The Wagon Wheel

This horse-training exercise will help you improve your American Quarter Horse in less time.

Editor’s Note: Suzanne Sheppard is an AQHA Professional Horsewoman from Middletown, New York. In this article, she and Bob Jeffreys talk about the “wagon wheel” exercise – one of their favorite exercises used in training their horses. This article originally appeared in The American Quarter Horse Journal as part of a training series.

We’re both die-hard American Quarter Horse lovers and truly enjoy the arts of dressage and reining, the excitement of cutting and hunter-jumpers and the versatility of working ranch horse and trail competitions.

Willingness, calmness, impulsion, straightness, suppleness and balance are all qualities required for any horse to succeed in his career, no matter which discipline he works and competes in. To effectively and efficiently develop these qualities to the degree a champion horse needs, without rushing the horse, we trainers must make every moment of training time count. This is just one of our favorite mounted exercises to develop a better horse in less time.

Wagon Wheel

One of our favorite exercises to get our horses broke, cultivating the qualities mentioned above, is called the “wagon wheel.” As with all of our training exercises, we introduce this with a snaffle bit and switch to a shank bit only when the horse is really good at it.

What You Get

Your horse won’t be the only one to benefit from the wagon wheel exercise: As a rider, you will learn to focus on a specific pattern, develop the ability to feel when your horse is just thinking about changing the gait, ride in better balance on straight lines and in circles, time your directional signals correctly, use quiet, light hands and work on riding a variety of seats in the trot (posting on the correct diagonal, sitting, two-point, light seat) if you wish.

As always, the better we ride, the clearer our communication, the more secure our seat and the more able we are to effectively improve the quality of our horse’s movement, no matter what discipline we enjoy.

Do you have a hard time getting your horse to do what you want? You can read more great training tips like these in The American Quarter Horse Journal. From halter to trail rides to racing or reining – there’s something in here for you. Read interesting articles about fellow AQHA members, learn about what’s new in the horse industry and get handy tips about riding and managing your Quarter Horse.

Step 1 – Setup

To set up the wagon wheel, you’ll need nine cones. Start with a center cone and surround it with a circle of eight more cones equidistant from each other with a diameter of 50-60 feet. Although you might walk the pattern once or twice so that it’s familiar, this is a trotting exercise. Trotting stimulates the horse enough that he can’t sleepwalk through the lesson; it is also a great way to develop wind and stamina.

Step 2 – Trot

Start by trotting across the center of the circle and picking a space between two cones to exit the circle. As you approach that spot, begin to ride a symmetrical half-circle turn around the cone on your right until you re-enter the wagon wheel. Go straight across, past the center cone and pick another space on the opposite side to exit again. This time, turn left around the new cone, continue across the center on a straight line and turn right around a different one.

Keep on repeating the pattern, right half-circle around a cone, straight through the center, then left half-circle around a new cone on the other side. Turn around a different cone each time so that your horse doesn’t anticipate, therefore teaching him to stay focused on you and your signals, rather than going on autopilot and tuning you out.

Step 3 – Think About It

You can use this mental checklist to see whether your horse is achieving your goals:

    • Is he maintaining the trot? If not, when you feel him thinking about breaking down into the walk, allow him to make that mistake and then drive him forward with your seat and legs. If he trots too fast or is running away at the canter, circle him around one of the cones until he realizes that the small canter circles are a lot of work and breaks down into a more controllable trot himself, then take him back into the wagon wheel pattern. In either case, he’ll figure out that it’s easier to just maintain the trot and will choose to work smarter, not harder.


    • Is he following his nose and going where you point him? He should respond lightly, immediately and obediently to your directional cues. If he is, then go on to the next stage. But if he’s bulging out toward the gate or just turning too late when you are way past the cone, turn him much earlier. If he’s cutting in or turning too soon, simply wait a few more strides before asking and turn later.


    • Now ask him to yield his jaw laterally to the inside rein, i.e. “giving to the bit,” as he trots each half-circle turn. If he resists, pulling or hanging on the bit, then keep on circling around the same cone until he softens. It may also help to subtly vibrate the inside rein with your fingers as if squeezing water out of a small sponge (never jerk with the wrist). Doing that does not give him a “shelf” to lean on, as steady pressure sometimes does. Be sure that your outside rein has enough slack in it to allow the bend.


    • Now create straightness in his body on both the straight lines and the turns so his entire spine overlaps the line of travel in good balance; no leaning, please! If he is dropping his shoulder, the likely cause is a fishtailing hind end, so put your outside leg back a few inches to encourage him to work a little harder and keep his haunches where you want them. Of course, check to see if you’re leaning in yourself; our shoulders should be equidistant from the ground just like our horse’s shoulders.

Take your horse training up a notch by subscribing to The American Quarter Horse Journal. Great training tips like these are featured in every issue to help you get the most from your horses. Whether you you are getting ready to compete in a world championship show or just want to teach your horse to be calmer on the trail, the Journal has what you are looking for.

Step 4 – Add Difficulty

If your horse is meeting all of the above prerequisites, it’s time to introduce lateral work in the wagon wheel. As you approach the next cone, simply aim your horse right at it and then leg-yield over between the two cones. Do the same upon re-entry and continue to repeat in both directions. If he’s hollow-backed and high-headed, continue to work until he relaxes and starts to work through his body properly.

Once your horse is maintaining the trot, going exactly where you send him, giving to the bit on every turn, traveling straight and in good balance, and floating through his leg yields, he is ready to work on collection. Drive him forward into the bridle so he collects up and breaks at the poll. It’s crucial to send the horse into the bridle, rather than pulling back on the reins and taking the bridle to the horse. All good movement originates in the hindquarters, so rev up his engine and catch the energy with the bit.

What You’ll Accomplish

The wagon wheel exercise has many possibilities. This same pattern is a great way to teach horses to trot slowly or to develop a gorgeous pleasure jog. Just ride the wagon wheel pattern until your horse is trotting at the desired speed and then direct him out on a circle around the outside of the wagon wheel. If he speeds up on the larger circle, just turn him right back into the wagon wheel exercise, which requires him to work much more intensively. Re-establish the desired speed and then offer him a chance to return to the larger, easier circle. Pretty soon he’ll get the idea that he has to work a lot harder whenever he tries to speed up on his own and will choose to maintain whatever trot tempo you ask for.

This lesson usually takes about three hours in total, but don’t do it all in one session. Horses are smart and will recognize the pattern as long as you are consistent.

Once mastered at the trot, a variation of the exercise at a canter is the next step.