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Fixing the One-Way Horse

Q: A few months ago I bought an older horse that had spent the last few years as a trail horse. Before that he was a lesson horse after retiring from a successful career in the show ring. While working in the arena I’ve discovered he’s very one-sided. When we track to the left he bends around my inside (left) leg and circles nicely. But when we change directions and track right, he becomes very stiff and ignores my inside (right) leg. He cuts the corners of the arena and falls in when I try to circle. How can I help him become more responsive to my right leg? Or, since I’m the only one who rides him, could I be doing something wrong?

A: First of all, I admire you for contemplating whether your riding skills might be contributing to your horse’s problem. Whenever things aren’t going well under saddle, a good rider always considers what they might be doing wrong before blaming the horse.

Yet I’m going to assume that your horsemanship isn’t at fault. Instead, I think your older horse needs to reconnect with the training he surely received when he was younger. Though a show horse has to be responsive and compliant to win ribbons, lesson horses typically become dull to a rider’s aids. You’ll have to gradually reintroduce the notion that he’s returning to a structured routine.

But before starting a regimen of arena work, have your vet rule out any soundness issues—like an arthritic hock or a sore back—that might make your horse stiff in one direction. Various modifications in an older horse’s care, including orthopedic saddle pads and vet-prescribed joint supplements, can sometimes magically alleviate training problems.

Now let’s work on making your horse more supple (bendable and flexible like a rubber band) and responsive to your leg aids. My favorite exercise is a figure-8 pattern using a cone (or an overturned feed bucket) in the center of each circle as a visual marker. Markers help you judge whether your horse is creating a true circle or some odd geometric pattern. Set your cones at least 36-feet apart. That’s about twelve giant walking steps. Clear the arena clutter so you have room to make circles about the diameter of a longe line.

Begin the exercise at an energetic sitting trot, circling first to the left, which is your horse’s “good” direction. Then, as you cross through the center line of the figure-8, exaggerate your half-halt. Stretch tall through your upper body, take up contact on your horse’s mouth and squeeze with both legs. This compresses your horse’s stride and shifts his weight onto his hindquarters. Your horse must continue trotting but he should feel lighter in your hands with some spring or bounce to his stride. Before asking him to change his track to the right, turn your right toe out and squeeze in with your right leg, applying pressure behind the girth. To encourage him to step over to the left, away from your right leg, use a left opening rein. Imagine a rudimentary type of leg yield: you’re opening a door with your left hand and then pushing him through it with your right leg. Then soften your rein contact and begin your circle to the right with a slight bend, using a right direct rein as always.

While circling right on your pattern, be sure to half-halt and steady your horse before asking him to move away from your right leg. Unless you contain his forward energy and redirect it laterally, he’ll evade your request and just scoot forward. If he elevates his head, hollows his back and truly resists, bring him to a walk. Stay on your circle and be more emphatic with your outside (left) opening rein and inside (right) leg. Apply a crop on his side, behind your right leg, as reinforcement. Reward him for even a smidgen of response and then continue.

Don’t expect an overnight miracle; you have to undo years of your horse operating on cruise control. Though your horse many never relive his glory days in the show ring, I’m certain the two of will enjoy years of fun together.

Cindy Hale

Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.

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