A concern I recognized while working with European riders, which is also common amongst many riders, is heaviness in the hands and unclear signals to the horse. In order to help riders learn to be light and clear, I teach a specific signal or cue to use to simply turn the horse. Once the rider practices this system he will understand how to communicate and direct the horse clearly and lightly for all maneuvers, even including advanced movements with refinement, ease and precision.
"Looking" is very important in everything the rider does with his horse. The rider’s focus, posture and concentration are the horse’s most important cues from the rider. The rider should ride ahead of his horse, always concentrating on the successful completion of the movement, before asking the horse to perform the movement.
When you look to the right with the intention of making a turn to the right, your body and balance make subtle changes. That slight change in the position of the hips, pelvis, and seat bones signals your horse your intent to turn. This movement is different from a relaxed turn of the head to look at scenery, because your body doesn’t make the same shifts.
Turning your focus creates a misalignment for your horse, who is looking straight ahead. The horse likes his body to be straight and he likes the rider to sit straight, also. Misalignment of the rider’s body signals to the horse that the rider is preparing for a change of direction.
Looking with intent to turn, isn’t the same as leaning to the side. Sometimes I have to tell a rider to look at the trees ahead, because their normal tendency is to look at the ground. I must remind riders to keep their shoulders level, and make the turn as if they were walking by themselves, without the horse.
To help the rider learn to focus, they should look with their eyes and their belt buckle. Even though "looking" seems simple, doing it correctly with intent is vital to the success of the maneuver.
These subtle, sophisticated changes in rider position help the horse to know how to respond. When the rider looks to the right with eyes, belt buckle, and intention, the rider’s upper left leg comes against the saddle. At the same time, the rider’s right leg opens and moves slightly away from the horse.
Everything should feel open and light, nothing pushing. It’s as if the inside leg opens a gate to let the horse turn in that direction.
When horses look where they are going, turns are smooth and well balanced. The rider can signal his intention to turn by turning his head and focusing where he wants the horse to go. But for the horse to turn to look, the rider must give a rein signal. To ask your horse to look, the rider first looks in the direction he wants to go, then closes his fingers around and slightly lifts the inside rein (the rein on the side into the direction of the turn).
When the horse responds perfectly, his neck will bend just enough so the rider can see the back corner of the horse’s eye. It is a slight bend. The horse’s nose should not come past the point of the horse’s shoulder.
After the horse is perfectly positioned, the rider can then ask the horse to make the turn. Most riders think that they should pull or push the rein to get the feet to move. But the rein doesn’t move the feet. The rein is like a steering wheel. It’s for positioning only. The rider must take the time to learn to position the horse with the reins, then the turn will be coordinated. The horse is never pulled into the turn with the inside rein. He is always guided into the turn with the outside rein.
I teach people to develop a certain feel of the rein. The reins should be held between tip of thumb and first joint of forefinger with the lower three fingers on top of the rein at the “point of touch” which means the reins should be adjusted, so that when the rider’s lower three fingers are open, there is no pressure on the bit, but by closing those three fingers, the bit is affected. The opening and closing of the lower three fingers is communication to the horse.
You Go Together
Next, with the inside leg off 40% of the rider’s weight goes into the inside stirrup. The outside rein and the rider’s outside leg work together. The outside leg asks for movement, and the outside rein helps to shape the turn. The outside rein should lie softly on the horse’s neck. From early lessons on the ground, the horse will have already learned to move away from pressure, so the outside rein encourages him to look to the inside.
The outside rein must not cross the horse’s neck. For example, in a right turn if the rider’s outside or left rein hand crosses the mane it would pull the left side of the horse’s mouth. That would be a contradiction in cues.
The horse listens to one rein at a time. The inside rein asks him to look in the direction of the turn. The outside rein, along with the outside leg, then asks for the turn.
With turn signals, the rider must give the horse a chance to respond. The rider should have patience. He should apply the signal, and let the horse find the turn.
To put it all together the rider should visualize through each step, individually. For example, the rider looks, which positions his body. The rider asks the horse to look, which positions the horse’s nose and neck. Then, the rider’s outside leg asks the horse to move his feet, and the outside rein tells him to move away from the rein pressure.
This method of turning actually teaches the horse to neck rein. He learns about the outside rein, which is very important, because as the rider progresses with training, he will emphasize the outside rein more often.
As a great exercise to try, set up cones to form a big square. Go to the right (clockwise), making a turn at each corner. Look to the right, and pick up the right rein to ask the horse to look to the right. Then lay the left rein on the neck as you let your left leg hang long and against the horse’s side. A beautiful turn results. Then go straight until you’re ready to make the next turn.
When you can do it well, it’s fun. Being in good balance, relaxed and having fun is the pleasure of riding well.
Ed Dabney is an internationally acclaimed clinician, presenting horsemanship and riding clinics all over the US and in Europe. In 2007, Ed was named Champion of the East Coast Trainer Challenge Series by Equine Extravaganza. Ed was honored to have been selected by the University of Georgia to teach their senior level Young Horse Training course.
His training articles have appeared in many major national magazines. Ed produces instructional videos and the “Gentle Horsemanship” TV program which has been seen on RFD-TV.
Ed's blending of natural horsemanship and classical equitation has made an indelible mark with students all across the United States and now also in Europe, drawing the attention of serious riders searching for the lightest touch and the deepest connection with their horses irrespective of breed or discipline.