The Dynamics of a Turn
When starting out in riding, most riders learn that to turn a horse you need to pull on the inside rein. Initially, this is effective, but it does not work well as horses and riders advance in their skills.
While pulling on the inside rein will turn a horse’s head, and thus turn the horse, it does not offer the horse the chance to balance properly through the turn. By pulling on the mouth, the rider forces the horse to turn his head by tightening his inside muscles, stiffening his movement and restricting him.
Most school horses know no better, and would not turn if a different aid were given. This is fine for beginners, as there are so many other aspects of horsemanship to learn. In the long run, though, a rider should learn how to properly manage a horse on the bit and to turn him without restricting his movement.
To understand how to properly turn a horse, you need to understand what it means to ride a horse “on the bit”. A well trained horse will work with a constant contact with the rider’s hand. He will seek this contact in order to maintain a regular communication with the rider.
A rider is in constant communication with the horse through the reins. A little squeeze here or a slight release there are all the signals needed to ask the horse to change what he is doing. Additionally, the rider maintains contact with her legs. This way it only takes a small signal to tell the horse to bend, to turn, or to change gait.
To understand why a regular contact is required, try holding a rein between two people. Start off with a “loose rein” where there is a slight loop in the rein. How much movement/effort does it take for the other person to feel your signal? Now pick up the “contact” so that there is a gentle tension between you. Now, how much movement/effort does it take for the other person to feel your signal? As you will see, it takes far less effort to give an aid if there is a steady contact.
To turn, you need a combination of leg and rein. To begin with, you will need to use your inside leg to ask the horse to bend his body through the turn. Think of the inside leg as a post around which your horse must bend.
If you maintain your rein contact, your horse will continue on a straight line with a bend in his body. This is part of how you ask for a leg yield or a shoulder in. The body remains forward-facing, while there is a bend through the horse.
To get your horse to turn, you need to give him the room to turn into. If you pull your inside rein, and maintain your outside rein as it is, you ask for an increased bend in your horse, restricting his movement, and asking him to move sideways. However, if you slightly release your outside rein, your horse will reach for the contact, stretching his neck and shoulder, and follow the contact into the turn. Your inside leg gives him the bend, while the outside rein allows him the freedom to move forward into the turn.
A horse that is ridden properly through the turn will stretch forward, not slowing or shortening his stride. His turn will be smooth and effortless, and the aid will be so subtle that an observer will not even see that it has been applied.