The cornerstones of reining are circles, spins, rundowns and sliding stops. Those are the fun maneuvers, but without solid fundamentals that include responsive steering and guiding, a horse loses its ability to perform.
The horse can only run a pattern, somewhat like a mouse learning to run a maze. Throw a new turn in the maze, and the mouse fails to get the cheese.
Reining trainer Bud Lyon realized his horses, as well as other seasoned reiners from different programs, lacked a solid understanding of rein pressure and responsive steering when he shifted from reining patterns to ranch riding.
In this Learning Curve three-part series, Lyons explains why he believes laying a foundation is important, how he assesses a horse’s understanding of steering and how it all ties together in the show pen.
Here in Part Two, he tells how he lays a foundation on his horses. Previously, in Part One, he explained how he first assesses a horse’s understanding of steering.
Lay the foundation
Daily, Lyon works on a horse’s responsiveness to neck rein and leg cues. He incorporates steering and guiding fundamentals into his work on essential reining maneuvers, like a circle and rundown. Not only does he get the horse to respond in the arena, he also works on these exercises out in the pasture. To Lyon, a broke horse is one that can do its job in any situation.
To build a solid foundation and establish expectations for each riding session, Lyon begins by asking the horse to respond to rein pressure.
“First, I stand and work on getting him to look away from the outside neck rein. A lot of young horses will not instinctively do that. We ask the horse to look away from the neck rein in spins and rollbacks, so it is essential,” he explained.
“I work on the neck rein and then direct rein. I might use my left hand, for example, to lay the neck rein on the horse. If it doesn’t respond, I take my right hand and apply direct rein pressure to enforce the cue. Once I get the response I want, where the horse looks away from the rein but doesn’t move its body, then I start to move it in a circle. I [work on responsiveness] at a standstill, walk, trot and lope, and eventually do it at the counter-canter.”
Lyon tracks around the arena, not adhering to a set pattern for the ride. He often works on body control using a figure eight, counter arching the horse one way and letting it follow its nose going the other direction. His legs keep the horse’s body from diving in or leaning out, focusing on standing the horse up in its shoulders.
Trotting a straight line, he asks the horse to look one direction and wait until Lyon adds a leg cue to move its body in the same direction. Or, he has the horse’s head turn one direction but counter arch to the other.
He tests the horse’s response to neck rein and leg pressure in corners, on a straightaway and definitely going around the ends, where he would typically set up for a rundown. Often, Lyon rides as though he were tracking a cow around the arena.
“This goes back to my foundation. I think Bob Avila said, ‘If you think a horse is broke, try working a cow.’ I ask myself if I could track a cow on this horse if one was in the arena,” Lyon said. “If your job was to put the horse’s head on the cow’s hip and track it everywhere it went, then the horse should be able to steer, guide and follow its nose. If I don’t feel like I can do that, then I don’t have my steering as responsive as it needs to be.”
The goal is to have the horse’s head and neck respond to rein cues, but wait for Lyon to follow it with a directional aid to move its body. Creating a responsive horse that waits for cues helps combat anticipating maneuvers in the show arena. When it is time to work on rundowns, stops, circles or spins, Lyon does not adhere to traditional methods.
He moves the horse into and then back out of a circle while loping. A horse with the ability to change trajectory can be beneficial in the show pen when the rider needs to make a course correction. This also helps Lyon keep his horses from leaning out of or into the circle.
“If you feel your horse get worried or get out of position [in the circles], leaning to the outside or wanting to dive in, it should be easy to resort back to the default setting and guide them where you want to go,” Lyon said. “When you have put that steering on since the beginning, you can make that adjustment without affecting your pattern.”
Another area Lyon focuses on steering is the all-important rundown. Horses that do not stop straight are often leaning out toward the rail and not running straight to the stop, Lyon explained. Practicing guiding your horse down a straightaway will help in the stop.
To do so, Lyon practices loping straight lines and making 90-degree turns at the end of the arena.
“The [arena] wall acts like a magnet. Horses leaning toward it are not honoring the neck rein,” Lyon said. “Even if the head goes in, the rest of the body parts are going to the outside. When the horse’s body is bent or curved, it is a lot harder to stop.
“Being able to turn square and set yourself and your horse up for a good, clean approach to a stop is important. Practice guiding your horse down the arena, and if it leans, turn 90-degrees away. You can make adjustments on the fly if your horse has been taught to guide and steer.”
Altogether, Lyon creates a horse that can accomplish more than the required reining maneuvers. Yet, his ultimate goal is to have a high-marking reining horse.
In Part 3 of this series, Lyon explains how he puts it all together for a willingly guided horse in the show pen. Click here to read Part 3.