In recent issues, we compared the control and steering mechanisms of your horse to a car. We illustrated how your reins are the steering wheel and your legs are the gas pedal. In this issue, you get to sometimes visualize your horse as a boat.
Both the tiller and motor of a boat are in the back (the "stern"). Regardless of where the steering wheel on the boat may be, you steer from the back, using a tiller. That works best with horses, as well-and for the same reason. Your horse's hindquarters are the motor that moves this particular boat, and you can't steer anything without movement.
In fact, if you don't have control of your horse's hindquarters, you don't really have control of your horse. It's not only safer and more efficient to steer him by controlling his back end, but it also makes both of you a lot happier.
There are many advantages to being able to control your horse's hindquarters. As we talked about in "The Groundwork Waltz," in the February/March 2009 issue of John Lyons' Perfect Horse, being able to specifically control your horse's hindquarters separately from whatever else his body may be doing improves your stops, directional control, speed control, lightness, and quickness of response to rein cues, as well as creating beautiful diagonals, sidepasses, lead changes, and other advanced performance moves.
At the same time, it strengthens your horse's muscles, lowers his head, "softens" his neck and shoulders, improves his balance, and generally perks up his responses to all your cues.
When you get control of your horse's hindquarters, you're safer, more secure, have much more control, and are well started down the road to upper-level performance.
Disconnected Body Parts
The nose may be the worst place from which to guide a horse, but that's what the vast majority of riders do. And they do it because it seems logical. After all, there you are in the saddle, looking down at the top of your horse's neck. You see the front end of your horse, so that's what you tend to focus on.
And don't most horses seem to go more or less in the direction their noses are pointing? That's also roughly where the bit is attached. Most people use the bit to pull their horse's nose in the approximate direction they want him to go. It is, however, neither necessary nor efficient to haul your horse's head and neck to one side or another-much less back and forth-to get him where you want him to go.
Unfortunately, you'll find that you can pull your horse's nose all the way to your knee without him necessarily moving, much less changing direction. Many of you have had this unpleasant experience when your horse wanted to go back to the barn, out the gate, over to his buddy, away from a spooky object, into the next county, or any other place he wanted to be that you did not. There you were, pulling his head around to his side, only to have him essentially look you in the eye as he blindly plowed straight ahead.
You can aggravate this problem by bending your horse's head to the side while he's standing still, trying to "supple" him. To return to the car analogy, this produces a vehicle with a lot of slop or play in the steering wheel. You would never want your car's steering to be so loose that it didn't respond when you turn the wheel. In the same way, you do want your horse's steering response to be positive, immediate, and exact when you cue with the rein.
When you bend the horse's head to the side with your reins without telling his feet to go somewhere, you effectively disconnect his feet (wheels) from the reins (the steering wheel). Remember that you never want to give him a purely directional cue from the reins unless his feet are moving.
It also disconnects his feet from your leg cue if you only ask for the mouth to give or for your horse to "break at the poll" without changing something-direction, speed, or the possible imitation of a well-rooted tree, which may be what your horse's feet are doing at that moment.
Guiding your horse from the neck is not much better than guiding from the nose because that neck can bend way too far, as well. You never want your horse to bend his neck any further to the side than to stay in a straight line with his hip, the inside of your foot in the stirrup, and his shoulder.
Both anatomically and as a simple matter of physics, neither the nose nor the neck generates any power to propel your horse. Also, if you fixate on steering by your horse's nose or neck, your awareness of the back three quarters of your horse pretty much becomes nonexistent, so everything behind his withers just sort of trails along, leaving a wake like a boat.
Steer From the Rear
Nearly every upper-level performance rider in the world guides his or her horse from the shoulders and hindquarters. This gives you positive steering control that the nose and neck-which are just too bendable and not the source of true impulsion for your horse-cannot provide. So, as far as impulsion and steering are concerned, guide your horse either with the front of your saddle or with your hip pockets.
If the concho on the front of your saddle has moved, so have your horse's shoulders. If your hip pocket has moved, so have your horse's hindquarters. That may sound unconventional, but it works.
You can't see your horse's feet when you're in the saddle. Nor do you want to be hanging off to one side or twisting your head around to check on them when you're up on top. As you become more aware, you may be able to accurately judge what those feet are doing by what you feel going on under the saddle, but with the huge mass of his shoulder and hip blocking your vision, you can't see what is touching (or not touching) the ground beneath those masses of muscle. So learn to use your visual "spot" tools.
Then What Happens?
The cool part of this idea is that-while you don't want your horse to bend his head and neck around to his knee-he doesn't want to do that either. If you keep your focus completely off his head while you work on steering with the tail, your horse will be much more comfortable. He'll bend his head to the side less and less. At the same time, you'll be able move his hindquarters with less and less pressure on the reins.
When you focus on the hindquarters and shoulders of your horse, it allows you to ride the whole horse forward. If you're turning at a cone on the ground, your horse will curve his body in a gentle arc, shifting more weight onto his hindquarters so he's more balanced and effective.
As you focus on moving the tail without thinking about the horse's mouth or head position, he becomes lighter on the bit. He twists his head less, which lets him respond more quickly. He "takes the boards out" of his neck, softening it to produce the small, soft, pretty bend you want to see.
If you're already an upper-level rider, learning this new technique of working with the hindquarters will shorten your horse's learning time, give you more effective control, and improve your transitions from one gait or speed to another. It will also make you more secure and better balanced in the saddle because you won't be shifting your seat, legs, or weight.