Feel in the Show Pen

Having feel is especially crucial in the center of the arena. Here’s how to develop it at home and apply it in the arena.

By Kari Klingenberg, With Jennifer Paulson, Photos by Jennifer Paulson

Find the right balance of rein and leg pressure for your horse at home so you don’t use too much or too little of either at the horse show.

Feel is second nature to some riders, but others, including many non pros, have to put in effort to develop it and make themselves conscious of it every time they ride.

A good sense of feel—meaning knowing where your horse is, where he’s going, and what he needs from you as a rider—is an essential component of success in every aspect of training and showing, but it’s especially important in the middle of the arena. So much happens at that spot—starting a pattern, spins, lead changes, increases and decreases in speed. Your feel can make or break those aspects of your pattern, and thus your score.

Here I’ll talk about how I help my non pros fine-tune their feel so they can set their horses up for success. Then I’ll go over how to use that feel to your advantage at a show.

Finding Feel at Home

Riding at home tends to be a lower-key situation without the pressure and distractions of a show, so having more feel might be easier. But that’s why it’s so important to develop your awareness at home. If your feel is heightened at home, it’ll only be slightly affected when you’re nervous in the show pen.

When you take your horse through the middle of the pen at home, notice how he feels, what his legs are doing underneath you, and his position. Is he straight and balanced? Or is he leaning or pushing? Is he moving freely or sucked back?

One example of your feel being off in the middle is if your horse changes leads in front first, causing you to drag a lead for a few strides—or worse, crossfires all the way around your circle because you didn’t feel the mistake. You likely steered hard into the new direction, dumping your horse’s front end into the lead change and causing the delayed change behind instead of getting fully straight as he came through the middle. This commonly happens when you go from a large, fast circle into a lead change and a small, slow circle.

Instead of making that drastic directional change, think straight every time you come through the middle. If your horse wants to lean into the change, continue straight through the middle all the way to the fence and stop. Or change leads, but don’t change directions. Counter-canter and straighten up your horse’s shoulders by staying on the path of your previous circle. You can make these directional changes without changing leads all over the pen. This helps develop your feel away from the center of the arena and helps your horse stay locked in to you because he never knows what’s coming. 

Your hand and legs must work together to support your cues. Keeping your rein hand low and centered helps you clearly communicate what you want your horse to do.

Hands + Legs

Connecting your hands and legs is an essential part of using your feel. Successful cueing hinges on knowing what your horse needs from your hands and legs and implementing both at the same time or as needed.

On any horse I ride, even a young one, I keep my hands in an imaginary box that they don’t really leave. Sure, with young horses, you might have to open your inside rein more, but for the most part, your hands shouldn’t leave the space immediately above and to the left and right of the swells of your saddle. What makes this work is connecting my hand to my leg. My hand only moves 2 inches, but my outside leg provides support at the same time, reinforcing that cue. 

This “connected feel” allows you to quietly point your horse in the direction you want to go while supporting with your legs to maintain straightness in your horse’s body, which makes every maneuver more successful. This is especially important for young horses and non pros. We’re trying to get our young horses to go one-handed eventually, so keeping your hands close and low helps ease that transition. For non pros, if you practice at home riding one-handed with your rein hand low and within the small box, you won’t fall into the bad habit of over-reining in the show pen. 

Next, be sure to connect your hands and legs. For example, maybe you have your hand in position, but you’re not using your leg. This means you only have control of your horse from his nose to his shoulder. If you go through the middle and only use your hand to change leads or steer into another circle, your horse will dive off. It can become a bad habit that’s hard to break, because your horse learns he can cheat. Too much rein and not enough leg can also make your horse suck back—or worse, trot through a lead change. 

Having feel is key to keeping your horse straight in the center of the arena, which is essential for every maneuver.

Only using your leg and not enough rein has its own problems. Too much leg through the middle for a lead change can make your horse kick out or run off. Or, if your horse is naturally more forward, adding more leg can cause him to run off through the middle. 

Connecting your hand and leg is essential to keeping your horse straight and tuned into what you’ll ask in the middle of the arena. Think about Pattern 9, when you must change leads and slow down, all in quick succession. Straightness through the middle and feel for what your horse needs from your hand and your legs are critical to acing those maneuvers. 


Kari Klingenberg  trains aged-event and open horses, coaches non pros, and manages the breeding career of Mr Electric Spark from Pinnacle Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona. Learn more at kariklingenbergph.com