The horse has five main body parts. They are the head and neck, the poll, the shoulders, the rib cage, and the hindquarters. It is essential that you have control over all five parts of the horse on the ground and under saddle. The basic groundwork lessons that I have described earlier will give you control of all the body parts on the ground. Here, we will talk more about moving all the parts while riding.
The Head and Neck
The head and neck are probably the part of the horse that most riders and trainers focus predominantly on. Many riders want to put their horse in a head set and forget about the rest of the body, which directly influences where the head is placed. Horses need to push from their hindquarters and lighten the forehand, which properly engages the horse’s body so he can then carry his head in a comfortable position. Before you can do that you need to gain control of each of the body parts.
To begin with every horse needs to be taught to flex laterally (side to side). Slide your hand down one rein, grip it about a third of the way down then bring your hand up and out to the side slightly until he flexes his head toward you. Release the rein when he flexes his head. Start slowly at first; don’t ask for a lot of bend in the horse’s neck. Build up to having your horse bring his head all the way around to his shoulder. Do this on both sides.
Vertical flexion asks the horse to lower his head and tuck his chin in. When you can lightly bend the horse laterally both right and left you can now ask for vertical flexion. Pick up on both reins, shortening them to make light contact with his mouth. Hold gentle pressure, only release the pressure when he lowers his head even a little bit. When he lowers his head, drop the reins to release the pressure.
Control of the shoulders mainly comes from the legs, but there are some rein aids that can affect them as well. Position your leg in front of the girth and squeeze with the left leg to move the shoulders to the right and vice versa. Remember that when you ask him to move his shoulders over to have your toe pointed slightly out. This will make your aid more effective.
A rein aid that will move the horse’s shoulder in the same way is an opening rein. To use an opening rein, hold one rein in each hand, then to move your horse’s shoulder to the right turn your right wrist as if you were turning a key in a lock, toward the direction you want him to step. Hold this position with pressure on the rein until your horse finds the correct answer and moves his shoulders over. Once he does even one step release the pressure and slowly add more steps.
The Rib Cage
Being able to move the rib cage allows you to set the horse up for lead changes, side passing, and even opening a gate. When you first start teaching this lesson it is easier to have the horse face a fence to help block forward movement. As you both get better at moving sideways you can perform the lesson away from the fence. To ask for sideways movement look in the direction you want to go, let’s say the left. Apply pressure behind the girth in the middle of the horse with the calf and heel of your right leg. Take your left leg off the horse’s side slightly to allow his body to move to the left. Remember to keep your toes pointed out when asking him to step over. Once he moves just a step release the leg cue and look straight ahead. If your horse gets confused, keep applying your aids until he even thinks of moving in the correct direction, then release. He will soon catch on and you can slowly add more sideways steps.
The hindquarters are the most important part of the horse to have control over as they act as your emergency brake if your horse would spook, bolt, or buck. When you feel unsafe on your horse flex his head to one side as I described above. This movement gives you control of the horse’s head and neck as well as his hindquarters. By bending his head you disengage the hindquarters and that puts him in a position where he can’t run away, buck, or rear.
To move the hindquarters to the right bend the horse’s head around to the left and then ask him to move his hindquarters over by applying pressure with your left calf behind the girth. Your horse should cross his left hind leg over his right hind leg. Once he has moved a step, release the pressure with your leg while still keeping his head bent until he completely stops moving his feet. When he flexes his head toward you and softens to the bit, release and start again. Reverse the aids to yield the hindquarters to the left. Soon you can ask him to move his hindquarters over with only your leg cue.