What if, by feeling where and when your horse picks up his hooves and places them on the ground, you could better influence his body?
It's not only possible, says clinician and author Mark Rashid of Estes Park, Colorado, it's not as difficult as you might think.
Before you get started on this lesson, check out the sidebar "How Hooves Fall When They Hit the Ground," which offers a step-by-step guide to the basic three gaits. Armed with this information, you can become aware of what your horse's feet are doing with each individual step. Then practice Mark's method for figuring out when and where your horse is placing his feet on the ground.
Mark's riding philosophy ties into his work with the martial arts. As a black belt in aikido, he has an understanding of how awareness in our lives and our horsemanship can bring us a more focused understanding of whatever task stands before us.
To find awareness, you must soften your body and your senses, so you're seeing, hearing, and feeling what your horse is doing underneath you. Start by relaxing your eyes and softening your body as your horse walks along.
Instead of sitting rigidly in the saddle, allow your core, or midsection, to soften like a spring or joint and follow the motion of the horse, says Mark. You should begin to feel your own hips rise and rotate as your horse moves. Just go with your horse's body, and let his hips move yours. As your hips move, you'll feel your legs move too, swinging in time with your horse's stride.
The horse is a dynamic surface, which rotates and swivels side-to-side and forward and back as the horse moves. Biomechanical research, as well as good old experience, shows that the horse's body and the rider's body move in conjunction with each other. As your horse's hip lowers, your same hip also lowers, and not just forward and back, but side-to-side and up and down as well. There's a lot going on when your seat is in the saddle.
Moving clockwise in the arena, move your focus to the horse's inside hind leg. Why the inside hind? Because your horse's power comes from his rear engine, Mark points out. By knowing where this leg is, you can best influence your horse's stride and move him side-to-side, backward, as well as forward.
Every gait, whether it's a walk, trot, canter, single-foot, or pace, has one thing in common: "The barrel of the horse swings out of the way of the hind foot as the horse takes a step," says Mark.
That means that when the right hind foot is stepping forward, the horse's barrel swings to the left, and when the left hind foot is stepping forward, the barrel is moving to the right.
"The rider's stirrups follow the horse's barrel," Mark says. "The barrel moves to the left, and the left stirrup swings out." At the same time, the rider's right leg swings toward the horse. Together, this all signals that the right hind leg is stepping forward.
Here's another way to look at it. Imagine you're on your horse. He steps forward with his hind right, and you feel your left stirrup go out to the left. That means his right hind is stepping forward. Then, your right stirrup moves out to the right. That means his left hind is stepping forward.
Once you've got it at the walk, move up to the trot. Even if your horse is gaited and doesn't trot, you should still feel the same motion of his barrel swinging back and forth, says Mark. Relax your body, focus your mind, and become aware of how your horse moves, and feel for those hind legs.
Conversely, when your foot swings inward, it signifies that the corresponding back leg of your horse is stepping up, and your foot swinging out is related to the hoof that's on the ground.
Now that you've got your body under control, it's time to use your noggin. If you've studied the sidebar, you have a basic understanding of how a horse's legs move together at each gait. So try these puzzlers:
Question: You're riding at the walk, and your right foot is swinging in toward your horse's belly, and your left stirrup is swinging out and away from the horse. What's the next hoof your horse is going to move?
Answer: Right front. In this instance, your horse is stepping forward with his right hind leg. At the walk, the next foot to move is the front foot on the same side.
Question: At the jog, your left foot is swinging in, under your horse, and your right foot is swinging out. Which of your horse's legs are off the ground?
Answer: The left hind and right front. A horse's legs move in diagonal pairs, so if one hind leg is off the ground, the opposite front leg is off the ground.
Question: You're cantering down the trail on the right lead and can feel your right leg move under your horse as your left stirrup moves out and away. What is the next of your horse's legs to strike the ground?
Answer: The right fore. When moving at the canter or lope, the leading hind leg moves at the same time as its diagonal pair in front. After the right hind and left fore strike the ground, the leading right leg will follow by itself.
Don't worry if this seems a bit confounding. This is challenging stuff, but worth learning nonetheless. You'll add a skill to your horsemanship tricks and feel more in tune with your horse and his movement.
Knowing where your horse's hind leg is in space, you can influence his stride or direction of travel by cueing him with your leg on the same side as he steps forward. For example, you can ask him to step under himself and sideways with his right leg by pushing with your own right leg as he takes a step forward.
If you decide to ask him to take bigger strides at the walk or slow down his jog, you'll know exactly when to push (to step bigger) or resist (to slow down) as his hind feet move off the ground. You'll be more likely to feel a problem in your horse's stride if he becomes sore or unsound.
You can also ask your horse to stop by cueing him to plant his right hind first (right seat bone, right rein), and then his left (left seat bone, left rein) for a more balanced whoa.
Just take your time, practice, and become more aware of both you and your horse's movement until you can tell when and where your horse's feet are moving.