Decoding Your Trainer, Part 1 Logo

Understand elusive riding terminology to get the most out of your ride time

Concept and Written by Julie Goodnight ©2013

You know the feeling. You ride in a lesson and think you understand just what to do then suddenly the trainer throws in a phrase that just doesn’t make sense. The direction is restated as if you should know just what to do. “I asked you to gather him up. Lift his ribs. Get him supple.” You want to do your best and you know your trainer has your best interest in mind, but what do the phrases really mean? The concept is confusing and elusive.

You’ve heard the phrases a hundred times and you’re sure everyone else knows what it means, so you keep your mouth shut and proceed. The truth is, many horse-training terms and phrases are vague and confusing. While your trainer probably isn’t trying to confuse you or sound pious, the language commonly used in horse training circles can prove a difficult code to crack.

What if every term and directive you got from your trainer had a clear and simple definition and could be executed with clarity?In this series, we’ll look at often used, but seldom defined terms in horse training. You’ll make connections between riding theory and practical application.

Once you know the lingo, you can carry out the task. Top trainer Julie Goodnight helps you understand the elusive terms, explains exactly what you and your horse should look like, and teaches you to achieve the look or correct the problem your trainer/instructor first prescribed.


What you’ve heard: “Gather your horse up.” “Frame him up.” “Lift his ribs. “Lift the shoulders.”

What it means: All of these comments refer to your horse’s profile as he’s moving. When your horse is in a natural and relaxed “frame,” his top-line is fairly level and his head is low. This is also called a “low and level” frame. For collection, your horse transfers his weight from the forehand to the hindquarters as he rounds his frame, brings his nose in toward his chest and lifts his back at the withers. This drops his croup and brings his hindquarters underneath him, while elevating the forehand.

Why you want it: The purpose of collection is to shift the balance of your horse onto his hindquarters–where his power is–and lift the shoulders to free them up for movement. In this “frame,” he has the potential for more power and athleticism. The posture is similar to what happens when you string an archer’s bow. You round the frame and suddenly there’s much more opportunity for power compared to when the bow was straight. Any time you need more power or responsiveness from your horse, you may need to ask for collection. The frame is desirable when you’re going down a steep hill, cutting a cow, jumping an obstacle or performing a difficult maneuver. In the show ring, the desired frame shows the judge that your horse has athleticism and is obedient to the rider.

How to do it (in simple terms): Ask your horse to collect by driving him forward with the rhythm in your seat and legs then gently restricting his forward movement with your hands. You’ll push your horse’s body forward then ask him to round his back in response to the bit’s pressure. When he’s collected, he will lift his back and shift more weight to the hindquarters.

Apply soft, pulsating cues with your seat, legs and hands in time with your horse’s feet. At the walk, sit back and feel the right-left swinging in your horse’s back—that’s the rhythm of his hind legs. As he pushes off with his right hind leg, the right side of his back muscles contract, causing your right hip to lift (and visa versa). When your hip drops, your horse is bringing that leg forward and that is the correct time to use your leg aid—when it you feel it naturally close on your horse’s side.

To ask for collection, use alternating leg and seat aids to drive your horse forward before you apply resisting rein pressure. While keeping track of the right-left rhythm in your head, add alternating rein pressure (slight sponge squeezes with your fingers), in timing with your legs. When your right leg closes on your horse, your right fingers close on the reins. Make sure you count the rhythm and feel when your leg closes because getting the rhythm wrong will make it nearly impossible for your horse to collect and in fact will interfere with his movement.

What you’ve heard: “Make sure your horse is supple before you attempt the next task.” “Your horse is stiff and bracing—supple him up.”

What it means: Suppling refers to the flexibility and bending ability of your horse and the willingness to respond to soft cues. You most often hear talk about suppleness as if it is something you train your horse to do, but in fact, all horses are very supple; just watch him swing around and bite a fly off his belly. Really the questions are can you bend and flex your horse on cue in response to light aids? Do you have total body control of your horse? Can you shape his body the way you want it and move him in all directions—forward, back and sideways? Does your horse stiffen and brace in response to pressure from the rider?
Why you want it: Your horse can bend and flex both laterally (side to side) and vertically (dropping his head and rounding his back). You want your horse to be relaxed and willing to stretch and flex so he can move his body in any direction or manner you ask. You also want your horse to yield (or give) to the slightest pressure of your aids (your seat, legs and hands).

How to do it (in simple terms): If you slide one hand about half-way down the rein and slowly lift, your horse should bend his neck around and bring his nose toward your foot, creating slack in the rein. That is lateral flexion and it is an easy cue to teach your horse with a little repetition. How quickly he learns this depends totally on the timing of your release.

In the beginning, as your horse learns to give to pressure from your hands, you may have to slide your hand down the rein then lock your hand on the pommel. With this static hold, he’ll feel constant pressure instead of the changing pressure of your moving hand. As soon as he voluntarily puts slack in the rein by flexing laterally, you’ll immediately release the rein and pet him on the neck. In short order, he’ll learn to give softly when you pick up one rein.

Lateral flexion leads to vertical flexion (such as used for collection). If you apply pressure with both reins, your horse should flex vertically and break at the poll and bring the plane of his face toward vertical. This is known as vertical flexion or “longitudinal flexion.” Typically lateral flexion precedes vertical flexion in the training process. Because of this training sequence, once your horse gives laterally to one rein, it’s easy to get him to drop his head and break at the poll when you pick up both reins out to the side, releasing as soon as he drops.

Use your legs along with your hands. When you apply seat and leg aid on one side of your horse at the middle position—right where your leg normally hangs, your horse should bow his ribcage away from you and arc his body from head to tail. Use your leg at the girth area to move his shoulder away from your leg and move your leg farther back to move his hip away from your leg. Remember that when you close one leg against your horse’s side, you should move the other leg away or “open” it to give your horse somewhere to move. Both legs closing on your horse means go more forward.

When your horse can flex both laterally and vertically in response to light rein aids and bend softly in his body from poll to tail and you can move both his shoulder and his hip to the side, he’s considered supple and responsive to your aids.

The language of horsemen can at times be cryptic. Never be afraid to ask, but don’t be surprised if the answer leaves you more confused! Understanding the theory behind skills of horsemanship takes study and persistence—it is a life-long pursuit. Join us on Facebook to let us know what terms you’d like to hear about next.

Teaching Green Horse Collection Logo

Question: I have a green horse that frequently trips with hind feet as he does not have proper headset or collection. How do you go about helping a green horse become balanced and collected with proper headset?

The barn owner where I board has done some training for me but tends to rely on running martingale to teach a horse the proper headset. I do not necessarily subscribe to this because as soon as you remove the artificial aids, you are back to where you started. What do you advocate to achieve collection and headset? What is the proper use of artificial aids? Are there certain types of bits you advocate?

I hope you come my way soon as I am anxious to attend one of your clinics! Of the many I have attended at Equine Affaire and elsewhere, hands down, I have gotten the most out of yours! Although I am far from expert, attending your clinics and listening to your tapes has made a huge difference in my riding and confidence aboard my young horse.
–Looking for a Natural Headset

Dear Looking,
Thank you so much for your kind words, but it is your desire for excellence that accounts for the progress you have made. I work very hard to make horsemanship understandable to people and since 99% of all horse problems are rider or handler induced, if we can train and educate people, the horses will do just fine.

Headset and collection are big lofty subjects. First let me say that there is a big difference between headset and collection and they are not necessarily related. A horse might have a “proper” headset but not be collected. Headset refers to placing your horse’s head at a certain level and position, according to the judge’s expectations of the discipline for which you are training. Collection refers to the rounded frame of the horse, when the horse elevates his back and brings his hindquarters up underneath his body in order to have more power and athleticism; it is a natural behavior of the horse and is known as ‘prideful’ behavior. Collection is natural for the horse (although difficult); headset is something that is artificially imposed by the rider.

My Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD series will help you understand collection a bit more. Check out Refinement and Collection. In it I address refining your rein aids and leg aids, what collection is and is not, how to use the aids to achieve collection (especially your seat and legs) and how to teach your horse to hold himself in a collected frame once you have asked. I am not a big fan of artificial aids. If you use artificial aids, it is important to know why you are using it, how to use it correctly and to have a plan to get away from the aid so that it does not become a crutch. The running martingale is one of the most commonly misused artificial aids; it is commonly thought to be a device to lower the horse’s head, but that is incorrect. It is actually a training device that prevents the horse’s head from getting dangerously high; it is a fail-safe device that when properly adjusted (with the rings all the way to the horse’s throat) prevent the mouth from getting above the withers. Once the horse’s mouth is above the withers, you no longer have control.

If you try to use the running martingale to lower the horse’s head, it is adjusted way too short and the rings put pressure down on the reins when the head and rider’s hands are in a normal position, breaking the straight line between rider’s elbow and horse’s mouth. This not only puts the horse very heavy on the forehand and stiffens his neck, but it also interferes with the direct line of communication between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth. Since the pressure is totally different with the device and without, the horse never learns the correct response to bit pressure and so you become dependent on the device.

Before a horse can collect, he must know how to respond properly to pressure on his mouth. He must know how to give to rein pressure, both laterally and vertically. As he rounds his back and comes into a collected frame, stretching his neck at the withers and lifting in his back, his poll will drop down and his nose will come in, brining his face toward vertical. This is known as vertical flexion. Lateral flexion always precedes vertical flexion and I like to teach the horse both from the ground first.

Lateral flexion is taught by simply sliding your hand down the rein toward the horse’s mouth (about halfway to his head) then slowly and gently picking up and locking your hand behind the pommel (make sure the outside rein is totally slack). You can do this from the ground or saddle. It is important to brace your hand against the pommel so that you do not pull more when the horse gives (instead or releasing) and so that he can not pull your hand forward if he resists (getting his own release). You release as soon as the horse flexes enough to put slack in the rein. Like everything in training, the timing of the release is the critical factor in how long it takes the horse to figure out what you want him to do; the sooner the release comes, the better. For optimal results, you have to release the horse within a half second of the correct response. Every time he releases the pressure off his mouth, drop the rein down on his neck immediately and praise him; then ask again. Work on one side repeatedly, and then work on the other. When your horse softly flexes to the side every time you pick up the rein (slowly and gently so that he has the chance to flex before the pressure on his mouth comes), he is ready to move onto vertical flexion.

I do like to use a bitting device known as the elbow pull for teaching the horse vertical flexion and conditioning him to hold himself in a collected frame from the ground. You can find out more in the DVD Bit Basics & Goodnight’s Bitting System. The value of the elbow-pull is that it is self-correcting, meaning that your timing and response (or lack thereof) is taken out of the equation. When the horse comes into the correct frame, he automatically gets a release of pressure. This also teaches him self-carriage. In my opinion, I do not like the horse to become reliant on contact to hold him in a frame; although many English riders prefer the horse to rely on contact. The other beauty of the elbow-pull is that it mimics exactly what the horse will feel from the rider, so once you are up in the saddle and you use your aids correctly to ask the horse to round his frame, he knows what to do. You should use a snaffle bridle for this type of training. Once a horse is fully trained, you can certainly ask him to collect with a curb bridle on, but he will be responding more to your seat and legs. Most of our finished Western horses work best in a curb (sometimes referred to as a ‘bridle horse’), but we occasionally take them back to the snaffle to work on certain exercises like bending, flexion and collection. These are complex, advanced issues we are talking about and there is a lot of foundational work that precedes these abilities, both on the part of the horse and rider. The additional info on my website’s “Training Library” will help fill in some of the gaps
Good luck to you!
–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer