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How to Think Like A Horse: The Essential Handbook for Understanding Why Horses Do What They Do

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Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage: Designing and Managing Your Equine Facilities

- Leg Placement and Awareness -

By: Sally Blattenberger

 Later on in your students' riding careers, it will become vitally important that they know where the horse's legs and hooves are at all times, especially when it comes to jumping and spacing distances between fences. There are several good ways to accomplish this beginning foot awareness.


Place poles around the arena at random points ' to start with, you can just use one if you'd like. Make sure there is plenty of room around it on all sides, with plenty of room for walking and trotting. Have your students start by walking over the pole, one at a time. Let them watch the horse's shoulders to see which foot steps over the pole first, then have them call out which one it was.


Do this exercise several times until they're consistently calling out the correct foot. Then see if they can still tell which foot steps over, without looking! If they suddenly start having trouble with this, practice by having them walk in a straight line (along the rail or something similar) and call out 'right, left, right, left' in time with the horse's steps. You can also use 'one, two, one, two' as the beat. Once they've mastered this skill, go back to using the pole. Starting several strides before the pole, help your student by calling out 'Right, left, right, left' and then leave it up to them to figure out which foot steps over first. At this point the rider will be 'feeling' where the horse''s shoulders, legs, and feet are. This is definitely a remedial exercise and it generally doesn't take very long before students are very good at it.

Again, this is an excellent tool to use to help your students understand where the horse's feet are at certain points, and in the course of practicing this they should start to be able to feel when the horse has to extend or shorten its stride to make it over the pole without hitting it. There are plenty of ways to keep this exercise, like all the others, interesting. Have your students close their eyes when they go over the pole, then add the 'feel' to it by having them tell you which foot goes over the pole first. Instruct them to stop at a certain point (approximately ten or twenty feet) away from the pole, close their eyes, and count the steps until they get to the pole. Then have them try it with their eyes open.


So the exercise would look like this, broken down into steps:
1. Student stops horse twenty feet away from pole, straight on.
2. Rides horse forward at a walk, counting steps until they reach the pole.
3. Looks down to see which foot steps over first.
4. Rider circles back around to starting point.
5. Student closes eyes, walks horse forward, counting steps
6. Student tells by 'feel' which foot goes over the pole first.
7. Student opens eyes and walks back to starting point.

This can be varied, too ' have your students assume two-point position going over the pole, eyes open or closed, and tell you which leg goes over first. Have them stand up in their stirrups, eyes open or closed, and tell you which foot goes over first.


For children and even adults, you can make this exercise fun, too! Instruct them to drop their stirrups the moment they go over the pole, or to drop their reins going over, or hold their arms straight up in the air going over. The possibilities are endless!


  • Walk over the pole ' tell which foot goes over first, eyes closed

  •  Walk over pole ' tell which foot goes over LAST, eyes closed

  •  Walk over pole ' tell which BACK foot goes over first

  •  Walk over pole ' tell which back foot goes over LAST (these will take some watching and helping on the part of the instructor!)

  •  Walk over pole ' drop reins going over

  •  Walk over pole ' hold arms out to sides

  •  Walk over pole ' stand up in stirrups, tell which foot goes over (first, last, etc)

  •  Trot over pole, tell which foot goes over first

  •  Trot over pole, two-point position, tell which foot goes over first

  •  Trot over pole, eyes closed, tell which foot goes over first (or last)

  •  Weave through cones, go over pole, tell which foot goes over first (last)

  •  Walk or trot over pole, call out which foot goes over pole first

  •  Line students up and have them do these exercises one after the other, staying one horse length away from the one in front of them

  •  Have students go over the pole in pairs, or set up two poles side by side (like one long pole) and have students go over them, calling out which foot goes over the pole first

  •  Trot over pole, eyes closed in two-point position, call out which foot goes over first

This is just a small sampling of the exercises you can do with the foot awareness. The sky is the limit! Use your imagination. Incorporate the use of cones, barrels, poles, markers, etc. to challenge your students and make them think about what they're doing and what their horses are doing. Try not to let your students become discouraged ' if they keep getting it wrong, help them out by calling out 'right, left' until they go over the pole, so that then it's nearly impossible for them to get it wrong.


Remember to encourage your students ' don't demean or belittle them in any way. Horseback riding is supposed to be fun, whether you're learning or just having fun, messing around. Don't make it a time of terror and no fun for children that can easily have their self-esteem messed with. Make it enjoyable ' keep their interest, give them plenty of different things to do. Realize, as the riding instructor, that if one way to teach something doesn't work, you need to find an alternative option, a way of reaching same goal by a different means! If telling an 8-year-old girl 'put your heels down' doesn't work, and her heels keep coming up, try it a different way ' 'point your toes up towards the sky!' or have her try to touch your hand with her heel, while your hand is a considerable amount lower than her heel. She'll have to stretch down to reach your hand.


So you see, it doesn't have to be monotonous or boring. Even this far into this instruction book, I've given you enough ideas for lessons to teach for months on end, to any amount of students you could possibly want. I hope that so far it's helped ' given you new, different ideas that you're excited to try as soon as possible. Just with writing this book, I've come up with many new ideas and ways of doing things, and thought of plenty of new suggestions and philosophies for riding instruction. Part of the challenge of being a riding instructor is the day-to-day improvement! You have to constantly strive to be the best at what you do, and always learn more. Be open to what others have to say, for you might be able to glean ideas from their words. Never be too proud to take someone else's suggestion ' but as always, take everything with a grain of salt.

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