Square Up Your Horse

In just four easy steps, trainer Sheri Avila-Nelson shows you how to get your horse to stand true on all four corners.
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In just four easy steps, trainer Sheri Avila-Nelson shows you how to get your horse to stand true on all four corners.
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Despite your possible preconceived notion about the subject, squaring up isn't just for show horses. The simple process of placing each hoof neatly on each of the four corners of a "square" (which really is more of a rectangle) teaches your horse obedience, patience and balance.

A squared-up horse is easier to mount than a sprawled one, because having his feet firmly planted as you swing your leg over his back makes him less likely to move as he strives to keep his balance. Plus, squaring up also makes getting a great photo of your horse a heck of a lot easier.

All-around trainer Sheri Avila-Nelson of Dee Bar Farms in Powell Butte, Oregon, started squaring up horses as a tyke when she first began exhibiting horses in showmanship. Now, a professional trainer and coach for more than 20 years, Sheri teaches her amateur and youth students how to square their horses quickly and precisely for halter and showmanship classes. The following is her method for teaching a horse to square or "set" up.

Pillar to Post

  • No show halter necessary! Teach your horse to square up by outfitting him with a well made, snug-fitting halter.
  • Make sure your horse is halter broke and schooled in the basics of leading, such as walking, trotting and backing on a loose lead.
  • Have a confirmed verbal "whoa" command.
  • Reward your horse with lots of petting and praising when he plants a foot in the right place.
  • Practice in short sessions, avoiding any temptation to drill.

Gearing up
All you need to teach your horse to square up is the horse, a halter, and a lead shank or rope. The halter doesn't need to be fancy or flashy-any nylon or rope halter will do-it just needs to fit your horse. Adjust the halter so it fits snuggly around the nose, through the throatlatch and over the poll.

Sheri recommends using a lead shank with a chain to teach your horse to square "as long as he's used to a chain and is not scared of it," she says. The chain, for this purpose, is meant as a communication tool between horse and handler so more exact signals can be relayed, much as the bit is used to send messages between rider and horse.

"The chain isn't meant for punishment," she emphasizes. "You never jerk on it or pull hard." Instead, gentle pressure on the chain tells the horse whether to step forward or backward and rewards by releasing when he's done what you've asked.

Sheri prefers the traditional stock breed show method of putting on a chain, with the focus on the comfort and safety of the horse and preventing the halter from shifting or twisting on his face. First run the hook of the chain through the left cheek piece of the halter outside to inside, and then down under the chin and through the right-side cheek piece, this time from inside to outside. Finish by running the chain up the right side and hooking it to the upper ring, with the hook facing away from the horse.

If your horse doesn't like a chain, or you prefer not to use one, you're fine just using your halter and lead, Sheri says. Just make sure your horse understands to move forward and backward in response to pressure from the halter on his poll (forward) and nose (backward).

Set Up for Success
Learning to square up is more mentally than physically challenging for a horse, Sheri says. "Some horses learn to set up in a day, others take weeks or months," she says. "They're creatures of habit, so the more you work on it, the faster they'll pick it up."

To help set your horse up for success, choose a schooling time when he's alert enough to work for you but calm enough to concentrate. For a lazy horse, this may be before you ride. For a horse with lots of energy, after a ride may be best. Also, in the beginning, select a place with few distractions. As he gets better, you can test your horse by working in settings that offer more distractions.

However, once the lessons really start sinking in, try not to drill your horse, advises Sheri.

"Teaching a horse to square takes daily practice and lots of patience," she notes, "but drilling him over and over again will just make him bored and frustrated. And you, too."

Sheri recommends working with your horse often but for short periods of time.

"Set him up when you pull him out of the stall, again before you put him in the crossties, and then saddle him and square him in the arena before you get on to ride," she advises. In her experience, those small lessons add up faster than long sessions. "He'll get to where the second you stop him, he'll start squaring up on his own."

Showmanship vs. Halter

Two horse show classes typically ask for a handler to square a horse from the ground. The first, and oldest, is stock horse halter. Dating back to early last century, these classes originated as a showcase for breeding animals. Setting the horse up with all feet square showed off his or her conformation, conditioning and balance.

"You want to show off your horse to his best advantage by placing his legs," explains Sheri Avila-Nelson, an all-around trainer at Dee Bar Farms in Powell Butte, Oregon.

Showmanship classes, also known as fitting and showing classes, emerged from halter classes as a test for halter handlers. Originally designed for youth contestants, showmanship is a staple in 4-H programs across the nation as well as at local, open and breed shows. Today, both youth and amateurs compete in showmanship at all levels.

"In the showmanship classes, your purpose is still to show off your horse by squaring him up, but you also want to do it quickly because your training is being judged," Sheri explains. "You want to do it as fast and clean as you can."

Showmanship and halter horses are trained to square up using the same method, but there is a difference in the final outcome. "You can touch the horse's legs to move them in a halter class, and you study the halter horse's legs at home so you really know the best place to put his legs when you get to the show," Sheri says. "Showmanship horses just have to square up quickly." Plus, touching your horse's legs isn't allowed in showmanship classes.

Squaring up may not apply to gaited-, saddle- or hunter-type horses in a competitive sense for their own breed arenas, but the exercise still teaches obedience.

Step-by-Step Squaring
Before you ask your horse to try squaring up, you need to stop and turn and face him, standing him on your right. Keep the lead in your right hand with the excess slack coiled or folded in your left hand. As you turn and face your horse, your right arm will cross your body.

"You want to stand at his head, about an arm's length away with your toes pointing toward his shoulder," Sheri says.

She recommends choosing one verbal command you'll always use to mean "put your four feet on an even square, and please do it quickly."

"Some people say 'set' or 'square,'" she says. "It really doesn't matter."

The point isn't what you say, Sheri explains, but that you always use the same word during schooling.

Next, using your code word for squaring, ask your horse to move his feet and square up.

Step 1: Plant a Hind Foot
The first step is to plant one of your horse's hind feet. The foot that doesn't move becomes the base of the square, just as a carpenter or quilter uses one corner to measure off the rest of a square of wood or fabric. "Most people start with the right hind," Sheri says.

If the horse moves that base leg while in process of squaring up, start over and emphasize what you want with a definite "whoa" when the right hind foot finds its position.

"Praise and pat when the horse has done what you want," Sheri instructs.

Step 2: Set the Opposite Hind
If you started with the right rear, then the left hind is the next leg to plant into the square. Your horse will either have his left hind foot out behind him or a step in front of his planted leg. Using pressure on the lead, ask your horse to either step forward by gently pulling the lead toward you or to step backward by pushing the lead toward the horse. Reward him for moving his hind left foot by releasing pressure on the lead, saying "whoa," and praising him. Even if he doesn't get his foot in the right position at first, compliment the effort and keep working on placement. If all else fails, try placing the foot by hand.

Step 3: Focus on Right Forefoot
Once the hind legs are planted in the square, move your focus to the front end of your horse, specifically the off, or right, foreleg. If the right hoof is in a good, balanced position, leave it where it is. If not, start to move it by using pressure on the lead.

Think of your lead shank as the joystick of an old Atari video game. Pushing the lead slightly forward and away from you should move the right foreleg out and forward. Pull the lead toward you and back, and the same leg should move back and toward you.

Your horse may feel particularly confused at the idea of isolating his right fore, so switch sides if you feel he needs more guidance. Just remember that you can't switch sides when squaring a horse during a showmanship class.

"Some people find that it helps to point your toe at the foot you want the horse to move and maybe touch it a little bit until the horse gets the hang of it," Sheri adds.

Again, use the verbal command "whoa" when the foot finds the correct position. Pet and praise your horse. And, remember, all this time, your horse's hind legs should stay still. If they don't, return to Step 1.

Step 4: The Final Forefoot
The fourth step is the last step that will close the square as the left foreleg moves into place. Again, use slight pressure on the lead shank/joystick to maneuver the left front foot into place. When your horse finally plants his last foot into the right place, give him a firm verbal "whoa" and lots of praise.

"Then just let him stand there, if he wants to," Sheri recommends. Standing still becomes your horse's reward for all the hard work, but make sure he doesn't move any of his feet out of place until you ask him to.

"A lot of people get into trouble by drilling the horse over and over," Sheri says. Repetition, she says, should come over time, not in just one session. Instead, put your horse away and accept these four small steps as one giant leap forward in your training.