Shoulder Control

Shoulder Control

Three exercises to help improve your horse's maneuverability.
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Lateral control gives me the ability to put my horse’s body where I want it when I need it there. It’s useful in developing lead departures, creating rollbacks or spins and even simple things like opening and closing gates from horseback.

Working cattle on the ranch, there have been times that the ability to move my horse a couple of inches sideways saved hours of work, so I make sure that lateral movements are a key element of my training program.

Leg Yield
To begin developing lateral control over my horse’s shoulders, I start by teaching a leg yield off of the fence.

Riding counterclockwise around the arena, with the fence on my right-hand side, I’ll pick up on both reins and ask my horse to collect his body, driving his hindquarters underneath him and slowing his front end down. Then I will tip his nose slightly toward the arena fence, shift my weight onto my right seatbone and allow my right leg to add gentle pressure in the girth area. My left leg will open, or move slightly away from the horse’s body, giving him space to step into. My left rein is going to continue its role as the supporting rein, keeping my horse’s body soft and collected on two reins.

Those cues should cause the horse to step out away from the fence, moving laterally toward his left. His body should remain parallel to the fence.

I’ll be careful not to over-bend my horse to the right. His nose can be tipped to the right as much as two to three inches, but no more.

If my horse doesn’t move away from the rail but either ignores my cues or walks in circles to the right, I’ll just be patient, leaving my cues in place and allowing the horse the time it takes to find the correct answer. I’ll remember that my horse should be moving off my seat and legs, more than off my hands.

If my horse continues to move forward after about 45 seconds, I’ll give him another hint about what I’m looking for by using my left hand to gently restrict the forward movement. My right leg will still ask him to move, but now I’m helping him direct the movement laterally rather than forward.

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As soon as my horse takes even a half step laterally through his shoulders, I’ll release all cues except my right rein. I’ll maintain contact with it until my horse turns to the right in a small circle.

That last step is critically important, because it prevents my horse from developing the habit of running off through his shoulders. If every time I picked up on my right rein, I was asking my horse to move left through his shoulders, he would soon make a habit of that and would forget the importance of following his nose. So that’s how I like to end each lateral exercise, with that reminder.

Once my horse consistently takes one good lateral step through his shoulders, I’ll start asking for two steps and build on that until I can get as many steps in a row as I want.
When I can get at least three to four lateral steps in a row, I’ll switch sides and repeat the exercise working clockwise in the arena, with the horse moving laterally to the right. It’s important to give horses equal and balanced workouts.

Reverse-Arc Circle
Once I have my horse consistently leg yielding both directions at a walk and a trot, I’m ready to move into the next shoulder-control exercise, a reverse-arc circle.

I’ll start with my horse walking counterclockwise to the left in a 30-foot circle, with his body arced in the direction of travel. My horse’s nose, neck, shoulders, ribcage and hips should all be on the same arced line, and he should be in a collected frame.

Then I will change my seat position by taking my right hip and pushing it toward his inside ear. I’ll ask him to change directions with his head and neck but not his shoulders, so that as we continue walking forward in a left-hand circle, he begins to look to the right. As he travels forward, looking to the right with his shoulders going to the left, his hip will take the same arc as his nose. He’ll be leading with his left shoulder.

As soon as he takes one or two steps correctly in this reverse arc, I’ll release him and let him follow his nose in a circle to the right. It’s the same concept as with the leg yield: I want him to remember to follow his nose.

I’d like him to be able to complete a full circle holding a reverse arc, and then I’ll switch sides and work the other direction. Once it’s completed at the walk, I’d want to practice this exercise until he is comfortable at the trot and canter, as well.

This exercise is really helpful in developing lead departures, turns on the hindquarters and rollbacks.

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Turn on the Hindquarters
After these two exercises are working well for us, I’ll move on to developing control with a direct rein. In other words, I want to be able to pick up on the right rein and move my horse’s right front foot directly to the right.

I’ll often see horses who turn too sharp and others who don’t turn sharp enough. The first two lateral exercises in this article will help keep a horse from falling in and diving into a circle and turning too sharp. Now, I’m going to teach my horse to connect his inside foot to the inside rein, and that will help him sharpen up his circles and turn at the exact point that I’m asking him to turn.

I’ll ask my horse to begin traveling in a nice gentle arc on a 10-foot circle clockwise to the right. Using a cue very similar to the reverse-arc circle, I will take my left hip and push it through his right or inside ear, allowing my leg from the hip down to apply light pressure in the girth area. I have light pressure on the inside, or right, rein. As my horse walks the circle, I will use my hip to ask him to make the circle smaller.

Within 45 seconds, his inside hind leg should stop moving, his inside front leg should step to the inside, and his outside front leg should reach across in the first step of a turn over the hindquarters.

When that happens, I’ll immediately release all cues and let my horse walk forward out of the arc.

In case my horse hasn’t responded within about 45 seconds, I’ll gently check the forward movement with my outside, or left, rein. I won’t try to stop my horse; it’s more like applying a light half-halt. Too many riders begin hanging on the horse’s face with the outside rein, and I don’t want to do that. I won’t apply any more pressure than what it takes to make him pause in moving forward and think about stepping to the right.

I want my horse to consistently stop his hind end and step his front end across at least three or four steps consecutively before I change sides and work on a turn to the left. I’ll keep working until I can get a 360-degree turn on the hind end, using the inside rein to keep the horse looking and traveling the same direction.

On all of these exercises, if I know my horse is more difficult or stiffer to one side, I’ll start working on the easy side before moving to the more difficult side.