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.