Training the Horse to Think: Mounted Exercises (#7)

Training a horse is not a strictly linear progression, and it does not proceed in any prescribed manner. The exercises I am explaining here will be useful for either a green horse or an experienced one. Each exercise can be carried out in varying degrees of difficulty. When trying them, I would suggest that you aim for the easiest version first and then proceed to the more difficult ones. I am classifying these exercises under general categories and will explain each from the easiest application through more difficult ones.

Working away from the leg

Before you can do anything like opening gates or backing through obstacles, your horse needs to understand what you mean when you apply your leg to his side. The easiest way to teach a horse to move away from leg pressure is to teach the turn on the forehand. You must first decide which direction you want him to move, and how you are going to proceed to make this happen, keeping in mind that initial efforts are purely Greek to the horse. I generally move away from the left leg first, so that is what I will describe to you.

Ask your horse to halt. Make sure that he is standing square on all four legs and that he is accepting the bit with equal pressure on both sides. You make sure the horse is balanced, and then you tighten your left rein slightly without loosening the right one, and you nudge the horse with your left leg. With an inexperienced horse, several things might happen that are not turns on the forehand. The horse may try to move forward. Gently hold him steady. The horse might try to move backwards. Use both legs to hold him steady into the bridle. If he makes even the slightest effort to move only his rear end away from your pressure, reward him and tell him how smart he is. Arabians love to be told they are good and when they understand what you want they will repeat it easily. I like to start the lesson and as soon as the horse moves off away from the leg, that lesson is over and I don’t do it again until the next session.

The first lesson in turning on the forehand

After the horse will move off your leg easily you can ask him to continue to move until his rear end moves all the way around his front end in a circle. Don’t ask for too much at once. Try for a quarter turn, then a half turn, and finally a full 360° turn. If your horse starts getting antsy, you are probably asking too much too soon. This exercise is hard for the horse and causes him to step under with his hind leg. and that is difficult with a rider on your back!


Turning on the forehand

The rider takes a firm but gentle contact on the horse’s reins, making sure that the feel on both sides of the bit is the same. It is important that the horse not be pulled more with one rein than the other. Make sure that the horse lowers his head and stands quietly with an arched neck before asking him to step back. Gently close both legs as though you are asking the horse to move forward and as he starts to do so, squeeze both reins and keep the pressure on until the horse steps back fractionally. DO NOT ask for multiple steps at once, but accept the small backward movement and immediately reward it.

If the horse plants his feet and refuses to move, get your helper to gently push on the horse’s chest while you give the signal from his back. Some horses require a fair amount of chest pressure. As soon as the horse moves back, stop the pressure and reward his efforts. While it is tempting to practice backing again, I have found that sometimes that sets up a good bit of resistance. If you leave the initial lesson short, the horse will realize that the momentary discomfort from backing with a rider aboard is worth the reward. The next time you ask for a step backward, it will come more easily.

Backing exercises

Backing can be very difficult for the horse, especially if he is young or weak. The initial backing lessons should be achieved with a helper on hand in case the horse plants his feet and refuses to move. I start asking a young horse to back early in his training, as it can be a necessary response to have in case of emergencies.

Beginning to back the horse

When the horse will easily back one step instantly, start asking for two, then three, etc. In horse shows you are usually asked to back three or four steps and then to come forward to the line up so it is good to teach your horse that maneuver.

Turning and Backing

When your horse is comfortable with backing straight and does not hesitate when asked to do so, you can start teaching him to turn while backing. We start by asking for a simple right angle turn (which is one step of a turn on the forehand). Back your horse three or four steps straight back, and then (for a left turn) put a bit more pressure on the right side of the horse’s mouth, and use your right leg to nudge your horse’s quarters over. This is a turn on the forehand at the halt. Pause and reward your horse for his successful turn, and then proceed to back four more steps straight back. This exercise is very good for helping your horse understand lateral aids, and it is also handy for opening gates.

When a horse can happily do one right angle turn while backing, I add more turns. Be careful to observe your horse and if he is getting tense, reward him by doing forward movements. Some horses really get tense with repeated backing exercises, and it is always better to let a horse gradually work up to the difficult tests.

Advanced backing exercise: backing the horse around a series of cones

The advanced horse should be able to back through anything you put behind him. We use a series of traffic cones in all kinds of different configurations to test our horses’ backing skills, but anything from jump poles on the ground to 55-gallon drums make good backing obstacles.

When the really advanced horses show their stuff, we add distractions and annoyances so that the horse has to pay close attention to the rider. I like to tie whirligigs to the tress, hang streamers from the backing obstacles, make the horse back while carrying odd objects, etc. Anything you can think of to test the advanced horse will only further instill the confidence you and your horse have in each other and your backing abilities.

Side passing

The sidepass (which can be done Western or English and is only performed at the walk) is often required in trail classes. We like to introduce the young horse to side passing before they are ridden, but as with everything else you do with a horse, they do not always translate what you did then to what you ask for on board so we will talk about the process as though the horse has no idea whatsoever about this exercise.

Halt the horse squarely with a ground pole between the front and hind legs

As the horse learns this exercise, its body may not remain perpendicular to the ground pole.

Start out by having your horse halt with his legs on either side of a pole on the ground. Although this exercise sounds simple, you would be surprised by the number of horses that object to it. Take an even contact on both reins and move both hands slightly in the direction that you want the horse to move. In other words, if you want the horse to go sideways to the right, move both of your hands to the right.

Take your left leg behind the girth and gently but firmly push on the horse’s side. Some horses will try to go forward but you need to hold them steady. When the horse moves one little tiny step sideways, you need to reward the horse and stop that lesson for the day. This step can take quite awhile, and it may require the help of a partner on the ground to reinforce your side signals with a push or a tap. Your goal is to have the horse move sideways while keeping its body perpendicular to the pole. While horses are learning this maneuver they tend to get crooked on the pole and this is not ever to be punished.

The horse eventually learns to keep its body straight while moving sideways

The horse will work it out with practice and as you and the horse understand each other better the side pass will improve.

Side passing is handy in all sorts of situations. Opening gates is the most obvious application, but a well-trained horse can be a help around the farm and can happily carry a rider to take out the trash, go get the mail, move small objects around the farm, and so on.

Advanced exercises in sidepassing

You can sidepass over any number of obstacles. Everything that you do with your horse helps the two of you trust one another and makes the bond between you more pleasurable and satisfying.


Although most folks are not particularly interested in teaching their horse the type of jumping one sees in the Olympics, many Arabians love to jump and it is handy and fun for both horse and rider. The obvious advantage to jumping is the unexpected encounter with an obstacle you cannot go around on a trail ride. Hopping over is a neat way to get across it, and when done properly it is safe and fun for everyone.

We start out horses jumping by having them walk and trot over poles on the ground so that they become familiar with having to avoid stepping on things on the ground. Simple walking exercises with poles on the ground are suitable for all horses from babies to adults newly under saddle, or adults just learning to do interesting things. The only real rule about going over obstacles on the ground is that you always center your horse on the object, and you always make sure the horse has enough rein to look at what he is doing and notice what is in front of him.

When walking over ground poles, give the horse enough rein to see the obstacle before it

When your horse can walk over poles without becoming agitated, tripping over them, or otherwise demonstrating a need for further work, start trotting over the poles. Poles can be placed 4, 8, or 12 feet apart. The further apart they are, the easier they are for the horse to negotiate, so you might start out with poles 12 feet apart and gradually work down to 4 feet apart. Do not start trotting the poles until you and your horse are both comfortable with walking them. Many horses have decided that things on the ground are scary because they were forced to go over them without being taught how, or without being allowed to develop confidence. Horses are naturally shy and they progress much more rapidly and happily when they receive step-by-step lessons and are allowed to master one thing before being faced with a more difficult task.

When your horse happily trots over poles on the ground and seems to think that it is a fun activity, you are ready to start raising the poles a bit. I start with one raised pole only, but many people put a series of four poles on the ground flat, and then raise the last one. There are many correct ways to do things, and the thinking rider will figure out what will work best for him. Trotting over a slightly elevated (perhaps 6 or 8 inches off the ground) pole can sometimes be quite exciting for the young horse.

The horse may trot through low obstacles

A beginning jumper may get a bit rapid or overjump a small obstacle. It is the rider’s job to sit quietly with his hands on the horse’s crest, allowing the horse to figure out its balance without undue pulling or signaling. Ideally the rider stays passive and makes sure that his hands are supported on the horse’s neck. If the horse unexpectedly jumps a bit higher, then the rider will not lose his balance and hit the horse in the mouth. Horses have many different reactions to initial jumping experiences. It is the rider’s job to make sure that he does not interfere with the balance and thrust of the jump.

The horse learns to jump a variety of low obstacles and gains confidence

As the horse progresses in confidence and skill the jumps can be slowly raised and modified so that the horse learn to confidently negotiate all kinds of strange looking jumps. As with all training it is a good idea to check your horse’s attitude frequently. If you see that what you are doing is causing your horse stress, you may need to back off a bit and let the horse practice an earlier step. If you skip steps, you are in danger of having your horse injure himself and thereby diminish his confidence in you.

Allow the horse to find its balance when beginning jumping exercises

You will need to ride with a light and well-balanced seat to help your horse learn how to balance itself over jumps.