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Square Up Your Horse

Squaring up a horse teaches him obedience while also showing off his conformation, condition and balance.

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.

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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."

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