You’ve probably heard it: “Control the feet and you control the horse.” It’s popular with the Natural Horsemanship folks. An even better variation is “Control the feet and you control the mind.” Trouble is, if your definition of controlling the feet is to make the beast run when you want, stop when you want, and whirl away when you tell it to, then you are not actually controlling the feet or the mind. Getting a prey animal to move, when their primary defense is flight, is not a great accomplishment. Now, getting that animal to take careful steps, just as you want them to – that is much more useful.
The first time that I heard the phrase “Control the feet and you control the horse” it was in that far more subtle context. My old trainer believed (rightly, as it turns out) that if you can control how the horse steps you have the key to engagement and balance. To illustrate further, let me use one of my favorite comparisons (borrowed from that same trainer) – a wrestler and a ballet dancer. Both are athletic, both are in “balance” – one squat and square, the other light and limber. Which balance do you think your horse prefers? Which balance would be most useful for Dressage, Jumping, or most sport pursuits? Now, how do ballet dancers learn to move in a light and limber way? I can tell you that it’s not by running around and stopping a lot! It is through careful exercises, learning to place their feet precisely. Once mastered through slow, careful practice, they can later move on to larger leaps and faster steps.
There is something else you gain by teaching your horse to take careful steps – you gain access to the mind. Let’s take Coffee as an example. He was taught in the “move when I tell you, and don’t stop until I tell you” method. When I first asked him to take a step sideways, he proceeded to swing his hind end rapidly around his front. Not only does this not accomplish anything biomechanically, because it actually unloads the hind legs (undesirable), rather than increasing engagement (desired). Additionally, a look at his face revealed that this was a completely mechanized response – there was no thought, focus or carefulness about it. It took a great deal of work, but he now moves only the steps that I ask for. The added bonus is that you can see the focus in his expression, as he waits to see what comes next – another step sideways, a step forward, or stop and get a carrot?
The trick with working on careful steps, when you are in the saddle, is to do it in such a way that you leave the mouth alone. Too much emphasis, these days, is put on the position of the head and neck – which is entirely immaterial as a training focus. In fact, the absolutely easiest thing to teach any horse is where to place his head and neck – provided you have learned to control his feet first. If you focus on the head and neck, before controlling the feet, you get resistance, leaning, curling, etc. My former trainer (former only because of time and distance) recently wrote a post on “pulling” that addresses this very thing. The more you act on the mouth, without influencing the overall anatomy, the more you create a situation where you have little influence.
So, how do you work on careful steps, without using your reins to do it? I recently read another blogger’s post where she quite happily stumbled upon one answer – you can use obstacles. In her case, she was just looking for a way to add some fun into the daily training routine. A stack of traffic cones held the answer (every rider should have a stack of cones, really!). She set them up in some random patterns, and rode around in a way that kept the horse guessing and waiting for direction – all on a light contact. When she picked him up after this work, she had some of the best trot and canter work she’d ever had!
“The aim of the session was to have fun. But we got better “correct work” that we have on the rides that focussed [sic] on correct work and we had fun as well.”
And that, my friends, should really be the point! Schooling should not be overly focused and overly drilled – it’s not fun for you, and it’s much less fun for your horse! You can still get the result you want using creativity and fun. To help, here are a couple of my favorite “careful step” exercises that are easy to do and highly effective (caution: don’t drill these, just throw them in now and then):
- Wavy lines – I was introduced to this exercise by the late Anders Lindgren, a big cone fan. In it’s most advanced form it goes like this: set a line of cones down the quarter line of the arena, about 15 meters apart. Ride up the quarter line, heading straight for the first cone, just before the horse steps on it, ask for a slight bend to one side or other, just enough so the horse avoids stepping on the cone. Head for the next cone, and now ask for the opposite bend. The end goal will be the feeling that you are riding a completely straight line with just slight shifts in bend to avoid each cone. Unless you have an advanced horse, this will be very difficult, so start more simply – try just two cones a bit further apart. Walk up to the cone and see how subtle you can be in getting your horse to step around it, leaving the straight line as little as possible. If you find that your horse just walks through the cone (a person on the ground is handy for these cases), then next time walk up to the cone as close as you can, and halt. Now, without use of the reins, maneuver your horse past the cone. Straighten out (without the reins), head for cone two, and repeat. Do this only a couple of times before you give the horse a chance to just trot off and stretch. Very gradually build upon this until you have more cones and can do this at trot and eventually canter – making sure that each phase has become easy before trying the next.
- Riding into the corners – This one I learned from Kyra Kyrklund, and it takes no equipment beyond your arena (note: it does not work as well in indoor rings, if you have solid walls). The principle is simple, but the execution can provide surprises. Here’s how it goes: ride your horse straight into the corner, halting just before he hits the rail (if it’s high) or steps out of the arena (if a Dressage court). Stand quietly for a moment, praising him. Now, ask the shoulders to step around so you are now pointing down the next side of the arena. Sounds pretty simple, right? Don’t be so sure! You will quickly find that your horse anticipates every single turn – why would he not? You will also soon find out how much he trusts you! Nash, for example, is greatly disturbed by this exercise – surely he is not meant to go all the way up to the rail! Be patient, and go slow. Try it at walk first, and only do a few corners before you give him a break. Once you have mastered the corners, you can use any part of the rail for the same effect – but the corner helps with straightness in the early stages. You will find greater attention as well as greater balance resulting.
These are just a couple of the easy and creative ways that you can influence your horse’s carriage, without actually dealing with his carriage. Give them a try and see how it goes. Hopefully it will inspire you to come up with some ideas of your own, and spend much less time drilling movements and riding circles. You will both end up appreciating it!
Be good to your horses!