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Alignment in circles: Posture a key

By LES VOGT - Horsetrader columnist - May 15th, 2014 - More with Les

67th in a series
Last issue, Les took us into circles and the importance of shoulder control. Now we’ll look at alignment.

At this stage in the game you want to spend a lot of time teaching your horse to align properly in a circle. It’s great to start at a jog and work on circles approximately 30 feet in diameter. What you’re looking for is for your horse to keep his spine aligned with the circumference of the circle. What you need to watch out for is him starting to lean against your inside rein and leg as he tries to stick his nose to the outside of the circle and lean into the circle with his shoulder, a movement referred to as “dropping a shoulder.” If you can instill a good “shoulders up” posture here, you won’t be haunted by dropped shoulders later on.

What are dropped shoulders?
A horse will drop his shoulders whenever the alignment of his spine starts moving in an opposite direction from the track he is moving on.

How it happens
There are several things that can lead to a horse dropping his shoulders in a circle or a turn. First, some horses are going to want to carry themselves that way naturally in one direction. It’s just more comfortable for them, just like it’s comfortable for us to write with one hand more than the other. Another reason is that they’ve been trained to do it, either on a longe line or by a rider with an unyielding hand who has actually taught the horse to lean against the rein rather than to give to it.

How to fix dropped shoulders
Mechanically, let’s think about the ways we should be able to keep the shoulders from dropping. First, for it to happen, the nose has to start leaking to the outside of the circle. By now you should be able to feel the slack come out of your inside rein and his ribcage start to push on your inside leg if he starts to lean his shoulder into the circle. Once you feel it, you can use your hand and leg together to bring his bend back to the proper alignment. You might even want to emphasize your point by moving his shoulders an extra step or two to the outside, just like we’ve been working on in our body control exercises, to tell him he shouldn’t have dropped that shoulder to the inside.

If you watch how I ride the 2-year-old in the video, you’ll see that in my circles I make a big deal about his frame and alignment by using my inside rein and leg for bend and keeping my outside rein way away from the horse’s neck. I want him to learn how to travel those circles right from the start.

Circle exercises
At this stage do a lot of circles and turns of every size, especially at a lope. The cloverleaf we discussed before is still a great drill because you can do lots of turns without having to change leads. Just concentrate on proper alignment, and when you make your corners, don’t let your horse get to leaning. It may feel good on a motorcycle, but it isn’t the way to turn a horse!

Another great exercise is to drag your arena so you’ll be able to see your fresh tracks, and then go lope or jog a perfectly (or as close as you can get) round circle. Now pick up the lope and try to follow in your tracks exactly, keeping the horse’s body aligned to the circumference of that circle at all times. It might sound easy, but in truth it’ll be one of the hardest things you attempt to do. And it’s an exercise you will want to revisit at every stage of your training program.

Next issue: Les moves us into smaller circles.

EDITOR’S NOTE: More with Les is a regular California Horsetrader column. Les Vogt has won more than 15 World Championships, including two wins at the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity. Although Les still rides and occasionally shows, his focus is giving clinics around the world and developing products for the performance horseman. To learn more about Les and to see his clinic schedule, visit: www.lesvogt.com

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