NRHA Professional Ryan Rushing breaks down the spin into three pieces and explains his process to develop those skills in your reiner.
By Wendy Lind, Photos by Jennifer Paulson
“Thinking through what I want to happen in the show pen helps me plan out the specifics of how I need to design my training program at home,” explained NRHA Professional Ryan Rushing. The Fort Collins, Colorado, horseman likens a spin to a sandwich, when you break them both down.
“If you think of a sandwich like two pieces of bread and then the middle part; the spin is similar,” he pointed out. “There’s the beginning of the spin, the main part of the spin, and then the shut off.”
More specifically, Rushing wants his horse to stand quietly before the spin. Upon his cue, his horse should initiate the spin by stepping over and back with the inside front leg. The outer leg crosses over in the second step, which is when his horse gains speed with cadenced and efficient footwork, all the way through the shut off. The shut off should be crisp and on target, and the horse should then return to standing quietly.
Developing a reining horse with the skills to carry out each of those pieces in a point-earning way takes time and a deliberate approach. Here’s Rushing’s process.
Rushing focuses a lot of time on the mechanics of his horse’s first step into the turnaround, which should be over and back with his inside foot. This makes room for the outside front foot to follow and cross over. If that first step isn’t over and back to the inside, the horse’s outside leg will have to cross over farther in front, causing him to turn in a strung-out body position.
When introducing the spin to a new prospect, Rushing walks the horse in small circles, drawing his inside rein back toward his thigh, then quietly bumping with his outside leg.
“I’ve basically got a door open to the inside, and the pressure from my outside foot tells my horse to go that direction,” he explained. “When I feel his inside foot move over and back, I release everything and walk him out. In the beginning, the focus is that one first step.”
Even if the colt doesn’t understand the concept at first, Rushing continues those same cues, letting the horse fumble through the options until he makes that inside foot step over and back.
“In the beginning, such as with the 2-year-olds, I’ll have them more bent to the inside because I’m working on connecting that inside rein and inside foot,” he said. “Once I feel like they really understand what that cue of inside rein and outside leg means, I’ll start adding steps by keeping that inside rein contact but backing off my outside leg pressure.”
Ultimately, the colt should follow the inside rein, continuing slowly around—inside leg back and over, outside leg across. If the horse starts to walk out of that rhythm of the turn, Rushing adds his outside leg back on until his horse locks into stepping around again.
“It’s basically teaching the horse to follow his nose to the inside, and that my outside leg means to follow that rein,” Rushing explained. “That carries over into your steering as well—it’s all the same. It’s shoulder and foot control from using your hands and legs.”
He’s quick to point out, however, that when he uses his inside rein, he’s using just enough pressure to pull the horse’s nose to the inside; he’s not dragging the horse into the turn with excessive pressure on that rein.
“You want to be careful not to pull with too much pressure or pull from too high of a position,” he said. “If you do, there’s a good chance the horse will suck back too far and shift his hip to the outside. It might take a little longer initially, but let the horse find the step instead of making him step.”
As his horse progresses in training, Rushing constantly refines the horse’s body control—a critical aspect of all reining maneuvers. Isolating and moving the horse’s body parts, such as his head and neck, ribcage, and hips, gives Rushing the tools he needs to be able to develop every maneuver.
Rushing begins introducing this concept by walking or trotting his horse in a small circle, controlling where his horse’s hips, ribs, and shoulders go with leg cues. He uses rein cues to control the position of his horse’s neck and head. As his horse progresses in his turnaround ability, Rushing starts straightening out his horse’s body position.
“If a horse is overly bent, it limits how fast he can go; at some point, he’ll get too bound up,” he explained. “So instead of my horse being bent to the inside and stepping over and back, as he gets better trained in the turn, I start straightening out his body while softening him up so he’s breaking over vertically at the poll instead of to the side.”
Before Rushing starts adding speed to the spin, he instills a sense of self-reliance in the horse. He wants his horse to maintain speed and cadence without having to add additional leg or voice cues as he’s executing the turn. He expects his horse to keep stepping around until he asks his horse to stop.
“My leg and voice shouldn’t mean, ‘Please keep turning,’” he said. “Any additional leg or voice cue on my part means accelerate. Whether I cluck or add more pressure with my outside leg, I want my horse to accelerate, rather than just maintain speed.”
When he does ask his horse to accelerate, Rushing wants him to continue with the same cadence while staying rounded through the withers. In contrast, if a horse is hollowed out through his topline, his feet will get farther out in front of him, making that cross-over step too far forward instead of over and back.
“Some horses turn with their heads low and somewhat collected, while others have their necks a little straighter and their heads stretched out more,” he revealed. “I know what I want my horse’s body to do, but each horse is going to have his own way of accomplishing that. The main thing is that I want my horse soft through the withers and over the poll so that his shoulders are lifted. That allows his feet to move freely. However, that’s going to look different for each horse because they’re all built differently.”
Mechanical Versus Mental
Whether he’s riding a 2-year-old prospect or seasoned 8-year-old show pen veteran, Rushing said there’s both a mechanical aspect and a mental aspect invovled with the spin maneuver.
“If a horse is struggling in the turn, I first go through a checklist of potential mechanical issues,” he said. “Is my horse’s inside foot landing in the right place? Is his ribcage moving over off my outside leg? Is he soft in the poll?”
If all of those check off, Rushing then considers the mental side.
“First, I want to ensure that my horse understands what I’m asking him to do,” he continued. “Second, he must be mentally committed to the turn until I ask him to stop. Even if my horse has the mechanics of the turn down, if his mind isn’t committed to the turn, his feet won’t be, either. The result will be a horse that walks out of the turn, lags in speed, or anticipates the shut off.”
Rushing pointed out that when a horse thinks about the shut off rather than the turn, the horse often has shorter, quicker steps as well as a loss of cadence.
“That loss of cadence could be mechanical, but it could also be a lack of mental commitment ,” he said. “That’s why I started doing drills with my prospects to build pressure outside the turn and make the turnaround the release.”
For example, if Rushing is working on the right turn, he trots his horse in a tight circle to the right with the horse’s head and neck to the inside, while squeezing with his legs to keep his horse’s body position up and following the arc of that circle. It’s hard work for the horse to keep that up, and before long, he’ll start looking for a release.
“You feel the horse hunting that turnaround, almost asking to turn,” he explained. “That’s when I open my inside leg and let my horse go into that turnaround. There will always be things that need to be worked on during the spin, but if I have an issue that I can’t resolve relatively quickly in the turnaround, I’ll take my horse out of the turn and try to ascertain if it’s a mental or mechanical problem.”
If it’s a mechanical problem, Rushing works on that issue away from the turn, then goes back to turning around.
“I want the turn to be a good place for my horse; I don’t want him to think of it as punishment,” he said. “From the very beginning, my horse learns there’s pressure outside the turn and release in the turn, so he mentally starts hunting the turn. That carries over throughout his show career.”
Soft and Square
Part of training the turnaround is teaching your horse to stand quietly before the turn.
“Even if your horse turns a +1/2 or +1, if he’s dancing around before you start the spin, you’re giving credit away before you even begin the maneuver,” Rushing said.
To combat this common scenario, Rushing squeezes with both legs and uses his reins to get his horse focused and soft in his poll—something he practices at home on a regular basis.
“I teach all my horses that I’m going to squeeze harder until I get the correct response of standing still,” he said. “If I have a horse that’s good about standing still at home, but doesn’t at shows, that’s when I take advantage of schooling opportunities at shows. During a paid warm-up, I might go in and just stand in the middle, giving my horse the opportunity to dance around. If he does, I go to my cue of squeezing with both legs and my reins until my horse stands still. I might have to do that over and over, but I think people often try to just get their horse through that and roll on into the pattern, which just rewards that bad behavior instead of correcting it.”
As each horse progresses in his training, Rushing constantly thinks about how to transition from using two hands to going one-handed. Whether he’s steering in a circle or asking his horse for the turn, he tries to use both of his hands together.
“My hands aren’t going to drag my horse through the turn; instead, they provide the direction and get the horse soft at the poll,” he said. “My leg adds the speed. I want my hand and leg cues to match in level. If I’m dragging too much with my hands and not using my leg, my horse will get bound up. Conversely, if I use only leg and not enough hand, my horse will want to hollow out and leave the turn.
“When I’m using two hands, I try to focus on using them together.” Rushing continued. “When I go to one hand and cue for the turnaround, I go over the center line with my rein hand when I ask for the turn. I don’t want to drag my horse into the turn, but I want to come over the centerline because that’s my cue to turn. Then, when I shut off my horse, I move my hand across the center line the other direction.
At the end of the day, being deliberate with your cues is the best way to avoid penalties in the show pen.
“A lot of times we forget to think about the start or the stop, so we don’t accurately know if our horses are overturning a quarter each time,” Rushing explained.
To avoid over- or under-spin penalties, Rushing is very deliberate at home about lining up on a marker to start his turn and aiming at the same marker for the shut off.
“I really work on this with my non pros,” he said. “Even if they turn many times when they’re working on their spins, I want them to pick a point where they are going to shut off. And more often than not, they over-spin. I have them practice the spin and shut off again. If they go past the shut-off marker again, I’ll have them use their reins to take their horses’ shoulders over the opposite direction after they stop to sharpen up their horses’ responses to the shut off.”
Common Issues and Training Drills
Hopping in a turnaround usually means your horse’s front inside foot isn’t stepping over and back. Instead, he’s taking a really short step, or stepping over and out, and his outside leg is trying to make up for it. It can also be because your horse’s body is too straight. Work on getting your horse to go forward and round off your outside leg so his hip follows and gets out of the way.
“Every horse has his own frame in which he can best turn fast,” Rushing said. “Some horses hold their head cocked a bit to the outside—even when they’re turning great, their ribcage and body are in the correct position, and they’re flying in that turn.”
It’s a different story if the horse is bent to the outside and not turning correctly.
“When I see that, the rider is usually trying to drag his horse around with the reins, and his horse’s body isn’t following; instead of moving his feet faster, the horse responds by turning his head.”
In that situation, your hands and legs need to get back in balance so you’re using equal pressure with your leg and hand. Your horse’s impulsion comes from the leg, while your hand provides the directional cue, so it’s essential that the amount of pressure from both stays balanced.
Outside Pivot Foot
If your horse always spins on the outside back foot, Rushing advises walking your horse up into the bridle to get him get really straight, with lifted withers.
“You want your horse to stand up and move forward instead of rocking back on the outside foot,” he said. “If your horse is on his outside foot, you get to a point where your horse can’t go any faster.”
Missing the Shut Off
Don’t lose points on your turnaround by over- or under-spinning.
“When I’m getting ready to show my horses, or preparing one of my non pros to show, we’re going to replicate what happens in the show pen,” Rushing said. “Walk 20 steps, stop, stand square, and then turn four times to the left, stop, and stand square. Then turn four times to the right and stand square.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Rushing, Fort Collins, Colorado, and his wife, Amy, own and operate their training facility where Ryan specializes in open aged-event horses and coaches non pro riders. Learn more about his business at rrushingph.com.