The goal of steering is to get your horse’s feet to follow his nose. In other words, his nose—and not his shoulder—should lead all changes of direction. Your hands show your horse where you want him to go by tipping his nose that way; your legs enforce the directive by inducing his feet to follow accordingly.
By now, even if your horse is a youngster, he should be beyond the “90-day-colt” stage. This means the days of using your hands really wide in order to guide him are over. If you use your hands wide now, you’ll be sabotaging your effort to get him to move with greater balance. Instead, your pull on the direct rein should be toward your hip—or, more specifically, toward the belt loop on the same side of your pants as the hand doing the pulling. At the same time, maintain enough pressure on your indirect rein to balance your horse. All this promotes a nose-first, on-the-hindquarters turn that’s more balanced and collected.
At this stage in the game, the reins should be loose or drape except when steering or “checking” the horse’s speed or headset. Work with sequences of tension and release, creating some pressure to correct your horse’s frame when necessary, and then “giving” to reward his response. However, be sure not to throw your hands forward when giving the reins or to “giddy up”. “You’re not carrying a mail pouch! If you throw your hands forward, you cause your horse to fall on his front end.
To use your hands properly, think about keeping them within an imaginary, 1-foot-square box centered over the saddle horn. As you and your horse progress over time, that box will begin to shrink. Eventually, when your horse is responding to the subtlest of cues, the box will be just a few inches square.
When using your legs to guide your horse, think in terms of gradients. Start with light pressure then move to firmer pressure, bumping, and even kicking or rolling your spur as needed. Horses can feel a fly on their side, but they can become incredibly dull to leg pressure, especially if you consistently use more than you need. Always give your horse the chance to respond to the lightest pressure—yet move up to what you ultimately need to ensure a response.
At all times, strive to keep your horse between your hands and your legs. As I mentioned earlier, ultimately, you want him to be within an imaginary box created by your hands and legs. If he pushes his nose out, he bumps into the front wall of the box—your hands. If he bows out or falls in, he bumps into one side of the box or the other—your legs. If he gets strung out, his hind end hits the back of the box—both of your legs driving him forward.
Stayed tuned, the next issue we will show you the exercises you can use to simultaneously work on collection and steering.
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 8, Issue 12-15