Horseback Riding and Training: The Square Exercise

Updated on December 20, 2018
Ellison Hartley profile image

Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.

The square exercise helps you to ride the whole horse and reminds the horse to move off your outside leg.
The square exercise helps you to ride the whole horse and reminds the horse to move off your outside leg. | Source

What Does the Square Exercise Work On?

A few things! The square exercise works to get your horse to respect your outside leg. It also works on turning your whole body by looking where you're going and using your hands as a unit to move the horse's shoulders where you want them to move.

Lots of pictures of outside legs today!
Lots of pictures of outside legs today! | Source

Why Is This Important?

I emphasize to my riders that we have to ride the whole horse. You can't just ride the head. We have to ride the whole horse to keep them straight or to make them bend! Never forget the horse's motor is in the back! If you don't ride the whole horse, you aren't controlling the motor. To me, that is a pretty big thing!

I teach my riders that there is a time that using your hands together as a unit is the best way to control the shoulders and front end. Sometimes we need to use our hands independent of each other to accomplish other things. This exercise is a good all-around exercise that touches on these things. You can use it with any level rider and find benefit.

What Do You Need?

All you need to do this exercise is traffic cones or something else to mark out a square inside your riding arena. You can use jump standards, barrels, whatever you have. I just want you to have a focal point to focus on as you go around, to help get you looking where you are going. Not to mention, turning with your whole body.

Zelda, working off the outside leg in a dressaege test
Zelda, working off the outside leg in a dressaege test | Source

How Do You Do It?

After you have your horse warmed up and as responsive to your leg as possible, go ahead and start to walk him around the square. Make sure you have correct hand position (straight line, elbow, hand to bit). Make sure your hands are not in your lap.
The reins need to be the same length and your hands need to be out in front of your body, with your elbows bent and rested at your sides. If you have trouble with keeping your hands still, you can even try to lightly touch your elbows to your body and hold them there to help them not move around too much.

Now you are walking around the square, as you approach the first cone (let's say you are going to the left), I want you to look to the left, turn your whole body to the left. Then you are going to bring both hands to the left while you apply your outside leg. Think about you want to guide the horse around the square by pushing with your outside leg, rather than pulling with your inside rein.

Each time you get to a cone on the square, you are going to repeat this process, encouraging your horse to respect your outside leg(move off of it). By turning your whole body, you probably don't realize it, but you are changing your seat bones in the saddle and encouraging your horse to turn. The beginning step to turning your whole body is turning and looking where you are going (to the next cone on the square).

Looks like the Z mare was moving off my outside leg, but from this angle at least it appears she was dropping her inside shoulder a bit.
Looks like the Z mare was moving off my outside leg, but from this angle at least it appears she was dropping her inside shoulder a bit. | Source

The Steps Are

Turn your head and look to the left; turn your whole body to the left in the saddle as well.

Since you moved your whole body, your horse should already be feeling your outside leg more. The next step is to push with your outside leg.

Lastly, take both hands, up and to the left (to the inside), moving the shoulders around to the left as your horse turns:

  1. Look/turn your whole body.
  2. Press and hold your outside leg to push the horse around the turn.
  3. Both hands to the inside to bring the shoulders around.

Making straight lines in between your corners is sometimes harder than it looks.
Making straight lines in between your corners is sometimes harder than it looks. | Source

Straight Lines Between the Cones

We want our lines between the cones to be straight. If we are using our inside hand too much, it is going to cause the horse's hind end to swing out and then we will have to correct our straightness, just in time to turn again. The goal is to ride a square around the cones, encouraging you to use your hands together to control the shoulders. Reminding you of the basics of looking where you are going and turning your whole body.

Push your horse around the figure of the square with your outside leg, rather than pulling him around it with your inside rein. You will know you are making the turns correctly as it gets easier and easier to stay straight in between the cones.

Straight lines are necessary for square halts and straight center lines if you are doing dressage.
Straight lines are necessary for square halts and straight center lines if you are doing dressage. | Source

Little Hints

Some horses will want to drop their inside shoulder into the turn. In other words, you will feel them leaning in and sort of down. If your horse is one of these horses, we have a solution. You will do everything the same with this exercise, except for one thing: You will lift your left hand ever so slightly higher than your right. So your left hand will be at the horse's withers, but slightly higher than the right hand. Also, you will focus on lifting your inside shoulder and stretching your inside leg down long as you turn.

If you carry a crop for this exercise, I would suggest you carry it in your outside hand if you have to use it to help you. Hopefully, you tap your horse with it on the outside and he will move his haunches in the direction we want them to go!

The Wrap Up

Obviously, I want you to do this in both directions. Take note of which way is easier or harder.

When you are doing it right, it should feel as if you are pushing your horse around the outside of the square rather than pulling him around the inside. It should also feel as if you are lifting his shoulders up and in to make the turns.

Your horse should feel a lot straighter and more connected. A lot of times, I see my riders riding a bit crooked and uncentered which leaves them with their horse's head way too far to the inside and the haunches swinging out as if the horse is disconnected in the middle. Get good at the square exercise and you shouldn't get that feeling of your horse's front end and back end being disconnected nearly as often.

All in all, this is a good exercise to practice keeping your horse straight, balanced and listening to your outside leg. It is a good reminder for us riders too that we have to ride the whole horse and not just the head. You can ride a good square just pulling your horse around it with your inside hand.

It's harder than it looks—try it! It will be good for you and your horse!

The End!
The End! | Source

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