This activity makes a nice warm-up or cool-down exercise. It also does wonders for maintaining horizontal flexibility. The bone structure of the horse limits flexion to only three points along the body. They simply are not as sinuous as a cat or even a dog.
A horse’s three flexion points are:
- Head alone flexes right and left a little bit.
- Base of the neck is the main area of flexion.
- A small degree of flexion is possible between the end of the ribs and the hip.
This exercise encourages maintenance of flexion for 2 and 3 above. To make a nice clean 90-degree (right-angle) turn, the horse must flex a little bit at the shoulder and step the inside hind foot forward and under the belly to navigate the turn as elegantly as possible.
It’s a good exercise to note the degree of stiffness or flexibility that a horse has in his body.
If we have a stiff horse, we can set up this exercise so it is relatively easy to accomplish at first. If we consistently do a few repeats of this exercise several times each session, we’ll note that it gradually gets easier for the horse (unless he is incapacitated due to past injury).
As the horse gets smooth with one level of bend, we can gradually ask for a tighter bend.
- Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
- Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals when the handler is beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Linked Resources’ at end of this post.)
- Handler understands the skill of shifting his/her body axis away from the horse as a signal for turning when the horse is on the outside of the turn. Practice this first without the horse. If you have a willing human helper, have them be the horse so they can give you feedback about the clarity of your body orientation signal just prior to navigating each corner. (See the ‘Linked Resource’ about 180-Degree Turns. I teach this before these 90-degree turns.)
- Handler understands the skill of maintaining ‘forward energy’ at the same time as slowing down to give the horse time to scribe the bigger arc of the turn. This is also improved by practice with another person standing in for the horse.
ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:
- A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
- Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
- The horse is not hungry.
- Halter and lead (kept loose as much as possible, as we want to use orientation and body language for communication, not rope pressure).
- Four rails (or similar) that clearly outline the shape of a square or rectangle.
- Four markers to place beyond the corners of our square or rectangle.
- To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth 90-degree (right-angle) turns when the horse is on the outside of the handler; handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
- To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth 90-degree (right-angle) turns when the horse is on the outside of the handler; handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.
#171 HorseGym with Boots: SMOOTH 90-DEGREE TURNS.
- What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result of many very short sessions over a long time. I strive to improve the timing of my body axis turned away from the horse as a signal for the right-angle turn.
- If you use ‘right’ and ‘left’ turn voice signals, add the relevant one at the same moment as you shift the angle of your body axis away from the horse
- If the horse has been resting or contained, it is important to walk around for a general overall body warm-up before asking for these types of flexion. Walking over rails and weaving obstacles make great warm-up exercises.
- Ask the horse to walk with you around the shape (box or rectangle), with you walking on the inside of the turn. At first be content with fairly wide, flowing corners. At first, click&treat after each corner. Eventually begin to click&treat only especially well done corners.
- Focus on three things;
One: turn your body axis away from the horse just as you approach each corner.
Two: slow down slightly around the corner but keeping your body energy up as you turn in order to give the horse plenty of time to organize his much longer body and four legs. Raising your knees to ‘march on the spot’ is one way to maintain the energy with less forward movement. If you pause your energy through the turn, the horse may also fade out, as he is taking his cues from your energy.
Three: note how efficiently or elegantly your horse is bringing his body around each corner; click&treat turns that seem extra efficient or elegant. Offer the click&treat just after the corner has been navigated, not during the turn.
- After a few times around with you on the horse’s left side, change direction so you are on his right side. You may notice that the horse is less flexible on one side. You may notice that you are less flexible and less clear with your body language in one direction.
- If you have previously taught voice signals for going ‘around’ something or for ‘left turn’ and ‘right turn’, you can use them here at the same moment you are turning your body axis away from the horse.
- When 2 and 3 above feel relaxed and easy, set four markers out from each corner of the square or rectangle as in the photo below. At first, make the gap between the rail and the marker much wider than in the photo. Also note that I’v begun walking inside the square, giving the horse more space to navigate the turn.
- Repeat from the beginning with the horse walking inside each corner marker. As you note his suppleness improving day by day, gradually move the markers closer. In the photo above you can see the tracks of our first easy wide turns when I was also walking outside the square. Now Boots is making the tracks close to the rails.
- A little bit of this exercise done often, but never ‘drilled’, encourages the horse to flex because a nice turn earns a click&treat. When all the turns feel nice and tight, be sure to still click&treat often – sometimes after 1, 2, 3 or 4 corners and mix up the number of corners done before the click&treat. If you always do the same, the horse will expect you to always do the same. By varying how many corners before the click&treat, he will listen for the click rather than count the turns. Change direction frequently.
- Set up more than one rectangle and do a few circuits of each one.
- Set rectangles up in different venues, if possible, or change the spot in the same general venue.
- Set up rectangles of different sizes.
- Set up rectangles using different props, such as tread-in posts or tall cones and tape.
- Use parallel rails as your rectangle so you can change which rails you decide to walk between so the horse watches more carefully for the change in your body axis.
- Set up a rectangle on a slope.
- Eventually you may only need four corner markers as a baseline.
- Walk a square or rectangle without any props to see how well you have established the change in body axis orientation to communicate with your horse. Vary the size of these – maybe by counting your steps.
- Use your body axis orientation change consistently when doing other exercises such as weaving.
- Walk a circle rather than a square, by keeping your body axis turned slightly from the horse as the signal.
- Play with it all at liberty if you didn’t already train it all at liberty.
Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
Blog: 180-Degree Turns. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Ug
Clip: #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation https://youtu.be/mjBwyDsVX6Y