Q: Whenever I ride, my horse travels so close to the arena wall that I almost hit my knee on it. I have hit my knee before. How can I keep him a little farther off the rail?
A: Hugging the rail is an easy habit for both horses and riders to develop, especially if you ride in a small, crowded arena. Initially, you may both seek out the rail for the safety it provides from oncoming traffic. Without realizing it, you can let it become a crutch, controlling where you go and when you turn. This unfortunately encourages you to neglect your outside aids, which allows your horse to travel crooked and out of balance.
Fortunately, you can turn this problem into a learning opportunity. By focusing on the solutions I recommend, you can teach yourself to ride more effectively with your outside aids while increasing your awareness of your horse and the horses around you. In turn, your horse's balance and straightness will improve which will make him a safer and more enjoyable partner.
Start by practicing staying off the rail as much as possible. Be creative! Ride down the centerline, the quarterlines and across the diagonals. Make circles, figure eights and serpentines, both on the correct bend and in counter bend. If you know Western reiners, ask them to teach you their patterns. The goal is to rely on the rail as little as possible so that you take full responsibility for steering your horse around the arena and your horse learns to tune into your aids rather than simply follow the rail.
This may sound simple, but it requires a certain level of focus and homework to be truly effective. Before initiating a figure or pattern, visualize exactly where you'll do it. Carefully plan every turn and straightaway, choosing focal points other than the rail whenever you can--cones, jump standards, mounting blocks, etc. For example, if you ride a serpentine, rather than touching the rail on every loop, plan a creative, winding path around the obstacles in the arena, making loops of varying widths and lengths.
"Ride" your chosen figure or pattern in your mind a few times before executing it. Then try to follow the exact track you envisioned. Keep your eyes up, and give other riders plenty of warning whenever you travel in a direction they may not expect. For example, when you ride on the quarterline in a counterclockwise direction (which prevents you from passing other riders in the conventional left-shoulder-to-left-shoulder manner), call out "quarterline" or "inside" to oncoming riders. If traffic is extremely heavy in your arena, work on something simple, such as a figure eight, at one end of the ring.
See also: Mind Your Manners
The figures and patterns you practice will improve your communication with your horse while weaning you both off the habit of hugging the rail. Without even thinking about it, you'll use both hands and legs to bend and counter bend your horse around the exercises. This will strengthen and balance him by making him use both sides of his body. And it will give you the control you'll need to keep him straighter when you return to the rail.
On every straight line (centerline, quarterline, diagonal) be sure to use your outside aids as well as your inside aids. Maintain contact with your outside rein, and close your outside leg on your horse's side to help guide his body in the direction you want to go. In the corners, think of making square turns, rather than round ones. Imagine using your outside hand and leg to press your horse around your inside bending aids, as if you were making a turn on the haunches.
When you do have to ride on the rail, be careful not to slip into the common habit of overbending your horse, constantly holding his nose slightly to the inside. This keeps him off balance and makes him more likely to drift toward the rail. Check the alignment in his neck and shoulders frequently and straighten them as necessary by closing your outside leg and applying a little more pressure on the outside rein--not so much that you turn his nose to the outside, but enough to tell him, "This is not an open door."
If your horse leans on the outside rein, ask him to counter bend slightly by applying aids similar to those you'd use for a leg-yield: direct outside leg to soft, bending outside rein, pressing him diagonally toward your inside hand while still keeping him moving forward on a straight track. (You must be off the rail to do this!)
Remember, the solution for every riding problem requires improvement in both the horse and the rider. The more homework you do to advance your own skills--practicing riding off the rail and focusing on your track and outside aids--the more control you'll gain over your horse and the safer your knees will be!
A native of the Bahamas, Ashley Kelly combines her artistic and equestrian talents to coach the successful intercollegiate hunt-seat team at Savannah College of Art and Design. A SCAD graduate herself with a degree in metals and jewelry as well as experience competing at the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association and American National Riding Commission championships, Ashley uses imagery and artistic references to explain riding concepts to her students. "Everybody thinks differently," she says.
For example, when Ashley teaches a rider with very stiff arms to become softer and create a sense of feel with the reins, she asks her student to imagine how she would hold a paintbrush or pencil to lightly shade something in and try to create the same sensitivity when holding the reins. This approach has paid off with two IHSA Zone 5 Cacchione Cup reserve championships, multiple ANRC national championship team and individual wins and SCAD's first-ever qualification to compete in the IHSA National Championship as a team in 2011. The "Bees" placed fourth.
This article first appeared in the June 2012 issue of Practical Horseman.