How to Teach a Horse to Pivot on Its Hindquarters

© 2005-08, Keith Hosman - All Rights Reserved

Questions answered in this article: How do I teach my horse to pivot or turn on its rear legs? How do I teach my horse to do a reverse-arc circle? How do I (begin teaching) neck reining? How do I (begin teaching) a reining spin? How do I improve my horse's steering and balance? How do I (begin teaching) a horse to move its shoulders?

Other related exercises you should work on: Three-Step-Stop, Steer the Tail, The Clockwork Exercise (Visit horsemanship101.com; surf to the Article Archive, search the page for those titles. Each can be printed out for free.)

You teach your horse to pivot (turn) on it's hindquarters one (or both) of two ways: by concentrating on moving a foot or by concentrating on moving a shoulder. The mechanics are simple for both, really: focus on a body part, make it move. Both methods have the same challenge: The horse must stay soft (relaxed) and moving forward. You'll pay more attention to the shoulders when teaching movements like a reining spin; you'll focus more on the feet when teaching "steps," such as sidepassing. In a general sense, it really doesn't matter which route you take to teach your horse to pivot on its rear legs - and in the real world, you'll undoubtedly use "a little bit of everything" by the time you're horse is finished. We'll discuss primarily shoulders in this article. To learn how to place feet onto specific spots, study and practice the Clockwork Exercise. (The Clockwork Exercise is also excellent to teach the back up, backing at an angle, diagonals, sidepassing and the like.)

As you read this, be thinking of how you would use the steps to teach related movements: neck reining, spins, shoulder control in general or how to improve things like your steering. Becoming a better horse trainer is simply a matter of building (and carrying in your head) a more robust set of horse-training tools. Think of each simple concept as a "widget." Collect enough widgets and assemble them into whatever suits your fancy: a horse that spins, a horse that steers more easily, a horse that moves away from a fence before crushing your knee and so on.

This time I'm going to start with a caution because I really need to underscore the importance of certain concepts before you even start: You don't stand a snowball's chance if you don't pay attention to keeping your horse relaxed through his head and neck and moving (and thinking) forward CONSTANTLY. Almost everybody reading this will have the same issue at some point: You'll find yourself mired in one spot, just sort of turning awkwardly - or stopped altogether. This is because each and every time we pick up the rein, we dissuade forward movement out of our horses. This makes training more of a challenge (that is, "How do I keep the sucker moving forward?") but in the end, diligence pays off because you will have improved your handling of the reins plus taught your horse to deal with pressure and "keep moving forward." (That is, you would have overcome your horse's natural resistance to bit pressure, like when you pick up the rein and he braces through the neck or stops or both.) If you begin having such difficulties, use less pressure, ask for smaller improvements, get more forward movement at whatever the cost - and come back and re-read the next few paragraphs.

Training your horse is almost always about one thing: Softness. When I (or any trainer) uses that word, we mean "relaxed muscles, zero resistance." We want the horse to cease resisting and to go with the flow. As I've typed many times, picture Frankenstein dancing Swan Lake - now picture Baryshnikov. Fluid vs. clunky at best, get the idea? Throughout today's exercise, if your horse stiffens those neck muscles, your best course is to drop what you're doing and fall back a step or two in your training. Focus on softening the "offending muscle," be it the neck, head, abdomen or what-have-you.

Yes, sometimes you can sort of "bull through" the resistance, applying enough pressure at a certain angle to show the horse that "If you just step here, life is easy." Teaching your horse to disengage his hindquarters (the front stops, the back end moves around like the hands of a clock) comes to mind. I often tell students in my clinics that, while we can "force the horse" to move his hindquarters when we turn his head far enough, (read: force him), moving the shoulders is about using your brain, keeping the horse relaxed and asking rather than telling. Get the horse to work with us, to really flow forward. This isn't to say that I haven't just said "Okay, enough. Supper's getting cold, move your shoulders now" and then done my literal best to pick the horse up and move him over - but doing that falls under the heading "Experimentation."

I'm a big fan of experimenting. You'll become a better rider/trainer by learning what works with a particular horse, what doesn't work - and why. I tell all my riders: "Go give it a try, play around, make some mistakes. Flail like a fish out of water, then come back for more pointers." Only then will they know the questions to ask. If they simply follow directions, they may "get it right," but they have no idea why - and they certainly wouldn't have "played around enough" to learn how to deal with other horses they may ride. You need to take a drive and get lost to really learn the neighborhood, you know? You need to experiment. You need to make mistakes. You need to ignore my advice sometimes and try just the opposite (within the common sense boundaries of safety, of course). I can tell a rider fifty bazillion times that a maneuver should be taught with a single rein - but 10-to-1 they'll get out there alone and start using both reins. It may take an hour, a day or years - but they'll eventually learn why exercises are taught in a certain way and why we emphasize certain elements, ignoring others. In the end, all the mistakes will have given the rider a broader, deeper understanding of why we do what we do.

Let's get started. First, picture the Olympic sport called "Curling." They slide a teapot (technically it's a "stone") across the ice. You and your horse, you're the teapot. Your goal is to move as lightly as that stone or teapot - sailing about, remaining upright, effortlessly changing directions at ever-sharpening angles. To reach that goal, you'll need to concentrate on squashing resistance (that is, stiff muscles) wherever you find them and to simultaneously keep moving ever forward. Forward, forward, forward. The challenge here is simply this: You'll pick up the rein to ask the horse to soften his neck or turn - but the dirty dog will more likely than not begin to slow (or stop) his feet. This "slow down" is a sign the horse is resisting the bit. He slows or stiffens when he resists - but continues moving forward, drops his head and rounds his back (up) when he "gives to the bit." Note the obvious difference between the two reactions. As goofy as it sounds, to make this happen quicker rather than... not at all... be the teapot. As you ride, really focus on keeping your horse flowing evenly forward (and eventually sideways). This means that if you make a request and feel the horse raise his head and/or stiffen his neck, you fall back and try less pressure the next time. It means you coordinate the use of your reins with the "goosing of your legs." It means you try taking less of a grip on his head and allow him to carry his head "more forward." Case in point, instead of bringing his head x-inches to the side, try simply waiting for a relaxation, however slight, of his neck muscles. I can't say it enough: working on the shoulders takes patience and the willingness to ask rather than tell.

It must be noted that practicing to perfection three exercises, "Three Step Stop," "Clockwork" and "Steer the Tail," will greatly improve your chances of success here. "Three Step Stop" teaches your horse to "lighten up" and give to the bit; "Clockwork" teaches the concept of moving onto a particular spot; "Steer the Tail" teaches you to disengage the hindquarters, greatly aiding the horse's ability to move his shoulders. It's beyond the scope of this article to cover those here, but suffice it to say, they stand as prerequisites for quicker results from this point forward. (Find each as outlined above.)

We begin teaching a horse to spin (or turn on his hindquarters, neck rein, etc.) by asking the horse to "look one way, but turn or walk the other." It's physically easier for the horse to move his shoulders to the right if his head is slightly (SLIGHTLY) cocked to his left. Try it yourself by standing and sidestepping to the right, first looking to your left, then your right. You'll find that looking the opposite direction is actually easier.

Ride out at a walk and find a nice long shadow along the ground. If you can't find a shadow, lay a rope down in a straight line. You will do the following: 1) Walk the line with your reins dropped on your horse's neck. 2) Pick up both reins. Apply just enough pressure to your left rein to cause the horse to cock his head two to four inches to the left. 3) Being careful to keep the horse's head cocked to the left, take your right arm (and hence the same rein) way out to your right. 4) Look down and stare at the left shoulder. Your pressure tells the left shoulder to tell the right shoulder "Hey, move to the right; I'm coming through." Stare at a small spot on the left shoulder and ask it to move to its right by applying pressure (that is, by pulling) with the outside rein (the right one in this instance) in the direction you'd like to move. The left rein keeps the head cocked, the right rein suggests the direction. Make sure you stay on your line until you ask the horse to step off of it, to his right in this case. When you first begin, release the instant you feel the horse shift/lift his body as if to step to the right. You'll release more on a "relaxation" (or "acquiescence") then any actual sidestepping movement. Build on that, holding till the horse actually takes a step.

Here are three traps you should avoid:

First, if you're walking your line and expect to sidestep to the right, but instead the horse simply steps to the left, start over and use more pressure with the your right rein. If that doesn't work, (and/or you keep losing your bend to the left) your horse is resisting too much through his neck; you've pushed for too much, too fast. You need to fall back and practice softening the neck. Do that by walking out, picking up the left rein, asking for a simple change of direction to the left and dropping the rein only after the horse turns (one step is enough) AND softens his neck. Turn to the left, turn to the right - but don't stop moving. Just walk around aimlessly, picking up a rein, turning and releasing as the horse softens his pull on the rein.

Second, if you lose the prescribed "slight bend in his neck," allowing your horse to straighten his head, then more likely than not, he'll simply follow the pull of your right rein, as if "direct reined." This is amazingly common and what you will most certainly do when you first start. Just practice keeping the horse's head slightly bent one direction then applying "directional" pressure with the other. "Muscle memorize" the pattern and have patience. If you keep moving, keep your horse's head cocked and keep pulling with the off rein, you'll eventually step, even if by accident, correctly to your right.

A related mistake is "over-bending" the neck. We're only looking to offset your horse's head by a couple of inches. If the head is way over by your knee you'll get a mess, not a sidestep. This part is critical, underscore the following in your brain: Your horse's head must be only slightly pitched (by a few inches at most) one direction or the other and it must remain there throughout the sidestepping movement. Too much bend and he can't move correctly, no bend and he'll simply turn, following the pull of your rein. We want a sidestep. Use that outside rein (the second one you pick up) to pull the head back into position and keep it there.

Third, you absolutely can't let your horse stop through this exercise. Remember the teapot - and use your legs to bump and keep moving. (At this stage, the legs say "move" but not which direction. Do not use your leg to say "move right.") Even if you move in the wrong direction, at least you're moving. As John Lyons says "First get the foot to move, then get it to move consistently, then get it to move consistently onto the proper spot." Keep the teapot analogy running through your brain, be patient, and really work (experiment) to find what you have to do (angles, amounts of pressure, etc.) to keep your horse moving and "crabbing" smoothly to the right or left. This isn't a wrestling match. Think. Try to deflect the energy directly right or left, as if a puck on ice.

If your horse wants to back up (also very common), keep your pressure - but dial it back a tad and try changing your posture. Really think "forward." If that doesn't work, keep your pressure, but take one hand toward its (the hand's) opposite shoulder, asking the hip to disengage. (That is, apply pressure with your right rein until the hip steps once to the left.) Disengaging says to the horse "Thanks for moving and all - but I need a different direction." It keeps you fluid and also moves the back feet naturally a step toward the front feet and causes the horse to "lighten up" a bit throughout its entire body. It makes moving the shoulders an easier proposition. You won't be on your shadow line anymore after disengaging, but you can either drop your reins and return to "Step One" or imagine a new line directly in front of your new position. (Disengaging is covered in greater detail in the "Steer the Hip" and the "Hip Shoulder Shoulder" exercises.)

When you can consistently step off your shadow line, sidestepping to your right, then look down at the ground and imagine four giant clocks, one under each foot. Placing a foot onto twelve is walking forward, onto six is backing up, etc. (This is the infamous Clockwork Exercise. To learn it in greater detail, visit the Article Archive on horsemanship101.com.) When you step off your line correctly (as practiced so far), you'll step onto one, two or three. Three is stepping directly to the right and requires a full stop, however slight. Numbers four, five and six also require a slight stop followed by backward movement, of course - but they also require plenty of "forward thought" from your horse. When they "think forward" in their posture, they remain upright and maneuverable. In time, you'll certainly want to practice stepping onto all the numbers - but today we're especially interested in two numbers: numbers four and eight. Stepping repeatedly onto four gives you a spin to your right, a spin to your left requires lots of eights.

Test your horse (and yourself): What number can you get consistently? A three? Two? Four? Work to get a number consistently (I usually start with whatever I get by accident), then play with the way you hold your rein and keep your pressure up till the horse steps onto another number (again, even if by accident). Release and repeat till the "number" is learned. Be careful to make sure your horse really knows to step onto a specific number when asked and that he does so consistently before asking for repeated steps onto that number - otherwise he'll associate your release with "just stepping," not stepping onto a particular spot. Getting greedy is a major no-no and all too common. Take your time; don't fall into that trap. You'll anger your horse, get frustrated and improvement will lag or stall.

The final step in today's exercise (walking a reverse arc circle) is to get your horse consistently stepping onto four and eight. Step on four, release and walk forward. Repeat until this is consistent then ask for two steps onto four. Then three, etc. The goal, obviously is to "step on four" (or eight) all the way around. However, I would suggest that when you can get a quarter circle consistently, that you walk straight out ten feet or so, then repeat the quarter turn. Walk forward, turn, walk forward, turn. Repeat this pattern and you'll be walking a box pattern. It'll keep you objective and your horse can have some time to correctly anticipate your cues and really learn the steps. Practice this box until your horse is really proficient at the steps before asking for more (of a circle). (And of course you'll want to become proficient going both to the left and right.)

"Reverse Arc Circle" is a fancy way of saying "your horse looks off to one side, but pivots on his back foot the other way." Like I said, it's the first step to teaching the reining spin or neck reining. To continue on and teach neck reining or a reining spin, you'd begin as described, using the left rein to move right, for instance. You'd then gradually begin applying follow-up pressure with the right rein, asking the horse to look in the direction he's turning. Ideally, you'd practice the Clockwork Exercise until both your indirect and direct reins can tell the horse to step on any of the numbers of the clock. You'll work to make your direct rein (the left one if you're moving left, right if moving right) mean "step on four," just as the left rein (your indirect rein) spoke to the right leg/shoulder when you first began your lessons. Teach this and you'll have taught the horse two cues that mean "move left" or "move right." You'll have a solid means of communication and you will have built a horse that neck reins. (Becoming proficient at "spinning" requires follow-up exercises - but you have the tools now to teach the fundamentals.)

Tip: Asking your horse to tip his head out of a large circle (as he moves first at a walk, then at a trot and finally a lope) is a great way to improve his balance. Try walking, then trotting large, lazy circles with the head tipped out (again, only a few inches, not "at your boot") then challenge yourself to do the same through a figure eight pattern. Try reversing his head in the center point and try every combination (of head carriage vs. direction traveled) you can think of. Keep pushing and you'll be amazed how much lighter your horse gets in the bridle as his balance and confidence improves. Remember, it requires extra muscle from your horse to keep the both of you raised and level throughout your turns. Give yourself and your horse plenty of time - and back off if you think you may be pushing too hard as evidenced by stalemated improvement or a resistant horse.

This article is part of the "How to Teach a Horse to Pivot" series. To read more, or to find a clinic or Certified John Lyons horse trainer near you, visit horsemanship101.com.

About the author:

Keith Hosman: If your horse won't speed up, slow down, stop or turn, you missed the latest training methods from Josh and John Lyons.  Have you lost your confidence?  Want a horse to brag about?  Invest one weekend to make big changes with John Lyons Certified Trainer Keith Hosman.  Keith is based near San Antonio, TX and is available for clinics, private sessions and training.  He frequently conducts clinics and demonstrations - with an event coming soon to a town near you. For more horse training articles, or to attend a clinic or find a John Lyons trainer living in your area, visit horsemanship101.com now.  

No part of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of Keith Hosman. To contact us regarding reprints or syndication of our articles (in print or online), please contact us via www.horsemanship101.com.

 

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