Riding Right With Julie Goodnight

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Dear Julie,
I’m 15 and have been riding for 11 years. I just bought a Halflinger pony that stands at 14.2. He’s a pleasure to own but rests his head on the reins and often pulls. I would like to find out a way to get him lighter on the reins with lighter contact—but without him zooming off when I’m schooling him. I’ve tried lots of things. One trainer recommended that I put my rein and hand up on his neck then bring it back and repeat the process on the other side. This does reduce his resting on the reins a little but it also encourages him to take off in a fast trot. Then I have to pull on the reins and feel him pulling against me again. I don’t see any point of the exercise. Please help me!
Thank you for your time,
Tired of Pulling

Dear Tired of Pulling,
Whenever I get a horse with a training problem, the first thing I try to discover is what is the origin of the behavior? In other words, why is he doing this? Typically, horses that root the reins and throw their heads have learned to do that in response to tight, relentless and meaningless contact on the bit. Often horses are never taught how to respond properly to the reins to begin with and contact is totally confusing to them; more often, it is because the rider is unskilled and has uneducated hands. Usually fixing the cause is more effective than fixing the symptom (be wary of using artificial aids—like tie downs, martingales or draw reins– to fix bitting problems- they may only temporarily cover a symptom).

Most trained horses learn to lean and root on the reins from being ridden with too heavy or too static of contact. Some trainers think that riders should use heavy contact all the time, but most horses will not tolerate that. Until both horse and rider are skilled enough to ride with contact, it should not be used. For me, if I am training a horse that must work on contact, I prefer to keep the horse as light as possible, teaching him to give to light pressure and balance as little weight as possible in my hands. The first thing you should check whenever you have bitting problems is, “how am I contributing to this problem?”

He can only lean on you if you let him. Try this exercise: let a friend lean on your shoulder and notice that in order to hold her up, you will start leaning into her a little, balancing her weight. If you simply move away from her when she leans, she can’t lean on you and she will have to hold up her own weight. She can still place her hand on your shoulder to have a steady connection with you, she just can’t lean. When you feel your horse begin to lean, don’t contribute to the problem by holding him up; make him hold himself up. He should be able to trot slowly and steadily on a loose rein as well as on contact.

If he zooms away, immediately check and release, using your seat and hands in a rocking, repeated motion. Don’t pull continuously; that will only make him speed up. If your horse does not maintain a steady speed at every gait, you have some holes in your training and your horse is disobedient. See my website for more information on how to create an obedient horse, on static vs. dynamic pressure and how to use your seat to stop the horse. Learn to use the pulley rein if you need an emergency stop.

When he starts rooting on the reins, you should immediately stiffen and lock one hand on the rein so that he hits himself on one side of his mouth (it is much easier for him to lean and root on both reins than one). If every time he roots, he is successful in pulling reins out of your hand, he has gotten a reward. If every time he roots he hits a hard spot on one side of his mouth, he does not get a reward. Make sure he is rewarded with a lightening of contact when he is being a good boy.

Finally, make sure when you are riding that you have some feel and softness in your hands. I like to teach “giving” hands. That means they are always stretching toward the horse’s mouth and always offering more rein when the horse softens and carries himself. Your fingers must be soft and relaxed, not tense and gripping the reins; your elbows should be very supple to act as shock absorbers for your horse’s mouth.

One thing I would consider doing with this horse, is teach him to trot on a loose rein, as well as on-contact. I would put him in a trot and every time he speeds up without being asked, gently pick up ONE rein to put him into a tight turn; over-flexing his neck, bringing him to the right and then the left, alternating directions until you feel him slow down. As soon as he slows, go straight and find your way back to the rail. Rather than pulling back on two reins every time he speeds up, make him work harder when he speeds up so he learns that going fast is harder and that he will be rewarded with easier work when he slows down. Again, there is more info on my website on this subject.

By the way, your horse is bred to be a puller, and that certainly doesn’t help. Draft type horses (in your case, a draft pony) have short thick necks and heavy straight shoulders in order to pull heavy loads. Although I have certainly seen Haflingers that were light and responsive, they seem to naturally want to lean on you and drag you around from the ground. Although your horse definitely has this propensity, horses are a product of the handlers and riders that train them, for better or for worse. Hopefully you can take this information and make your horse better.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician

Riding English

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight:
What’s the difference in Western and English riding? Especially when it comes to “contact?”…

Question: Dear Julie,
I have ridden Western for the last 20 years, and have trained my horses based on the resistance free method or natural horsemanship as it is most commonly known today. I ride my current horse in a Myler bit with a short shank that has the independent side motion as I tend to go back and forth between two hands or one.

I recently started taking Classical Dressage lessons and I am struggling most with the reins. I’m so used to releasing a rein when the horse does what I ask, or using a rein to ask the horse to drop it’s head and relax, and yet the dressage horse I ride seems to look for or even need that contact. My instructor describes contact as holding my child’s hand – not too tight, but don’t let go either. This is so counter intuitive for me since I don’t understand how to reward the horse I’m riding without releasing the rein. Can you help me understand the necessity of contact? How do you calm down a chargey horse that needs to be on contact? Can you ride on contact constantly, or should it just be for certain maneuvers? Can a horse go back and forth? Is contact better? I’m really struggling to understand the why and how.

Thank you so much,

Answer: Sharon,

Thank you for some very thought provoking questions—questions that I have pondered a lot myself over the years. To me, the most challenging difference between English and Western riding is the difference in contact. I switched from English to Western and had to learn to give up the direct contact on the mouth. It took me almost two years to break the habit and learn to let go of my horse. You are switching from Western to English and need to learn to ride with contact so that your horse can rely on it and balance on steady pressure.

Contact is contact, whether it is an ounce of contact in each hand, a pound of contact or five pounds (and BTW—riding on a loose rein is not riding “off contact” because the horse can still feel your hands and any movement you make, even with slack in the reins). A horse that is ridden on direct contact learns to rely on the contact in part for his balance, just like when you hold a horse’s foot up to work on it—he should not be leaning on you but he can rely on your contact to help him balance on three feet. So a horse that becomes accustomed to riding on direct contact will often search for the contact and throwing the reins away can be a lot like suddenly dropping out from under a horse’s leg without warning and letting his foot slam to the ground. He can regain his balance, but it would be nice if you gave him some warning before you dropped his foot.

To simplify, English horses balance on the contact and are reliant on the rider to hold the desired frame, while Western horses are required to hold themselves in the frame on a loose rein (self-carriage). English horses go “on the bit” (searching out contact and stretching into the bridle) while Western horses come off of the pressure from the bit. Western horses learn that if they hold themselves in the desired frame or give to bit pressure, they will find a release and that is known as coming off the bit or seeking out slack. English horses come to rely on the contact for balance. It is really just a matter of what the horse is used to.

However, for either English or Western horses, the release of pressure is always the reward, but that release can be relative. You can still give a release of pressure when riding on contact without throwing the reins away. For example, as you ask for more collection, you will increase the contact with rhythmic alternating rein pressure; when the horse comes into the frame you want, you can soften your hands, softening the contact, without going to a loose rein. It is still a release and still a reward. For more information on using the reins in advanced maneuvers like collection and lateral movements, see volume 5 in my riding DVD series, Refinement and Collection.

A “chargey” horse is indicative of a training problem and riding with or without contact is probably not the solution. I’d first rule out a physical problem for his anxiety, then I’d look to the bit to see if something could be done to make the horse more comfortable in his mouth (one of the biggest sources of anxiety in hot horses) then I would look to better training to deal with disobedience. A horse that is properly trained and obedient should not change speed unless signaled to do so by his rider. It is quite likely that with a chargey horse I might spend more time riding on a loose rein.

I like for all the horses I ride and train, whether English or Western, to be ridden both on contact and on a loose rein in every training session. I also like to ride them both in a natural, long and low frame and at various degrees of collection in each session. There’s no reason why a horse can’t do it all, if the rider can adjust.

If you are going to be riding on direct contact a lot, you might want to switch to a snaffle side piece instead of the short shank. Although the Myler short shank (HBT shank) is not much stronger than a snaffle, it does give a little more leverage (one pound of contact might mean 1 ½ or 2 pounds of pull). The great thing about the Myler bits is that you can get eh same mouthpiece on a shanked (curb) bit or a snaffle (direct pressure). I’ve written a lot about this, so check out some related articles in my training library.

I don’t think riding on-contact or on a loose rein is better or right or wrong, it just depends on what you are doing and the style of training. A well trained horse and a rider with soft and educated hands should be able to do it all.
Good luck!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
If you liked this article, Julie suggests watching the Myler’s free online videos at http://juliegoodnight.com/mylervideos.html and the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 719-530-0531 for ordering help):
The Goodnight Bitting System
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

Overcoming Fear: Too Old To Ride?

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question: Dear Julie,

I’m a petite grandmother, have not ridden in nearly 50 years. In my teens I rode daily. Do you think I could actually get into real riding again? I’m in excellent health & would be so thankful for your wonderful guidance. I really admire your work and follow you on your web site.


Answer: Michelle,

Absolutely! In fact, right now the recreational horse is being fueled by people just like you. Although our balance, stamina and ability to bounce back from a fall is not what it was as a child, riding is a great sport for older people—as long as you follow a few simple rules.
First, only ride safe and reliable horses and get competent professional help—at least to get started. All the information you need to get started riding is in a book called Ready to Ride?, written by me and published by CHA https://www.cha-ahse.org/store/cart.php?target=category&action=view&category_id=250&pageID=2.

Secondly, realize that any time you are playing with horses; you’ll get banged around a little—it’s a contact sport. Make sure you are in good shape. I like using the exercise ball off the horse for strengthening and coordination exercises specific to riding (I have one at my desk and one in front of the TV). These balls are available through my website http://www.juliegoodnight.com/products.html, with my own exercise chart; or, you can buy the chart separately if you already have a ball. Be sure to use the high-quality, rigid balls. The cheap ones are too mushy to simulate riding.

Good luck and enjoy the ride!

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.