Now you have become accustomed to moving your horse around in hand, it’s time to add a little precision. For the serious in hand trainer, this is where things start to move towards that final goal: piaffe in hand.
We aren’t going that far in this series, but all these techniques will give you the basics preparatory to taking that ultimate step, if that is your goal.
Reasons to teach squaring the halt
- The first step here is to teach the horse to lift each leg individually to the light touch of the whip – this will enable you first to square up the halt, and later to activate each leg in turn to produce half steps (Part 7 of this series), and eventually, piaffe.
- This work helps form the habit of halting square, helping to keep even loading (weight bearing) on both hind legs at halt, and also necessary for a good mark in ridden dressage.
- Once under saddle, you can use the same technique to halt square, and to influence each leg individually to move forward with more activity – useful in all gaits as well as eventually in half steps, and then piaffe under saddle. This can be done at first with an unmounted helper with the ground work whip while you are in the saddle, and then transferring (with your ground help) the whip aid to your leg aids.
- If a horse has a ‘lazy’ hind leg – one that he always leaves trailing because of a reluctance to weight bear on that limb – you can use this technique to correct this poor, and possibly damaging habit, and strengthen that leg until he is comfortable with keeping weight on it.
You do not need to be aiming to teach your horse piaffe to benefit from this work!
The basic equipment remains the same as you have used from the start, but this work can be easier with two people, especially with a big horse.
The other thing you might introduce here is to bandage up the tail to keep it out of the way of your whip aids.
Squaring the halt
- Stop your horse alongside the fence to help keep him straight.
- Try to get his front feet as square as possible, by inviting him forward minutely if one front leg is slightly back, and stopping him with your body language (see Part 1) plus a small half halt on the reins when the lifted leg is beside the standing leg, so it comes down parallel.
- Do NOT square the front legs by pushing your horse backward – we want him to continue thinking forward, even at a stand still.
- Once you have his front legs organised, stand beside his shoulder so you are not inviting him to step forward.
- Reach back with the long whip and touch the hind leg nearest you on his sensitive spot – on most horses this is half way up the cannon bone, but you may need to experiment.
- You will also need to experiment to discover how lightly you can touch him and get a response. At first you may need to tap him relatively sharply, but be careful – always remember he can kick forward as well as backward.
- Your goal is simply to have him lift the leg into the air and, if it is back, to move it forward.
- At first, praise him when he lifts the leg – you need to encourage this response.
- If he starts to understand to lift, but not to move the leg forward, tap the leg again, preferably reaching slightly further around behind the leg with the whip. This is where this exercise is easier with 2 people than one, especially if your whip is not long enough, or your horse is large (see case studies below).
- Once he understands to lift the leg nearest you, you can ask the other hind leg to lift. You have options here – experiment to see which works for you.
- With two people, it is easier for you to stand further back and reach across behind him to touch the further leg – always remain out of reach in case he kicks out with the leg nearest you.
- If you are alone, you can reach across under his belly to touch the further leg or, if he is small enough, you may be able to reach around behind him while still holding the reins yourself, although this is not easy unless he is very good at remaining still in front while you stand further back.
- When he understands what you are asking, walk him forward and halt again, then use the whip to lift and bring forward whichever leg is trailing.
- Keep repeating.
- Pretty quickly, most horses learn to bring the trailing leg forward even before you touch them with the whip, and then they begin to square up every halt on their own, without instruction from you.
Case Study #1
As you will see in the following video, it can be difficult to keep your horse straight with just one person! This horse is already quite accomplished at piaffe in hand, so his tendency is to lift the each leg in turn on his own, without waiting for the aid.
In this second clip, you can see he is easier to keep straight in this direction, and you can clearly see how I reach across underneath him to touch the further hind leg. I repeat several times, asking both legs to lift in turn before rewarding him because he is already confident with this work – at first, you should aim for a single leg lift, and then once each leg followed by praise. Remember – confidence is everything in this close work.
Case Study #2
This clip shows Beamish learning this work for the first time, but with two handlers. In the second half you will see the slight irritation in the left hind leg as I ask repeatedly for her to lift it because she moves it back instead of forward – this is because she doesn’t understand why I keep asking. When she steps the leg forward into the square position I immediately praise – this is how they learn with confidence.
As always when working with horses, safety is a priority. I highly recommend when you are starting out, or have a sensitive, nervous, or flighty horse, that both handlers wear hard hats as well as gloves and sturdy footwear. Horses can and do kick out, and I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that you NEVER stand within reach of the hind legs.
We are nearing the end of this introductory series – I hope you are enjoying developing a new skill set and a closer relationship with your horse on the ground.
If you have any questions, please either leave them in the comments below, or send me a message via the CONTACT ME page.