by Terry Myers
In my opinion, a horse can’t buck, kick or rear up if they are relaxed and square in their shoulders. Most performance problems; loping too fast, lead issues, bad reining spins, knocking over barrels in barrel patterns are all symptoms of shoulder problems. Last month we talked about things the rider can change to help correct shoulder problems. In this article we will talk about how to get your horses’ shoulders relaxed, now that you know how to sit properly in the saddle.
What we are going to talk about in this article should be very easy. However, don’t be surprised if you have trouble applying these techniques. As I always say, your instincts can be your own worst enemy.
A horse that is soft in the mouth is also soft in the shoulders. Number 1 rule—no jerking and yanking. If your hands are soft, your horse is more likely to be soft in the bridle. Conversely, if you pull on your horse, your horse will pull on you. When you jerk on your horse, it will stiffen and brace in the jaw, neck and shoulders. Try this…pick up your inside rein and feel it, like you are holding hands with someone. If your horse resists and does not give, bump lightly without pulling or jerking. Your hand needs to be in front of the saddle. Absolutely no jerking downward. When you jerk downward, you lean forward and make your horse forehand heavy. I have always been taught that in dressage there are three names for the inside rein; direct, leading and softening. If you look up those three words in the dictionary, you will never see the word ‘pull.’
When you get to the point that you can pick up the inside rein and the horse will give to light pressure, tipping their nose to the inside, then it is time to apply inside leg pressure. At this point, the goal is to get the horse to bend in their ribcage and move their shoulder, taking a step outward. Pick up the inside rein and close it against the neck. Then in rhythm with the inside front leg, bump your inside leg at the girth. Your horse should give their nose, bend in their ribcage and take a step over with their inside front leg. As soon as you start to feel your horse take a step, let go and reward your horse. Got it? Now do that 10,000 times. To get a horse to give to the inside rein and stand up in the inside shoulder enough to move and take that step over is not going to happen in a day. Slow repetition and lots of patience is the key.
Now we can talk about the outside rein. Once you have your horse standing up in the shoulders to take that step over, you can apply the outside to rein which will help support the horse as they step over. If you think about it, the horse’s hind end is their motor. As we have talked about in past articles, the horse cannot get the drive from their motor if they are not square in the front end (i.e. shoulders!). The outside rein comes into play because that creates balance. Remember that horses are bilateral, just as we are. When you add outside rein to the picture, it aligns the back end slightly to the inside creating balance. If you ever watch a horse canter in the pasture, you will notice that their outside hind leg will track up between their front feet. They are showing you that they are naturally bilateral. To get this type of balance when we are riding, it becomes important to use your outside rein which is your speed and headset rein.
The rider body position I talked about in the last article along with the exercises described in this article is a beginning to getting your horse’s shoulder square and soft. But there is so much more in getting a horse and rider truly riding in sync, as a team. The only way to learn is to seek knowledge and then ride.
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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.