In this exclusive training series, Kate Fenner from Kandoo Equine is taking you deep into the essential foundation lessons for any horse. This article is focusing on shoulder control.
So far, Romeo has learned basic handling, including haltering, grooming, picking up feet, tying up and ‘give to the bit’, both at a standstill and at the walk.
Join us and watch the un-started, five-year-old Friesian gelding, Romeo, gradually work through each of the lessons – and why not follow along with your own horse? Whether your horse is un-started or already going under saddle, but you feel these are areas that need a little work, you’re in the right place.
Rather than pushing the horse around – often with a strong leg cue – to move their feet where we want them to go, teaching ‘shoulder control’ is all about building a dance partner.
Now Romeo has an idea about ‘give to the bit’ – or pressure-release – and can travel around us, while remaining relaxed and in a soft frame, it’s time to start moving the feet in the direction we want them to go.
It’s important to start with the ‘give to the bit’ work because relaxation should always be our priority and starting point. If we don’t have this relaxation and softness, Romeo may become anxious when we pick up pressure to indicate a turn and brace against the rein.
1. Why teach this lesson from the reins?
I teach both shoulder and hindquarter control off the reins, which surprises a lot of people. By doing this, I am able to save leg cues for ‘go forward’ initially and, later, the application of a single leg to indicate a lateral movement. I have found horses prefer a rein cue over the use of leg, as indicated by the frequent tail swishing and ear pinning you see with some horses when leg is applied.
Rein cues are more readily accepted than leg cues:
I first noticed this when working in the United Kingdom as I was so often in an indoor school. At clinics, when teaching hindquarter control, I would get the participants to teach the horses to disengage their hindquarters using the reins. This was a silent 5-10 minutes of work.
Later, I’d ask them to get the horse to do the same disengaging exercise (stepping one hind foot away in front of the other hind), but this time by placing their hand on the horse’s barrel, where their leg would be if they were riding. The arena was suddenly filled with the sound of swishing tails – it was amazing. This was the result of simply placing their hand on the horses’ side – no pushing, poking or prodding.
2. Where are the feet moving?
In last month’s lesson, we had Romeo walking around us, while maintaining relaxation and a soft frame, but we didn’t have much control of where he was going. This next lesson is all about directional control.
Have a look at the clock under the horse’s chest on the opposite page. The aim of this lesson is to be able to move the horse from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock with both front feet from both sides of the horse, while maintaining a slight lateral bend of the neck – reverse-arc.
Reverse-arc is useful for teaching the horse to carry himself on a circle and not fall in.
Ultimately, when we are riding the horse, we want to be able to move the inside rein towards the neck and have the horse elevate their forehand and step out, maintaining the inside bend of the circle.
This rein movement may only be a matter of the rider moving their hand an inch or less, but we have to exaggerate this while the horse is learning.
By teaching this from the ground, we also help the horse, as we can use our body language after the initial rein cue and before the pressure cue to further assist them.
Let’s break it down:
a) Standing on the lefthand side of the horse, with a slight bend in the neck to the left, when walking forward, the horse is stepping their left front to about 12 o’clock on the clock.
b) If we make a small circle around us, the horse will step to 10 or 11 o’clock with their left front foot.
c) When we make the circle bigger, maintaining that slight bend in the neck to the left, the horse will step to 1 or 2 o’clock with their left front foot. Here, the horse needs to step their left front across, in front of, their right front, giving us that lateral movement of reverse-arc.
d) The steps are repeated on the other side of the horse to achieve reverse-arc from the right. In doing so, the horse steps from 2 o’clock initially, all the way around to 10 o’clock as we progress through the lesson.
3. Where do you stand?
Last month, when Romeo was walking forward, I was standing at his shoulder, walking forward with him. That’s the perfect position for same-rein-same-foot (SRSF), where the horse simply follows their nose.
When we want the horse to reverse-arc, we can help them by adjusting our position during training.
By moving ourselves forward and stepping into the horse’s ‘space’, we encourage the horse to reverse-arc without having to put any additional pressure on the bit.
Of course, not all horses will respond to this cue immediately, so consistent repetition is important.
The pattern of rein movement, changing your body position and, finally, rein tension allows the horse to respond before pressure is applied – so, slow yourself down to speed up your training. We want the horse to process the information and learn the pattern. By giving them a second between each step, you allow for this to occur.
4. Where do I start?
Before asking for reverse-arc, it’s important to have the horse walking forward in SRSF (see Image A). This establishes the good forward movement needed so the horse isn’t tempted to back up (step one front foot behind the other in reverse-arc).
To begin the lesson, stand on the left side of the horse, with the left rein in your left hand, your right hand carrying the whip and resting on the wither, ready to administer a rewarding scratch (see Image A). This is the same position as we discussed last month, but this time, I want you to concentrate on that left front foot (see Image C).
Imagine the clock under your horse’s chest. When you are walking forward, they will be stepping to about 11 or 12 o’clock. If you open the rein a little and step away from the horse, they should follow their nose and step to 10 o’clock.
Once you’ve established 10 and 11 o’clock (SRSF), begin the reverse-arc work by lifting the rein, so it touches the horse’s neck, and by stepping forward and towards the horse’s neck as shown in Image D.
To begin, just ask for one reverse-arc step, return to your SRSF position and continue with the horse walking around you. Be aware of where that left front is stepping. I often talk to myself: “10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock, 11 o’clock” and so on, just to make sure I am being really conscious of moving their feet where I want them to go.
The other thing to remember is to always start with SRSF, having the horse walk around you following their nose, before asking for one or more steps of reverse-arc. It will be considerably easier for your horse if they are already moving forward, to make that reverse-arc step.
5. Shaping the behaviour
We all know the old saying ‘start with your goal and end in a wreak’ and it’s just as true when we are teaching reverse-arc. Ultimately, we want the horse to step to 2 o’clock with their left front foot, while remaining relaxed and soft in the bridle, bent to the left and with us standing on their left side.
However, to get there, we need to shape this response by rewarding a try or a step in the right (also being the correct) direction. By releasing and praising on 12 o’clock, we can build on that.
Remember to have forward movement first, with the horse walking around you, and then ask for the step of reverse-arc. Release and reward any step that is better than the SRSF step. So, if your horse is stepping to 11 o’clock with SRSF and then steps to 11:30 or 12 o’clock, reward that. Next time, ask for another step and you might get a 12 o’clock step followed by a 12:30 step, so release and reward that, and go back to SRSF before asking again.
Remember this sequence when you are teaching your horse something new:
- Get the feet to move (walking around you with give to the bit).
- Get the feet to move in the direction you want them to go (SRSF and reverse-arc).
- Make it pretty (minimise all cues, especially reducing the required pressure).
6. Where does this lead?
As you progress with this lesson, notice how your horse is moving their hindquarter less and less. In the beginning, when you cue reverse-arc, the whole horse is likely to move laterally. Once the horse discovers you are releasing on one front foot only, they will stop moving the hindquarters so much and, eventually, you’ll get a pivot on the hindquarters. This will give you independent shoulder control; that is, control of the shoulders that doesn’t involve moving the rest of the horse.
Once established, independent shoulder control will allow you to address the hindquarters in a similar way – something that cannot be done until you are able to control the direction of the shoulders.
And, yes, if you’re thinking this is the basis of teaching pirouettes for dressage or spins in reining, you’re absolutely right!
7. What about 9 and 3 o’clock?
When we’re on the ground, it’s difficult to get the horse to step to 3 o’clock (on the right) and 9 o’clock (on the left) because we are standing in the way.
Once you’re riding this exercise, it’s much easier. Begin by really opening the rein, imagining the horse to be a puppet and releasing the rein when the foot steps under your hand.
Full details on how to teach this lesson under saddle can be found in the Shoulder Control Module in the online training course at https://www.kandooequine.com/.
You’re teaching a pattern, so your first cue should be the one you ultimately want the horse to respond to – a movement of the rein. In the beginning, we can help the horse by exaggerating this cue and using our body language on the ground to initiate movement in the desired direction.When you ask for reverse-arc, use the following sequence of cues to establish the pattern for your horse:
- Lift the rein and place it on the horse’s neck, half way up the mane.
- Step forward so you are also halfway between the shoulder and head.
- Turn to face the horse’s neck.
- Step towards the horse.
- Apply pressure to the rein.
- Release pressure when the horse makes a reverse-arc step.
Next month, Romeo starts to look like a ‘proper riding horse’ with his first girth. Don’t miss this lesson, showing you how to introduce the girth without the stress and bucking that so often accompanies the experience.