Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
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.
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