"Hangerman" is a visual I created years ago at a 4-H clinic to help the kids understand how to use their bodies. This twisted clothes hanger is such a simple and effective teaching tool that I use it with every student and at every clinic. Hangerman's arms are bent to the front like he would hold the reins, and above the horn. His legs are spread to fit over a horse. A little black hat covers his bald head.

Hangerman can only move his body as a unit. His hands, arms, and legs can't do things unless his whole body does them. When he looks the direction he wants to go, he looks with his whole body. When he turns his hips, his inside leg goes back a little and his outside leg goes forward a little.

He holds his hands about shoulder-width apart, with the slack taken out of the reins. (The hand distance will decrease later, and will evolve to one-handed reining and riding with slack.) His shoulders turn the same amount as the hips, taking his arms, hands and reins with them--tightening the inside rein, giving slack in the outside rein. The rider does not "pull" on the rein. When you lift your upper body and shift your center of balance slightly back, the arms/hands/reins follow, so that you don't "pull" to stop.

Neck-reining is introduced naturally from the very first, as the inside/direct rein opens and the outside/supporting rein gives slack and comes in to the neck. The touch of the inside leg as it swings in and slightly back brings the attention and the nose slightly to that side, setting the horse up correctly for neck reining. Attempting to neck rein to one direction when the nose is tipped the other direction is ineffective.

When you combine the idea of Hangerman with the feel of your body moving in rhythm with the horse's feet, your feel and timing get more balanced. As the movement of the feet causes the barrel to swing slightly left and right, Hangerman's hips shift in a slightly up-and-down movement, causing his legs to slightly swing in and out with the swing of the barrel, so that his inside and outside leg influence the horse at the right time.

On a circle, the inside leg moves out and slightly back, drawing the horse's attention and arcing his body, while the outside leg comes in and slightly forward, supporting the horse's step to the inside. This way, you naturally ask the horse to move his inside foot over while it is in the air and able to move. You don't confuse the horse by accidentally asking him to move the foot that is on the ground.

This drawing/supporting is a less confrontational to the horse than "here is pressure--move away from it." While both ways work, the rider's intent and approach is slightly different, and the horse is influenced by our intent. Drawing vs. pressuring can help the horse maintain relaxation; a relaxed horse is in a more learning frame of mind, and is more of a pleasure to ride. Drawing enhances partnership; it is more like asking. Pressure has the connotation of master/slave; it is more like telling.

When I ride like Hangerman, with eyes/hands/bellybutton lined up, the horse feels the subtlest preparation in my body and often does not even need the rein. But if the rein does come in (naturally--not by pulling), the horse is already prepared because he has felt my body move. He always has a pre-signal. When rein movement comes from just the hand/arm (pulling) and is not a function of the whole body, the horse has no pre-signal. The rein can surprise him, causing anxiety. If he knows that at any time that rein might surprise him, his anxiety might become a brace.

Large muscle movement (the whole body) is much smoother than small muscle movements (arm/hand, leg/foot). Riding from your whole body results in a smoother use of the aids than focusing on the aids themselves. When the rein moves separately from the body, the horse can perceive this as pulling. When the rein moves naturally as a result of Hangerman, the rein is not confrontational. The horse always has the opportunity to respond to my body first, and if he doesn't, or is sluggish, he runs into the rein--I don't pull on him.

If you want to look at something that is off in a different direction than the direction you are riding, no problem; the horse is not confused. He can tell the difference because he is following your body and your intent, not robotically following every glance of your eyes.

Hangerman riding is so logical and so much easier than trying to remember which hand or leg to use, and when and where and how. Of course the Hangerman model is not a hard and fast rule for body position 100% of the time, but is a tool to build on for good communication. I can add to the natural movements of my hands and legs when I need to.

Hangerman is one of many tools that can help me ride and communicate effectively with my horse, by not doing things "to" the horse but "with" the horse. The horse can discern my intent, whether I am doing things "with" him (as partners) or "to" him (as master/slave).

Hangerman is an approach that works naturally with the horse's attention and attitude. It is not a system of aids you have to teach a horse, but is merely working with the horse in a way that a horse naturally responds to and understands. What is often called "natural horsemanship" is not an approach that is natural to the human; rather, it is working with the horse in a way that is natural to the horse, because it suits the horse's nature.

Hangerman hanging out in the tackroom

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