By Abby Davis Michaelis with Danika Kent
Photos by Lisa Davis
For as long as I can remember, my mom has been telling me to stay square on my horse.
“Keep your shoulder back and open yourself up so your horse will open up,” she will say.
When a horse is flexed and shaped through his whole body, he is in an athletic frame to make a quick, fast turn. When he is soft in this position, the hind leg can keep reaching forward, allowing for an easy, smooth motion. He is then “open” to the turn, rather than fighting it. In high school, I struggled with this. When I allowed my inside shoulder to come forward in a turn, I would block my horse’s natural movement, causing him to become stiff, drop his shoulder, or start the turn too early. So, we would go to the “open up” drill.
To start, walk your horse in a straight line and reach one hand back toward the horse’s hind end. Can you feel the horse naturally arc its body in response to your own body position? Even if it is ever so slight, you should feel a reaction. The take-home lesson is that our horses are naturally sensitive, so we want to use that to our advantage in a run to help and not hinder our horses’ ability to perform. We want our horses to not only be soft in our hands but also to our legs and our body.
If you take this action to a figure eight, you can really feel how our body movements affect the horse. Of course, you are not going to throw your hand back in a run, but the exaggerations in this drill will get you and your horse used to the feel of that enhanced responsiveness and make him softer to your movements.
Start the figure eight at a walk. If you know your horse is right-handed, start to the right, and vise versa if he is left-handed. Play to your horse’s strong suit. Reach your inside hand back toward the horse’s hind end on the inside of the circle—if you’re turning to the right, it would be your right hand. Notice your leg pressure on the inside as your shoulders and hips shift to break the horse through the ribcage.
Keep the circle soft and allow your horse to learn to respond to the feel of your body. Physically opening up your body in this way, bringing your shoulder back and shifting your hips will help your horse learn to respond more intuitively and be more in-sync with your movements. As you complete the first circle, rotate your body to reach your left hand back and open your shoulder to help your horse learn to make a smooth transition to the other direction.
Don’t expect your circles to be perfect at first; this is about your horse learning to listen to your body in a relaxed way. A loose rein is best, though not always possible. Just remember this drill is about the body, not the reins. It’s a great tool to use on colts to teach them to move off your leg and listen to your body language. It will also help you become more aware of what you’re communicating to your horse at all times.
In order for the drill to work, the rider has to be soft first. With that in mind, this drill can be beneficial to horses that get hot or on the muscle, as it teaches them to be relaxed, soft, and not so worried because you, their leader, is soft and relaxed, too. If I have a horse that’s nervous in a circle or at any point, by opening up my body and relaxing, it helps my horse calm down, relax, and soften. It may take a little more time at first, but it’s all about being patient. We want our horses to be tough and competitive, but we also want them to listen to us and love their job.
This drill can help riders who might be blocking their horses in a turn, either by putting their inside shoulder forward or throwing their hip and weight towards the barrel, both of which throw a horse off balance.By over-exaggerating an open body position, the rider can feel the reaction from the horse and learn what their movement can do to help their horse in a run. By staying square and in the middle of your horse going into a turn, you’re not blocking with your shoulder or body, which enables your horse to be open and more prepared to leave that turn and be ready for the next barrel.
Meet Abby Davis Michaelis
Abby Davis Michaelis resides in Adrian, Oregon, with her husband, Mason, and trains barrel and rope horse prospects with her parents at Our Performance Horses. Michaelis has competed at virtually every level aboard horses she trained with her family, from the National High School Finals Rodeo, to the College National Finals Rodeo, to her 15 trips to the Idaho Cowboys Association Finals. She has been a Columbia River circuit finals qualifier, the Laughlin, Nevada, tour rodeo champion, and has trained numerous open money winners. For more information, like Our Performance Horses on Facebook. Email comments on this article to [email protected].