TRUE TRAINING 66 - Moving Shoulders and Hips

Nov 01, 2022 by Janet Jones

Most people start moving a horse’s shoulders and hips sideways from the saddle. For example, they might ride to an arena corner, face the corner, and ask with their outside leg behind the girth and steady hands for a turn on the forehand. For a turn on the haunches, they would follow a similar procedure, placing the horse’s hind end in the corner then using their inside hand and outside leg at or slightly in front of the girth for a turn on the haunches.


You might notice from trying to parse that paragraph, that this can get complicated! Sometimes, a youngster just doesn’t understand what we want him to do. True was one of those youngsters. He was willing and motivated, but confused.


After you’ve mastered the groundwork I suggested in Posts 64 and 65, teach your horse to move her shoulders and hips from the ground. It’s an easy way to signal the direction you wish the horse to move. And it reduces the anxiety that can emerge when the young horse is being ridden at the same time she is asked to do something completely new.


Put the horse through 15 or 20 minutes of usual work to soften the edges, then start in the middle of a quiet open space where the horse can concentrate on you. Have your horse do the standstill she learned in the previous two posts, and position yourself looking at the horse’s shoulder from a left front angle. In other words, if her head is pointing toward noon, your body is going to be at 11:00. Stand a little more than arm’s distance away, so you can’t quite touch her shoulder with your hand.


Now, gently bump the halter toward the horse’s right side. Probably nothing will happen. If it doesn’t, bump again and tap the horse’s shoulder with your stick. (Remember, we talked in Posts 64 and 65 about using a long whip or stick as an extension of our arms, just to touch but not to inflict fear or pain.) Keep tapping and bumping until the horse takes a step sideways to her right.


As soon as you get just one step, praise and pet that horse like she’s worth a million bucks! Lead the horse around to “reset” her mind, and try again. Five minutes of practice is enough the first time, and be sure to praise and stroke when even only one step is taken in the proper direction. You can ask for a second step tomorrow.


Great. But what about the horse who roots to the ground like a statue and will not move to the right no matter how much tapping and bumping you offer? Enter True. He seemed to believe that he had been taught to stand STILL, not to move his feet, and indeed he had. So I had to persuade him that it was OK to move when asked.


There are three ways to do this. One involves a flag that you point or shake near the horse’s left shoulder. He will move away from it, taking a step to the right. This requires some advance work with flags, and flags often scare other horses nearby. A second way involves using the whip or stick more harshly, moving from a tap to a thump, to multiple whacks. We are definitely not going to do that! The whole idea is to keep the horse calm, positive, and motivated. 


So I use option three. You’ve already taught the horse to keep a spatial distance from you, to respect your bubble. Put that knowledge to use by taking a step toward the horse’s left shoulder. If that doesn't work, try again with a bigger, more assertive step. Add direct eye contact into the mix. Prey brains consider eye contact to be a warning. It says, “I am a predator, you need to move away from me.” I tried this with True, and he took a step to the right. I praised and stroked him. He very quickly learned that this maneuver was different from the standstill exercise, and he never appeared to become confused between the two.


But what if your little stinker still won’t move? Take a second step, right in to her shoulder. Push her shoulder with your body until she steps to the right. It won’t take much push. Then praise, stroke, reset with some walking, and try again. After one or two sessions, she’ll have the right idea.


I stuck with turns on the forehand for about two weeks before suggesting to True that turns on the haunches also exist. Once you've taught the shoulders, the hips are easier. For that lesson, just place the horse in a standstill, walk to her left hip, and tap or step toward the hip until she moves her right hind leg away from you. If necessary, at first, push slightly with your hand against her left hip. When she moves away, be sure to praise and stroke! It’s important to let horses know not only what the wrong behavior is, but also what the right behavior is.  


From here, you can practice moving shoulders and hips in arena corners, back and forth along the rail, and eventually in the saddle. From the saddle, start in the arena corners and work gradually to turns on the forehand and haunches out in the open part of an arena or field. Baby steps win the race!


Why bother with all this? Because it’s the start of lateral movement in the horse’s training. Many equine performance maneuvers (in reining, jumping, and dressage, for example) require lateral movement --- shoulder-ins, leg yields, half passes, side passes, to mention only a few. I use shoulder-ins to reset the canter in corners on a hunt course, side passes for trail horses to traverse log obstacles in rough country, and leg yields to straighten the gallop or reverse lines in a reining pattern. They can also be used to supple any horse's body, creating greater flexibility in the horse's muscles and joints. 


Lateral movement also allows you to teach your horse a number of important basic skills—to pay attention to you, to yield to your body on the ground, to learn that physical aids have meaning, to understand that humans and horses can communicate using body language, and to give you your spatial safety bubble.


Good luck, and happy riding!