Just as a chiropractor specializes in aligning the spine, you can improve your horse's performance by keeping his body in alignment when you ride. When all parts of your horse's body are focused on what you ask of him, he will be able to perform more easily.
Jessica Snow, a Lyons-certified trainer based in Carbondale, Colo., emphasizes alignment in her training. She and her husband, Randy Dooley, primarily train reining horses and riders, but she has put John Lyons' methods to use in all aspects of her program.
"When I was 12 or 13, my 4-H leader, Sharon Glenwinkle, started taking me to John's symposiums," said Jessica, now 28. "I really liked John's methods of communicating with the horses and how he actually had a structured teaching plan."
John's ability to break training down into small steps and concentrate on one part of a horse's body - whether it's the ear, the head, the shoulder or the hip - has helped Jessica throughout her career. When a rider becomes frustrated at not being able to accomplish something with a horse, Jessica relies on one of John's primary principles.
"I encourage people to focus on doing what they can do with their horse and putting more steps into the process," Jessica said. "You'll get a lot accomplished by backing up and putting more steps in than you will trying to keep going after what you're not able to attain. Not that you're giving up on it. You're just putting more steps in there to be able to reach your goal."
Jessica applies this idea when she encourages people to work on their horses' alignment. Using exercises involving circles and straight lines, she recently explained how working on alignment can help anyone with their riding.
Everything in Its Place
- Ride circles to diagnose which part of your horse is out of alignment.
- Straighten your horse using Lyons cues to control your horse's nose, shoulder and hip.
- Put your horse on a straight line to see how balanced he is.
- Look forward to keep yourself in balance and allow you to diagnose when your horse is drifting.
- Give your horse better cues by working on your balance in the saddle.
Why Alignment is Critical
When you first look at a horse, you see an overall picture. He's big, small, a Quarter Horse, an Arabian, bay, gray. Then you might start examining his body parts, especially if you were considering buying him. That's when you'll notice the strong shoulder, the high withers, the long pasterns or the straight back leg.
Just as you look at all of these parts, you should be aware of them as you ride. Your job is to help your horse put all of his body parts together so that they are working toward what you ask of him.
You can demonstrate the importance of alignment with a simple experiment on yourself. Stand up and point your left shoulder to the left and focus your eyes in the same direction. Now lift your right foot and try to walk to the right. It's awkward. But if you turn both of your shoulders to the right and focus your eyes to the right, then it's a smooth transition to step in that direction with your right foot.
In trying to "fix" the awkwardness of your walk, you have to diagnose the problem - your shoulder and eyes were pointed in the wrong direction. Jessica said that simply stopping to identify this problem can help riders.
"Stop long enough to think about what is actually happening," she said. "To be able to break it down, you need to think about what part of the horse's body is not doing the maneuver correctly or what's getting in the way and keeping the horse from being able to do what you're asking."
Alignment on a Circle
Jessica uses circles as an exercise for checking and keeping a horse in alignment. When you ride your horse on a circle, he has to put his entire body into an arc along that circle to perform it smoothly. Jessica explained that a circle gives you an easy way to tell if part of his body is out of alignment.
"If he is dropping his right shoulder into a right circle, for example, his nose would go to the outside of the circle," she said. "That would mean that the right shoulder is not reaching as much and there's not a balance between the left and the right."
You might also find that a shoulder out of place can affect the opposite hip - the left shoulder and right hip, or the right shoulder and left hip.
The Rewards of Training
Jessica Snow knows all about those trainers who want to sell you a "better" horse than the one you've got. But she said that nothing compares with the rewards of training your own horse.
"It's not that people couldn't sell their horse and go buy a better horse that would be easier for them," she said. "I think they need to evaluate how much it means to them to accomplish whatever it is they want to accomplish with that particular horse."
Jessica said that if you love your horse, you can make the commitment necessary to stick with your training goals, "whether it takes you a month or six months," she said.
The trainer pointed out that different horses learn things at different speeds. "Some horses will pick up on certain things quicker than other horses," she said. "But your level of commitment as far as what's important to you and what you want from your horse is really going to determine the outcome of what you get from your horse."
Of course, you should have realistic goals and be careful that you aren't putting yourself in a dangerous situation.
"If you have a horse that's consistently bucking you off or rearing up," Jessica said, "then you need to evaluate your ability to deal with this situation and make sure that you're not compromising your safety. Find somebody who will talk through it with you and decide if those goals you have are realistic."
Add patience to those goals and you'll find that the payoff will be worth it.
"There's so much reward in working with your horse - a huge sense of accomplishment," said Jessica. "There's nothing like it. You can't get it by having somebody else do it for you. It's something you have to do for yourself.
"I think that's why I love training horses so much. It's so rewarding. With all the time that you put in and the goals you have to work toward, you'll find yourself saying, 'Wow, this is awesome.' "
When you ride a circle, look for that alignment all through the horse's body. Watch that every part of the horse is focused on the arc needed for the circle, whether to the left or to the right. If something is out of place, then work on that particular body part.
For example, if a horse's shoulder is out of alignment, Jessica concentrates on asking him to move his shoulder over, using rein cues. "The important thing is that you don't turn loose of the horse until his alignment gets straight," Jessica said. "Let's say the left shoulder is hanging out and you lay the rein to move him over. It's important that you don't turn loose of the rein 'til he does move that shoulder over. You'd also want to use a lot of leg to keep your forward motion. And then once he does get it, give the horse a really big release."
Not only will the release teach the horse that he's done what you've asked, it's a good way to see if he'll stay in alignment. Jessica explained that some riders try to hold a horse's shoulder up by using the inside rein to hold the horse on the circle. The horse learns to depend on that inside rein and doesn't balance himself on a loose rein. But if you use the Lyons shoulder cues and concentrate on that one body part, you can bring your horse's shoulder back into alignment with the rest of him.
Circles help you to balance both the horse's left and right sides, Jessica said, so be sure to do circle exercises in both directions. You may find that you or your horse perform better in one direction. But if you work both ways, you'll soon balance it out and do equally well in either direction.
Straight Lines Test Alignment
Once you feel that you and your horse can perform circles reasonably well, you can test your alignment again by riding in a straight line.
"Taking your horse in a straight line will tell you how balanced you have him," Jessica said. If you have your horse truly balanced, he will travel straight.
You might think that sounds easy, but riding a straight line is more difficult than it appears. Try it down the center of an arena and then turn around and look at your horse's hoofprints. Chances are there will be a few twists and bends in the trail.
Jessica said that you can also tell how balanced you have your horse by how well he straightens up on that line.
"If you truly have your horse balanced on the right and the left side," she said, "then when you ride him in a straight line and he starts to 'leak out' either to the right or to the left and you use a little bit of rein and leg to make a correction, he will get on that straight line again. That's when you know that you've got him balanced and you've got control of both sides equally.
"If you get on that straight line and you're consistently having trouble with him leaning out one way and not moving off your leg, it's a real good way to identify how well you have things balanced. You can hide a lot of things on a circle easier than you can a straight line."
Be sure to ride that straight line without the crutch of a fence or a wall. Often riders will take their horses down the side of an arena, but the horse is actually guiding off of the fence. Jessica advised riding down the center or cutting diagonally across the arena as a good straight-line test.
"A lot of horses will cheat," she said. "They get real dependent on that rail or that fence or that wall. You want them out there balanced between your rein and your leg - not that you have contact or are holding them. But if they're truly balanced and staying straight, then they'll travel that straight line until you tell them to deviate off that line."
In fact, you can even design a routine of your own, consisting of circles and straight lines. Not only will that help you keep your horse in alignment, you'll find that you've developed a basic reining pattern or dressage test, depending on whether you ride Western or English. As Jessica explained, that's the point of reining patterns.
"Every reining pattern has a minimum requirement of maneuvers," she said. "The patterns are designed to show a willfully guided animal that is broke and that you have really good control of."
With circles and straight lines, you can build a pattern specifically to the degree of difficulty you and your horse are ready for, leaving flying lead changes, stops, spins and rollbacks to the reiners - or for later goals.
As you perform your circle and straight-line exercises, remember to look where you're going. It sounds easy, but Jessica noted that even advanced riders make that mistake.
"If somebody is looking up and watching the placement of their circles, their horse will get really good at a nice, balanced circle," Jessica said. "If a rider is looking down at their horse a lot, their circles will be out of balance, they'll cut in and out, and they'll be inconsistent every time."
Watching ahead and riding with purpose will show off your horse much better. Jessica explained that your eyes help lead you and your horse in the correct direction, especially when riding straight lines.
"You cannot ride a straight line without looking ahead and watching where you're going," she said. "Also, if your eyes are down a lot, you'll have a tendency to start riding down instead of forward."
Looking ahead will help you diagnose alignment problems as well.
"If your eyes are up, you'll see if your horse is drifting toward something, like maybe the gate," Jessica said. "If you're just watching your horse the whole time, you might never notice that. You'll just end up in somebody's lap, on top of somebody, or out the gate."
You can more easily keep your horse on a circle or straight line by looking forward to where you are going. Then if your horse starts to leak out in one direction, you can easily cue him back into alignment. You'll notice the misalignment more quickly, and so the correction will be minor. You may even begin to anticipate your horse's movements, Jessica said.
The Rider's Balance
Jessica noted that when your horse is in alignment, it is easier for you to remain balanced on him. But you also should work on your own balance.
"A lot of it is making a conscious effort to ride straight," Jessica said. "If you're leaning forward over your horse, you're not going to be driving properly with your seat and you won't be as strong with your legs because they're hiked behind you."
When you are balanced properly on your horse, you can give clearer cues with your reins and your legs. "I've found that a lot of times people who have a tendency to hang on their horse's face are riders that are really tipped forward," Jessica said.
The old adage of keeping your heels down truly does help you to balance in the saddle. "I like to ride with my heels down, but with my legs next to my horse," Jessica said. "There are things you can do to help with that, like standing on a step and stretching out your leg. That helps get your heels down."
When you are in balance, it helps your horse to balance as well. When all parts of your body and all parts of your horse's body are in alignment and working toward the same goal, you'll be surprised at how easily things fall into place.