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Wrangling on the Range #136

Healthy Show horse; Sidepass on the Ground



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Maintain a Healthy Show Horse; Sidepass on the Ground

Top reiner Dell Hendricks offers tips for keeping an athletic
mount sound and fit. Julie Goodnight offers tips for teaching a
horse to sidepass from the ground.



I've set my goals, and one of them is to do my best to maintain a
healthy, fit horse so I can actively compete. I have had bad luck
with pulled ligaments in the past when I've competed with my
horse at reining events. What are some ex ercises that you do
with your horses to help them stay as physically fit as possible
for high-performance events?

Angie Shoaf, Georgia


You have a great goal, and you can take steps to keep your horse
healthy. You're right to be concerned about your horse's
ligaments-especially if you're active in speed events or highly
athletic events such as reining.
It's important to understand the leg structures and to remember
that fatigue and lack of warm-up time can cause your horse
injury. Ligaments connect bones together and are made of dense
connective tissue. Horses don't have muscles below their knees
and hocks, so the ligaments in their legs take on great amounts
of stress.
Making sure your horse is in shape before and between shows will
condition him and guard against injury. Most of the time, I've
found that pulled ligaments happen when a horse runs out of air.
They just don't have enough oxygen in their blood, and something
has to give. It's most important to make sure your horse has
stamina. You want a well-conditioned horse with strong muscles
and stamina to keep going before you start doing lots of

Work your way up to 45 minutes of constant trotting and loping to
ensure that your horse is in shape. Ride five days with the
conditioning plan, then take two days off for recovery. Here's my
plan to get my finished horses fit before show season starts.

Start 45 to 60 days before the first show you plan to attend. For
the first week, work your horse at a trot for five minutes in
each direction, then ask him to lope five minutes in each
direction. Listen to your horse; if he's really out of breath,
allow him to walk for a lap or two before continuing. If your
horse has been standing in a pen and hasn't been exercised often,
20 minutes is plenty of exercise at the start. Ride your horse
three to four times a week - just getting him moving around the
pen at a trot and lope. It's not the most exciting workout plan,
but it will help him get in shape.

For week two, trot five minutes in each direction, but work up to
10 minutes of loping in each direction. For week three, trot 10
minutes then lope 10 minutes, both in each direction. I work my
horses in intervals - trotting then loping. You have to watch
your horse, too. If he's really breathing heavy, go back to a
walk for a few moments, then build up speed again. Go back and
forth between walking, trotting, and loping, and pay attention to
your horse. Your horse will tell you what it takes to get in
shape if you listen to him.

Once you've reached the point where your horse can keep
moving for 40 to 45 minutes without being out of breath, keep him
at that workout plan for another 30 days. All that time, continue
to focus on riding around the pen - not practicing your
maneuvers. I know that sounds boring, but it's what it takes to
get your horse in shape. Plus, if you have a well-trained horse,
he's going to remember how to do the maneuvers.

To maintain condition in the middle of show season, keep riding.
I often hear about riders who don't ride enough between shows and
before practicing maneuvers. It's fine to give your horse a few
days off after a big show, but then you need to ride. Your job
through show season is to ride - trotting and loping, not
practicing maneuvers. You want to polish your maneuvers, but if
you're riding a good, finished horse, you just want to keep him
in shape and not practice too much.

Also make sure your horse warms up and cools down 10 minutes
before and after practice and shows. Give your horse time to walk
on a loose rein and get moving. But even more than planning for
warm-up time, make sure your horse is fully in shape before you
ask him to do maneuvers and go all out at a show.

The footing you ride on can also impact your horse's legs. If you
ride at a reining barn, you most likely have good conditions for
stopping and other big maneuvers. You don't want to work in deep
sand. Make sure the ground you're working in is no deeper than
two to three inches. Working in deep sand can lead to pulled
ligaments because there's too much work for your horse. Just like
it's difficult for us to run in deep sand on the beach, deep sand
makes it harder on your horse. You also don't want too compact
ground, because there's more impact, and that's tough on your
horse's joints.

DELL HENDRICKS, Tioga, Texas. Dell has won nearly every major
reining event on the calendar, has competed internationally on
the USA's reining teams at the World Equestrian Games, and has
won nearly $1.5 million during his career as a reining horse
trainer. Learn more about him at


Help! My daughter, who's 14 years old, enrolled her 2-year-old
Arabian gelding in a 4-H ground-training project and intends to
show him in a ground-training class at our county fair. In one of
the required tests, she has to side pass him over a ground pole,
without touching his body for cueing. How does a person teach
this skill?

Jennifer Peoples, Oklahoma


Horses are very good at learning and responding to hand signals;
that's what you'll use to sidepass your horse from the ground
without touching him.
In the herd, horses communicate primarily with gestures and
postures. They're used to looking for clues about what you're
communicating, because they would look for cues from others in
the herd. When I begin groundwork training with any horse, I use
very specific hand signalseven if the horse doesn't yet know what
they mean. I point to the right when I want the horse to go right
or point to the left when I want the horse to go left. I have one
hand signal for backing and one for coming to me, and I use my
hands very specifically when I want the horse to speed up or slow
down. With a little time, the horse picks up the subtle cues, and
I can move any part of the horse's body by just pointing to it.
This idea is what you'll use for your sidepassing cue.
A horse learns hand signals (like pointing to his shoulder)
when you reinforce your signal with other aids (swinging the rope
or tapping him with a stick). By using the hand signal (or voice
cue) first, then reinforcing the cue, the horse quickly learns
that if he responds to the hand signal, the reinforcement won't
be necessary. You shouldn't use the hand signal repeatedly-give
the horse one chance to respond, then reinforce with stronger

You'll lay the foundation for sidepassing by doing much simpler
exercises with your horse like leading, circling, backing, and
moving the shoulder or hip away from you. As you work on
fundamental leading skills, the horse will learn to focus on what
your hands and posture are doing for information on what he's
supposed to do (speed up, slow down, stop, or turn).
It will be helpful to use a flag or stick (a 48-inch rigid rod)
in the beginning, so that when you gesture with your hand for the
horse to move away, he sees the stick waving at him. You might
even need to reinforce the gesture by touching him or tapping
him with the stick. To move the horse's shoulder, focus on his
shoulder and point the stick right at it as you move toward his
shoulder. If he doesn't move that part of his body away, the
stick will run into him. After a few reinforcements with the
stick, your horse will learn to respond to the hand signal by
moving his shoulder away before anything touches him.
To practice moving your horse's shoulder, always turn the horse
away from you, to reinforce him moving out of your space. The
more responsive your horse becomes, the tighter and quicker the
turns, until the horse begins to cross over his front legs and
pivot on the hindquarters. Thus, you are gaining control of his
To move his hip, learn how to disengage your horse's hindquarters
and make him take a step away from you with his hind end,
crossing his hind legs. Again, by pointing toward his hip, moving
toward him, and shaking the flag at him, he'll learn the cue. But
be careful while you're teaching this to your horse, because it
would not be unusual for him to become defensive and want to kick

Once you can move your horse's nose, shoulder, and hip with hand
signals, you have all the skills you need for sidepassing. All
you have to do is point at his hip with one hand and point at his
shoulder with the other hand, and he'll know to yield both his
shoulder and hip at the same time.
When you begin practicing the sidepass, it's helpful to lead your
horse to a fence, nose to the rail, just like you would to teach
a sidepass from the saddle. This will eliminate forward motion
and help the horse understand the cue sooner.

To practice, stand at his side - in the middle of his body - with
a slack lead in the hand nearest his head. Then start gesturing
with both hands - one finger pointing directly at his shoulder
and one hand pointing directly at his hip. Take a step toward him
and cluck at him to let him know you expect him to move. Watch
his barrel closely, and at the first indication that he's
yielding his body, release the cue and praise him. You won't
necessarily wait until he steps sideways; at the first sign he's
thinking about moving in the right direction, release and praise.
He'll learn the cue much more quickly that way. Ask again and
release and reward any movement in the correct direction. Soon
he'll step sideways with both the shoulder and hip, but you
should release after just one step until you're getting a single
step reliably and effortlessly; then you can start asking for two
steps at a time. Take your time, and be slow and systematic with
your horse, you don't want him to develop anxiety and resistance.
Through frequent releases and lots of praise, he'll learn to love
it and eagerly look for the cue.

As with any skill you teach your horse, teach it on both sides.
Start with the left side, sidepassing to the right, because he's
most used to you handling him from that side. Practice for five
to 10 minutes on that side, then give your horse a break by doing
something easier. Come back and practice on the off side.
Switching from side to side is more challenging for the horse,
and as he's learning a new skill, it's best to work on one side
at a time.

Neither the horse nor your daughter knows how to do this
maneuver, so you might need the help of a more experienced
handler to school the horse and supervise your daughter to avoid
problems and miscues and to make sure your daughter stays in a
safe position and doesn't get kicked. My video called "Lead Line
Leadership" demonstrates and explains all the skills needed to
achieve this goal, and there are numerous articles in the
"Training Library" on my Web site that will help.

JULIE GOODNIGHT, Salida, Colorado. Julie is known as a skilled
communicator and horsewoman. Her diverse background has given her
a great appreciation of the horse, and she's determined to
educate horse owners how to best interact with their equines.
Learn more about Julie at:


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