Developing a well-executed corner turn is the prelude to an expert rundown and stop.
By Sam Schaffhauser, With Allison Armstrong Rehnborg; Photos by Allison Armstrong Rehnborg
The success of your sliding stop doesn’t begin when your horse starts picking up speed in the rundown. Instead, your best stop starts in the corner of the arena, just before you make your turn to enter the rundown.
Just like a +1 sliding stop or an expertly rated rundown takes time, patience, and practice to perfect, the best corner turns are developed with shoulder-control drills to create a light, responsive horse. When you and your horse can handle turns with ease, without dropping a shoulder or speeding through them, the stage is set for a good rundown and a first-class stop. Here, I’ll share my best tips and drills for making smooth turns, straight rundowns, and substantial stops, all while teaching your horse to stay light and responsive in the bridle.
What’s in a Corner Turn?
A good, well-timed turn leads to a smoother rundown, which gives you and your horse plenty of time to prepare and think about how to lay down that +1 stop. Your rundown starts at the end of the arena as you’re coming around the turn. I believe that setting up the perfect approach to that rundown is more important than the actual stop itself because that turn determines how the rest of your rundown will go. If you can get your horse properly turned around the end of the arena, and if he stays relaxed during your rundown and waits for you to rate him all the way down the pen, that’s going to lead to the best stop you can have.
When I train at home, I work my horses around both ends of the arena to develop control of their shoulders. The experienced reining horse is very familiar with the majority of our patterns, so he often figures out that when you make a turn at the end of the arena, you’re probably going to ask him to run to a stop. That means when you’re working on drills at home or preparing for your next show, you may have to work on surprising your horse with different parts of patterns, so he doesn’t always anticipate what you’ll ask next. For example, when I’m at home getting ready for a show, I practice pieces of my patterns instead of the entire pattern over and over again. I also practice all of my drills on both the left and right leads. I’ll work on that left lead, and as soon as that side feels good, I’ll take a break and then work on the right side.
With the following drills, make sure you work the left and right leads so your horse can use his body in both directions with ease.
Drills for Troubleshooting the Corner
Good shoulder control is the key to making a smooth turn. As you’re rounding the corner of the arena, you need to be able to control your horse’s shoulders to direct him onto a straight line down the pen toward your stop. I want my horse to be nice and quiet and to wait on me to make the turns. I don’t want to have to handle him too much around a turn, either. When I lift my hand, that rein is going to rub on the outside of his neck, and when that rein touches my horse’s neck, I want him to start making that turn on his own, nice and soft, by moving his shoulders and getting into a straight line. There are a few common problems that can happen in the corner, so it’s important to work out those kinks before you get to the show pen.
Problem #1: Reluctance to Steer
I want my horse to respond when light rein pressure tells him to move over. If I find that my horse doesn’t want to steer or respond to my rein, I’ll spend some time working on circles to remind him.
- Lope a 10- to 12-foot circle, asking your horse to yield to your inside leg and the bit. As you approach the turn, remove your inside leg and lift your hand. He should yield his chin, without bracing against the bridle, and turn smoothly. Once you get on that straight line, point your horse, slowly relax your hand, and begin building speed into the rundown.
- If your horse struggles to yield, work on counter bends and counter circles to remind him to respond to your legs, seat, and hands.
Problem #2: Turning Too Soon
As you approach the corner turn, your horse may anticipate your cues and make the turn before you’ve asked him to. If this happens, start thinking ahead.
- Surprise your horse with a change in pattern. If I feel my horse start to turn left too early, I’ll pick up his shoulder and ask him to continue going straight instead of turning for the next three to four strides. Then I’ll ask for the turn.
If my horse persists in attempting to turn without my cue, I’ll pick his shoulders up and keep going straight. Then, instead of making a left turn, I’ll lope a small 8- to 10-foot counter circle in that corner, come back around, then go on a straight line toward the opposite end of the arena. Counter circles are a great tool for asking your horse to lift and move his shoulders.
Problem #3: Rushing the Rundown
Some horses may make a perfect corner turn but then immediately rush into the rundown, caught up in the adrenaline and anticipation of speeding into that stop. When that happens, you can end up feeling like you’re sitting in the back seat of an out-of-control car. By contrast, a reining horse should be willingly guided by its rider, from the first small, slow circles to the last big stop.
Ideally, as my horse and I exit the turn, my horse waits for my cue before he begins to pick up speed. I wait about three strides, then cluck to begin asking for a gradual increase of speed. With each stride, I want my horse to gradually pick up speed until I say whoa to ask for the stop. When I lift up on the reins slightly to rate my horse’s speed, that’s the cue for my horse to slow down.
If my horse doesn’t listen, won’t rate, or just takes off, I go back to the basics. I use soft corrections in situations like these. I don’t punish my horses for errors like running off during the rundown, because when you do that, it just creates more anxiety—and in many cases, anxiety is the reason for a fast take-off from a turn.
- If your horse charges into the rundown, draw him softly back down to a walk or trot. Then work through basic drills like circles and counter circles to help quiet your horse’s mind and get him back to listening to you rather than listening to that adrenaline rush.
- If I ride around the corner and my horse tries to take off, but responds to my cue to slow down, I’ll break him down into a trot for a few strides, then ask him to pick back up at the lope. Then we’ll lope down the arena, make the turn, and come back to try again.
- If I pick up on the reins to rate speed, and my horse grabs the bridle and pulls against me, that’s when I’m going to pull back steadily until he finally stops and begins to back up for me. Once he yields to my hand, then we can start working together again.
The most important part of administering a correction is to stay calm and quiet. Things happen because horses have brains just like we do, and they can think outside the box that we want them to think in. When there’s a problem, you must adapt to what just happened, and sometimes that can throw you off. But the softer and more relaxed you can stay while you’re dealing with an issue, the better, because it’ll help keep your horse soft and relaxed, too.
Find a Spot
Once you’ve developed a tidy, effortless corner turn and your horse responds well to your cues regarding his speed, it’s time to find that straight line for your rundown. During a rundown, I spend the first two to three strides getting straight and lining my horse up. Then I’ll cluck and start building my horse’s speed. As he speeds up, I want my horse to continue stretching and reaching underneath himself, because the more he’s reaching with his hindquarters, the easier it’ll be for him to get underneath himself during the stop and drop his hocks in one big move.
At a horse show, I study the arena to decide where I want to lay out my rundowns. Every arena is different, but I like to find a banner on the wall or a pole or other spot on the far end of the arena to help line out my rundowns. Pattern placement is No. 1 in the show pen, so you want to plan your pattern mentally and find ways to help yourself stay on track during your run.
You’ll also want to plan when and where you cue your horse for his stop, but don’t spend your rundown staring at the spot that you’ve picked out in the arena dirt. If you do that, you may find yourself slowing down just before your stop, and that’s not what you want. Instead, look straight ahead between your horse’s ears at the fence or past the fence, and aim your horse at that point. Then, as you ride, stay aware of where you are in the arena. Make your rundowns long and smooth to show the judges what you’re capable of, and once you’re past your center marker, you can ask your horse for that big, beautiful stop.
Avoid Reiner Burnout
For the well-trained horse that knows his maneuvers inside and out, anticipation may always be a potential issue. In addition to working on pieces of patterns at home and surprising your horse with different variations, think about getting outside the arena. If you have a big field available, take your horse on a ride, and let him see the world. That helps keep your horse mentally fresh and reminds him there’s more to the world than the maneuvers he performs in the reining pen.
It’s also good to remember that your finished horses don’t necessarily need to be put through their fastest paces every day. I don’t stop them hard every day. I don’t turn them hard every day. Those horses are trained; they know what their job is, and my job is to keep them mentally fresh, sound, and happy. Make sure your finished horses can complete maneuvers correctly, and then let them go through the motions nice and slow at home. In the end, these horses are athletes, and it’s our duty to keep their minds and bodies sound so they can enjoy and fulfill their jobs for years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
NRHA Professional Sam Schaffhauser operates his business out of Eads, Tennessee. Schaffhauser has been a multiple finalist in every NRHA major event, and has coached futurity and derby champions, as well as NRHA world title contenders and affiliate competitors. Schaffhauser focuses on developing aged-event horses to their highest potential, assisting in client investments, and coaching dedicated non pros.