Horseback Riding

Body, Seat and Hands

June 6, 2011

In Part 1 of this series, NFR competitor Kristin Weaver-Brown explains the importance of better horsemanship.

By MaryAnna Clemons for The American Quarter Horse Journal

barrel racer

Balance is key to getting in a good rhythm with your horse. Journal photo.

Being in rhythm with your horse is not as hard as you think.

You’ve likely heard the comment that a horse can feel a fly on his back, right? Then of course he can feel your every movement as a rider. No one believes that more than Kristin Weaver-Brown, an accomplished AQHA competitor and Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier.

In fact, she says, you need to be as aware of your horse’s every move as he is of yours. For one reason or another, speed events have gotten the short stick in the realm of horsemanship requirements.  

People don’t just jump into events like cutting or reining and think they can cut corners and win money. You don’t see people buying a young horse and trying to rope and tie a calf with less than a month’s training. But unfortunately, you do see horses and riders in speed events that lack any sort of foundation training and, worse, are often causing bigger problems than they started with from a lack of time spent on training themselves and a lack of time spent to “get with” their horses. Specifically, barrel horses.

“Being involved in so many different disciplines, it seems that barrel racing has been one sport that horsemanship has gotten lost in,” Kristin says. “You have it in all other events, even in showmanship at halter – I don’t quite know why it got lost except that maybe the event looks easier than it is.”

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Hands

Timing and riding in rhythm with your horse are everything. The way to generate both timing and rhythm is to understand where your center of gravity is. When you can feel your center, Kristin says, both you and the horse will be balanced.

“I see so many people balance on their horse’s mouth with their hands,” Kristin says. “When you balance on your horse’s head through the reins, it throws his equilibrium off.”

The horse, Kristin explains, has to have his head and neck to balance, especially when adding speed. Your hands, like your legs, are only an asking tool. They are meant to guide the horse, ask for movements and then give a release. They are not meant to keep your body in the saddle or keep you from coming out of the saddle. If you can’t work your horse slowly and get it right, it’s not the time to add speed. Some people, unfortunately, think that they can combine slow work with fast work and it will come together in the end. Speed events don’t work that way and can lead to dangerous habits in the horse.

“Horses are flight animals,” Kristin says. “And when they don’t understand what you want from them, they are going to flee.”

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Balancing on the reins can also throw your horse off balance and cause him to overbend or throw his head around. There is no way to get the best from yourself as a rider or from your horse if you aren’t aware of what your hands are doing.

Kristin suggests an exercise that she has her students do during clinics or private lessons: First, she suggests riding every day and getting in time with the horse. Then, she’ll put the person and horse combo on a longe line (clearly a two-person exercise at home in a round pen). This is also great for people who tend to brace against a horse. The rider should hold her hands out in front of her as if she’s holding the reins at the walk, trot and lope. The exercise will help riders find their balance.

“You’d be amazed at how many people don’t understand where their center of gravity is,” Kristin says. “This is a great exercise because the rider gets a feel for the natural movements of the horse without relying on reins.”