Patrick Hopgood concludes his series on training a young reining horse with the final steps in his programme.
By this stage my young horse should be stopping from the three different cues of saying ‘whoa,’ pulling the reins and putting weight in the stirrups. Making sure the horse has good sliding plates on and that I am working on a suitable stopping surface, I can now introduce the technique of ‘fencing.’ This is a widely misunderstood practice. The idea should be to use the fences at each end of the arena to teach a horse to stop straight, long and powerfully every time. It is certainly not to teach a horse to stop by loping them into a wall!
There are two reasons I use fencing. The first is to teach a horse to run in a straight line and the other is to teach them to run the full length of the arena. Without accomplishing these things we cannot teach a horse to slide a significant distance and score well on the stop manoeuvre in a reining pattern.
Fencing involves loping a horse from a set point at one end of an arena to one at the other, keeping them straight and moving forward until the stop. If keep going to the same point every time the horse will start to hunt that spot. This way the horse will be more likely to run in a straight line.
I deliberately trot into a lope for the first few weeks when fencing, even though my horses by now know how to lope off from a walk. The reason for this is that the young horse is going to quickly start anticipating getting to the other end of the arena and will not want to be patient in their lope departures. This can cause problems so I don’t lope off from a walk until they understand how to fence and are relaxed about it.
Once I start loping I pitch the reins away to see where the horse wants to go. If they veer left or right I steer back to the centre and keep heading to my original point. Don’t be surprised if your horse begins to want to run faster. They will soon realise that every time they get to the fence at the other end they can stop and have a rest. If a horse goes faster than I want to I stop them abruptly with the reins, roll them back and return to my starting point. The worst thing you can do is hold your horse to keep them from speeding up as this will create anxiety and they will likely run faster. Once the horse is loping in a straight line at a steady speed I will begin to ask them to go faster.
Once the horse is fencing comfortably I can start stopping them. I use all three stopping cues for the first couple of months as this will build confidence in stopping while fencing. I do not worry very much about the stop, I just want to make sure that every time I ask for a stop the horse commits its hind end to the ground. If they do not do this I back them up about 10 to 20 feet. If they don’t stop correctly a few times in a row I will stop fencing and work on the stop on its own. When the horse is fully committed to stopping every time I ask, I can add more speed. Before long I will have a horse that can stop and slide with ease.
Tips For Fencing:
For the first couple of days a young horse will be scared of travelling right up to the wall and stopping just before it. With this in mind, I just let them break down from a lope to a trot and then just let them trot up to the wall. This will build their confidence, and before long they will stop comfortably from a lope just before the wall.
By this stage my horses should be able to turn around as many times as I ask, correctly staying in the turn by themselves. With this being the case I can start asking for more speed. I do this by trotting the horse out of the turn and taking them into a tight, small circle in the same direction I was turning. I push them into the bridle and make them move their feet. Working in frame on a small circle is tough which is the plan as when I release the pressure with my legs and reins the horse wants to turn around again. They will start to turn faster as they have the momentum from the trotting that in the small circle.
Tips For Turning
If your turnaround loses its cadence or correctness, go back and slow your turn down and get your rhythm back.
3. Lead Changes
To teach the lead change I counter lope circles perfectly for a couple of months so that this is very solid. I also want to be able to push the horse’s hip around at a walk, trot and lope. If I have these pieces the lead change will be the simplest thing I will have to teach. The main thing to remember is to make sure to always change leads on a straight line. This is to stop your horse diving or pushing their shoulder across.
If I am on the left lead on a left circle and want to change onto the right lead I will go into a counter lope, loping on my left lead on a right circle. Once the horse is counter loping comfortably I take the horse in a straight line and keep my right leg on (this is asking them to keep their hip over to the left therefore staying on their left lead). I then take off my right leg and put on my left leg in exactly the same way as when I am pushing the hip. If the horse does not change I will take my leg off and then push it back on harder. I will continue to do this until the horse changes or until I run out of a straight line.
If I get to the end of the arena and the horse has not changed, I will not take the corner. I break them down to a walk and push their hip to try to get them to understand what I want. In this situation I’m pushing the hip to the right as I had wanted a change onto the right lead. I will then pick up the same lead I was on and start the process again. When the horse does change on the straight I still will not go around the corner. I let them lope a few strides and break them down pushing their hip to reinforce what I want. If I do this exercise I can get a horse to change leads in a correct, controlled manner within a couple of weeks.
Tips For Changing Leads
If you are struggling to get your horse to change you may have to go back and teach your horse to move its hip over a little more.
If your horse changes behind and not in front all you have to do is speed your horse up as this will facilitate the change in the front.
If your horse changes in front and not behind you need to push more hip. If you can not get the hind legs to change you will need to forget about changing leads and go back and get your horse shifting their hip better.
When changing leads stay relaxed and don’t panic if your horse does not change leads at all on the first day. Just keep doing the steps and within a couple of days your horse will start to change leads.
At the end of this 12 month training programme a horse should be able to perform every manoeuvre correctly and should be ready for a few schooling shows where they have a strong chance of running a solid 70. Just remember every horse is different so work with your horse and go at their pace. The following months and years of a reining horse’s training will involve practice and increasing the degree of difficulty by adding speed and finesse to what they have learnt but be careful. Only ‘step it up’ in accordance with your horse’s physical and mental ability. It is better to take a long view rather than rush things and end up with a sour or confused horse.
I hope this series has helped you and your horse in building a foundation in reining and that what you have learnt will lead to great success in the show pen.