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,
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.
–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
Ask Julie Goodnight: Do Western Riders Need to Post the Trot?
Question: Try to settle this discussion – please! Is posting on the correct “diagonal” only important in English riding? I always thought it was about the horse’s balance in a bend….some say it’s just not a “western thing”…and will post in a western saddle, but not with any regard for the diagonal?
Answer: Sharon, You are correct that posting on a specific diagonal pair at the trot has to do with the horse’s balance and also his work load; it doesn’t have much to do with English vs. western. Any rider that is interested in the balance and conditioning of their horse would want to know and use their diagonals correctly.
Since Western riders don’t usually post during competition, many might consider it unimportant. But when you are riding the long trot, whether English or western, it is easier for the rider to post and more comfortable for the horse too. If you are posting at the trot frequently, it is beneficial for your horse that you have awareness and understanding of which diagonal to post on.
The trot is a two-beat, diagonal gait; meaning that the feet hit the ground in diagonal pairs—the right hind and left fore hit the ground at the same time and the left hind and right fore hit together, thus creating diagonal pairs. Since the horse drives himself forward from behind, it is really the hind legs that are doing most of the work pushing into the stride and pushing the rider up and out of the saddle when she posts. Although riders commonly check which diagonal pair they are posting on by looking at the outside fore leg (“rise and fall with the leg on the wall”), it is really the hind legs that matter. There are two reasons for paying attention to which diagonal you are posting on; one has to do with turning, the other has to do with conditioning.
When you bring the horse onto a turn, the inside of the horse shortens and the outside lengthens as he bends or arcs his body in the turn. Try this little experiment yourself—walk in a tiny circle (just a few inches across) and notice that your inside leg is taking a very small step and your outside leg is reaching much farther to get around the outside of the circle. This is a magnified view of what happens when your horse trots on a turn. The inside hind leg bears more weight and the outside takes a bigger step. When you are posting on the correct diagonal for a turn, you are rising as his inside hind leg comes forward, to take a little weight off of the leg that is already bearing more weight.
The other time that your posting diagonals matter is if you are going a long distance at the trot. Even if you are going in a straight line, the beat you are sitting on is working harder than the one you are rising on (either he is lifting your weight or you are lifting it). So if you were trotting ten miles in a straight line, you would want to alternate which diagonal you posted on so that you worked both hind legs equally. For instance, you might trot for a mile on one diagonal and then switch for the next mile. This way, both the horse’s hind legs are getting an equal workout.
The rider is said to be on the correct diagonal when she rises with the outside fore leg. Although most people are accustomed to looking down at the horse’s shoulders to see which diagonal they are on, it is much better when the rider learns to feels the correct diagonal—and it’s not that hard! If you can sit the trot well, you should be able to feel a lateral movement (right-left) in your hips, in additional to the vertical movement (up and down). As you feel your hips shift right and left at the trot, what you are feeling is his hind legs—when he pushes off with his right hind, his right hip lifts and so does yours (and visa versa).
To be technically correct, you should always begin posting on the correct diagonal—not just start posting then check if you are correct by looking down. Sit the trot for a few beats, however long it takes you to feel it, and then rise into the post when you feel your outside hip lift. It will take some concentration and coordination at first, but with a lot of practice it will become second nature. Learning to feel your diagonals instead of looking will raise your horsemanship to a higher level and develop your sense of feel of how the horse moves. Eventually you will know when you are on the wrong diagonal because it will feel out of balance.
There are many skills and maneuvers that people tend to classify as either western or English. But the truth is horses are horses—their balance is the same, the way they move and the way in which the rider uses the aids for cueing are the same. The appearance of your clothes and your tack doesn’t really change that.
Good question! Thanks.
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Know Your Rein Aids
I’m a bit confused about rein aids—how they differ in English and Western riding. I’ve been hearing terms like direct and direct opposition, indirect and indirect opposition. What do these terms mean and when do you use them while riding?
Signed, Reining in the Answers
Dear Reining in the Answers,
Excellent questions—rein cues are seldom fully understood. First of all, there aren’t differences when it comes to English versus Western rein cues. The rein aids work the same and your horse will respond the same way no matter what style of saddle you ride in. Some might argue that the neck rein is strictly Western. However, I like my English horses to know the neck rein, too. It’s imperative for sports like polo (which is considered an English discipline because it’s done in an English saddle) where the competitor can only have one hand on the reins in order to play the game. Neck reining is also helpful when trail riding—if you need to have a hand free to open a gate or move a branch.
Let’s clarify some other rein-aid terms. Neck, direct, leading/opening and indirect rein aids are all used when riding English or Western. The term “rein aid” simply refers to how you move your hand and the direction of pull you create on your horse’s mouth (up, back, sideways). The term “rein of opposition” refers to your horse’s forward motion when you’re pulling back on the rein. You’re pulling in a direction that is opposite to your horse’s forward movement. A “rein of opposition” tends to slow down your horse.
For a direct rein, your hand moves from its neutral position (in front of the pommel, creating a straight line from your elbow to the corner of your horse’s mouth) directly toward your hip. There’s a backward (and slightly upward) pull on the rein and therefore it’s a rein of opposition.
An opening rein or leading rein occurs when you move your forearm to the side instead of back toward your hip. There’s no opposition and your aid doesn’t inhibit forward motion. The leading/opening rein is often used as a training rein aid—when you’re first teaching colts to turn, teaching a horse to spin or when asking for lateral movement. It’s a leading rein when it’s the inside rein (you’re moving the rein on the same side as you want your horse to turn). Use the term “opening rein” when you’re cuing with the outside rein— when your horse is tracking or bending away from the opening rein. You’ll use an opening rein when you want to move your horse’s shoulder or barrel out to make a circle larger. Tip: Remember the opening rein is on the outside—both start with “o.”
The basic neck rein is a gentle touch of the rein against the side of your horse’s neck, well in front of the withers and without opposition. In neck reining, your horse is trained to move away from the touch of the rein on his neck and he moves his nose and neck away from the neck rein. If you pull too hard or cross your hand too far past the middle of your horse’s neck, you’ll inhibit your horse’s movement and he’ll actually turn his head the wrong way. The neck rein is typically used for one-handed riding, but may be used two-handed in combination with another rein aid. For example, when you’re teaching a young horse to neck rein, you may use the neck rein as the outside rein aid and the leading rein on the inside to help control your horse’s nose. Eventually, your horse associates the neck rein with turning his neck and nose away from the rein and you no longer need the leading rein.
The neck rein with opposition (a slight backward pull with the application of the neck rein) is called the “bearing rein” and may be used to turn your horse back on his haunches, such as in a roll back or a pivot on the haunches.
There are two indirect rein aids: the “indirect rein in front of the withers” (not a rein of opposition) and the “indirect rein behind the withers” (a rein of opposition). The indirect rein in front of the withers is a lift up and in on the rein toward your horse’s neck, an upward diagonal pull on the rein; from the normal hand position, just lift your pinkie finger up toward your horse’s withers without pulling back, like you’re turning a key in a door. The indirect rein in front of the withers moves your horse’s shoulder in the opposite direction, while the nose stays bent in the direction of the turn.
The indirect rein behind the withers has some opposition or backward pull, and causes your horse to move his hip away from the rein hand while your horse stays bent toward the rein hand, such as in a turn on the forehand or disengagement of the hindquarters. The direction of pull on the rein is up and back toward the rider’s opposite shoulder, in a motion like crossing your heart (the inside rein comes across your horse’s neck behind the withers).
Some important caveats for all rein aids: it’s not the amount of pull or contact that causes a reaction in your horse, but the direction of the pressure on your horse’s mouth and the movement of the rider’s hand (when using the indirect rein aids especially—it’s only effective when there’s little or no pressure on your horse’s mouth). Also, when riding two-handed your hands should never cross your horse’s withers. If they do, the rein aid you’re using is ineffective and may be interfering with your horse’s motion (pulling his nose in the wrong direction). The rein aids are always supported by leg aids—we’ll cover that soon.
This is a lot of information! It takes a lot of time and experience before a rider is able to use the rein aids articulately and effectively. For further information, refer to Volume 5 in my Principles of Riding DVD series, Refinement and Collection. This DVD explains and demonstrates the rein aids in detail. It never ceases to amaze me how responsive a horse can be to the lightest amount of pressure and the slightest movement of your hand. One really important thing I have learned through the years about rein aids is that the slower you move your hands, the better your horse will respond.
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
In this series, master trainer and clinician Julie Goodnight discusses the riding terms and techniques you probably know (or should know). She’ll define rein, seat and leg cues you’ll need for the best communication with your horse. Then she’ll help riders solve problems with their own horses. Learn the proper terms and apply your aids for a better grasp of horsemanship and a better riding relationship with your horse.
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
I have a 5 year old QH gelding that is tall and not very muscular. He has a long back and legs and I wonder if that is why I am having trouble getting him into a nice slow jog. He goes Hunt well, but I’d like to slow him down for western and trail classes.
My question is; how much does his conformation have to do with his movement? He is also “strung out” at the canter and seems to have a hard time collecting. I don’t think he will ever “lope”! I raised and trained him myself and he is quiet and willing, a great horse. I ride him in a simple snaffle, and he responds very well to aids.
Thanks for any advice!
Conformation has everything to do with movement and performance. Horses that are long-backed especially have difficulty bringing their hocks up underneath them and elevating their backs, which is required for collection. I believe you can improve a horse that is not athletically inclined, but you cannot make him into something he is not. To improve him, I would work on conditioning him in a round pen, at liberty, in a bitting device that encourages self-carriage. The type of bitting device I use is called an ‘elbow pull,’ or the Goodnight Bitting System. In time (months), with better conditioning, be can improve his self-carriage and collection, maybe by 15%, but his conformation will always be a limitation.
Again, you cannot put a round peg into a square hole, and not all horses are successful at slow Western gaits. You can make any horse trot slowly, but the ones that are good at it are naturals; the ones that are not good at it present a constant fight and easily become resentful. It may be that your horse is better suited as an English horse, for which long and lanky are more desirable traits.
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