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Full Range of Motion, by Richard Winters



IMG_2603I train horses and conduct horsemanship clinics for a living.   My job  requires that I ride numerous horses on any given day.   By this time in my  career, I suppose I have ridden thousands of horses.   These horses have  ranged from un-started colts to backyard pleasure horses to the finished  bridle horse.   I’ve been bucked off on occasion and have been in a few  wrecks.   Yet considering how many horses I’ve ridden, my serious mishaps  have been few.   Many articles have been written on how to avoid an  “unplanned dismount.” However, the foundational safeguard for me is that I  always have my horses go through the “full range of motion.”

Horses were created to walk, trot, lope, gallop, stop, turn, and then go  some more! Yet the  timid rider attempts  to over control their  horse.   In essence,  they are constantly  riding the brakes.   They’re afraid that  the horse might get  too volatile if they  allow him to move  out.   The truth is that  the bad energy can  still be there, just  under the surface.   Then, at the most  unexpected time, that  energy comes out in  the form of a buck,  spook, or a run-away horse.   How do I minimize these negative reactions? If I have questions about  how a horse is going to move out when ridden, I’m going to check things  out on the ground before I ever climb on the horse’s back.

Once the horse  is saddled, I want to see the horse move through the full range of motion.   I might do this on the end of a long lead rope or I could work the horse at  liberty in a round pen.   I want to see this saddled horse walk, trot, lope, turn  and move off in both directions.   I’m observing how efficiently the horse  moves throughout the transitions.   In other words, if it takes 25 pounds of  energy to move through this full range of motion and the horse is putting 40  pounds of energy into it, he’s probably not ready for me to mount.

A naïve rider may think that fifteen minutes of trotting with a lunge  line is an adequate warm-up, and it might be.   Yet without seeing the horse  transition into the lope a few times, the rider might not know the whole  story.   The saddle feels different at the lope than it does at the trot.   It will  feel different when a horse turns and pushes off with impulsion into a new  direction as well.   If you don’t check these things out prior to mounting, you  might be getting on your horse prematurely.

I recently heard a world-class colt-starter answer the following question;  “What do you do when the colt you’re riding starts to buck.” He responded,  “I generally try to take care of that before I get on.” Part of this preparation is  moving the horse through the full range of motion prior to mounting.   Another aspect to this concept is how you ride your horse.

Many riders  lack confidence and thus want their horse to move slowly and predictably  down the trail or along the arena fence.   Some horses will do that; most will  not.   Remember, they are horses, not golf carts.   If you continually ride your  horse on “safety” and never allow them to really move out in a productive  manner, they will probably move out at some unexpected moment; resulting  in an undesirable consequence.   “I just wanted to go out for a nice trail ride.   Everything was fine.   And then, all of the sudden, he just blew up!” I’ve heard this story line on  numerous occasions.   In most instances these riders failed to prepare the  horse mentally and physically for their “quiet trail ride.” Did you move the  horse through the full range of motion, with ground work, before mounting?   Was he transitioning through these gaits relaxed and  efficient? When mounted, did you give your horse some  physical work to do prior to introducing the idea of a “quiet  trail ride?” These are things that you must consider if  you’re going to be your horse’s leader, resulting in both of  you surviving the experience.

If you do not have the experience or confidence to ride your horse in  an assertive manner, then perhaps it’s time to find help.   Your horse needs  a rider that will confidently lead and support him through the full range of  motion.   It is not even in my horses’ paradigm to be ridden and not be loped  consistently in both directions, every time.   Invariably I will ride a participants  “sticky” horse, during a clinic, and after loping around for a few minutes  each way I will state the following: “I am guessing that I’ve just loped this  horse more in the last ten minutes than his owner has loped him in the last  six months.” Nine times out of ten the owner will concur.   They’ll go on to  say, “If he would lope around quiet and relaxed, I would lope him more.” Of  course we know that he’ll never lope around quiet and relaxed until we lope  him more.   Yet people are scared to do it.   Quite frankly, I’m too scared not to  do it! There is too much that can build up underneath the surface that might  pop up and bite me.

Horses were created to move.   That’s their nature.   It’s our job to channel  their energy in a productive manner.   Make sure your horse is comfortable,  confident, and relaxed as he moves through the full range of motion.

About the author:  For nearly three decades Richard has honed his horsemanship skills  and passed this knowledge onto others.   He has won the World Championship  title in the NRCHA along with being an A rated judge.   In 2007 he was  named the West Coast Equine Experience “10,000 Colt Starting Challenge  in Nashville, TN and was 2009 winner of Super Cow Horse Competition  in Santa Ynez, CA.   He does numerous Horsemanship clinics and Expo’s  around the country.   Richard and his wife Cheryl reside in Ojai, California, at the historic  Thacher School where he serves as Artist-in-Residence.   For more information about Richard Winters Horsemanship please go  to his website at

[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 6, Issue 12.]


How do you ‘prep’ your horse for an event or a leisurely ride down the road?

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