Why Do Horses Relax And Listen When I Use One Rein At A Time?

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
Why do horses relax and listen when I use one rein at a time?

Question: Dear Julie,
My riding instructor and I have a question regarding using one rein while riding. I’ve seen it mentioned in several different articles and books. John Lyons discusses using one rein when starting a young horse. My instructor learned the technique from Karen O’Connor. When we use it on any of our horses – lesson horses to upper level eventers, it seems to calm them and refocus their attention. Can you help explain the equine thought process here and why it seems to be so effective? Also, in what situations would you recommend using it and why?
Thanks,
Sarah

Answer: Any horse will work better when the reins are used one at a time as opposed to using both reins at the same time. There are several reasons for this. First, when you pull on both reins at the same time, it causes a horse to clench his jaw, stiffen his neck and lean into the pressure. He ends up with a stiff and bracey neck that feels like it has two pieces of rod iron in it.

Secondly, using both reins at once puts you and your horse in a tug-of-war that he will always win because he out weighs you by so much.

We want our horses to stay soft in the jaw and loose in the neck (and body) and that will only happen when you use one rein at a time. The mechanics of the bit are such that when you pull on both reins at the same time, it creates pressure all over his mouth, tongue, jaw and palate; it is too much pressure and the horse’s only concern will be to get away from the pressure however he can– he quits thinking, which is not conducive to learning. You also lose any ability to be articulate with the rein aids or use the reins to influence certain parts of his body, because the pressure is every where and he cannot adjust to subtle rein cues.

Even in a hackamore, rope halter, side-pull, etc., you’ll get the same response if you pull on both reins at the same time. Horses tend to move into static pressure; try leaning on your horse and notice he shifts his weight and starts leaning back. Pulling with two reins simply gives the horse something to brace against and lean on. He cannot do that with one rein.

You’ll have much more control over the horse when his neck is slightly bent than when it is straight. It is when the horse stiffens his neck straight in front of him that we lose control. Using one rein to stop or using both reins alternately, like you do for collection is the ideal. Even when using both reins, you always want to keep a rhythm in the reins so that you are not giving the horse something to lean on.

There is a well-documented behavior that I think helps explain why horses are more responsive to one rein than two. When a horse eats or drinks (from the ground) he is very vulnerable because his vision is so poor at that point that he can only see the ground immediately around him. Therefore, when a horse eats or drinks (in the wild) he will eat a few bites, slowly lift his head, swing it to one side, go back down for another few bites, lift his head, slowly swing it to the other side. This is believed to be an instinctive behavior of horses that helps keep them safe from predators when their head would other wise be down in that vulnerable position. Therefore, it follows that if we can move a horse’s nose gently from side to side and keep his neck loose and relaxed, he stays soft and calm.

When a person pulls relentlessly on both reins in an attempt to bring the horse into control or to get him to come on the bit (something I see in every clinic that I do) it tends to lead to the horse getting more and more out of control and agitated until he begins to “run through the bridle” in an attempt to escape the confusing, painful and relentless pressure on his mouth. The more you pull back, the faster the horse goes (moving into pressure). It is hard for people to understand that they need to release the pressure before they can get the horse to stop or to be responsive at all. Check (with weight and reins) then release, then check, then release.

Using the one-rein stop, you’ll never have this problem, even if your release is not as good as it should be. By and large, the biggest problem that people have riding is not releasing the horse from bit pressure enough.

Finally, using the one rein stop will lead to a disengagement of the hindquarters (occurs when the horse crosses his hind legs) which will always cause the horse to calm down, focus on you and become more submissive.

To execute the one-rein stop, lift up on one rein toward your belly button or opposite shoulder, it causes the horse to disengage as he stops. As soon as you feel the horse’s back bend as his hip comes under you (it is a very distinctive feel) you release the rein entirely. With practice, a slight lift of one rein will cause the horse to stop easily. Use the disengagement any time you lose a horse’s attention or anytime he becomes nervous or fractious. We use the one rein stop on young horses or any horses that are very forward and/or resistant to pressure from the reins. It is really a general practice that you can use on any horse at any time.

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Starting Over With A Fractious Horse

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In the episode of Horse Master that we aptly called “Starting Over,” we worked with Clare and her horse “Lux” at a farm outside of Portland, Oregon. Our shoot site, Tanz-Pferde Dressage Farms (www.tanz-pferde.com, the name means dancing horses) was a beautiful backdrop. We shot in their new outdoor arena and were surrounded by incredible trees—beautiful back drops in 360 degrees. With six really good episodes “in the can,” I think all of the crew would agree that one episode that really stood out was Clare’s. In the episode, you’ll see a dramatic change made in this once-injured and defiant horse.

Clare is an outstanding rider, partly because of Lux’s crazy bucking temper tantrums. Lux is a huge warm blood who hates to move forward and doesn’t mind fighting. But, the great thing about big lazy horses is that they can only buck so hard before they get lazy and quit. The key to riding horses that buck in a refusal to move forward is to ride them forward through the bucks and only let them stop when they are relaxed in the back and moving freely forward (without any pedaling from the rider). Once they figure out that bucking buys them more work and relaxing gets them less work, they’ll never buck again; at least not with the same rider. Clare did an exceptional job of riding Lux through his temper tantrums and it looked as if she knew his every move. But, in spite of all this, riding was not really what this horse’s problem was—it was far more fundamental than that.

Lux’s sordid history includes winning championships in the hunter ring as a five year old, when Clare was only ten; although he was already displaying some naughty behavior then, it wasn’t until he broke his hind leg that his behavior spiraled down. With a long recovery period, Lux was sound within a year, but he had become spooky, fractious and aggressive—with no resemblance of the former show champion. Clare’s parents spent thousands of dollars on vets exams, acupuncture, chiropractic, calming supplements, new saddles, therapeutic pads, bits, shoeing and three years later, the trainers were still stumped at what they could do to resolve Lux’s fractiousness. Now a mature 16 year old, Clare sees that her beloved horse is not getting better so she pulls him out of training, thinking it’s time for a break and she turns him out to pasture in a large herd. In the pasture, Lux immediately takes over as alpha. Now, a year and a half later, six years after Lux’s injury, Clare is ready to try again to resolve his behavior and she has studied natural horsemanship and is certain that’s the answer. And she was right.

It only took a fifteen-minute session in the round pen before Lux was hooked on and followed me around the pen like a puppy. Of course, that was after he threatened to jump out of the pen, bucked, kicked, snorted and tossed his head in defiant gestures. At first, he was very determined not to acknowledge my presence, but being out of shape got the better of him and his head started dropping. Soon he was giving me great head bobs in a deliberate gesture of submission. Again, once lazy horses figure out the path of least resistance, they take it.

I showed Clare how to correct his ground manners and develop a larger perimeter of space around her so that the big Lug, uh, Lux isn’t walking all over her. Clare turned out to be an exceptional student and absorbed what happened as I round-penned the horse and made the necessary changes in her handling of Lux. My assistant trainer, T Cody, did a little more ground work with Lux and watched carefully as Clare work him to make sure Lux maintained his subordinate demeanor and respected his boundaries.

The next day Lux was still a changed horse– respecting Clare’s authority, keeping his focus on her at all times and keeping his head down and relaxed. With a great sense of accomplishment, we wrapped-up Clare’s episode and as I was leaving the round pen to go change into clothes for the next show, I told Clare she should take advantage of the work we’d done in that round pen over last 24 hours and saddle him up and see how he rides. When I came out 10 minutes later, Clare was cantering figure eights in the round pen, doing beautiful flying lead changes with each turn as her mother shouted with glee into her cell phone, sharing the success with Clare’s dad.

I’ve had one update from Clare, in the past three weeks and she asked an astute question and immediately put the answer to work on Lux with great success. I think Clare will do great things with this horse. It takes two to maintain this kind of change in a horse—both the horse and the handler/rider need to change their ways. With horses, it always boils down to the human stepping up to the plate and showing some leadership—either you are the boss of them, or they are the boss of you—that’s the way it works in a horse herd. Horses are much happier when there is a competent leader in charge, so that they can relax and not have to think.

Be sure to watch the “Starting Over” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight
–Julie Goodnight