In case you didn't already know, shoulder control is a pretty big deal. We use shoulder control to help a horse travel on a straight line, to follow the rail, to move sideways, and other lateral maneuvers. We even use it to calm a horse down and help them be more mentally focused. However, most novice riders and teachers of novice horsemanship only highlight the importance of hind-quarter control. For instance, if you lose control of your horse and he starts bucking, just pull on one rein and spin him in a circle, which causes his hind feet to cross, giving you the ability to keep his feet on the ground and hopefully, giving you enough time to dismount and get into a better space. So, just to be clear, I'm not here to dispute the value of hind-quarter control. In fact... I'm here to reinforce it but in an entirely different way.
"Which way?" you might ask. "In this way," I'd reply...
When you're ready, as a student, you must learn to control the shoulders to engage in higher levels of horsemanship, including flying lead changes and more. Ironically, to control the shoulders, you must also understand where those hind-quarters are so they don't mess up your shoulder movements. In the above picture, you'll notice I'm asking my horse Raspberry to yield his shoulders to his left, but to do so, I have to place my leg back behind the girth to ensure the hind-quarters stay grounded. If I don't help the hind-quarters, they will move and totally screw up the balance I'm trying to achieve. This, although basic, is the most critical part of understanding shoulder movements.
When a rider attempts to do a flying change, there is always a handful of reasons in which he won't succeed. First, if the horse loses impulsion and fails to maintain a rhythmic canter. Second, if the horse turns to quickly, causing a dip or drop in the shoulder. And third, if the hind-quarters go swimming across the arena without the rider's awareness. There are a few other reasons, of course, but primarily... a lead change (not direction change) from right to left in the canter, while cantering (this is called a flying lead change) falls apart because the rider isn't aware of where the shoulders and hind quarters are in space and time. If you aren't able to manipulate where they are while moving at speed, you won't be able to control the shift in body shape needed to achieve the flying lead change.
Put your leg on, hold with your hand, lean back, lean forward, lean to the side, hold your tongue out, hold one eye closed, you name it. Nothing you do will matter if you don't have good shoulder and hind-quarter awareness and control. So back to square one here. For safety, hind-quarter control is valuable. For progress, hind-quarter control is essential. For practice and application however, put your attention to the shoulders. It's the shoulders that must shift off their line and back across that line, that will allow you to achieve that flying lead change. Start small, even while standing still, like in the picture above, and teach those front legs to cross one in front of the other. Then advance to walking yields such as "shoulder in."
There are lots of "rules" people make about what "shoulder in" means technically. Forget about if for now. We'll get into all that later. Let's keep things simple here. Just hold those hind-quarters on the center line and try getting the shoulders off that center line to the inside of the arena. Don't go way off track, just a little. Keep walking straight ahead. If you can achieve a shoulder yield maneuver while walking straight ahead, you're on your way to a flying lead change one day. If you can't, I bet you can guess the problem.
You got it... It's those darn hind-quarters swimming off the center line. So now it's time to start practicing hind-quarter control while walking so you can keep those darn things lined up for advancing maneuvers too. If you can manipulate hind-quarters and shoulders, and flexion, and speed, you can start practicing counter bends, and half-passes. And soon... flying lead changes. Sounds fun right? It is!!!
Okay, homework time. Are you ready?
Sit on your horse and tell him how lucky you are to have him or her in your life. Then... ask him to move his hind end one step to the left without the front end. Then ask for the front end without his hind end. Be nice, be rewarding, don't do full circles. You're goal is to make one step easy, not ten steps ugly. Once you've achieved this goal (could be a few sessions), try moving the hind-quarters and shoulders while walking in a straight line along a fence or rail, or even a rope or series of cones. You don't need to own an indoor arena to make progress. If you feel you've got a good handle on the shoulders and hips independently, while moving, try moving them together, at the same time, away from your line of travel to another line. Like changing lanes in a car without turning the wheel. Just slipping from one lane to the next while facing forward.
It's so much fun! Don't wait to start! There is no vehicle on the planet that can give you the sensation horses can give while doing lateral maneuvers. I'm a pilot, a commercial driver, a motorcycle rider, and more. Nothing compares to horses doing lateral maneuvers well.
One last thing. I made a faux paw, comparing a horse to a vehicle. They are so much more than that. There is an incredible spiritual connection between horses and humans. I don't have to ride to feel that. And that should be a reminder to stay connected to your horse regardless of progress. Be nice, be firm when you need to be, but be nice and rewarding. And if you're having a good time, don't forget to tell your face about it. Show your positive energy to your horse. Be his friend and leader and see how all your dreams with horses can come true!
I believe in you! Join me at the next level of horsemanship. Start moving those shoulders. And if you want to learn more, I've got tons of videos and progress maps, just for you in our horse mastery university. Check it out asap! Limited spots available. Red rover, red rover, come on over!
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