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Before I dive into an effective exercise for flexing and elevating our horse’s ribs, it’s critical to understand the reasons WHY achieving this roundness through a horse’s midsection – both latitudinally and longitudinally, is so important.
To start with, a horse that is dropped or concave down its topline will tend to be elevated and strung out at the front and back ends, meaning higher head positions and hind legs that trail out behind rather than reaching powerfully under the body.
A horse that drops their midsection laterally to the inside of a circle is not in an athletic position either. It’s not uncommon to see horses with this positioning habit tip barrels, prepare for the turn too soon, and even fall down. This unbalanced and off center “inside out” shape makes any athletic maneuver more difficult, awkward and therefore, SLOW.
When a horse truly lifts their back and rounds their body, space is created for the hind legs to more easily reach under, which more effectively supports a horse’s bodyweight for ultimate propulsion. At the same time, as the ribs both elevate upward and flex to the outside of a circle, a horse will tend to naturally bring their head set lower, tip their nose to the inside and really engage that inside hind leg.
As barrel racers, we often spend a lot of time getting our horse’s both soft in the face and “level headed,” as well as driving their hind end forward to achieve collection. But we don’t have to be bumping our horses or constantly driving the rear end to accomplish it. In fact, it’s quite possible that be being more aware of the “middle” would resolve many problems that occur at each end!
In advanced stages of a horse’s development, our goal is to achieve “self-carriage,” where the horse actually maintains responsibility for moving with quality. Even in the beginning stages, collection it’s not something we force or teach by “holding them in position.” It’s important that we do all we can to teach our horses to travel in a balanced, collected fashion – this means educating them by setting it up and waiting, through well-timed pressure and release, and especially, making the right thing very, very easy.
The benefits of better biomechanics is that when our horse lifts their back and travels in a balanced and collected way, it’s much easier on their entire body – meaning they’re less likely to suffer from soft tissue injuries and joint problems because they aren’t putting the stress and strain on their body that traveling with poor posture and poor quality contributes to.
When you think about the aged rodeo campaigner, the “normal” picture is often a horse with atrophy around the withers and shoulder, a slightly sunken in top line and maybe even the start of sway back. However, if we teach our horses to travel correctly, and if we RIDE correctly (a well-fitting saddle helps immensely as well), our horses should become more beautiful as they age. Even though conformation and weight plays a part, evidence of HOW we work our horses shows up in how our horses look.
Any type of athlete is going to be better prepared for quick movement and action when they are poised and balanced over their feet. Which is why when I rode with Matthew Bohman this summer, he suggested I shorten my stirrups a bit – to be in a more athletic position myself, as well as make it possible to communicate more clearly with my legs and spurs.
Speaking of spurs, they can be of great value to the horseman who truly understands their purpose (it’s not what you might think) and how to use them properly – one such use is inspiring the horse to really lift and round their back.
As a long legged rider, I had always found effectively using my legs without interrupting good, balanced riding to be a challenge. Thanks to Mr. Bohman’s expert advice, that’s not the case anymore!
Many barrel racers are pretty keen on creating lateral flexion through the body, but what many don’t realize is that they are often creating the illusion of full-body bend, OR that they are actually causing the horse to over bend, which inhibits their athleticism rather than supports it. Finding that “sweet spot” of perfect positioning is subtle, which is why it’s so often overlooked and misunderstood. If you find yourself or your horse doing anything “extreme” in your positioning, there’s probably a weak link somewhere.
What even more barrel racers seem to be missing however, is the critical part that involves really lifting that rib cage and rounding the back to create true collection, which opens the door to reveal an athlete in your horse you may have never even realized existed!
What’s just as critical for barrel racers to realize is how we can develop this and then truly progress to doing more with less. After all, if we want this awesome posture not only at HIGH SPEEDS, but with ONE HAND – we simply can’t be babysitting our horses. Instead, we must empower them to move with quality and maintain that quality under all circumstances.
Today I’ll be describing a little exercise that was not new to me, but until Matthew guided me through it, I hadn’t realized the little adjustments I was needing to make in order to truly reap the benefits. I knew my horses were pretty educated, pretty handy, and pretty athletic, but for a horse like Dot Com especially, who came to us with well-established, not so positive movement patterns, the difference in him has been nothing short of phenomenal!
Start by riding your horse forward in a small circle then wind down to the smallest circle you can make while still moving forward. As you do, use your inside leg to ask your horse to bend his rib cage to the outside, essentially wrapping his body around your leg (click here for more tips on this part).
Next, shift your focus and your weight up and back a bit while applying leg pressure on the opposite side just at or slightly in front of the cinch. Lift your inside rein hand up and out to tip the nose slightly, while maintaining subtle contact with the outside rein for support and to prevent over bending of the neck. Ask your horse to elevate the shoulders to sweep his outside front feet across and go into a little turn around. As you do, he’ll be engaging his hindquarters by planting an inside pivot foot.
It’s acceptable to keep a little bit of inside leg pressure at your horse’s midsection for a subtle “scissor effect” with your leg. Remember, we don’t want your horse to stiffen and drop into a turn around, but to stay elevated, shaped and round. Once you feel some nice correct steps, walk off in a straight line to reward your horse. When you’re ready, try the same process the other direction. Once you’ve made some significant improvement at a walk, advance to a trot. Each time shoot for at least a 1% improvement in quickness and positioning.
Don’t worry if it feels a little slow and klunky at first, especially if this is new to your horse. If this maneuver is one that your horse does well – stay open to the possibility that great benefits come from doing it even better! Remember that slow and correct beats fast and wrong, but fast and right beats everything! So in time, if you’re not quite progressing, there’s probably one or more minor elements that aren’t quite lining up.
When performing barrel racing exercises, remember that HOW you go about it is more important than the exercise itself. With this one in particular, it’s very easy to use too much or too little inside or outside rein (I needed to use more outside rein), too much or too little leg (too little being more common), or to use these aids in a way that your horse doesn’t understand. It could be that your horse needs to be better educated on the ingredients such as responding and respecting our leg or the rein contact, or that he’s getting bogged down or is even too freely walking forward out of the turn. It’s also possible that your own focus or weight is getting in the horses way – all things to keep in mind as you’re troubleshooting.
I had thought I had done this exercise with success in the past, but what Matthew’s guidance showed me was that “I ain’t felt nothin’ yet.” I was grinning from ear to ear when Dot Com swept around lightning fast with his nose tipped, and his back lifted – all with relatively little guidance from me. Dot Com had pretty well developed ingredients, but still a tendency to react vs. respond, and become tense – which caused him to hollow his back and raise his head – severely limiting the athleticism in which we could do anything.
Rather than back off when he showed these signs, we kept at it, and kept at it. I kept asking until Dot Com responded positively. The trouble most people get in, is that they retreat at the wrong time, which is easy to do with an emotional horse. When we release by getting softer when a horse overreacts or does something that feels or looks “ugly” – we’re teaching the horse to do what we don’t want even better. Dot com didn’t need me to back off to restore his calmness in this case, I needed to hang in there until he “got it together.”
As someone with experience in reining, trust me when I say that when you try this, you’re most likely either not experiencing the full awesomeness of true correctness or there’s some aspect of it that you’re not quite nailing, because when you DO – it’s not only a THRILL, but it feels effortless. I used to really find myself having to make my horse step around quickly, and really encourage them or hold them in shape, but now there is a quality greater then ever before, and Dot Com OFFERS it – BIG difference!
How well you can perform this exercise will say a lot about how great your turns are on the barrel pattern, as well as how successful and quick the preparation for those turns is. If you and your horse are pretty advanced, but you can’t quite say he/she has that amazing WHOOSH of a turn that is super quick, and requires very little on your part – that’s where Matthew comes in.
He has an eye and a feel for things that most horse people don’t, and HE can help YOU create this amazing full body elevation and flexion, as he has for ME – which is why we’ve created a unique opportunity for YOU to ride with us soon.
Can you imagine what this kind of change could mean in competition?
A nose tipped in the direction of travel, a lifted round back, elevated shoulders, hind legs engaged and reaching far under the body, moving with such quality that it encourages the health and longevity, makes transitions into the barrels easy, creates efficient turns AND sets your horse up to leave them with ultimate and quickness…
The greatest part is that all this not only looks good and feels good, but it CLOCKS GOOD.
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Matthew Bohman has done his share of cowboy work, roping and branding over the years in addition to starting colts with Martin Black and Bryan Neubert. He’s made a living training horses since age sixteen and has ridden more than 1,100 young and challenging horses.
A specific passion for reined cow horses has led him to spend time with renowned reining horse trainer, Clint Haverty, as well as World Champion NRHA, NRCHA and AQHA trainer Jay McLaughlin, and cutting horse trainer Doug Jordan.
Today, Matthew is more than prepared to begin the next leg of his journey – helping students reach their horsemanship goals. Click here to check out and LIKE Mathew Bohman Horsemanship on Facebook!