Where is the Steering Wheel?

Learn the basics of how to turn a horse correctly and why this is so important.

I can hand on heart say that I derive most of my coaching and training income from teaching horses and rider’s how to turn….  Why is this?  Well I believe the teaching of turn is one of the fundamental things we get wrong in modern equitation.

I was 35 years old and had won quite a few Grand Prix tests and had thousands of lessons before I ever knew what a “turn” was.  Up until that point I just thought a turn was when my horse and I were facing in one direction and eventually we were facing in another – therefore we had “turned”. 

How wrong could I have been?

I still remember that day, I was riding my notorious but beautiful stallion Landioso at the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre’s indoor school when Dr Andrew McLean uttered the words “A turn is a deceleration of the inside front leg” [Now correctly labelled an abduction of the front leg].  My world with horses changed in that instant!

As a child we learnt at the beginning stages of riding to “pull the left rein to go left” and “pull the right rein to go right”.  But once we got a little more educated in our riding it was apparently no longer the done thing.  Ask a bunch of 13 – 16 year old experienced pony riders how they turn their steeds and you are more likely to hear an answer proclaiming that they use their legs and seat.  So why do we change from using the reins at the very beginning to supposedly using other signals later down the track?  And which one is correct?

For those of you who are in the “I use my leg and seat to turn my horse” brigade let me ask you this:  If you think it is your legs and seat that are navigating through your Medium level dressage test, or around the 1.20m show jump round, then please feel free to take the reins completely off your bridle and send me a video of your successful round…  

Books on dressage and horse training often say things like simply turn your body in the direction you wish to travel, and the horse will go that way – if only it were that simple….  Whilst that may happen whilst riding a well-trained horse that has been classically conditioned onto the rider’s body cues, the rest of us are left travelling in a totally different direction with a horse falling out the shoulder or worse still, napping and rearing to get back to its mates.

You often see riders pointing the horses head in the direction they wish to travel in – but I will let you in on a secret – horses don’t go where their head and neck is pointing – they go where the base of their neck is pointing… The more you pull the head to the right, the more the neck bulges out the left and the more the horse goes the way we do not want.

When a horse is not staying on the line required for turn you will often see riders using the legs to block the horse, or a rider kicking like hell with the outside leg to help the horse make it around a curve.  This is wrong on so many levels – for a start, the rider is using legs and reins together asking for decelerations and accelerations at the same time… Confusing for a grazing animal much?!?  Secondly, a horse that is being helped around the turns with lots of leg aids soon becomes dull to the leg and the rider gets exhausted quickly. 

Sound familiar?

Turns are actually quite simple – especially if the horse has learnt to turn well from the beginning (spoiler alert – teaching the horse to bend its head around to your knee with a rein aid will NOT help the horse’s steering!).  You simply keep the horse’s neck straight with the outside rein and ask the horse to decelerate a fraction to open (abduct) the inside front foot to make the turn.  However, be warned… believe it or not there is a correct and incorrect time to turn your horse too.   A successful abduction of the front leg happens when the rider can capture the inside front foot as it is leaving the ground ie the moment it enters its swing phase of the stride.  Get the timing even a split-second wrong and the horse with have to change direction by bending the neck and falling across the turn.

So why can’t you use a leg aid to successfully turn the horse in a way that abducts and decelerates the inside front leg and in doing so lifts the forehand and keeps the inside hind leg engaged under the horse? 

To answer this, try it yourself from halt.  A turn from halt requires the horse’s neck to remain in the middle of its body (not pulled to one side) and the horse needs to rock back onto the hind legs as it opens the front foot away from the midline with a decelerating feel.  I don’t honestly believe this is possible with a leg aid.  If you drop your reins and apply a leg aid to turn from halt I am guessing your horse will either simply walk forward or perhaps yield the outside shoulder across to change direction -falling onto the forehand and not engaging the inside hind leg in the process.  Give it a go!

When you first start training turn the signals will be quite obvious – at least they should be to the horse!  They should be a clear use of negative reinforcement (also known as pressure – release) so the horse can start to rote learn the question.  But soon your aids will shrink to being nearly unperceivable and the horse will start to classically condition onto and posture or “seat” aid that warns them a turn aid is coming.  

So if a correct turn is an abduction or opening of the inside front leg, what does and incorrect turn look like?  There is a number of ways the horse can turn incorrectly, including, but not limited to:  the hind quarters spinning out to change direction, heaviness to the rein aid, the horse falling across the turn, the horse bending the neck only, or the horse adducting the outside front leg too much during the turn making the quarters fall to the outside.

What can you expect from your horse if you don’t have turns programmed in correctly? 

At best you might have a horse not in self carriage and quite literally on the forehand as it is not lifting the shoulders to make the turn, but putting weight on the shoulders.  You might feel you have to use a tonne of legs to keep your horse going in a straight line or on a curve.  Or you might have a young horse who feels a little “drunk” to ride.  At worst you will have a tense horse who may also show conflict behaviours such as separation anxiety, rearing and napping.

During my lessons you will often hear me repeat the mantra “Tension manifests itself in the quickening of legs” (once again stolen from Dr Andrew McLean).  This rings so true as I am yet to find a horse who has issues with tension that has perfect textbook turns whenever asked by the rider.  You see, you need the ability to take the tension out of the front legs of the horse in order to relieve the horse of tension.  So being able to slow the horse’s left or right front leg via an abduction is critical.

Also, if you have a horse who has learnt to shy – a correct turn will lessen your chances of this behaviour.  You will be able to decelerate the legs of the horse towards what they are trying to accelerate their legs away from.  More about that in a different blog though….

And one last thing I forgot to add – there are two types of turn – a direct turn (eg using the right rein to turn right via opening the rein off the neck) and an indirect turn (eg using the right rein to move the horse to the left via closing the rein against the neck).  But that too is a topic for another day.

If you want to know more take a look at my full program Principles Of Horse Training to learn more about my training using the principles of Equitation Science and Learning Theory can do for you and your horse.


Want to learn more from Jody? Check these articles out

Inhand Work For Dressage Horses

Clicker Training For Dressage Horses

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