Use Your Feet to Achieve Body Control
In one of my earlier articles that talked about the road from pleasure to all-around horses, I discussed what I consider to be some important attributes of a good pleasure/all-around horse. I consider rhythm and balance to be paramount, as well as lift, but body control is another key player. Although some horses possess natural body control, this is something we can teach our horses to develop and improve upon.
There are often times that I can pick out one of my young horses after only a couple months, or even weeks, of riding that has natural body control. I can feel that they can move their shoulders or front end independently of their hind end and they can do so without getting off balance. Right from the start, I encourage body control in my horses by always being very specific about where I use my feet and legs. I have three places where I use my legs:
- For proper horsemanship and general riding my legs will fall directly under me, with a straight line that should bisect my ear, shoulder, hip, and ankle.
- When I want my horse to move his shoulder or front end over, I will slide my leg more forward of this basic position, directly behind the girth. I always tell people to aim for their horse’s elbow and if they aim to far and hit the girth they know they are in the right area. This is often a different feel for people when first asked to do this, especially if they’re not used to it. This is where a ground person is useful. I’ll have riders who think they have their leg too forward or too far back, but it’s all perspective and what they are used to. It’s like a rider that has a habit of leaning too far forward ahead of vertical…when you finally place them straight in the saddle they often feel as if they are leaning too far back. So in the beginning, when I am teaching someone how to use their feet more and how to be very specific about it, it’s great to have somebody on the ground who can remind them often about where to position their feet until it becomes second nature.
- When I want my horse to move his hip over or his hind end, I’ll always slide my leg farther back. This is where I would position my leg to lope off as well.
I start teaching my horses body control, or enhancing the body control they already have, from the very beginning. After only a month or two of riding, you can do simple maneuvers starting at the walk. I’ll walk forward and slide either leg forward to ask my horse to move his shoulder over, away from my leg. At the same time I’ll help guide him over with both hands in the direction I want his shoulder to move. I’m not looking for several steps or a turn on the haunches…I’m literally looking for one or two steps at a time. Then I “drop.” I release the pressure on my reins and feet and go back to my neutral position. I might walk another 8 or 10 steps, then ask for another step or two with the horse’s shoulder. It’s all about repetition. Sometimes I’ll stop and then ask for a step or two before walking, jogging, or loping off. I’ll change things up- moving the shoulders to the left, sometimes to the right, changing the number of steps I ask for and how far in between I ask for them. The most important thing is to not expect too much at once. You might go a month or so of just asking for a step at a time, but if you’re consistent and just add this to your routine, whether it’s a young horse or an older horse that needs more work or fine tuning, your time will pay off.
I do the same thing with asking my horses to move their hip, haunches, or hind end (however you’d like to think of it). I might walk forward and slide my right leg back asking my horse to step his hip over a step or two. When he does, I release and continue on. This is especially helpful in teaching our horses to understand that leg means lift or “move your body,” and it doesn’t mean “go faster” or “lope off.” We’ve all had experience with horses that want to pop into the lope too quickly with a brush or a bump of the leg. If I’ve got an amateur or youth riding in a pattern class and they need to use their legs to maneuver tightly around a cone or perform a turn on the forehand, side-pass or other maneuver, I want to know that the horse will move his body and not hop into the lope. The same can be applied to rail classes. I want to know that if one of my riders, or even myself, happens to slip or bump the horse a bit, he is not going to overreact and lope off prematurely. Applying my leg back means “move your hip over,” then when I “kiss” or “smooch” and apply slightly more leg it gives them the OK to lope off.
By taking this approach of moving a step or two at a time and building on that, eventually you will achieve the same thing at the jog and even the lope. If you take your time and look at your progress not day to day, but week to week and even month to month, your time will add up and you’ll have a horse that likes his job. When you ask for one or two steps, it’s a very attainable goal. The horse learns not to protest because before they even know it, they have done what you’ve asked and moved on. We want our horses to like their jobs and to willingly give us what we ask of them. The one or two steps we ask in the beginning eventually becomes 3 or 4 then 5 or 6 and so on until we have a turn around or turn on the forehand. The body control we achieve in our horses is very similar to some of the movements that can be found in dressage tests such as; turn on the haunches, turn on the fore-hand, side-pass, leg-yield, haunches-in, shoulder-in, etc. We ask for all these maneuvers when riding and showing our horses. The lingo is different but the result is very similar. When you have this ultimate level of body control you can always help to put your horse in the best possible position to do his job, whether it’s pleasure, trail, western riding, hunter under saddle, or any other discipline. One of my most important jobs as a horse trainer is to always help put my horse in the best position to do his job.
Troy Green is a firm believer in the importance of a good foundation for every horse with balance, rhythm, and self-carriage being key. A good foundation equals longevity in the show pen. Troy has won over two dozen All American Quarter Horse Congress Championships in western pleasure, versatility, reining, halter and western riding, and has coached clients to over 50 Congress championships. Troy has three AQHA World Championships and two National Championships under his belt, and has won at all major futurities. He spent three years on the national board of the NSBA.
Troy Green has an extensive background working with youth and amateurs at all levels and of various disciplines. He specializes in pleasure futurity and all around horses.
Now is your chance to have your questions answered by Troy! Just submit your question using the comment section below or the email link, and he will respond to select questions in future posts.