Controlling the parts of a horse
The first thing we need to think about when discussing controlling the parts of a horse is why controlling them is so important. Everything we ask of our horses and everything we do with them involves having control of their bodies. A cutting horse wouldn’t be able to cut a cow if we didn’t have control of the forehand (the horses front half) and hindquarters (the horses back half), a Reiner wouldn’t be able to do spin into a blur without lateral control of the forehand, and so on and so forth. You will never find a trainer in any discipline that says “Body control? No, I don’t need body control. I just go out there and pray for the best” that doesn’t happen because that would never work. We must practice both lateral and longitudinal body control to have horses execute their movements and maneuvers correctly, quietly, willingly, softly, and on cue. This is all very important when trying to create the ideal horse of any discipline.
The second question would be what are the different parts of the horse? Let’s take this question and answer it front to back. The first part of the horse would be the head. Having control of the head and its position is very important when it comes to just about anything. A horse essentially goes where it is looking, and you are not likely to get much of anything done if your horses head is sticking straight in the air. We control the head mostly through the bridle/bit and the reins. Remember, a horse can do just about anything with the proper headset. Next, we will look at the horse’s neck. It is important to know that the entire carriage of the horse is dependent on the neck. The neck is the balancing point of the horse’s body. You must have proper control and flexion in the neck, not only laterally but vertically as well when attempting to control your horse. Let’s move on to the horses Front End, which would consist of the shoulders, legs, and hooves. Controlling the front end of the horse is a vital part in the process of dictating the direction of your horse. It is also vital for any maneuver or exercise consisting of lateral movement. It is important to remember that when controlling the front end of the horse, we must be able to direct the front legs, the only way to accomplish this is by knowing where they are at all times. You cannot simply ask a horse to move a foot that is planted on the ground, you must ask when it is leaving the ground, this kind of timing is important when manipulating any part of your horse, especially the front end. Another thing to remember is that a horse carries 65% of its weight on its front end. This means that we need to learn how to “lift the front end” and transfer the weight back to the Hindquarters for your horse to be equally balanced. Next is the middle of the horse. There is very little movement in this area. Contrary to popular belief, horses don’t yield their ribcage, they might feel like they are but what is actually happening is that the horse is yielding its abdominal wall which is made up of several layers of elastic muscles that will yield to pressure and give the illusion that the horse is bending its ribcage. Control over this part of the horse is important for suppleness, flexion, collection, and direction. For example, if you are asking for a horse to pick up a lead to the left, and the middle of its body is bent the wrong way and pushing on your inside leg, you clearly do not have control of this body part and consequently, your horse will pick up the wrong lead. This is the same in pretty much any maneuver. Last but most definitely not least, we will take a look at the horses Hindquarters. The hindquarters are one of the most important parts of a horse for more reasons than one. Most importantly, the hindquarters are the powerhouse of the horse’s whole body, anything you do with a horse depends on control of this powerhouse. For a horse to be moving “correct” he must be engaging his hindquarters at all times. In order to accomplish hindquarter control, your horse must be evenly loaded. When a horse is moving forward at any gate, one of the hind legs will be the thrust point for the horse and it is important to know which one and when so that we can dictate the footfall and ultimately control the horse’s movement. It is important to know that hindquarter control controls the entire body. Hindquarter control is insurance for straightness. If your horse isn’t moving straight, it is likely that you have lost control of the hindquarters. Another important part of Hindquarter control is longitudinal control, i.e. Collection. The hind legs must be engaged and reaching forward for proper collection and ideal athleticism. You must cue the hind leg to engage and reach forward as it is leaving the ground. This timing is very important. This type of control is necessary when it comes to positioning the horse and keeping them supple for any maneuver.
Now that we understand the parts of the horse, lets get into how we can accomplish getting control of them. In order to get control of the horse’s body, we must first have softness and be able to pick up a “soft feel” Picking up on your horse and having a soft feel is necessary before executing any maneuver. Getting your horse to be able to feel you picking up on the reins and having that horse respond to the “feel” rather than waiting for a dead pull is so important. If you have to pick up on your reins and force a horse to back up or go in any direction, well you will not be winning that battle for very long, if you are attempting to get in a tug of war contests with a 1,200lb. animal, I can assure you that you will eventually lose every time. You and your horse must have a feel for each other. A give and take, a softness. When and only when you have this soft feel may you move on to other maneuvers. It is important to first establish this feel on the ground in a halter. Then at a standstill on your horse, then moving up in the gates, then in your maneuvers. Always remember that in any maneuver you do, you must maintain a soft feel.
Next let’s talk about flexion. Flexion of the head and neck is also a very important part of controlling the parts. The horse will ultimately go where his head goes. So, control of these body parts is vital for directing your horse. In order to get flexion in the neck, the horse must be soft and supple, and you must be working with a soft feel. Practice this first on the ground, then at a standstill on the horse. Use a soft feel to ask your horse to bring their head to one side, and then the other. Make sure you release for the smallest change and littlest try and slowly start asking for more and more as your horse begins to understand what it is you are asking for. In accomplishing this flexion, your horse will become soft, relaxed and supple. You will now have the proper control and suppleness to move on to the front end of the horse.
Controlling the front end is important for any lateral movement and for dictating the direction of your horse. A good exercise to gain control of the front end of the horse is a turn on the hindquarters. The first step to getting your horse to turn on the hindquarters is to get that horse evenly loaded. You will need to have a soft feel for this. The horse carries 65% of its weight on its forehand so in order to turn properly, you must be able to rock the horse’s weight back to have the weight evenly distributed on all four legs. This will create the balance you need to execute the maneuver. Once the horse is evenly loaded, you will cue with your inside rein and outside leg to ask the horse to move his front end around. Make sure when doing this you stay in timing with the horse’s feet. You always want to ask for that step when the horses inside foot is leaving the ground, you want your rein to feel like it is directly tied to that foot. Feel that leg about to lift, pick it up, and place it where you want it. Proper timing and feel are everything with body control. If your horse walks off forward just load them back on their hind end. Practice this one step at a time, asking for a little bit more every time. Once you’ve accomplished this maneuver you then have control of the front end.
Next, we will discuss hindquarter control. Hindquarter control is important for many things. Collection, driving, impulsion but most importantly, straightness. If your horse is not moving straight, chances are you do not have control of the horses Hindquarters. It is also important for many maneuvers such as lead departures, try asking your horse to pick up a left lead when the hip is swung all the way over to the right, no luck? I didn’t think so. This is because the lead comes from the hind end. The hindquarters are the powerhouse of the horse and the driving force of direction. Hindquarter control is also important for any lateral movement. Take a cutting horse for example, that horse cannot move its forequarters laterally the way it should if the hindquarters are all out of whack and in the way, you must be able to position the hindquarters correctly so that they are out of the way of the front end. Turn on the forequarters is a simple exercise to gain control of the horse’s hindquarters. In order to do a proper turn on the forequarters you must first put a wall up with your hands so that your horse knows not to move forward, then bring your outside leg back and que for your horse to step over and around his front end. Timing is even more important with this exercise. You must be in timing with the horse’s feet to know when to apply your que. Just like any other maneuver, always ask for one step at a time and build on that keeping a soft feel. When your horse is softly yielding his hindquarters both shaped into it and counter bent with ease, it is time to tie all the body parts together for our final exercise.
Moving all of the body parts together, all in time with each other is no easy task. It takes all of what we have discussed earlier and ties everything together. Side-passing shaped into it is a good exercise for this. For your horse to execute this exercise properly, you must have control of your horse’s whole body. You must have timing and a soft feel. You will first make sure that your horse is evenly loaded, ask the head and neck to tip in and then you will put your outside leg on the middle of the horse asking it to step over. If the horse leads with his shoulder or hip, you can block that part of the body to keep everything even. Your horse must be balanced to complete this exercise. Just like anything else, timing is vital when doing this exercise. You must know where the feet are at all times and have good timing with the feet in order to que your horse properly. You should que your horse when its foot is leaving the ground so that you can place it in the proper position. Make sure that your front and hind legs are in sync and that your horse remains shaped in the proper position. Again, take this exercise one step at a time, stay patient and most importantly, stay soft. Once you and your horse have mastered this exercise, you have control of the horse’s parts.
Always remember in any situation, any gate, any exercise to keep a soft feel, stay patient, go one step at a time, practice knowing where your horses feet are at all times and have timing with the horse’s feet so they will never be confused about where you want their body, stay consistent, and always make sure that your horse is balanced and evenly loaded before asking them to preform any exercise or maneuver. Stay out of your horse’s way and remember that it is important to make what you are asking as easy as possible for the horse to accomplish.