Four Square: Master Straightness, Transitions, and Corners

I have always been confused about why Western and English training techniques and styles are so different, despite the fact that the ultimate goals of each are very similar.. Impulsion, suppleness, and timing are crucial across all disciplines of riding. Soft hands and an independent seat are a virtue no matter what horse you ride. That’s why I take into consideration training advice from all types of trainers. I may not use all of it. It may never go further than across my field of vision, but once in a while, something jumps out at me that could be useful for a particular problem I’m having.

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I have been working with this thoroughbred, Truman lately. He’s awesome. 17.2hh, super sharp mentally, and he aspires to be a cow horse although my plan is to help him learn some dressage. He was just a really big pet for most of his life, but now I’m working to put him to use.

A few weeks ago we hit a stumbling point. This doesn’t happen often with Truman. Like I said, he’s a fast learner. But the problem is that we get really nice, prompt, soft, down transitions on a circle, but when I ask on a straight line, he braces. Not cute.

The other night I was reading the Richard Winters edition of Western Horseman and came across a chapter on the “Four Square Exercise.” This peaked my interest. Basically, you ride four big squares in the arena.

Imagine you are trotting around to the right. When you get halfway down the long side, you hang a 90˚ right turn straight through the middle of the ring. If you were in a dressage arena you would ride a straight line from E to B. Then when you get to the rail (presumably at B), you hang a 90˚ right turn again. When you get to the middle of the short side (C), hang another 90˚right turn riding straight down the center line until you hit the middle of the other short side (A). Another 90˚ right turn. Continue doing this until you have made several squares to the right. Then one time, instead of turning right when you get to the opposite rail, hang a 90˚ left turn. Make several squares this way.

When this gets easy, guess what’s next? Halt at the point where all of your tracks intersect, in the middle of the ring. Every square take a halt at the middle.

Pretty soon Truman figured this game out. Every time we get to X, we halt. As soon as he is soft in the mouth, square in his feet, still in his tracks, we get to trot off again. With a lazier horse the reward might be that they get to stop and relax for a minute after the nice halt.

This exercise is good for all levels of horses. It teaches the green horse to ride with straightness, and the advanced horse could do this at a canter, focusing on the rider’s seat for collection before the turns and extension on the straight lines. This also teaches the beginner rider to look up, where they are going, as well as to use their corners, ride their horse with leg pressure instead of reins, and more. This can be a great touch-up exercise as a warm up. Or it could be done in two-point to build muscle and practice balance. Even add ground poles, or a box to the center of the ring to practice adjusting stride length.

I’m so glad I found this exercise. It has worked so well for Truman, and I expect to use it frequently in the future. Give it try! Let me know how your horse responded to the Four Square Exercise.