Riding Skills: One-Rein Stop

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Julie, first off, I have to say I spend many hours reading through your website. You are a gifted and inspirational woman, and thanks for all you share.

I recently bought a 14 year old horse who has had many issues, but with whom I am making progress. I test rode him a number of times on trails, where he was great. Once we moved him to our first boarding facility, we began to really see evidence of his past. He would NOT pick his feet up, especially back right. With time and patience, he now picks them up readily. We are now working on him holding them on the hoof jack as I am a barefoot trimmer. We also found out he had Lymes disease 5 months after we had him. We wondered why he seemed weak and stiff, in addition to intermittent lameness in his back legs. He has been treated, but is still off occasionally. We are working with a vet who has done some x-rays, hoof and flexion test and is going to do some nerve blocks. I also have a chiropractor, and plan to have a massage therapist come see him, as well.
I was told he was not used in any lesson or ring work, yet, because I do not have people to trail ride with and are not sure of the area yet, we have been riding in a beautiful sand filled arena. He seems to be feeling better as we see him “moving” in the paddocks, sometimes with the most beautiful flowing trot.

I have done a lot of groundwork and round pen with him, and he is great. Very quick learner, eager to please, seems to enjoy the work, although there are days when it takes some convincing to get him to relax and listen. He always comes around when I take the time he needs. Under saddle is a different story. He was spinning for mounting, but we seem to be almost completely past that problem. Again, time and patience.

He is now responding well to directional cues, the less room we ride him in, the less rein we need. We are still having problems with “whoa.” He simply pulls and pulls. Sometimes, his response is immediate, but usually it takes some tug of war. I try not to pull too hard or long, but he just doesn’t stop when asked. I have ridden once in a bitless bridle and a rope halter, and he was pretty good, but, of course, it was after almost an hour of ground work, so I think he was pretty tired in general. We are working at building up muscle and stamina due to the lack of muscle he came to us in. Again, there has been progress there. Anyways, my specific question is in regards to riding him at the trot (sorry it took so long, but I felt the background info was pertinent). He has been very inconsistent with the trot. He pulls and plays with the bit sometimes constantly. We have had some really great days where he is quite relaxed, no fighting, very pleasurable rides. But, for the most part, he pulls at the bit. Now he has taken to dropping his head, and, it feels like he is trying to get a buck out (which he has done in the past, as well). His head goes down, he does this jumpy kind of thing, usually loses footing, tosses his head around, very speedy trot, collapses into the middle of the ring, all very ugly. I try to ride him through it as well as I can, when he relaxes his mouth/head I release the reins, and after a few nice strides, we will walk. This has been happening more lately.

His teeth have been floated twice (they, too, were in rough shape). I do not know much about his background, just that he was used in his last place as just a trail horse. I have an instructor/trainer working with us, and a younger, experienced rider who has agreed to ride him. I get input from every direction, use a stronger bit, use a flash, ride him more, trail ride him, don’t trail ride him. All very frustrating. I do not want to give up as I’ve only had him 7 months, are now at our 2nd barn, and I really feel he is willing and trainable, especially due to the progress we’ve made, and his sweet temperament on the ground and in round pen/lunging. Any thoughts would be hugely appreciated. Thanks for your time.

Sincerely, Jude

Answer: Jude,

I am glad you enjoy the website as much as I enjoy writing the articles and it is especially rewarding to know that some human and subsequently some horse is benefiting.

As I read your email, two things come to mind. First, that you are making lots of progress with this horse, maybe not as fast as you’d like, but progress nonetheless, so you must be doing something right. Second, due to the horse’s numerous physical problems, it occurs to me that some of the problems you have may have a physical cause rather than being a training issue, particularly the problems you have at the trot. Before you do anything else, have a thorough medical exam and give the vet a complete history with even more details than you put in your email.

Your trouble with the stop sounds very typical and does not sound like a physical problem so much as a lack of understanding. If you pull on two reins to stop the horse, the pressure on his mouth is so great that the horse will tend to lean into the pressure and brace against it, much like you would do if the dentist were drilling a tooth with no anesthetic. When you pull with both reins at the same time, your horse develops a stiff brace in each side of his neck and leans into the pressure. When this happens, you are in a tug-o-war with the horse, one that is not possible to win because of the weight difference between you and him. Instead, try the one-rein stop. When you want to slow down or stop your horse, simply lift ONE rein from the normal hand position (see my website for articles on position), up and diagonal toward your opposite hip, as you shift your weight back into the saddle. This will cause the horse to yield his hip as he turns and to disengage his hindquarters. Disengagement of the hindquarters simultaneously causes the horse to stop his forward motion (putting the engine in neutral) and become submissive. The instant you feel a change in the horse (well before he actually comes to a stop) drop your hand dramatically to his neck in a clear and meaningful release. You can pick up the rein again if he does not come to a complete halt, but it is critical to release the horse when he first makes an effort to do the right thing. Timing is everything in horse training and the sooner the release comes, the better. At first, you may end up turning your horse as he disengages and stops but soon he will stop on the straightaway when you slightly lift one rein. Make no mistake about it, your horse wants to stop, he just doesn’t understand what is expected of him and his mouth hurts. When a horse doesn’t stop right away, the rider tends to pull steadily harder. A horse’s natural reaction to pain and discomfort is to run away from it. Therefore sometimes the horse inadvertently is taught to speed up when the rider is asking for the stop.

It is imperative that you use your seat/weight aid when asking the horse to stop. If you pull on the reins first, without using your seat, you are lying to the horse and sending him a conflicting signal. My videos on riding, particularly Volume 2, Communication and Control, show in great detail how to use your seat effectively and how to cue the horse to stop with your seat and not the reins.

Also, when teaching any new cue to the horse, make sure you sequence the cue into three parts. For instance when I teach horse to stop, first I exhale and say “whoa,” then shift my seat/weight, then finally pick up on the reins, if necessary, in a one-two-three rhythm. If you use this sequence consistently, the horse will learn to stop before you ever touch his mouth. All horses are happy to do that if they know it to be an option. No horse in the world wants his mouth pulled on. If you can rule out physical causes for your issues at the trot, then you can address the training. Your horse, having been a trail horse, may never have really been taught how to properly respond to cues. If he has spent his whole life following other horses down the trail, he didn’t really need to know much because horses do this naturally.

You’ll have to go back to some very basic training to teach him to stop, start and steer. Make sure you are using a snaffle bit and teach the horse how to give vertically and laterally to rein pressure (there is info on my website about this). The trouble you describe at the trot, if not a physical problem, sounds like it is related to the bit and the rider’s hands.

Chances are the horse does not act this way unless there are hands attached to the reins. Does he do it when he is saddled and bridled but unmounted in the round pen? What if there is a rider on him in the round pen but not holding on to the reins? My guess is that he would be just fine. When we increase speed on the horse, the natural tendency is for the rider to increase the rein contact too. And when he starts acting up, you are probably taking an even greater hold on the reins, and that is likely what is causing the problem.

I suggest you spend some time riding him in the round pen at a trot with loose reins tied to the horn. Pick up the reins if you need to, but otherwise let him trot around on a loose rein and find a steady and relaxed trot. Then you can start working on stopping him with your seat instead of with the reins. Once you are both accustomed to a relaxed trot on a loose rein, try it in the bigger arena, holding onto your reins but keeping them loose, with no contact on his mouth. When you do use the reins, use only one rein to either stop or turn and make sure you use your seat aid too and that you always move your hands in SLOW MOTION so that the horse has an opportunity to respond BEFORE the pull on his mouth comes.
You have made a lot of progress with this horse. Keep up the good work.


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

Issues From The Saddle: Pulley Rein

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

I’m sure you deal with loads of emails, I hope you get this one. I’ve been taking riding lessons every week for a few months (I used to ride when I was younger). The school I go to is very good, the horses are very fit and mostly well behaved. My instructor is a retired show-jumper. We are riding in an arena and at the moment and there have only been 4 or 5 people in the lesson the past few weeks and the horses are getting a bit excitable/fast. I can control my horse alright at the beginning of the lesson and the speed is ok when I’m using the space but when it comes to pick up the pace my horse is fine to start off with but it’s hard to keep a controlled canter after a certain amount of time. I find my horse raises his/her neck and really wants to go for it. I find I stop myself from going into a canter as the horse is hard to slow down when excited. We have had a couple of instances where one horse plays up and gallops uncontrollably upsetting the other horses. There are also instances where a horse passes another and they decide to have it out, this ends up in a small gallop/tantrum. I feel nervous with this and my horse knows it. Does this sound like a controlled lesson? Are the horses badly matched for the lesson? How can I get my horse’s attention away from the others? And what is the best way to get a controlled canter when the horse is excited? Can I add that it’s now -5 degrees C, so I don’t know if the horses are reacting to the cold too? Look forward to your reply.


Answer: Dear Lindy,

Thanks for your questions. It sounds like a bit of a wild ride you are taking in your lessons. Without actually seeing the horses and riders, it is difficult for me to make judgment, but it does sounds like perhaps some of the riders are over-mounted and the lesson is a bit out of control (or “OC” as we say here in the Colorado 😉

Certainly cold weather conditions combined with stalled horses could contribute to the exuberance of the horses. Perhaps it would be useful to longe the horses or turn them out to play before riding. In this instance, I prefer to work a horse in the round pen or free-longe in a big pen, to take the edge off of him. In the round pen, I can also gain better control over the horse mentally and put him in a frame of mind to focus on me and be obedient. This attitude will carry into the riding arena quite nicely. I would hate to place judgment on what is going on in your lessons, without actually being there and seeing it for myself, but it seems like the horses are out of control and disobedient at times. I can tell you that if I had horses in a lesson that were out of control and feeding off of each other, I would change my lesson plan and revert back to improving control and work with the students on training and behavioral issues.

I think it is also a good idea to give people the tools they need to control fractious horses. For this, I teach riders two different techniques, one for every day use and one for emergency stops. The emergency stopping technique is known as the “pulley rein.” It is a rather abrupt motion that will stop any horse when done correctly, since you are able to apply significant leverage to the horse’s mouth. The two most common instances when I teach this technique is when I am doing a jumping clinic and we are jumping out on open courses (where horses tend to get very strong and can easily get away from you) and also when people are dealing with fear issues and need the confidence to know that they can stop their horse, ‘come hell or high water’.

The pulley rein is executed by shortening one rein as tight as you can and pushing your knuckles into the horse’s neck, with your hand braced and centered over its neck (it is important that this hand is pressed into the neck and not floating free). Then you slide your other hand down the other rein as far forward as you can and pull straight back and up with all your weight. Since the first rein is locked and braced, it is preventing your horse’s head from turning, so the pull on the second rein creates a lot of pressure.

If the pulley rein is executed correctly, you can stop a runaway horse on its nose. This is far preferable to pulling the out-of-control horse into a circle, since that may cause him to lose his footing and fall down. This technique requires some practice and the practice can be very hard on your horse, so many instructors do not like to teach this emergency stopping technique. However, when you are out of control, it is a great tool to have in your bag of tricks and it can be very useful for slowing down a strong horse, with a little pulley action every few strides then a release (use it with your half-halt).

One of the very worst things you can do, when trying to slow down or stop a horse, is pull back on both reins at the same time. This will almost always make the horse stiffen its neck and lock its jaw and may also pull you up and out of the saddle, or even right over the horse’s ears (ass over tea-kettle, so to speak).

Pulling on both reins continuously will often cause the horse to “run through the bridle,” and the harder you pull the faster it goes. Horses are way more responsive to using the reins alternately, which is far more likely to keep them soft in the neck and flexing in the poll. Ironically, most people have been taught to pull back on both reins at the same time to stop, when using one rein can be much more effective.

Therefore, the other technique I would teach for better control is a one-rein stop or a disengagement of the hindquarters. This is done as a training process at slow speeds, before the horse gets out of control. You execute the one rein stop by picking up one rein, and one rein only, and lifting it up, not back, toward your belly button or toward your opposite shoulder (it is an upward, diagonal pull on the rein). It is critical that the other rein is completely loose.

This rein aid will turn the horse’s nose up and toward you and as he arcs throughout the length of his body, the turn will cause him to disengage, or cross his hind legs. Almost any rider is capable of feeling the horse’s hips bend as he begins to disengage the hindquarters. Disengagement will help you control the horse in two ways: speed and subordinance. When the horse crosses his hind legs in disengagement, it ceases all forward motion. As you pick up slowly on the one rein, wait until you feel the horse’s back and hip bend (that is when he is crossing his hind legs) then release the rein suddenly and completely and he should stop. If not, just reapply the aid but be sure to release as soon as you feel the horse even begin to slow down.

It should be a slow and steady lift of the rein and an instantaneous release when you feel the horse’s momentum affected. You should alternate between the right and left reins, or the inside and outside rein, so you are not affecting just one side of the horse or getting him into a habit. The one-rein stop will cause your horse to turn at first, but with practice and a timely release, he will go straight and stop. Of course, you should be using your seat aid as well; for more information on how, see the article on “Gears of the Seat” on my website. Practice the one-rein stop at walk and trot until the horse stops when you just begin to lift one hand, before much pressure is actually applied to his mouth. Make certain that you are only using only one rein. Many riders, especially those dependent on riding on direct contact all the time, have difficulty using only one rein. Many riders are also very accustomed to pulling back on reins whether turning or stopping, instead of lifting or opening, and this can also be detrimental to the horse’s balance and relaxation. It is because most of us are taught from day one to use the direct rein, and most of the time, the rider never learns the other more useful and articulate rein aids (see my website for an explanation of rein aids).

The direct rein aid is moving your hand, from the correct hand position, up and back toward your hip. It is a backward pull or a rein of opposition, which means the rein, or the pressure on the horse’s mouth, opposes the forward motion of the horse. It is often useful to use a rein aid that does not have opposition, like lifting up on the rein or out to the side, but not back.

The second benefit of the one rein stop is that disengagement of the hindquarters creates a subordinate attitude in the horse.

Disengagement is a natural behavior of horses, but it is only seen in neo-natal foals (under one month of age). When the mother disciplines the foal, it will occasionally cross its hind legs as a sign of contrition. Since crossing the hind legs takes away the horse’s ability for forward motion (or flight), it puts him in a frame of mind to have to be submissive, since fleeing is not an option.

You should be able to disengage the horse both from the ground and from the saddle and use this technique every time your horse’s attention and focus is off of you or he is OC. This is not a harsh maneuver; it should be done very quietly and slowly. Be sure to release as soon as you feel the horse’s forward motion slow. Once your horse knows what this rein-aid means, you can gently pick up one rein at any time and the horse will slow down.

Both of these cues, the pulley rein and the one-rein stop, are difficult to learn from reading about them and it would be much more useful to have someone teach it to you in person. I’d love to come to Scotland sometime for a clinic, so just let me know! Good luck with your lessons and be careful. If you feel that the situation is out of control, take responsibility for yourself and remove yourself from the danger.

Julie Goodnight

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

Issues From The Saddle: How Do You Stop A Horse When He’s Running Backwards

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: How do you stop a horse when he’s running backwards?

I was trail riding over the weekend, and my horse took a dislike to the horse behind him. I saw the symptoms (making faces) and tried to get his attention on me, but he would have none of it! That awful equine behind him clearly needed to be taught a lesson (he must have been several feet back). So my horse (an appaloosa) RAN backwards!

I wasn’t very effective in stopping him – just tried to kick & push him with my legs into forward, and he finally did stop without a catastrophe. But how could I have handled this? Pulling back – as one instinctively does to stop – is obviously counter-productive. It seems to me that pulling his head around with one rein might cause him to fall. Does clasping the rein tightly at the neck work in this instance?
Thanks! This situation might not arise again, but I like to be prepared.


Answer: Janet,

You’re right! Pulling back on the reins when your horse is running backwards is not a good idea and will probably make the horse backup faster or rear. While forward motion is what you’d like to ask for, in this instance, because the horse is threatening to kick someone, it is more important to stop the backward movement immediately by disengaging the hindquarters.

There is a lot of information about disengagement and rein aids on my website; it is executed with the indirect rein behind the withers (a rein of opposition), by lifting the rein up and back toward your belly button or opposite shoulder. It will move the hip away from the rein aid and cause the horse to cross his hind legs and stop his impulsion. Although you might not want to use this technique if a horse were running forward and bolting, it is unlikely to make him fall or even stumble while backing.

When a horse is threatening to kick, the best solution is to turn the horse’s head toward the horse he wants to kick. When you turn toward, it makes the horse’s hip move away from whatever he is aiming at. So your solution is to disengage the horse’s hindquarter, in order to stop the horse’s impulsion, while turning the horse toward his intended target. When two horses threaten to go butt to butt, always bring their noses together.

Your horse is extremely disobedient to act that way while being ridden. Horses need to be taught, in no uncertain terms, from day one of their interactions with humans, that when they are in-hand or under-saddle, they are absolutely forbidden from displaying any herd behaviors, especially acts of aggression. Toward this end, horses should never be allowed to fraternize or even move a nose in the direction of another horse when being ridden together. They are perfectly capable of understanding this rule, when it is strictly enforced.

In punishment for such a disobedient act, once I got him under control, I would have immediately taken him away form the group and tried to work the shoes right off his feet (hissing, spitting and growling at him all the while). My goal is for my horse to associate being ostracized from the herd and having to work hard with his aggressive actions. Like all training, timing is critical to get the horse to make the right association.
My guess is that you need to work on your horse’s manners both on the ground and in the saddle. Again, there are scores of articles on my website that will help you with all of these things.

Good luck!

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