September 10, 2013
Learn these horse training tips for better turns in a solid box obstacle.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Nancy Cahill with Christine Hamilton in The American Quarter Horse Journal
Once my horses get used to turning inside a trail pole box – where the poles will move if they bump them – I go to my solid-box obstacle to really step up their turns.
I came up with it because I wanted something to help my horses really learn to stay off the poles. I took four 4-by-6 boards and strapped them together to make a solid 6-foot by 6-foot box. I tried nailing and screwing the boards together, but when a horse steps on them, they can pop apart, and then you have something sharp exposed. My husband used steel straps and screwed the straps to the boards so the boards have support all the way around.
The solid box creates a boundary that doesn’t give, and that teaches a horse to really tuck up and step away from the poles.
It helps your horse learn to coordinate his front end with his back end. Sometimes, the back end doesn’t know what the front end is doing; he has to learn where to put his body and his feet.
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Even the biggest horse can do this. It’s like an elephant in a box – they don’t know they’re that big.
The solid box is an advanced obstacle. I don’t put a horse in there that hasn’t already experienced turning in a box where the poles will move and experienced moving them out of whack. A horse needs to have an idea of how to get around in the box and how to untangle himself in poles that are just bumped together.
A horse can get into a bind in the solid box. Because the box is so small, if you don’t keep your horse moving a little bit forward, he can get backed up against a board. Because it doesn’t give, if he gets too far back and his hind end gets behind his back feet, it’ll sit him down, and he can get off balance.
Caution: do not attempt a turn on the haunches in a solid box because there isn’t enough room for a horse to do that type of turn.
In the turn, you want him to be able to put his head level and find his way around rather than have his head up because that will freeze his shoulder, and he can’t turn. You want him looking where he’s going. If he’s turning to the left, he needs to swing his head and neck around to the left, following his nose with his body.
If you’re going to turn left, ride in far to the right and give your horse as much room on the left as you can. It’s about 2 feet to the right of the box’s center. That way, you have 4 feet to get started in your turn. If you ride into the middle of the box, it’s a tighter turn. (If you are going to turn right, you ride into the left side of the box.)
When you guide his head around, you want him as round and as small as he can be in a 6-foot area. To do it right, the horse needs to literally walk around your leg (which we explain a little bit further down in this article). To do that, he has to continue walking forward.
If you leave him straight in his body, his stance is much wider. Instead, you want his head coming to his tail which draws his front end back, but you keep him stepping forward with his back feet, forward and away from the poles. You bend his body around using both hands and both legs.
Always start out with this obstacle with two hands. Your inside hand leads his nose around; the outside rein lays on his neck.
Your outside leg is sending the horse, asking for the forward step. Your inside leg is supporting. You might have to add a little forward motion with the inside leg, too – it’s like shooting toothpaste out of a tube, you’ve got to squeeze him forward. But it depends on the horse – your inside leg might not have to do a lot.
If you move your inside leg back, it’s going to flip your horse’s hip to the outside, and that’s when his outside hind foot will hit the box.
Your inside rein is telling him where to go, and the outside rein is the end-product signal – it’s bringing his neck, shoulder and ribs around. Your legs bring the rest.
Don’t lean to the inside and don’t sit to the outside; sit in the middle of your horse where you’re out of the way and he can do his job.
At about three-quarters into your turn, that’s when the back feet are going to come close to hitting. You have to keep asking for just a few inches forward. With every step you take, just drive him to where there’s daylight, corner to corner to corner. Keep him really bent and drive him to that spot: It pulls those back feet away from the box because he is walking forward.
I like to walk into the box and continue into the turn – you don’t have to ride in, stop, then turn. It’s a lot easier to keep the feet moving forward if you already have them moving. If you trot into the box, you have to stop before you turn, and you almost have to go into it more toward the box’s middle.
But you still turn the same.
To change direction, you can ride out and come back in, or you can just stop and reverse. If you’ve taught the horse to reverse the arc in his head and neck off your outside rein, then it looks really nice – you just lay that rein and they go so smoothly. It takes a lot of time and training to get to that point.
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After you’ve turned in it a while, you’ll need to flip the box over to a new piece of ground. If you keep turning around in it in the same spot, suddenly it’s 3 feet deep!
Step It Up
Remember, it’ll take time for your horse to get this. In the very beginning, he might be stuttering around, stepping in and out, getting off balance, and once around is a success. If he steps out, just bring his foot back in if you can, or walk out and come back in. At first, they don’t realize the box is a boundary.
As he figures it out, I don’t turn just once – I don’t want him to anticipate an end to the turn. It’s like the reining – you spin seven times, not four, because you want him to finish his spin. If you turn once, he’s going to quit at about seven-eighths of the way around.
On the other hand, you’ve got to know when to quit, because that’s the reward. It’s the most important part of riding any horse – knowing when to stop what you’re doing. If you drill a correct turn over and over, eventually your horse could get mad or he’ll get to the point where he doesn’t know he’s right anymore. Don’t drill something until he does it wrong.
But if you let him quit after the first few times he gets it right, he begins to understand, “if I do this right the first time, I don’t have to do it anymore.” When he does it right, go on to something else, then come back to it if you want.
If the third one is good, then I quit. And my definition of “good” is “better than yesterday.” It doesn’t have to be “World Show” good; it might be, hey, you didn’t fall out of the box today!
I also finish by just sitting in the box – I sit in there as much as I turn. It’s a great place to cool your horse off and teach him something at the same time. It can be a good patience builder, too. It needs to be a good place to be.
You do this maneuver with two hands in the beginning, but you really want to gradually improve your horse’s guide off the outside neck rein. When you move toward working with one hand, always have your other hand ready to help with that inside rein. You ask with the neck rein, and if, in a matter of seconds, he’s not coming, be there with the inside rein. It’s a correction, a training help, not a punishment.
I start trying to use one hand when I can lay that outside rein and I can tell he knows he’s going to turn: I can feel him sweep that head and neck in the right direction. He may only go four steps and then get stiff again, but that’s OK. My inside hand is ready to rescue him and help continue the turn.
A lot of people want the horse to swap ends as he turns, but I think it’s much smoother if he just goes into the box and goes really quick. It also exhibits a greater degree of difficulty. You can inch your way around and be correct, but if you make it a continual motion, that is a greater degree of difficulty.
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Watch World Champion Nancy Cahill compete on her horse, Our Blue Moon, at the 2012 World Show in Oklahoma City.