Horseback Riding

Body, Seat and Hands, Part 2

June 13, 2011

In Part 2 of this series, Kristin Weaver-Brown explains how to use your legs as a tool to cue your horse.

By MaryAnna Clemons for The American Quarter Horse Journal

barrel horse

Slowing down and working on your horsemanship can help improve your times when you speed up again. Journal photo.

Need to review Part 1 of this series?

Wrangler National Finals Rodeo competitor Kristin Weaver-Brown believes in good horsemanship, no matter what event she is competing in. In Part 1 of this series, Kristin talked about the importance of maintaining balance and using your hands while training a barrel horse. Now she goes on to explain the proper way to ride with your legs.

Legs

Legs make the horse go forward. They are asking tools that control the back end of the horse and ask for engagement and energy from the horse’s legs. As with a person’s hands, if legs don’t readily give release after asking, they are going to confuse a horse.

Kristin says a rider’s legs need to be supple. There is a world of difference between a rider who is constantly on the muscle, squeezing her legs, never relaxing, and a rider who sits in the saddle relaxed, but still in charge.

“If you get tense or are constantly squeezing your legs, it will put your horse on the defense, and then he’s likely to get confused,” Kristin says. “If you are mixing your cues and not sure of what you are asking for, then the horse will not be able to give you what you need.”

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The confusion is likely to lead to a stiff horse, a horse with an attitude problem because he can’t make you happy, constant nervousness and even violent behavior. The direct line between a rider’s hands and legs is so important that Kristin suggests going back to the round pen again, only this time you take away your stirrups. She says it’s important to work on one thing at a time and get good at that one thing before jumping to the next exercise.

Horses, like riders, aren’t created overnight. It takes time. For one reason or another, in speed events, people tend to think if they go fast, it will work; after all, they’ve seen it done. But riders who are looking to win through true horsemanship will have to spend time on it. There are no shortcuts in any discipline.

Another exercise to help a rider get a good feel for the horse’s movements and just where that horse is placing his feet is to go back to the round pen and ride with your eyes closed while walking, trotting, long trotting and loping. It really helps to have an assistant for any of these exercises for obvious safety reasons.

A horse moves with specific footfalls, Kristin says, so if you know that a walk is a four-beat gait, then you can count the beats off as you ride. You know that a trot is a two-beat and that the horse travels in a diagonal form, allowing you to count it off – one-two – one-two.

“Subconsciously, you aren’t trusting your eyes. Say you look down to ‘feel’ your diagonal. Well, in the time it took you to look down, you’ve already missed it,” Kristin says. “You can see riders that are out of time with their horses, and it looks painful.”

Once you are doing well at the walk and trot, it’s important to take it up a notch and do it with eyes closed at the lope, a three-beat gait.

“Pay attention to where that inside hind leg lands, which is your starting point of counting the beats,” Kristin says. “They always start from the hind end, even though you feel them up front. If you take your eyes away, you start to feel instead of just reacting to the horse’s movement by sight.”

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The trainers who are winning are riding by feel. They literally know where their horse’s feet are at any given time and are reacting by instinct. That’s why you will see really good riders, ones at the top of their game, ride a horse differently in different ground. They’ll move a horse over if they feel the horse misplace his feet. They are so in tune and in rhythm with their horse that it truly does look like a duo is just one.

“By far, the most important thing you can do to improve is to learn the movements of your horse,” Kristin says. “You will be ahead of the game if you know what you are feeling and gain the ability to react to it.”

Don’t Forget the Trailer

It is old school to get into the barrel and then look to the next. However, Kristin says, that not only throws your horse off balance, it keeps you from finishing your circle. You are driving the hind end, not the front.

She likens it to a truck and the trailer. You can’t throw the truck around the corner without worrying about how the trailer will fare. You have to drive the truck and the trailer. The hind end of a horse must be around the barrel before you leave it. Times change, and methods change with them. Where it was popular to twist and look before, it’s not as fast and not as safe for the horse.

Kristin points out that reining horses used to hop when they spun, but now they cross more smoothly. Hopping is out of fashion. It’s the same in barrels, where riders are competing at hundredths of seconds of times.

“If that hip stays underneath them, and you get that hip all the way by the barrel, then that front end can keep moving and that power can come from behind,” Kristin says. “If you try to turn a barrel on top of it, where the horse’s head, neck and shoulders are, he has nowhere to go with his hip but to kick it to the outside, which puts more torque on the hocks, which hurts, and it’s not as fast.”