If you "listen" carefully, can you feel your horse's subtle weight shifts when you begin a turn? Can you tell if your horse uses his hind end while heading into a turn, or does he feel stiff and awkward, almost like he's leaving his legs behind the movement?
Most horses will enter a turn in the latter manner, if nothing is done to "set up" the turn in the first place.
What You Don't Want
You will know this type of turn by identifying these signs:
He will brace against the reins. You might find that he increases the pressure on your hands, gets hollow in his back, and shortens his stride length (in the hind end) as he goes into the turn.
He may throw his shoulder down into the ground. This looks and feels like the horse goes momentarily "stick-legged" - rather than flowing easily underneath you, the leg feels rigid and unmovable. Generally, he will "lose steam" through the turn - it looks like he is lazy and unwilling to go forward.
Finally, he will probably lift his neck and head in an effort to counteract the imbalance to the forehand.
It is likely that he will continue through the turn, and the legs will take you where you want to go, but the posture and balance of the horse is compromised through the entire movement.
What You Do Want
In contrast, the well-prepared turn looks and feels very different:
Before beginning the turn, the horse shifts his weight, steps further under his body with his hind legs, rounds his back, and reaches for the bit.
He increases his impulsion (even if it appears like no change to the onlooker) and appears to be eagerly (not necessarily quickly) moving forward.
When he begins the turn, the change of direction seems effortless and intentional. The legs just flow in rhythmical, ground-covering fashion.
And as always, the rider appears to be doing nothing!
4 Steps to a Great Turn
Step 1: Shift the horse's weight to the outside (using the inside rein and leg).
Step 2: Support the bend with the outside rein and leg.
Step 3: "Bounce" off the outside aids (inside rein should be light and almost unused).
Step 4: Inside front leg reaches in to the first turn step, followed lightly by the body.
Step 5: Half-halt, right through the turn. This last half-halt helps your horse stay in balance after the turn.
Step 1 and 2: These occur on the straight line before heading into the turn. This is also the moment of engagement - when the horse reaches further underneath the body, lifts the back, rounds and reaches for contact. The weight shifts to the outside just enough to allow the inside of the horse to free up to step into the turn. Once Step 2 is complete, the horse is prepared with a nice light bend, ready to take the first turn step.
Step 3: The "bounce" is the result of your outside aids becoming active. It feels like first you embrace the horse as he fills your outside rein and leg, and then you become active and gently urge him to step away from it all. Through this step, you maintain an inside flexion first with your inside leg and then with your inside rein.
The perfect Step 3 feels like you have a fluttering contact with your inside rein, and the horse is lightly wrapped around your inside leg but pleasantly swelled to the outside. Your own body is exactly in balance with the horse - your hips and shoulders open into the turn in parallel with your horse's shoulders.
Step 4: The horse is now taking his first step into the turn. It is as if you set it all up, and now you are setting the horse free! Here, you just follow - with your seat, hands and balance.
Step 5: A half-halt shortly after the first turn step will help the horse stay in balance rather than give to gravity. Keep riding - don't stop your leg, seat and hand aids just because you started the turn.
You now have a choice - take another step into the turn, or come out of the turn.
Don't be in a rush!
In general, it may take several strides to achieve Steps 1 to 3. Your horse may continue to brace/throw his head/drop the shoulder, maybe even worse than before you tried to set him up. Learn to wait through the upheaval. Keep your aids on calmly but insistently and wait for the moment that you can reward him - even for a small change in the right direction.
Try this at the walk, then trot and canter. Your horse should always enter a turn the same way - shift out to turn in.
One last thought: do not rush the turn, for the turn itself is not the end goal. The goal of this (and any) movement is to help your horse achieve balance within the movement. The movement itself is a breeze after that!
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