If you listen in on an Ed Dabney horsemanship clinic, you'll hear Ed explain how to use "turn signals" to get smoother, better balanced turns. Ed has a simple way of explaining what to do and a simple formula to help you remember it. He says, "You look. He looks. You go together."
Ed says that "looking" is important in everything you do with your horse-it's your horse's most important cue.
When you look to the right with the intention of making a turn to the right, your body and balance make subtle changes. That slight change in the position of the hips, pelvis, and seat bones tells your horse about the turn you're planning. That's different from a turn of the head to look at scenery, because your body doesn't make the same shifts.
"Turning your focus creates a misalignment in your horse, who's looking straight ahead," Ed explains. "He likes his body to be straight and he likes you to sit straight, too. That misalignment tells him that your body is preparing for a change of direction."
Ed stresses that looking with intent to turn isn't the same as leaning to the side. Sometimes Ed has to tell a rider to look at the trees, because the normal tendency is to look at the dirt. Keep your shoulders level, and make the turn as if you were walking, not riding your horse.
To help you learn to focus, Ed says to look with your eyes and your belt buckle. Even though "looking" seems simple, doing it correctly is vital to the success of the maneuver.
Those subtle, sophisticated changes in your position help the horse to know what to do. When you look to the right with your eyes, belt buckle, and intention, your upper left leg comes against the saddle. At the same time, your right leg opens and moves slightly away from your horse.
"Everything feels open and light, nothing pushing. It's as if the inside leg opens a gate to let your horse turn in that direction," says Ed.
"Visualize the successful completion of the request you're about to make," he says. "That way, you'll make appropriate turns with your body."
When horses look where they're going, turns are smoother and better balanced. You can signal your intention to turn by turning your head and focusing where you want your horse to go. But for your horse to turn to look, you have to give him a rein signal.
Better Balanced Turns
• Ed's formula for turns is simple: You look. He looks. You go together.
• This method of turning teaches your horse to understand and perform a neck rein.
• As the rider, looking with intent to turn isn't the same as leaning to the side.
• When horses look where they're going, turns are usually smoother and better balanced.
To ask your horse to look, you first look in the direction you want to go, then you close your fingers around the rein on the side nearest the turn (inside rein).
When your horse responds perfectly, his neck will bend just enough that you can see the back corner of his eye. It's a slight bend. You don't want his nose to come past the point of the shoulder.
After your horse is perfectly positioned, you can ask him to make the turn-to move his feet. But we aren't there yet.
Ed says that most people think that they pull the rein to get the feet to move. But the rein doesn't move the feet. "The rein is like a steering wheel. It's for position. We must take the time to learn to position the horse with the reins. Then the turn will be coordinated."
In clinics, Ed spends a lot of time teaching people to get a certain feel of the rein. Let's say that you're preparing for a turn to the right. The reins should be adjusted so that when your bottom three fingers are open, there's no pressure on the bit. But by closing those three fingers, you affect the rein. (You can see this more easily in the photos than by trying to visualize it.)
Horses don't automatically "look." The better your horse has learned to respond to rein pressure during early training, the easier he'll catch on. But even an older, stiffer horse will get it with a little practice.
You Go Together
Next, the outside rein and your outside leg work together. Your outside leg is the gas pedal, and the outside rein helps to shape the turn. The outside rein should lay softly on your horse's neck.
Ed tells riders to "activate the rein-to vibrate the rein just enough to let the rein rub the hair backward." That brings your horse's attention to the light pressure on his neck. From early lessons on the ground, your horse will have already learned to move away from pressure, so that outside rein encourages him to look to the inside.
"You don't want the outside rein to cross your horse's neck," Ed says. "That would pull the left side of his mouth as you're asking him to turn to the right. That wouldn't be fair."
He explains that your horse listens to one rein at a time. "The inside rein gets him to look. The outside rein, along with the outside leg, then asks for the turn."
"With turn signals, you have to give your horse a chance to respond," Ed explains. "Don't pressure him. Put the signal on, and let him find the turn."
Ready, Set, Go
To put it all together, Ed advises riders to visualize through one step, then the next step, then the last step. That way, they take time to do each part right.
It goes like this: You look, which positions your body. You ask your horse to look, which positions his neck. Then you go together-outside leg asking your horse to move his feet, and outside rein telling him to move away from the rein pressure.
This method of turning actually teaches your horse to neck rein. He learns about the outside rein, which is very important, because as you progress with your training, you'll emphasize the outside rein more and more.
As a great exercise to try, Ed suggests setting up cones to form a big square. Go to the right (clockwise), making a turn at each corner. Look to the right, and pick up the right rein to ask your horse to look to the right. Then relax the right rein, and lift and vibrate the left rein as you let your left leg hang long and against your horse's side. A beautiful turn results. Then go straight until you're ready to make the next turn.
"In a clinic we'll spend about 45 minutes doing turns, and then move to something else," says Ed. "That gives riders enough experience to know what they're doing when they get home, which is where the real practice comes in. It's like a golfer hitting a bucket of balls. It's a bit boring, but it grooves in the turn signals for both horse and rider. When you can do it well, it's fun. And riding well is about being in good balance and having fun."