I have a lot of students currently that have trouble steering. And this has been an issue the majority of my students have struggled with at one point or another. I could blame it on my teaching or my horses, which I’m sure play a role, but I think it comes from the fact that riders are taught how to make bad turns from the very beginning.
When you first learn to ride you are taught to pull a rein to steer the horse. Most of my horses do that quite well and all of them will steer that way if you stick with it for a while. Unfortunately, none of them will give you good turns like this. Good turns require a lot more finesse than pulling the horse around with no direction on how he should turn.
The other issue my students run into is that my horses almost all have trauma around their faces being yanked and hung on. So hanging on a rein to make a turn makes them all brace against you. That also significantly impacts their turns. Since I don’t think that is an appropriate way to turn anyway they don’t learn that that is normal. They learn that a light touch of the rein turns their nose and yields their haunches and if nothing else prevents it the spin around, which is an elementary turn.
So that all being said, how should one ride a nice, round turn with control over where the horse’s body goes? The key to a good turn is preparation and using all the aids in harmony with each other.
A good turn starts with a half halt to balance the horse onto his haunches. Being on the haunches allows the horse to freedom to move his shoulder around the turn. This half halt can be done with the seat, thigh or a bit of outside rein depending on how the horse is going and how sensitive he is.
Another quick point is if you don’t have straightness before initiating you turn with a half halt it will be infinitely harder to turn. Crooked will remain crooked like an immovable block.
Once you have half halted and balanced the horse on the haunches you can turn you seat and hands onto the line you wish the horse to travel on. Note that I didn’t say to bend the horse’s nose then add some leg here or there. Your aids should move in harmony from being straight around the horse on the straight to being straight around the horse on the new curved line. A properly executed turn will involve a twist of the hips that gently applies a small amount of outside thigh and knee to direct the horse’s shoulder around the turn. The inside hip should slightly open from that twist of the hips to allow the horse’s inside shoulder to track inside onto the turn line. The inside lower leg supports the horse’s shoulder at the girth to keep him from falling in on the turn. Note here that I said support not press so the leg should be loose and hanging to catch the horse should he fall but not impede the horse if he goes nicely. The outside leg will naturally drift back as you twist the hips to catch the haunches from spinning out in the turn and causing the horse to dive in. Lastly the Rider’s hands should twist with the hips and shoulders onto this new arc resulting in a slight inside bend and activation of the outside rein. The outside rein steadies the horse and controls his outside shoulder. The inside rein provides bend around the turn and encourages the inside hind to step deeper around the turn so that the horse’s engagement is not lost. All of the aids work in beautiful harmony to properly execute a turn.
So what happens when it doesn’t work like that?
Unfortunately we have lots of places we like to brace, pinch, pull and generally impede these natural biomechanics that create a beautiful turn. Often times we will turn our hips in the opposite direction of our shoulders or pull our inside rein while giving up all of our outside aids. Sometimes I even see riders that brace forward on their inside leg to yank the horse’s head around and therefore press that inside leg in and block the shoulder from turning.
Because we generally think we are doing the turn right most riders will respond to a horse not turning by getting bigger with whatever aid thing is effective. Generally this just escalates the problem as the horse tries to run away from the excess pressure without understanding what the answer is. Most often I see riders try to pull harder on the inside rein while the horse runs out of the shoulder. All the while the inside leg is locking and braced far forward to counter balance the rider. The other common thing I see is riders that starts digging in their outside heel to try to catch the outside shoulder. Often times this leg is back behind the girth unbeknownst to them and results in the haunches spinning in and the shoulder running out.
Pretty soon the horse is frustrated and the rider is angry that nothing seems to work. The rider blames the horse for being belligerent and the horse is confused and frustrated that they are being given large conflicting aids.
So how do we fix this problem? First off if you are worried about making a turn for the sake of making a turn the problem will persist. The problem has nothing to do with turning and everything to do with body awareness and staying in alignment through your own body and the horse’s body. If you can reliably do that on both a straight and a curve then the turns are easy.
To develop this feel I recommend riders relax their legs and sit on their horse trying to feel how their body is moved as the horse walks down the rail and then through the corners. Most horses will stay on the rail of the arena if you do nothing. Use that to develop the feel and make sure that your body stays in alignment. Feel how when your legs are relaxed and hanging the outside leg falls back and on while the inside leg open and hangs loosely. Feel for any bracing through your body and work to eliminate it. Once that is good do the same at the trot and canter. Sitting or 2 point at the trot may be easier to tackle before posting.
Once this is solid then try to do a turn at the walk. Feel you and the horse being straight down the rail. Half halt gently with your seat then release and set your body how it should sit in a turn. The horse should turn with you. If they don’t, feel what is happening under you and relax back into the straight position. Did you go back to bracing? Did you accidentally forget to turn your eyes and shoulders? Did the horse bend but move down the rail in a shoulder in? Let’s address these common issues.
If you can 100% say that you did the turn properly without brace in your body then you can move on to correcting the mistakes your horse made. But be careful you don’t forget about yourself.
If you successfully created a bend but the horse is still traveling down the rail you have one of three problems. First check that you are even or slightly heavier in the outside seat bone. Weighting the inside will send the horse down the rail. Next check that your outside leg is draped along the horse’s side, not lifting off and up. Thirdly check that the inside leg isn’t pressing in but it is instead draped and hanging loosely ready to be activated if needed. More than likely all three of these things are an issue.
If you cannot get a bend but are getting a bulge inwards of the shoulder your hips down are probably working correctly but your shoulders and eyes and hands may be to blame. Make sure that you look around your turn with your eyes and shoulders at the same time that you turn your hips. Feel that the outside rein maintains the consistent contact and the inside rein tilts the nose. Check that you aren’t over tightening the outside rein to pull the horse back to the rail. The horse should be looking in the direction of the turn. Next make sure the outside leg hasn’t come forward and on and the inside leg hasn’t drifted back and on. This can also create that awkward outside bend and shoulder bulge. Finally make sure that your seat bones are even and bent correctly around the turn.
Lastly if your horse blasts down the rail we have a lot of work to do. Initiate your turn slower and try to just achieve one step of the turn at a time. This issue often comes from the rider bracing everywhere to force a turn they assume they won’t be able to make. Stay relaxed and breathing through your body to apply your aids gently and slowly. They shouldn’t startle or squeeze the horse. Practice feeling your turns then initiating your turns just ahead of the corner and waiting for the horse to turn. Make sure to release as the horse turns. So you don’t inadvertently teach the horse to brace against your aids. Lastly, take your time and focus on moving the horse’s body onto different tracks making squiggly lines through the arena. Those are all micro turns that can easily be turned into a circle if you don’t lose your feel when you try for the bigger turn.
At the end of the day most turning issues come from improper biomechanics. Even a green horse that has learned to move away from pressure intuitively knows how to shape their body around the turn to follow your seat. It isn’t something we explicitly teach a horse. Biomechanics are set to be easy for horse and rider. Work on yours to make your turns easier, smoother, more accurate, and better balanced. Your horse will appreciate it!