by Terry Myers
Having trouble with your horse bucking or rearing? Barring any physical problems, your problem is in your horse’s shoulders. Problems with collection? It’s a shoulder problem. Horse loping too fast? Yep—it’s a shoulder problem. Knocking down a barrel in your barrel pattern? Definitely a shoulder problem. Missing leads or lousy spins in reining? You guessed it—shoulder problem.
More than anything, having your horse soft and square in their shoulders improves performance in just about any discipline. A horse must be square in their shoulders in order to be able to lift their back and drive with their hind end. If they are not square in their shoulders, the hind end has no place to go and they end up with their hocks out in their tail.
How do you fix a horse that is stiff in their shoulders? It starts with being aware of your horse’s feet and understanding when they are forehand heavy or heavy in one foot. For people who have ridden in my clinics, you have heard me say “count the feet and feel the rhythm.” Example, when you count your horses’ feet at the walk, your count should be steady and consistent, much like a march. If not, you will notice one hoof beat that seems heavier than the rest. That will probably be the inside front foot, meaning your horse is dropping that shoulder. You need to be able to feel this at all three gaits, but you should always start at the walk.
Many times a horse drops their inside shoulder because the rider is tilting their head and looking down at their horse’s nose. When the rider does that, they drop their inside shoulder. The horse will mirror what the rider is doing. Try this exercise. Sit is a chair and tilt your head slightly to your left shoulder and look down. Notice how your left shoulder drops. You will have that same effect on your horse. Riders instinctively want to watch their horses nose. I’ve been riding horses all my life and have never seen a horse’s nose fall off. So stop watching the nose! Instead, look through your horses ears. You should be able to put a level from tip to tip on top of their ears and have that bubble be right in the middle. If you look at their ears and one dips lower than the other, they are dropping that ear. Where the ear goes, so goes the shoulder. Example, if you are riding in a circle to the left (counter clock wise) and you see your horse’s left ear is lower than their right, they are dropping their left ear and shoulder and have their nose tipped to the outside of your circle. That means their nose is not in front of them. Think about it, a horse always wins a race by a nose, not an ear. They have to follow their nose to be balanced. The exception is when you are doing a counter bend.
Many times riders have been taught to ride with their elbows clamped into their sides. Riders who are not confident or scared will ride with their elbows in their sides, setting them in the fetal position. Their horse’s response is to stiffen and drop their shoulders. Try this: sit in a chair and clamp you elbows into your sides. Feel how this causes you to round and drop your shoulders. Now open your elbows and ‘air your arm pits.’ Feel how this lifts your shoulders and puts you in a more balanced position.
Another pet peeve of mine is people who ride with an arch in the back. When a rider puts an arch in their back, they roll their pelvis forward and dump their weight on their horses front end. A horse already has 60 percent of their body weight on their front legs. If the rider arches their back, they are making their horse’s job much harder by adding their weight to that already heavy front end. The remedy is simple. Ride on your pockets, i.e. roll your pelvis back in your saddle and sit deeper in your saddle. Then take a breath and relax!
I always say if the rider is not balanced, the horse cannot be balanced. The fixes we talk about in this article are critical before we talk about fixing a horse with shoulder problems. Now that we have fixed the rider, next month we’ll discuss how to fix the horse. It’s all about the shoulders. Your horse can’t buck, kick or rear if they are soft and square in their shoulders.
Terry Myers is a national clinician and champion horse trainer with a depth of knowledge developed from over 45 years in the horse industry. Myers has been a popular clinician at multiple expos in the U.S. and Canada. To learn more about Myers’ Ride-In-Sync Horsemanship methods as well as clinic and training services available, visit Myers at www.tmtrainingcenter.com and on Facebook.