This four-leaf-clover exercise helps control every movement of the horse while preparing for any maneuver.
By Annie Lambert in The American Quarter Horse Journal
How great would it be to tune up every part of your performance horse for every maneuver he needs to perform without him feeling pressured? Renowned horseman and clinician Les Vogt believes he found the answer with the “cloverleaf exercise.”
From Pismo Beach, California, Les has been using the cloverleaf for about four years but gives credit to his friend Ben Balow of Skull Valley, Arizona, for the creative development of the exercise.
“Why just gallop circles when you can use this cloverleaf exercise where you’re working the neck, shoulders, rib cage and hips?” Les says. “You’re working on all the different body parts, but your horse has no idea that any of it relates to a particular maneuver, which is sweet.”
The cloverleaf exercise uses all four corners of the arena with counter-canter circles. In between each circle, the horse lopes a straight line to the next corner.
“One of the good things about this drill is that you don’t pressure a horse long enough to upset him,” Les points out. “He doesn’t get pushed into making mistakes or challenging you. There are four increments, and each one is a leaf of the clover. In between, you let the horse go so he gets a chance to relax and learns to think about responding.”
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Loping between corners, Les positions his horse off the rail, slightly closer to the arena’s center than the rail. The horse will be on the correct (inside) lead. Approaching the corner, Les asks the horse to gear down his speed.
“After I make that speed transition (loping counterclockwise), I move the horse’s head to the right; the outside (rail side) shoulder is to the left with the hips pushed right,” Les explains. “What we like to see is the ability to decrease speed and move the hip to the lead side simultaneously.”
When the horse moves the hip during the speed transition, more weight is designated to the hindquarters. The horse who rotates his weight to the rear, according to Les, is more likely to find plusses from the judges.
“The horse that puts a lot of weight to his hindquarters stays in the bridle,” Les says. “The best speed transition happens when the horse moves his hip, with little effort on the part of the rider, in the direction of the lead he is on as he slows down. The judges like it, too.”
If Les is riding the cloverleaf pattern beginning on the right lead, he would move his left foot back, his right foot further ahead as he begins to circle counterclockwise. This moves the shoulder to the inside and swings the hips to the outside.
“This cloverleaf drill is the best tool I have ever seen to teach someone how to operate his horse effectively,” Les says. “Riders learn to communicate with the horse and learn to ride the horse without depreciating it. In fact, it enhances the horse – that’s an unusual combination.”
When amateurs use the correct standards for the drill, they can keep their horses tuned up and possibly make them better, according to Les. He suggests you start off at a slower speed, even a walk or trot, as you learn to move your horse’s hips and shoulders.
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“When you’re getting resistance, always stair-step down to less speed and avoid a fight,” Les says. “When you are getting resistance, the neck is coming up, and we want the neck down and relaxed. If at the gallop you get resistance, you slow down to a trot and fix the neck, then start gradually adding back speed.”
“If I can’t do it at a walk, I certainly can’t do it at a gallop,” Les adds. “If you can’t do it at a walk, you need to go back to the basics and reinforce fundamentals; your horse simply isn’t broke enough.”
Les always makes sure his headgear – snaffle, hackamore or bridle – overrides his spur, much like the brakes on your automobile will override the motor. It is important to condition the horse to stop, not add more severe headgear.
“It is critical that your spurs push your horse into the bridle but not through the bridle,” Les says. “You want to make sure you have more brakes than motor. That can only happen if he’s soft in the neck.”
And don’t think you always need to use spurs. Les typically uses his calves.
If his horse seems to be listening and doing well during the cloverleaf exercise, Les is careful not to overuse the drill.
“It takes a lot out of them because you are doing more than you would in a plain circle,” he points out. “If they are dead on and warm up fairly quick and I’m riding them every day, I don’t need to do more than one or two laps, which would be eight counter-canter circles, tops.”
Les often throws unscripted variations into the drill by adding a stop turnaround, rollback or a lead change. The horse learns to stay relaxed and accept a little “freestyle” within the pattern.
“The cloverleaf actually tests, teaches and corrects the horse, which improves all your maneuvers,” Les concludes. “If you can do the speed transitions like we want to, it will have a huge positive effect on the stops and collection. That feel will improve body control in a rundown, as far as collection at high speed. You can move the hip around and keep the shoulder completely deactivated.”
In addition to its physical enrichment, Les appreciates the cloverleaf exercise for its lack of confrontation. Avoiding an argument with your horse, he suggests, is always the high road.
“If you’re trying to create a performance horse – from a nice ranch horse to an extreme show horse – the romance and art of horsemanship is to create a broke horse through finesse and communication, not by force.”
Les Vogt’s roots trace back to traditional bridle horsemen like his father, Norman, and grandfather, Chet. Les has won more than 30 championships including two National Reined Cow Horse Association Open Futurity titles and two AQHA open world titles.
From his early days being a ranch cowboy to riding rodeo roughstock to showing champion performance horses, Les has always been a sponge for knowledge on horse-training techniques for the betterment of horses. He has been a clinician for more than 30 years and hosts the show “Equine Insights” on RFD-TV.