Power Steering

Lynn Palm offers exercises to help improve your horse training-skills.

From America's Horse

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series of exercises to help improve your guiding abilities with your horse.

Turning a horse is not a skill we think much about, at least until the horse doesn’t turn. But if you miss the barrel, lose the cow or continue straight over a steep drop on the trail ride, the importance of being able

to control a horse’s body becomes much clearer.

AQHA Professional Horsewoman, trainer and clinician Lynn Palm likes to use two exercises to help gain control of a horse’s body parts. They include working on a circle and improving the turn. Both seem deceptively simple, but with enough practice and mastery will garner a much more responsive and nimble horse.

“When you can control the entire horse, this is what equals putting the horse in balance,” Lynn says.

Think about controlling these five parts of the horse: the head, neck, shoulder/front legs, back/barrel and hip/hind legs. The rider’s aids and reins control from the withers forward.

To perform even a simple exercise – such as trotting a circle – correctly, you must control all parts of the horse’s body. Once you’ve gained control of the horse’s body, you can move to advanced work, such as collection.

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Exercise 1: Perfecting the Circle


You will need eight traffic cones or similar markers. An extra set of eight markers is optional. Set up the cones as shown in the illustration. The circle should be 60 feet wide, and the cones should be set 9 to 12 feet apart. Eventually, you should be able to ride the circle without the aid of the cones.


Move through the cones on a circle, keeping the correct arc through the whole exercise and hitting the center of each “gate.” Moving on a circle will make your balance – or lack of it – more obvious. The cones will keep you looking ahead and actively riding to make it correctly through each of the gates. When practicing, be sure to change directions frequently – do three rounds of the circle, then reverse. After three changes of direction, move to a new exercise to help supple the horse and prevent boredom.

How To:

Put the horse out onto the circle, tracking left.

You can start at a walk and progress up the gaits, although if you’re having trouble getting it at a walk, moving into the trot will provide necessary forward motion.

To get the horse in a proper bend, you must use both your active (inside) aids – in this case, your left hand and leg – and support with your outside aids. Start with your inside (left) leg, called the bending leg aid. Apply a light squeeze on the horse’s barrel, just behind the girth, to encourage him to shift his ribs out. Use the inside (left) rein as an open or indirect rein to flex the horse’s head to the inside. Flexing means he just brings his head in and doesn’t bend his neck. You should just be able

to see his inside eye.

Your outside leg is slightly back from the neutral position to support the horse’s outside (right) side and keep his hips from falling to the outside of the circle. Then your outside rein should lie on the neck to support him and keep him from falling out with his shoulder or flexing his head too far inward.

When you can ride the middle distance for the entire circle, the horse is in correct balance on a curving line. When a horse is carrying himself in a balanced self-carriage, the horse relaxes, and the rhythm becomes very definite and steady. Once you’ve mastered the exercise at a walk, trot and canter on the circle, move on to developing smooth, light and responsive transitions. Practice doing several transitions, such as walk to trot or canter to trot, maintaining the center distance between the markers.

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I like to describe your aids as doors. To ride that center track, all four doors need to be closed. If you open one of the doors, the horse falls that way.

If your horse swings to the outside of the target point, he’s falling out because he’s losing his balance. More than likely, your outside doors are open somewhere. The rider needs to be more active with the outside aids, but maintain the inside ones, too, or he’ll fall in. It’s also possible the rider is turning too much from the inside rein – the horse’s head comes too far to the inside, and the horse must move his shoulder and hip out. When a horse is falling out like this, he will slow down or break gait because he has lost his balance. So if you’re slowing down, check if you’re falling out and use your outside aids more actively.

If the horse is falling inward or cutting to the inside of the circle, you’re going to feel the horse speed up. Most likely, he is stiff and not bending in the direction of the curve and has his head flexed to the outside. To get him back to balanced, be more active with the inside leg and the inside rein – more leg than rein – because if you pull too much with the rein, you’ll end up still falling inward.

If your horse keeps falling in or out at the same place, it’s your responsibility as a rider to prepare before you get to that place on your next circle and prevent it from happening. It’s a natural instinct for a horse to repeat such behavior, so you need to remind him of what you want before it happens, not after a poor response.

If you are doing a transition and the horse falls in or out, simply go back to the gait you started with and do the transition over, assisting with your inside or outside aids to improve this balance and his transition.