John Fyfe on Western Riding Instruction

Western riding Instruction

John Fyfe on Western Riding Instruction

Western Riding Lessons: Useful things to know before you begin to work with a Western riding Instructor.

An understanding of the things I note hereunder would be beneficial to you and your Instructor before you commence Western riding lessons.

Knowing these things could speed up the initial teaching stages and will put your Instructor in a better mood from the outset.



The focusing habit
In all your preparations for riding it will pay to develop the habit of consciously focusing on what you are doing. Live in the here and now like your horses do and, if you want something to happen, focus on that. Horses do this when they are willing you to go and get them a bucket of feed or let them in, out of the wind and cold. By making this effort to focus, you will open up a further line of communication with your horse; one that he uses himself and understands well.


Your ability to focus on what you want from your horse and yourself will help to make the mechanics of cueing flow in a more consistent manner. Later, it will encourage your sub-conscious mind to reduce physical cues to the minimum required to communicate with your horse.


There is a by-product of focusing. That is, if you are focusing positively on what is to be done, you are less likely to be able to dwell on negative thoughts like “what if things go wrong?” or “what if I cannot do this?” Those kinds of “what ifs” are the most effective dead hands to put on teaching and learning.



Horse riding is inherently dangerous. It is dangerous not only for horse and rider but also for others who may be close by.



Riders should practise mounting from the ground because mounting blocks are not always available to them. However, if a safe mounting block is available, its use will make life easier for horse and rider and may produce less wear and tear on the saddle.


It is worth noting here that saddle-fit is important for safe mounting. Also, a horse with high withers will help prevent a saddle from moving from side to side while a low withered horse will permit a lot of side to side movement. In the latter case, greater care and smoothness in mounting will be needed.


The Western way of mounting gives the rider maximum control of the horse and of his own balance and allows him to maintain visual and physical contact with the horse throughout the mounting process.


Standing at the horse’s left shoulder, take the reins in your left hand and place them on the horse’s neck about eight inches forward of the saddle. Grasp the mane, if necessary. Take the slack out of the right rein and then shorten the left slightly tighter. This is to make the horse turn towards you if he starts to walk off. By turning your wrist you can make him turn even more without moving your hand from his neck.


Facing the front, place your right hand on the saddle horn with your right side against the horse. Place your left foot into the stirrup from the rear. Keeping your head up, give a bounce on your right leg, moving your weight onto your left leg. Keeping your body close to the horse, straighten your left leg until you are standing on that stirrup. In the process, do not let your head and shoulders lean over the horse because, if he moves to the left, there is a good chance that you will lose your balance and go over on your head. Once you have balanced there, swing your right leg over and sit down gently. Once you are seated in the saddle and have caught the right stirrup with your right foot, adjust the reins in your hands so that they are even.


However, if you are not long-legged and/or supple enough, you may have a problem in getting your left foot in the stirrup while facing forwards. You can use this alternative way of commencing the mounting process. It is slightly less controlled or offers less visual and physical control but, if that is the only way you can mount from the ground, then so be it. Facing the rear of the horse, with the right hand, reach around the stirrup to grip the inside of the stirrup. Now turn it around to face you. Lift your left leg up and place your foot into the stirrup. The right hand is now placed on the saddle horn. Bounce around, if necessary until you are facing forwards with your right side next to the horse. You can then complete the process as before.



Finding a relaxed, balanced seat in the saddle
All Western riders must develop a relaxed, balanced seat on their horses. As a novice, knowing exactly what that should be is difficult. Your seat in the saddle on a moving horse will develop through time and practice. Here, I give an insight into how I developed my way of sitting on my horse to give me maximum balance and, therefore, stability.


To develop a balanced seat, I must first become aware of my core stability, my pelvis position and my ability to adjust that position.
I must be aware of my centre of gravity and of my horse’s centre of gravity. I must become aware of the effect one has on the other.
I must adopt a “long leg” in the saddle in order that I will be able to move my legs by rotating my hip bones and enable each leg to move independently of the other. I must develop an awareness of gravity, of centres of balance and of the effects of motion on a centre of balance.


The natural pelvis, the natural seat, the balanced position etc. etc. are all very well as labels but, for me, none of these labels describes what I needed to start to ride in harmony with my horse.


For example, Bob Mayhew suggests that you can simulate the correct Western posture as follows:-

“Correct posture is one of standing up with the knees slightly bent. To feel this, try putting two 1”  thick books on the floor, slightly away from the wall. Now, stand on them so that they rest under the balls of your feet. Keep your bum, lower back and shoulders on the wall and gently lower yourself down without the back etc. coming off the wall.”


I absolutely agree with him that, most probably, this is the desired posture when in the saddle but, when I do that exercise, I am using the ground and wall to maintain my balance. Therefore, I must not assume that, if I take up this posture in the saddle, I will necessarily find a relaxed, easy balance. Even if I do, there is no guarantee that I will be able to keep that balance when the horse moves.


I need to be able to find a way of having that relaxed, easy balance in the saddle no matter what the horse does, and I need that balance to allow me to use my feet and legs with the same skill as I normally use my hands and arms.
To that end, when not on a horse, I try to remind myself what it is like to have a spring in my step, to be balanced on my own two feet, feel light yet feel firmly on the ground. Thus, when in the saddle, I am better able to feel and connect with those movements in my horse; to work with his movement not against it.


I believe that most of us need to re-discover and feel the effect of balance on our bodies e.g. if we are walking and someone calls to us, we turn round but do not generally have any awareness of how we turned. We must learn to become aware.



An aside on balance
Try this one in a safe place. When driving, take your back off the seat. Do not put any downward pressure on the steering wheel and find your own balance on your bum. (Bet that takes a bit of squirming around). Do all the normal driving things without bracing your back, your legs or your arms against anything. Just engage your core muscles, sit up and balance there on your bum. This is a real control position. You are controlling your posture and your balance, and you are controlling the car with the lightest touch. The need to re-balance will be dictated by the movement of the car so you must find what people might call a “natural seat” (sound familiar?) or sitting position where your core muscles need to do very little to keep you in balance. Notice that your arms and legs can still do their stuff. Take this body awareness to your horse and he will be well pleased. (Please do not adjust your car seat to do this exercise because, in an emergency, your brain will probably send you back to your normal way of sitting so the back rest needs to be where you expect it to be.)



Combined Centre
While moving in a straight line, a horse’s centre of gravity is on his centre line. It is located about half way up where a rider’s shin would be and about four to six inches behind his calf. When riding bareback, the rider’s centre of gravity is just below his navel, about midway between his navel and his spine. When we ride, we create a combined centre located approximately six inches below the horse’s withers and a little forward of the line drawn between our centre and that of the horse. (The exact location depends somewhat on our height and weight distribution. Also, the thickness of a saddle would further affect this position.) This combined centre provides a sensitive steering mechanism. By learning to move the combined centre forwards or backwards and from side to side, we encourage our horse to re-align and re-establish natural balance by moving under the new centre of gravity.


Riding a horse is a dynamic activity. Nothing is still for long and our weight is continuously shifting position to keep ourselves and our horses in balance.



Adjusting the stirrup length to match a balanced seat
Sit on a stationary horse, in a relaxed and balanced fashion, with your hands held just above and in front of the saddle pommel and your legs relaxed but hanging “as long as they can be”. Stay relaxed and have a helper lift one of your boot toes until it is higher than the boot heel. The corresponding stirrup should then be adjusted so that it can be slid under your instep without further adjustment of your leg. Repeat this procedure on the other side. Do not rely on the holes in the leathers to find a matching length and remember that you should remain in your relaxed and balanced position in the saddle. You should not try to help the assistant by moving your legs. Do not even look at him when he is determining the adjustment needed to your stirrup lengths. Generally, the adjusted length will feel too long but practise with this length. Length of reach with the leg is an essential part of applying leg and weight cues.



Holding the reins, rein length and hand position
The reins are used as an enhancement of the leg and weight aids. They can be used individually or in combinations to communicate the rider’s wishes. Aim to use them softly, (slowly and gently), applying the aids carefully so that you can feel immediately when the horse gives to the rein.


The methods of applying the reining cues given here assume that the horse is not fully trained or “finished” and is being ridden in a snaffle, rather than a curb, bit. I also assume that your horse will be equipped with split reins, or three-quarter inch braided closed training reins, attached to a simple snaffle bit with a chin strap to keep it from pulling through the horse’s mouth.


Before taking up the reins, the braided training reins will, of course, simply lie on the horse’s withers. However, if you are using split reins, the right rein will pass over the horse’s withers and hang down on the horse’s left-hand side, while the left rein will pass over the horse’s withers and hang down on the horse’s right-hand side. Therefore, when picking up a split rein, each hand is holding a double thickness of leather.


When seated in the saddle in your relaxed, balanced position, take up the reins so that each rein passes from the bit ring, under a pinkie, up behind your fingers and out between your thumb and index finger. You should hold the reins in position with your finger and thumb and relax the second, third and fourth fingers. These fingers should not normally hold the reins but are positioned ready to put slight backward pressure on the reins without your having to move your hands or arms.


If you are using closed training reins, a loop of rein will hang down between your hands. If you are using split reins, a loop of double rein will usually stand up from your hands and form a high-ish bridge between them.


The length of this loop or bridge will determine how far apart your hands can be placed. In training, more is better. You should arrange the loop so that you can place one hand away out to the side to apply a leading rein or side pull cue, without affecting the position of the other hand at all.


Every rider must find the neutral rein position of his or her hands. This will vary with the pace, speed and pulling power exerted by an individual horse. It is important that the rider establishes his or her neutral hand/rein position with a particular horse and tries to use it consistently. The neutral hand position I describe here is one that I use more often than not.


Having taken up the reins, I position my hands six to nine inches apart, just above the level of the pommel and slightly in front of it.


Having the correct length of rein between the bit and my hands when in the neutral position is very important to me. I feel that constant adjustment of that length while riding should be unnecessary. When my hands are in the neutral position, there is very light contact or almost no pressure on the bit, other than the downward weight of the reins.


To a great extent, the amount of contact I use depends on how compliant the horse that I am riding is that day. I mean, the frame of mind that I find the horse actually has, not the frame of mind that I assume he has.


Having decided the bit to neutral hand length, if I were to move my hands back in the direction of my solar plexus as far as the front of my body, but without changing the position of my hands on the reins, I would then be exerting the most pressure/pull on the horse’s mouth that I would ever need, except in very exceptional circumstances.


With the hand-to-bit length set well, at no time do I have to lean back to make contact with the bit. The release of contact, created either by me or the horse, is easily achieved by moving my hands forward.


Assuming that the horse is at rest and holding his head in a submissive way, when my hands are moved forwards from the neutral position, again without adjusting the position of my hands on the reins, any contact with the mouth will be released. The distance forwards from the neutral position can be from one inch to two feet, without having to alter my body position in the saddle or my hand position on the reins. This forward movement can give the Western horse complete release from the bit pressure at any pace, speed and cueing situation. Most people have to practise this forward movement of the hands. It does not seem to come naturally.


OK. In the normal course of events, once I have established the neutral position of my hands, the rein length and the length of loop-bridge, there should be no need to adjust the position of my hands on the reins. From that neutral position, my hands, either singly or together, can be moved forwards and backwards, from side to side and up and down, affecting rein cueing on the horse’s mouth and neck.


Probably the least understood movement of the reins is the up and down movement. It is often assumed that this movement works only with a shanked bit. However, it also has an effect when a snaffle bit is used. A vertically upward movement of the rein or reins will exert pressure on the horse’s mouth, provided the reins are not allowed to slip through the hands. Imagine a triangle whose base line (A, B) is the distance from bit (A) to hand (B). If the hand is raised vertically from the base line to position C forming the second side of the triangle (B, C), it will become evident that the third side of the triangle (A, C) must be longer than the base line (A, B). In the real situation, if the rein length (A, C) has not been allowed to increase, there must be increased tension between the bit and the hand. This explains the apparently “magical” effect of merely lifting the reins (see “the lifted reins”).


As the rider becomes more proficient at the other types of cue e.g. weight cues, the movement of the reining hand or hands will become less and less. However, the mechanics governing the hand-to-bit connection will not change.



Giving the face
When the horse “gives his face”, he yields to the slightest pressure by softening the lower jaw, dropping his head down or moving his head to either side without moving his shoulders. There should be no resistance in his jaw or neck and he should willingly do what he is asked. Before a Western rider even thinks of moving off from a halt, he expects his horse to flex his poll and be prepared to “give his face”.


“Giving the face” training begins with the halter training of the foal. By the time he is a yearling, he will automatically give his face when haltered. This softness of response is carried over to his ridden career through training.


Horses which have not had this training will require time to be spent on this aspect before, and during, subsequent riding practice. If the student has to continuously ask for softness, much time will be wasted in the practice of other things. It is best, therefore, if a concerted effort is made to improve softness before continuing.



Lifted reins cue to ask the horse to “give his face”, to flex at the poll, lift his back, be compliant and responsive
The lifted reins cue is when the rider picks up the reins from the horse’s neck or raises them a little higher than they would be in the neutral position and, thereby, applies slight pressure on the horse’s mouth. This cue, when given to a Western trained horse, is often so light in its application that its importance can be overlooked. It is often only a lifting of the hand from the wrist.

Most cues require a reaction from the horse over a relatively short period of time. However, “lifting the reins” asks for a sustained response. It is most often, or should be, the first cue given to the horse after the rider has settled into the saddle and is ready to move off. The cue will ask the Western horse to drop his head and take up the “correct” head carriage in readiness to move off or carry out any other of the rider’s requests. If necessary, in training, this cue will be asked for again at walk, jog and lope until it becomes his way of going when under saddle.

The correct head position is with the top line of the horse’s neck being horizontal, parallel to the ground and with the front line of his face vertical. This position should be taken up and carried out by him without tension. Horses often take up this position when walking in their own paddock. It is not an unnatural pose, but one taken up when the horse is relaxed, unafraid and at ease.

The correct head position is the primary indicator that the horse is paying attention to the rider and is willing to trust in the rider’s decision making and to act upon the rider’s proposals.

The cue is also used at all paces to remind the horse to carry his head correctly and to “collect”. When correct head position is taken up habitually, the horse is set-up to release his top-line muscles and to engage his abdominal muscles. This enables him to balance his weight more equally between his fore-end and hind-end and, thereby, be lighter in his forehand and bring his hind legs underneath him, giving him more controlled power potential and to be collected.


To facilitate the routine use of this cue, the horse will have undergone a simple, but to the Western horse vital, piece of mind and body training.
If set-up with the lifted rein cue at the outset, the well-trained horse, when on the move, will stay in a collected frame through changes of pace and speed etc. By that, I mean not only at the outset of a particular session but also at the outset of his life in training. A horse less well trained in this respect will, however, probably require constant reminders and a more aggressive approach may be required. See “Rocking the bit” cueing described below.



Rocking the bit
In training, this cue is used while the horse is on the move. It is an alternative to the lifted rein cueing and is a more aggressive and, therefore, a “louder” cue. Some horses need this to remind them to keep their heads down in the collected position while moving forward or during transitions. In training for a better head position, this rein cue is often accompanied by a rhythmical tapping with the rider’s calf muscles at the girth. The aim is eventually to dispense with the rocking bit cue and have it replaced by the gentle, and almost imperceptible, calf tapping to remind the horse to take up a collected form.

The bit rocking is achieved by applying alternate left and right leading rein cues, in a rhythmical “rocking” action, in time with the action of the horse’s front legs. It is important to note that this rocking action moves the bit from side to side in the horse’s mouth. This imparts an unpleasant and, therefore, irritating sensation in the horse’s mouth which it can relieve by dropping its head and taking up a collected form. It is also important that the rider’s hands maintain steady, but light, backward pressure on the horse’s mouth when they are rocking the bit. By doing this, the rider will avoid bumping the horse’s mouth as he rocks the bit. When the horse drops his head to the desired position, relaxes his jaws and holds the collection, the cueing can be discontinued.


In training, the horse may need to be cued with the double leg squeeze or, at times, a double heel press or bump in order that he responds to the rocking of the bit by collecting, rather than by slowing down or breaking gait.



The emergency stop
I think it is appropriate to mention here the emergency stop manoeuvre. Some novice riders do not learn this until they have been riding for some time. It may never be needed but it is a bit late to think about it when the horse has bolted.
It is essentially the redirection of a bolting horse’s drive into a circling motion and, ultimately, to the disengagement of his hind quarters.


Practise for a one-rein stop to the right by walking your horse in a clockwise circle. When he is moving with life, bring your left hand, with both reins in it, up towards your solar plexus to take the slack out of the reins and then, simultaneously,

• lean slightly forward, because that is where your horse’s weight needs to be for this kind of stop.
• slide your right hand down the right rein, hold it and pull it back towards your hip bone.
• release the left rein, stroking the horse’s neck with your left hand if you can.
• move your right leg back and down about one foot behind the girth to bump the hind quarters over. (Single heel press or bump in the back position)

When the horse complies with your request by turning around his forehand, immediately release your leg pressure.


The practical goal of this exercise is to disengage the horse’s hind quarters which occurs when the horse’s inside hind leg steps over in front of his outside hind leg during the turn on the forehand. It disengages the engine that keeps him driving forwards.
Just pulling the horse’s head round is not sufficient. Horses can keep running straight like this. You have to disengage his rear end. If the manoeuvre is practised enough, should the day arrive when the horse spooks and runs for his life, you will automatically turn the horse’s head, bump his haunches over and disengage his driving hind legs. Remember, if there is enough space, put the horse into a circle first. In that way, the application of the emergency stop cues will be less likely to take your horse by surprise and stopping will be easier for him.



It is worth noting here that saddle fit on the horse is important. Most Western saddles are designed for use on cattlemen’s working horses, now represented by the Quarter Horse. Generally, these horses have relatively prominent withers, giving the Western saddle a great deal of lateral stability. If your saddle fits well enough for you to mount and dismount as described safely, it will most likely to be safe enough for you to ride.


In Western riding, the dismount is a controlled, slow action and should be practised to both sides of the horse. It was devised to keep the rider in a controlling position, able to remount or dismount as circumstances dictate.


To dismount on the left side of the horse, with the horse standing still, you take both reins into your right hand then place your left hand round both reins and place that hand on the horse’s mane, eight or so inches in front of the saddle, holding on to the mane if need be. While sitting centred on the horse and holding the saddle horn with your right hand, adjust your left foot in the stirrup so that it gives a firm footing but will not get caught up in the stirrup as you dismount. Take your right foot out of the stirrup and stand up, taking all of your weight onto your left leg. Now, bring your right leg over the saddle cantle while maintaining an upright posture. When your right leg is clear of the cantle, lower your body straight down onto your right foot. You will be facing the horse’s side and will still be holding onto the reins, mane and saddle horn. (From this position it is possible to remount, if that proves to be the safest thing to do). You can then remove your left foot from the stirrup. Do not turn to face the rear when dismounting because this will lessen your control and your knowledge of what the horse is doing. Do not take both feet out of the stirrups and vault off the horse. Control of the horse and of dismounting will be lost for those few seconds. This is inadvisable.
This dismounting procedure allows the rider to maintain a controlling contact with the horse and, until the left foot is released from the stirrup, the rider is in a secure position which would allow him or her to remount immediately.



Leading the horse after dismounting
This description assumes you are using split reins.

When dismounted, you will normally let go of the right rein and hold the horse gently with the left rein in the right hand and then reach under the horse’s neck with your left hand to pull the right rein down. Holding both reins in the right hand, three feet from the bit and with the remainder of the reins in your left hand, turn forwards and walk off, giving a “cluck” to ask the horse to follow you. Do not pull on the horse with the reins to make him move forwards. If he is reluctant to move forwards, ask him to turn by your moving off at 90 degrees and giving him an encouraging pull sideways. Usually, this will “unstick” his feet and he will begin to follow you.


With closed training reins you will slide the reins over the horse’s head and continue as above.



Having the horse follow you when he is saddled and bridled
This is a by-product of trust and attachment. After a practice session, when the horse has built a trust in you as his leader, he will be inclined to follow you without having to be led by his reins. This can be attempted in a safe environment as a test of the bond between horse and rider.



Warming up your horse and yourself, mentally and physically, as part of practise
Exercise on a full stomach is not a good thing for people. Remember, that holds good for horses too. For example, if the horse has a feed of hay, he should be allowed an hour to eat it and then an hour of rest before being exercised.


It is good practice for sports people to stretch and warm up their muscles and prepare their minds before serious exercise. This is no less true for you and your horse. It does not really matter how this is done but the warm up must always be given time.


My mental and physical warm up starts as soon as I decide to go riding. As well as all the usual tasks such as getting the tack together etc., I try to focus on what my horse and I will be doing when all that stuff is organised. I stretch my muscles in my arms, legs, core, back and neck. I try to be aware of everything around me but keep nearly 100% of my attention on my horse and what we will be doing together. My focus is on the here and now.


My horse’s warm up begins when he gets his halter on. Mentally, he knows he must be in work mode and paying attention to me, his leader. He must start following his leader’s directions. Before any serious thinking or effort is asked of him, he is physically warmed up, usually by a few laps of the arena at a slow, steady pace and then gentle bending exercises.


A series of gentle warm up patterns can be devised which will incorporate all of the moves the horse and rider have learned to that date. Some can then be reviewed and practised and, if all is well, other manoeuvres can be progressed to.
This method of warming up the muscles of both horse and rider will have the by-product of allowing the rider to assess how well the horse/rider partnership will work that day and will target areas where the horse or rider needs further practice or help with any particular manoeuvre.