Conflicting Signals

Can you keep a secret? It is the only way to guarantee crisp, correct manoeuvres, writes Linda Durocher. Okay, here’s how it goes down in my book. Nine times out of 10 a horse’s anticipation begins with a subtle signal from its rider.

Reining horse anticipation

Yep, I know it sucks that the one mistake that your horse does over and over again could be starting with you; but the good news is that it is much easier to fix you than it is your horse.

Remember for the most part the horse follows its riders lead and they really do want to do what the rider is asking them to do. It’s just sometimes the rider doesn’t recognise the signals they’re sending to their horse; but it is loud and clear to them and they are listening. Let’s break it down and examine some situations that are manufactured through rider anticipation. Starting with the biggest monster; anticipation of a lead change, one constant is that 90% of the time it comes from the rider. Don’t be the kid sister or brother that blames everything on their sibling. Placing the blame on the horse from the get go doesn’t make you a better rider it makes you a better liar.

The common miscues that I see with the lead change can be very subtle or blatant rider anticipations but the end results are the same; a late change, no change, early change, or presumptive change. In a reining pattern, being quiet through the centre of the pen is el numero uno. Busy hands and not trusting your horse to stay in the circle can result is over guiding. Moving your rein hand too far over opens up the opposite shoulder setting up the lead change and presto he changes. It’s a big surprise to you; in your mind you never asked for it, but you did ask.

Here’s a simple test. Ride through centre, hang on to the horn of the saddle and keep looking ahead in the circle that you are in and lightly apply your outside leg as you lope through centre. Keep your shoulders square with your horse and keep riding. If your horse stays honest that is a good indicator that you had previously not been staying honest through centre. Next time through, keep that hand still and trust your horse to do his job and for heaven’s sake keep riding and looking ahead.

The next biggest booboo I see riders making is getting tense prior to and staying tense through the centre of the pen. You’re not headed to the principal’s office; you didn’t cheat on a test or kick a kid in the playground so there is no reason to get tense. I see riders get three quarters of the way into a circle and, in anticipation of the lead change, they start to stand up in their stirrups, lean forward or grow three inches. All of these things are reflective of tension and are screaming at your horse, ‘Get ready, here it comes, it’s coming, oh my God it’s a lead change!’ The horse gets elevated, the rider gets frustrated and the lead change is u-g-l-y, if it even happens.

Fix it by breaking down to a walk prior to the point of where tension starts sneaking up on you like a thief in the night. Walk through centre, focus on relaxation and you’ll see your horse respond. Do this a few times and then go back to loping. When you get to ‘that’ spot focus on you; keep riding, relax, stay centred and your horse will follow your lead and stay in the current circle. Most importantly, maintain that frame of mind when you know a lead change is coming. Stay focused, relax, get your horse straight and ask. It will be there if you can keep a secret.

Stopping is another biggie. Riders look at where they want to stop, raise their hand, lean back or forward in the saddle, stand up in the stirrups, look down at the ground, put their feet forward or quit riding and the result is getting slammed into the saddle because the horse didn’t stop. Of course he didn’t stop. You told him to get ready, you both got tense, the stop flew out the window and you’re instantly a soprano.

Have an honest approach, be consistent and be a marionette working hands, feet and mouth simultaneously. The stop will come - just don’t announce it to your horse first. Have a friend video your ride, buy all your show videos and look closely for those subtle signals that you are sending to your horse. They have slow motion on replay for a reason; use it, it will become your best friend. Being honest in the saddle is the best tool you can have in your toolbox and should be the first tool you reach for.

Lead Change Anticipation

TOP PHOTO: This is exactly what you want going into your lead change, no anticipation. Here the rider’s hand is centred and her outside leg is on her horse leading into the change. By putting the outside leg on at the three quarter point in the circle, the leg cue along with the cue from the rider’s hand becomes black and white to the horse when he is asked to change leads.

Reining lead change positionLEFT: Almost perfect; as she asks her horse for the lead change from the right circle to the left circle. Here you can see that she has slightly rolled her hand to open up the left shoulder for the change. You can see that the rider is relaxed and back in her saddle and looking to the new direction. Because there is no anticipation you can see that her horse’s head stays level as she asks for the lead change. What you don’t see in this picture is her switch legs at the same time she is opening up the shoulder, which made for a lead change that was as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

Anticipation in the StopRider anticipation

RIGHT: Here the rider stood up in her stirrups, leaned back and lifted her hand - all results of anticipating the stop. Because of her anticipation the horse hollows out his back, is stiff on the front end, braces against the bit and doesn’t get in the ground.

Smooth stopLEFT: Same rider, same horse, same pattern. The difference here is that she rode all the way to the stop without anticipation. She is sitting down in the saddle, her rein hand is low, and now her horse is rounded and, although this picture was caught at the very beginning of the stop, this ended up being a big one.