The thing about horses is that it’s not always easy to tell them what to do. You can’t just open your mouth, start talking and expect your horse to stop and turn. For Australian horse trainer Ian Francis, body language is everything, and anything you can do to increase communication between you and your horse is worth doing.
Step 1: Push to Go, Pull to Stop
The first thing Francis teaches a young horse is the concept of push to go and pull to stop.
“I don’t go to kicking them very much,” he said, “just squeezing. If I squeeze my legs, I want them to go. If I pull on the reins, I want them to stop. I want them to move away from pressure not into it. They have to respect my feet and move from me squeezing, not kicking.
“To go forward, I use both my legs behind my center of gravity and along their rib cage. To stop, I put my legs in front-end of my center of gravity and release the pressure by taking my legs off. To back-end up, I keep my feet forward and squeeze them.”
Step 2: Backing Up
To teach the back up, pick up on both reins and ask the horse to break at the poll and soften his face in the bridle. Ask him to take a step back by squeezing both feet in front of the girth and clucking to him. As the horse progresses, you will be able to move your feet back closer to the girth.For a horse to be collected, he must have his hind end underneath him. When backing up, a horse has to put his hocks underneath his belly, which will strengthen the muscles required for the horse to work off his hind end.
“A horse backs with diagonal feet,” Francis said, “so you can ask him to back up by alternating which leg you’re putting on the horse in time with the diagonal pair of legs he is backing up with. This will make his stride longer. I also teach my horse’s that when I move my feet, they should move their feet. If I move my feet with a higher degree of energy, then he should move with a higher degree of energy and start stepping faster.”
Step 3: Lateral Movement
“One of my major goals is that the horse learns that my feet mean a lot of lateral movement as opposed to him going forward and running away from my feet,” Francis said.
Lateral movement begins with teaching the young horse to bend his ribcage around your leg while he is moving forward. Start by asking the horse to bend around your inside leg when working on a circle by shortening the inside rein and pressing the horse with your inside leg. Ideally, your leg should be positioned directly below your seat, so you are sitting in the equitation position.
“We are shaping the horse with the inside rein, so that he’ll bend at his throat latch and poll and through his neck,” Francis said. “We are bending him through his ribcage, so that he is soft through his whole body with our inside leg. You are looking to feel his ribcage go to the outside and feel his whole body bend. You may have to move your leg around a little bit to find the response you want, but you basically want your leg to be directly under your seat.”
Working in a Circle
When the horse will bend around your inside leg, you can then ask him to move laterally off your leg.
Work your horse on a 16-foot circle and ask him to expand the size of the circle by pressing him with your inside leg. You want the horse to stay bent around your inside leg, so his body retains the same arc as the circle he is travelling on.
On a circle to the right, make sure that you have your horse bent around your inside (right) leg. Push your right rein against the horse’s neck and take your left hand away from the neck in the direction you want him to move to lead him on to the bigger circle. Squeeze the horse’s ribs with your inside leg, and as soon as he steps one foot out towards the bigger circle, release all pressure on him to make the circle bigger and ride him forward. The inside hind foot should always cross in front of the outside foot and not just step next to it. Ask him again by repeating the same cues, but this time ask for two steps, then release.
“By asking for a little bit, you can build it into a lot,” Francis said. “First, ask for one step, then two steps, and so on, until you move him all the way out to the larger circle.”
One of the biggest mistakes that Francis sees when people ask the horse to step to the outside is that they continually tug the horse’s nose to the inside.
“Even though I’m leading to the bigger circle with my outside rein, I still want his nose tipped to the inside,” Francis said, “but that doesn’t mean that I have to pull it in there. A horse doesn’t have vertebrae like a snake, so if his ribs are bent around your inside leg and his shoulders are moving away from your inside leg, then, physically, his nose has to be to the inside. Don’t tug on the inside rein. Just hold it against his neck.”
Decreasing the size of the circle
During this exercise, you do not want to change the shape of the horse’s body—you want him to retain the same arc as the circle he is travelling on, but you want him to decrease the size of the circle.
Begin by riding a 30-foot circle to the left and ensure that the horse is bent around your inside (left) leg. Maintain the horse’s shape by moving your left hand away from the horse’s neck towards the middle of the circle. Keep your inside (left) leg pressed lightly against his ribs to keep him bent around your inside leg. Press the horse with your outside (right) rein and outside (right) leg to ask him to step towards the inside of the circle.
“It’s a matter of moving his front feet in,” Francis said. “If you go real strong with your outside leg and outside hand, then you’ll create a reverse arc, which is fine if that’s what you want to do, but if we’re just trying to decrease the size of our circle, then it’s wrong.
“For example, if we’re galloping circles on a reining horse, we don’t want to lose the shape in his body, so we press with our outside rein, release a little with our inside leg, maintain his shape with the inside rein and allow him to come in.
“This can be more difficult, initially, than a reverse arc, particularly if you get too strong with your outside cues. But in order for a horse to maintain balance and cadence in a circle, they need to be able to arc in the direction of travel and keep their shoulders up and their ribcage to the outside in order for their hock and stifle to get deep and to maintain collection in that direction.”
Practice increasing and decreasing the size of the circle by asking the horse to move off the pressure of your leg.
“These exercises will help your horse become adept and accustomed to working off cues from your feet,” Francis said, “and they’ll help your horse get softer in the face. You can do a lot with your legs to soften a horse in the face. If your horse is a little rigid in the bridle, you can press his rib with your inside leg to get the rib to go to the outside, and that will free up his face.”
Step 4: Reverse Arc
A reverse arc asks the horse to arc his body with the opposite shape of the circle that he is travelling on. In a reverse arc, the horse’s ribs will be on the circle, while his nose, shoulders and hips will be towards the outside of the circle. The reverse arc will give you more control over their shoulders.
On a circle to the left, ask the horse to counter-bend his body to the arc of the circle. Tip the horse’s nose to the outside of the circle by pushing the right (outside) rein against the horse’s neck. Press his ribcage with your outside (right) leg to bend his ribcage to the inside of the circle.
Initially, the horse may try to drop his shoulder rather than bend his ribcage. When a horse drops his shoulder, his body will be straighter and, most often, his nose will go to the outside, and the ribcage will go to the inside, but he will be leading with his shoulder instead of his ribs.
These exercises are building exercises that will enable you to shape the horse correctly, execute a flying lead change, do roll backs and spins later in the horse’s training
Step 5: Turn on the Forehand
In a turn on the forehand, you want the horse to move his hind end around his front end. The front, inside leg should be the pivot point with everything moving around it.
Take hold of the left rein and move your right leg as far back as you can reach. Put pressure on the horse with your right leg until he steps his hind end away from your leg and around his front-end. As soon as the horse takes one step, release the pressure, then ask again. Continue to ask the horse for more and more steps until he can complete an entire circle.
The importance of the turn on the forehand is that it gives you control of the horse’s hips.
“Once you can do a turn on the forehand, your turns on the hind end will become a lot better,” Francis said. “If you can move your horse’s hips left and right, then you can stop them from moving left and right because you’ll have taught the horse to move away from your leg not through it. If you wanted to turn a horse around on his hind end, but the horse wanted to turn on his forehand, then you can stop him turning on the forehand by controlling his hips.”
When a horse loses its hind end in a turn-around, it simply means that the hind end has drifted to the side. A horse usually loses his hind end about a quarter of the way through the turn, and at that point, he’ll kick his butt out to one side and may transfer his weight to his front end. Both of these factors will make the horse slow through the turn.
“The horse must be functional and efficient,” Francis said, “and if his hind end is in motion during a turn instead of staying still and pivoting, then he isn’t efficient. Some horse’s are naturally on the back end, while other, less athletic horses are not, so we need to be able to help them by being able to control their hind end.”
The End Result: Collection
Collection is the highest degree of balance in a horse and is achieved when the horse has his hind end underneath him and his back is rounded up. Collection gives the horse the ability to function efficiently at all gaits.
“When a horse is collected, we can do high degree maneuvers, if he’s not then we can’t – or we won’t be able to do them properly.”
After a horse has progressed through the five steps—meaning that he will stop and go, bend laterally left and right, move his shoulders left and right and move his hips left and right—then you can ask the horse to round his back up and become collected.
“Get underneath his ribcage and pick his back up,” Francis said. “I’m talking about being right under his belly. Reach down as far under the horse as you can and put a spur under him and push him forward into the bridle.
“If you can pick his belly up, then his back will lift up. His whole body needs to round up from his nose through to his fetlocks. When his belly is off the ground, his hocks and stifle can get deeper underneath him, which will in turn elevate his withers, making him lighter on the front end.”
Riders often mistake shape in the front end with collection.
“Just because a horse has tucked his head in at the poll and is rounding his neck does not mean that he is collected,” Francis said. “That’s shape. Collection comes from the hind end, and when the horse’s hind end is underneath him, his back will round up lifting his belly off the ground. When a horse has shape in his front end, but has a hollow back, meaning that his belly is closer to the ground, then he is not collected.
“My goal is not to necessarily have them higher in the poll and broke at the throatlatch, but to be able to elevate their withers and have them round through the back, so they can be broken through the loin and can reach deeper under themselves and, thus, become collected.”
Dena Kirkpatrick on Ian Francis
Barrel horse guru Dena Kirkpatrick first heard of Ian Francis when she was on tour in Australia doing clinics. Everywhere she went, people kept talking about “this guy Ian.” His name chased Kirkpatrick all the way back to the States, where she ultimately met Francis through their mutual friend, Doug Carpenter.
When preparing for her next trip to Australia, Kirkpatrick was asked by the clinic organizers if she’d mind doing her clinics in tandem with Francis. She was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him since improving her own horsemanship skills, along with helping others do the same, has long been a goal.
“Ian has such a comprehensive knowledge of a horse and how his body works in all different situations so learning from someone like him is golden,” Kirkpatrick said of Francis, who is known first and foremost for the foundation he puts on a horse and, secondly, for winning in every Western discipline.
“At some point, all of our disciplines will part ways, but in the beginning and up to a certain point, we’re all going to want the same thing,” Kirkpatrick said.
Collection and having complete control of the horse’s feet is something that Kirkpatrick believes is increasingly important.
“Ian says, ‘I want you to think all the way down to their feet,’” she said. “One of the things I teach is a smooth one motion turn—placing their body in the proper physical position to get around a barrel efficiently. If you can’t control their feet, how will you put them where you want them?”
One of Kirkpatrick’s favorite things about Francis is the fingertip control that he has on his horses, and his understanding of speed events, which he perfected during his campdrafting years.
“Our breeding programs for barrel racing are improving daily,” Kirkpatrick said. “We are breeding faster, stronger and smarter horses. I believe that horsemanship skills are more important now than ever because of the level of athletic ability that our equine partners now possess. Instilling a strong foundation, such as the one Ian teaches, will benefit a barrel horse throughout his racing career.”
Starting with a good foundation is the key to success in training a barrel horse.
“I want to have strong basics instilled in my horses, so that when they go on to be ridden by others, or need a tune-up in times of trouble, there is something to go back to,” she said.
About Ian Francis
Known as Mr Versatile for his ability to win at the top levels of reining, cutting, reined cow horse, stockman’s challenge and trail events, Ian Francis is one of the preeminent horse trainers in the world. His pursuit to better himself and his training techniques has led him to work with top trainers from just about every equine discipline from all corners of the earth.
Francis is an IRC World Cup Reining Open Division Champion, a three time NCHA Futurity champion with two reserve titles, an NCHA Derby Champion, a five-time NRHA Futurity Champion, and two-time Cloncurry Stockmen’s Challenge Champion. He has been inducted into the Australian NCHA and NRHA Hall’s of Fame and the Furlong Stud Equine Hall of Fame.