Your horse is confused…Open the door!

Opening the door.

“Open the door” ? Make sure the horse has an exit somewhere. When the reins are drawn in tighter for the riders security it closes all doors on the horse, he has nowhere to go and it can make him uneasy and panicky especially if he is being cued with the riders legs to move on, it confuses the horse and in turn can make him fear your cues each time you ask for a lope transition. If he begins to fear your cues, you get a horse that rushes the transition, head up, back hollowed and if anxiety affects them bad enough his ears will pin back, his muzzle gets that narrowed, closed look. Your horse takes on a “Gurn” Irish word for grumpy, sour gutted look! You definitely don’t want that!

Here is an exercise to help you understand how to open the door.

This is a terrific exercise for transitions, even though you should always have an open door somewhere, no matter what you are doing so it’s a good time to gear your horse up with a snaffle and some draw reins this will help you to relax your horse, you will be softer in your hands with the draw reins. Sometimes when you have a habit of drawing the reins in tighter just before asking for the lope the draw reins will take some of that pressure off your horses mouth. Having said that, you have to remember to keep your hands soft on the reins, you should never draw on the reins when cueing for the lope. Teach your horse to lope off on a draped rein.

If you are nervous about this, put a longer time frame on this exercise for your sake as well as for the horse. Instead of racing through this exercise in a week or two, take your time, give yourself a month or even two, it’s not always the horse that needs training, it can be just as much the rider that needs repetition and re-educating. Anyway, I would do this everyday that I train the horse as either a warm up or this will be my training session until near the end of the training and before I drop out and see how the horse is moving back on the rail as if under the eye of a judge before putting him away for the day. There really is no such thing as putting a time on these things, yes, it may take a certain time-frame on teaching a certain manoeuvre but it doesn’t mean you stop incorporating it into their daily exercise and training session. That’s why it’s called REPETITION that’s how a horse learns – through repetition.

Warm your horse up first either by lunging him or you might get on and long trot in serpentines to warm them up. I don’t do circles in the same direction for too long, this will encourage your horse to drop their shoulder into the middle of the circle when they begin to deteriorate from going in the same circle for too long. That’s why I like serpentining them.

Once warmed up, begin at the walk in a small circle on a direct rein so you will be guiding them with both reins, making sure their face is slightly facing the direction of travel. Once you get your momentum and feel your horse is guiding correctly, turn that circle into a “Counter-arc” so if you’re walking to the left, using the left rein of the draw reins, bring your left hand back toward your body, that will bring his face to the left of the circle a whole lot more tightening up that circle turning that manuvore into a shoulder arc heading to the right. Hold your left rein near your belly, use your left leg to push his front end over to the right, his hind end should be stationary or close to it. Bring his front left leg over his front right a few times so that you are doing a 360, go around a few times then begin the process of setting him up for the lope off transition. You should be able to release the left rein a little, (you still want to be able to see your horses left eye), bring the right rein into play making sure you have more of a hold on the left rein, the right rein is basically just to straighten his body up a bit from the counter arc, with soft hands. AT THE SAME TIME release your left leg, bringing your right leg back behind the girth, pushing his hip over to the left. He should now have a gentle arc through his body from nose to hip facing the left. You now have your horse “set-up” for the left lead transition.

Counter Arc and Direct rein circles

Don’t by-pass this next step of bumping the ‘lead-leg’ rein

Keeping your grip on the reins soft with not much contact on his mouth at all, ask with your right leg for the lope. To keep your horse in the correct frame of level topline and a slight “C” shape to the left, you may need to give some gentle bumps on your left rein to keep that frame noting that the more you practice this, the less you will need to bump your rein.

You will notice with this exercise at some point in your horses body there is always an open door. For example, when you shift from the counter arc to the set up for the lope there is always only ONE leg on at any time and there is only one rein in play at any time even when you do bring your right rein (in this instance) into play. It’s not a super, all the strength you can gather hold on the horses face. The firmer your grip, the more closed that door is and the more your horse will be put into a claustrophobic position or at the very least be put into a blocked position that over time will make him very anxious.

  • Don’t forget to work on the right lead as well. I have used the left lead as an example, you do of course need to reverse all your cues to train on the right lead, you don’t need to start on the left, you can start on the right or left which ever takes your fancy, as long as both sides are trained.
  • If you feel nervous in any way about getting your horse to lope off eventually on a loose rein, you may have a fear of your horse taking off on you – DO NOT CUT CORNERS IN YOUR TRAINING! It’s ok to take your time with this. You may even choose to try all these moves out in a round yard for a while or a small paddock until you gain confidence in releasing those reins more.
  • Keep in mind, this will NOT work if you DON’T release pressure on your reins – OPEN THE DOOR! I find I have to remind riders over and over again to loosen up on the reins, the answer I always get is – I am, I have! Even the slightest hold on your horses mouth is a restriction on your horse, the rider doesn’t notice the restriction until a few months down the track when your horse starts getting that “gurn” happening and becoming sour in his performance. He wants to move off but can’t.
  • Lot’s of “Note’s” but here is another one… if you want a successful lope transition your horse needs to be trained to know that your legs are on for speed control NOT for going faster, you need to use your legs to frame and round your horse and to keep him at a speed that you ask for with them. I train and ride with my legs, my legs are my speed dial hence MY reason for being able to have a nice draped rein I’m not sure how other trainers use their legs, this is how I train. I DO NOT leave my legs on the whole time, I use them to slow, round, lift, drive etc. however, I will not leave my legs squeezed on their sides as if to be using them as a “Spur Stop” I don’t use my legs to Spur Stop.

When this is all finessed you should be

  1. Loping off in frame and on a loose or draped rein. Also note that it is not a good idea to skip these bumps on the rein, you don’t want to go straight in to loping off on a loose rein – your horse will never understand the concept if you don’t show him where his frame should be.
  2. Always keep in mind where your horse’s hips are, you should be able to feel that the hips are over to the left slightly.
  3. Keep that “C” shape very subtle, if you overdo the “C” your horse is going to find loping off way too hard.

Remember, the exercise that you are working on is about opening a door so you don’t need to lope mindless circles when you do get him loping off. Work only on the transition for the moment, lope maybe 8 or 10 strides, not even, then stop and go back the the beginning of the exercise. The more you repeat this, the quicker he will get it. If you lope off into the wide blue yonder for too long the lesson will be lost to him. Also, be mindful of where his frame throughout any part of this exercise is. If you need help to get his topline back to where it should be, a couple of light bumps on the left rein will help as you keep moving, he has to stay in frame at all times.

If when you are at the stage of loping off, you have your left leg off to create an open door and your right rein is softer than your left rein (which is also going to be soft), it all goes to crap just stop, back up about 5 strides, put your horse back into a counter arc (stay on same leg that he mucked up on), start again. Don’t be afraid to start again 500 times until you both get it right, this is the foundation of training your horse at something – repetition! If you don’t correct your horse at the very point of loping off, if he raises his head, hollows his back, straightens his frame, pins his ears back just stop, not hard and grumpy, just whoa, back up and repeat. Don’t think in your mind “oh, that was only a little pin of ears or that was just a little head throw, Ill fix him next time.” – STOP, STOP, STOP at the slightest head toss! Be very strict with this. If you don’t your horse will not get it.

It might also be worth noting that I find 9 out of 10 riders when doing this lesson with me frame their horse up for the left lead in that nice subtle “C” shape to the left, when they lope off for some reason they ride off to the right! Don’t lope off to the right, stay riding to the left.

From Go To Whoa

Training Your Own Horse


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I am a retired professional horse trainer, active Certified rider coach, I coach riders and their horses throughout Australia and New Zealand, I am the author of the book From Go To Whoa - Training Your Own Horse, I am also a Certified Nutritionist and a professional Keto Coach. I am a keen fisher woman and I love the gym where I weight train 4 days a week. I travel Australia full time now with my husband and our Jack Russell Doug, booking and holding clinics and lessons throughout the country for many remote horse riders as well as not so remote. I love coaching riders and their horses along with helping people with nutrition and the ketogenic diet.

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