For many, steering our horses whilst we ride is so easy that we put little or no thought into it, but is this doing our horsemanship any good?
The most commonly taught method of steering horses that I have come across is with the reins attached to the bit. People tend to learn to put a feel on one rein more than the other and the horse should turn into the direction of the rein that has most feel. Unfortunately for horses, they are so forgiving and adaptable that many people get away with riding like this for years.
This method of steering makes sense if we think of the horse as a machine, programmed to perform a specific command on a set signal. However, when we think of the horse as a living creature, capable of feeling pain and also of making it own decisions, we can begin to understand why this way of riding doesn't always work and certainly doesn't produce top level riders.
Good riders know the importance of using their seat and legs when steering. Having a little more weight in the seat bone in the direction you intend to go usually occurs naturally when you focus on when you are going. Your eyes look where you think, your head turns to follow and this causes your spine to twist putting weight on the "inside seat-bone" (base of the pelvis on the side to are looking to turn).
Problems come because many people are not looking where they are going. Their focus will move to what ever they are thinking about and without realizing it their eyes are not leading their body and weight in the right direction. It is very common to see riders looking at their horses' ears or neck, especially if they are consciously trying to have their horse take a certain head set. People that worry about crashing into other horses in an arena will find themselves looking at the other horses and, surprise surprise, their horse heads straight for the other horses and riders.
Steering is a beautiful combination of physics, focus, and energy.
Horses are sensitive enough to feel a fly land on a whisker so they can definitely feel our muscles tense or relax and our weight shift whether we mean for it to happen. Horses have to learn which signals to respond to and which ones to not worry about. Inevitably, more inexperienced riders will have more unintentional movements which is why beginners are usually partnered with less responsive horses. These horses tend to have worked out that life is better if they ignore most of what the rider does and only responds to really obvious cues. The question comes when you aim for reaching levels of excellence in your riding - how do help your horse understand which cues they are meant to respond to?
We tend to think of steering horses like steering a bicycle, pulling the "handle" one way to turn the front and expecting the rest to follow. The problem is that we've all seen people turn a horse's head one way and it still runs in the other direction. A more effective way of looking at the horse would be to think of the horse as a boat. Anyone who sails knows that to turn a boat you must move the back end over in the direction opposite to the one you want the front to go in. Horses respond well to this concept too.
Many horses are taught only to respond to the leg by speeding up but teaching your horse to understand moving different parts of himself over when he feels your leg in different positions will not only mean you can use the powerful hindquarters to push the horse into the direction you want to go, but also improve lateral manoeuvres and overall flexibility in your horse.
Ultimately, in taking a little time to address how you steer your horse you will not only open doors to higher levels of riding, but you will prove to your horse that you understand him; you know his power comes from his hindquarters, from engaging his mind and that you do not need to pull on his delicate mouth for rudimentary control.
And how do you know that you have mastered steering? When you no longer use your reins to steer! Now your hands, reins and bit become tools for higher level communication and not basic controls. You and your horse truly can become one with each other, a new being, like the mythical centaur moving as one in purest harmony.