horse Journal
Illustration by Jean Abernethy

For the past 40 years, I’ve ridden many horses in many disciplines, but everything I’ve done has many of the same crossover elements.

At the basic level, the goal for every horse and every discipline is the same: balance, steadiness, rhythm and a quiet mouth. All of that beauty comes together because of training.

I'm sharing five of my favorite exercises. They’re from the classical dressage tradition, but you’ll find them incredibly helpful whether you’re preparing for an all-around event, getting ready for a ranch riding pattern or just working on improving your communication with your horse.

This article was originally published in the September 2019 issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal. 

An illustration shows green serpentine weaves with red markers for where horses should make their transitions. Jean Abernethy illustration


The exercise:

Next to spirals, exercises that work on transitions are most enjoyable for me. I love to do gait transitions, especially with a younger horse, on a serpentine.

One way you can do this exercise is to go from arena fence to arena fence across the arena, while picking a center line where you’ll go straight for about 15 feet between each curve as your focal point for the transitions. It gives you lots of room, and you can plan the transition from a trot to a walk, a trot to a halt, and back up to a trot, for example. The serpentine gives you time to not only get your balance, but also to practice a curved line.

For a lead change, you can start with a simple change on a serpentine. This looks like loping on one lead around a curve and as you come to your straight section, breaking down to a jog, then asking for a lope on the opposite lead for the next curve. You’ll prog­ress to lope-walk or halt-lope on the new lead.

After you’ve mastered the sim­ple change, you can go to a counter-canter with a flying lead change. A very collected horse can go from canter to stop to can­ter. Adding all these transitions and making them very correct encourages the horse to stay com­fortable balanced, not leaning on the bit and not flipping its head.

Why it’s helpful: Transition exercises are important for any discipline because they will help you perfect your aids and cues to have your horse be more sensi­tive. They’re also an important precursor to lead changes. If you want to do a lead change, you have to teach the aids first, start­ing with a simple lead change on a serpentine.

Tips for success: As your horse gets “on your aids,” the transitions in the middle of the serpentines will become more balanced and quicker. Horses learn from correct repetition, and as their balance gets better, they also know what the aids are, and what you’re requesting will become more clear to the horse.

Abigail Boatwright is a special contributor to the Journal. To comment, write to aqhajrnl@aqha.org.

More Exercises to Try


AQHA Professional Horsewoman CARLA WENNBERG is from Laurinburg, North Carolina, where she is the coach of St. Andrews University’s western equestrian team. She’s a world champion rider, a high-point dressage competitor and a carded judge for AQHA and the National Snaffle Bit Association. She was an FEI steward for reining for 16 years and worked the World Equestrian Games in 2010. Now along with judging, Carla is an AQHA steward and  a Certified Horsemanship Association instructor at Level 4 for English and western. She is a bronze and silver medal-earning dressage rider and still rides an FEI-level horse.