Q: I have a mare that pivots beautifully on the ground for showmanship. In the saddle, she will not pivot. Instead, she makes a tight circle. What can I do to make her pivot instead of circle under saddle?
Ideally you should start out riding two-handed in a smooth snaffle and outfit your horse in splint boots for protection. First, break the maneuver down into two steps. Begin by riding your horse at an energetic and forward walk. Then guide her on to that small circle that has been giving you trouble. Shorten your inside rein until you see her right eye. Open your outside rein slightly to encourage her to move forward. Slide your inside calf forward to support her shoulder and create a bend in her spine. Your outside leg goes behind the cinch to prevent her hip from swinging out and to keep her moving at a steady pace.
Step 1: Cross the forelegs. Ask your horse to make a sharp turn across the centerline of the circle with a leading inside rein. With your palm up, move your hand away from your horse’s body and toward the center of the circle on a line that’s ahead of and slightly above her withers. This will encourage her to lift and reach with her inside shoulder. Your outside rein should not restrict her head position. Press your outside hand against your horse’s withers to avoid accidentally pulling on the rein. Bring your inside leg away from her side to open a space for her to move into.
Your horse may stop moving forward or become confused. If so, pulse the pressure on the inside rein. As she steps across, soften the tension on the rein. Your goal is to have your horse fluidly and rhythmically cross her front legs. She will learn more quickly if she’s let out of the maneuver whenever she gives you a good step or two. Practice this until she can until she can make a 360-degree rotation comfortably and consistently in each direction.
Step 2: Stabilize the hindquarters. This is where your pivot takes shape. Once your horse has mastered the cross over, add an outside leg cue by applying pressure behind the cinch. This will encourage her to set her inside hind leg as she steps around. At this point, you’ll be able to turn your leading rein into more of a direct rein by bringing your inside hand in line with your hip.
Continue to use this rein to flex her slightly at the poll into the direction she’s turning. Apply light pressure on your outside rein, holding it against her neck to encourage her keep her body straight as she does in showmanship. Once you master these cues, your horse will understand what you’re asking of her and you will be on your way to pivoting perfectly under saddle.
DALE RUDIN is a CHA-certified riding instructor and clinician with a mindful and balanced approach to horsemanship and riding. www.un-naturalhorsemanship.com
This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!