PeelBack

Trainer Blue Allen shares a softening drill to encourage your horse to soften and relax.

If your horse tends to brace against your cues before you get to the barrels during slow work, it may also do the same on the pattern during a run. To get your horse loose and softened, you’ll need to put in some time working to achieve that goal. Once everything is nice and soft and relaxed, your horse will let you help it rather than being on the defensive. This is a simple exercise, but it works really well for just about any horse if you stick with it.

When to Do the Softening Drill

You can do this exercise using whatever gear you normally ride in, but I like to put the horse back in a snaffle with split reins. Just make sure you can ask for lateral flexion in the bit you choose.

I like to do this drill both as a warmup and when the horse is cooling down. I think letting a horse start the day relaxed and finish it relaxed helps it not dread coming out to go to work.

How to Do It

When I warm up my horses, I want them to travel on a loose rein without me holding them or trying to contain them. If they don’t do that when I get them in for training, it’s something I work toward.

Blue Allen trotting across arena on horse during softening drill
To begin the exercise, direct your horse to a point across the arena at a trot on a loose rein

I will walk into the arena and turn my horse loose of the reins and do some trotting around. As soon as I feel the horse raise its head up and I feel it’s starting to get strong, I will take a deep breath, sit down, exhale and give the horse a little time to let its feet slow down before I take ahold of the reins. If that doesn’t slow its feet down, then I’ll pick up my inside rein and pull toward my hip, visualizing pulling toward the horse’s tail, until it stops. Then I’ll wait.

If it raises the head and neck, I will keep pulling and ask the horse to turn around, working on getting its rib cage to soften with my inside leg. You’re wanting the horse to relax, drop its head and neck and soften. Look for an “out” for the horse—as soon as it responds and softens, you want to turn it loose, applying your outside leg to travel out of the turn.

Once your horse has done that, then pick out another imaginary point in the arena and send your horse across to that point with your legs. If your horse speeds up, tenses and raises its head and neck on the way there, ask your horse to stop and pull it around the opposite direction, before sending it on to another point. Sometimes the horse might have only taken two or three steps before it quickens the pace.

Blue Allen stopping a horse
If you feel your horse speed up and raise its head and neck or tense up, sit down, exhale and ask your horse to stop, followed by pulling on one rein toward your hip.

Eventually, when you sit deep and relax your body and start to reach for that rein, everything starts to come with your cue and the horse learns to engage its hocks in the turn. The hocks are where the horse’s power comes from, so pulling the horse around and back onto its hocks rather than letting it scramble with its hind end harnesses that drive.

Troubleshooting

The first time you do this drill, it might take your horse a while to figure it out and finally relax. The next day it might take you less time, and the time after that, even less time. You just keep doing it. The goal is for your horse to wait for you to ask it to move its feet, not taking off with you across the pen.

Make sure not to pull out to the side for this exercise. You need to be pulling toward your hip, toward your horse’s hocks. You also want to make sure that you’re reaching for the rein slowly and using your feet to get your horse soft, rather than jerking or bumping the reins. With this exercise, most everything is happening with your legs. You want the horse to figure out how to get soft within your parameters, not force it with rough rein cues.


This article was originally published in the April 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.

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