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Exercises You Should Be Able To Do Before Going Trail Riding

(see previous article to see why these exercises are important)
Practice all of these in the arena, until you can do them easily without having to think how to do each movement. The more engrained it is in your memory, the easier you will be able to do it in an emergency. 
Turn On The Forehand (similar to disengaging the hindquarters)- front feet pivot and back legs cross over each other until you are turned the other way. 
Put your horse on the rail, next to the fence or wall, this will block your horse from moving away.  Start the movement at a halt. Have the wall on your left side. Look in the direction you want to go, which is left toward the wall. Turn your horse's head slightly to the left using your left rein so you can see the corner of his eye. Bring your left leg a couple inches behind the girth and apply pressure, till he moves his hindquarters over one step. Stop and reward with rest for 5-10 seconds.  Repeat until you are facing the other direction. Once your horse's head is passed the wall, you may have to apply pressure to both reins, to hold his front legs from moving as you push his hindquarter around. If you reward every time he does a step correctly he will learn faster. In time you can ask for two steps and so on until he can pivot completely around without stopping. Practice both directions. 
Common mistakes - Looking down, if you look down your body position changes and he will not know what direction you want to go. Using too much rein. You need to push your horse around with your leg not pull. The rein only tells them the direction. If you pull too much your horse's front feet will move. Horse backs up- you are pulling too much on both reins. Horse won't respond to leg, use a spur or stick behind your leg to increase the pressure, but always use your leg first then the spur or stick. If you are unsure if your horse is walking or pivoting draw a circle around his front legs about 3 feet wide, His front feet should still be in the circle after you complete the turn, if he is not, your horse is walking and you need to hold him in place more. 
Turn On The Haunches ( similar to a spin) - hind feet stay still and pivot, front legs cross over each other until you are facing the other direction. Look up and in the direction you want to go which is to the right away from the wall.  Start with wall or fence on your left side, with your reins you will guide your horse to move his shoulders to the right, away from the wall, the left rein will be against his neck the right rein will be an open rein. With your leg at girth, apply pressure until he takes one step over away from wall, but do not let him walk forward. When he does it right, stop and reward, Repeat until you are facing the other direction. Practice in both directions. 
Common mistakes- Looking down, horse does not know which direction to go. Horse is not moving over from leg and walks forward. Hold horse more so he cannot walk forward and apply leg. If still does not move over, use a spur on your foot or use a stick in the left hand and hit on shoulder or neck to get him to move away from pressure. Always reward with rest when they do it correctly. Pulling too much on reins instead of using leg to push over, will cause the hind legs to move instead of pivoting. 
Sidepass- You must be able to do the turn on the forehand first before trying this exercise. Stand your horse next to the wall or fence, so the wall is on your left hand side,  look up and to the left and turn your horse on the forehand till he is facing the wall. Now keep looking up at the wall and slightly to the right. Then instead of completing the turn, once you are facing the wall, push your horse sideways off your left leg,(leg behind girth) until his whole body moves one step over to the right. Rest and reward. Walk off about 10 feet. Halt, turn on the forehand till facing the wall then push horse over using your left leg until he takes one step to the right. Once your horse can do this then add 2 steps, then 3 steps and so on. Practice in both directions. Once he can do this well, then use a pole to stand the horse in front of, keep your horse behind the pole as you do the exercise. Once he can do that well, then do in center of the arena without the pole.
Common Mistakes- Cheating. Everyone wants to skip steps, if you do it will make it harder for your horse to learn. So start slow and be satisfied with one step. It may take you a month to be able to do it without the wall or pole. Not rewarding at the right time. Keep your left leg pushing on horse, even if he steps the wrong direction. Only take the leg off once he has moved off your left leg to the right. If he does it wrong and you take your leg off, he thinks that is the right answer. So keep leg on and use spur or stick to help guide him over. Once he steps over stop and reward with rest.  Horse backs up, you are using too much rein. Horse rears up, you skip steps or he doesn't understand and he is protesting go back to your turn on forehand and get that better. If still rearing have a trainer help you. 
Back up- Start next to wall, at a halt. Look up. Apply leg both sides, to tell horse to move then pull on reins lightly increasing pressure until horse takes a step backwards. Stop and reward with rest, repeat both directions. The wall will keep you straight. Once you can do that well next to wall, try in center of arena and steer your horse straight as you go backwards. If his hind end goes to the left, pull more on your left rein and use more left leg to straighten. If his hind end goes to the right use more right rein and right leg to straighten. You should be able to back up 6 steps or more straight before trying this on the trail 
Common mistakes- Looking down, this is the most common mistake with all riding. Anytime something is going wrong the first thing you should do is look up.  Horse feels body change and won't move when you look down. Not enough leg. You have to get the horse's energy up before they will back up. If he is trained he will understand leg means move and the reins just tell him what direction. If he  will not even take one step back, then start your turn on the forehand and once his hind end is moving apply pressure to both reins till you get one step and reward. Then repeat the same way until he understands what you want. 
Horses are very willing but if you do not break the steps down for them, they do not understand what you want. Take your time with them and always reward them for trying. If they are rearing or bucking or having a hissy fit, then they are confused and try to break the steps down even more. Also make sure you are using the correct leg. Many people confuse their lefts and rights and then confuse the horse. Also every horse like every person learns differently, you may need help from a trainer to do these movements correctly. It is money well spent to have someone teach you and your horse and avoid confusing. Once you can do these exercises and understand when to do them on the trail, you will be a much safer trail rider and your horse will thank you for it. 

Gaye DeRusso
Published on 08-07-2019
Gaye is a lifelong equestrian of varying disciplines, Gaye DeRusso moved from her home on the east coast and moved to the west coast in 2000. She previously had shown and trained in the Hunter/Jumper Discipline before going back to school to become an Orthopedic Physician Assistant. She became interested in Gaited horses after moving to California and realizing how spectacular they were to ride on the trail. With their calm temperaments and smooth gaits, they won her over. She enjoys helping others to improve their horse's gaits and also teaches Gaited horses to canter. She is a great problem solver and has a unique ability to convey knowledge to others.