One Rein At 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
_________________________________
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

Riding English

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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,
Sharon

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 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight Bitting System
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

Pulling On The Rein

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Question:
I have been riding for eight months at a stable and am taking classes once-twice a week as well as clinics. I bought a horse from the stables I go to, he is a twelve year old Arab and a very forgiving horse. I bought him in June and I would say the last two months he has started to pull on the bit. I am finding this very very frustrating. My teacher is a very good trainer as well as a teacher. It is a very busy stable…. I guess what I am trying to say I kind of feel bad about looking to someone else for an answer. Just this weekend she told me to try a softer bit, and there was no pulling. I went out the next day to ride and he started to pull again. At first we maybe thought when he is getting tired he pulls, but it can be ten minutes into the ride and he starts to pull again. I thought maybe it could be his teeth but when she bought him she had had his teeth checked and they were fine. Would you please be able to give me advice into what else I could try? I am going into a show this weekend and with him pulling on the bit causes me to not enjoy my ride.

Sincerely,

Lori

Answer:

Pulling on the bit, rooting the reins and head tossing are always caused by the same thing: the rider. This is not a human with a horse problem, but rather a horse with a human problem; and a very common one at that, so don’t feel too badly.

The reason why he did not do this for the first few months you had him is that he tolerated the unrelenting and unfeeling contact on his mouth (or it wasn’t as bad at first). At some point he reached his limit and began to pull against your contact, begging and pleading for a release and undoubtedly it worked to his advantage and he got some rein away from you, even if only for a brief second, thus rewarding his behavior.

The first thing to fix is you. Talk this over with your instructor and she should be able to teach you how and when to release the contact. Even if you are riding English, in my opinion you should not be riding on direct contact until you are much more advanced in your riding. You would never want to ride with direct contact out on the trail, because you want your horse to be calm and relaxed and be able to use his head naturally to balance.

Although the rider inadvertently trains a horse to lean on the bit, root the reins or toss his head, once the problem behavior begins, it is challenging to correct it without making the problem worse. The first thing to always to ask yourself with any riding problem is, “what am I doing that is causing my horse to act this way?” Chances are you are holding too tight a contact for no reason. But you cannot release at that moment when he pulls because then you are rewarding his behavior.

The first thing I would do on a horse that has learned this defensive behavior, is make sure I was riding him on a totally loose rein and only taking contact momentarily when I had to cue him to turn or stop, with an instantaneous and dramatic release. He will probably do some experimenting by pulling his head down very low to see just how much rein he has and I will let him drag his nose on the ground if he wants (if I do not give him anything to pull against, it is a fruitless behavior). When he does root or pull on a shorter rein (which he will because this has become engrained learned behavior), I lock my hand on the rein, or even lock my hand against the pommel, so that he roots into a very fixed rein and hits himself in the mouth. If he does not get any release and instead punishes himself when he pulls, he’ll quit; but only if the rider holds up her end of the bargain: to not hang on his mouth. As with all horse training, how effective you are as a trainer depends on how quickly you can either correct or reward (release) the horse. To correct this behavior, the correction (the bump he gives himself in the mouth) has to be instantaneous with the pull. By the time you’ve thought about what to do, it is probably too late to be effective. Timing is everything for a horse. You have a 3 second window of opportunity to reward or correct, but the optimal time is half a second. If the correction comes that quickly, his behavior will be eliminated almost immediately. And if he is rewarded by not having constant static pressure on his mouth when he is doing his job, he’ll turn back into the solid citizen that he was when you got him.

If you can change your way of riding and have more awareness is your hands, your horse will change right away.

Good luck.

Loose Reins VS Slight Contact

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Dear Julie,
I work part-time for the Forest Service at a horse campground. If often hear trail riders who come to the campground say they’ve been told to ride with very loose rein. They have their reins hanging down so low that if a horse got spooked and took off, there’s no chance that they could gather their reins fast enough–it would be like reeling in a catfish that’s 60 yards out. I keep my reins loose enough to have contact on the mouth. I know I learned that somewhere and I thought it was from you. So what do you think? Slight contact or loose as a goose?
Loosey Goosey

Dear Loosey Goosey,
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle—not too tight and not too loose. I prefer that my students ride with a loose rein, especially when I want my horse to be relaxed—such as when trail riding. However, the reins should not be so long that they put you at risk. As I say in my clinics, too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

I like to see a small drape in the reins for casual riding. I think all horses should tolerate working on contact and also on a loose rein, depending on what you are asking of the horse. In most training sessions I do with my horse, we’ll start working on a loose rein—keeping a slow and steady cadence, then we’ll work on-contact in a collected frame and we’ll also work in a collected frame but on a loose rein (the horse comes off the contact instead of on it).

As you know, most horse’s problems are caused by the rider. Too much contact is a big culprit. Most people are holding the reins with meaningless contact and every time the horse tries to relax and drop his head, he hits the bit and his head pops up. This causes irritation and tension in a horse (not to mention pain), so he tends to speed up, and the rider holds the reins tighter and the downward spiral continues. Eventually the horse cannot take it anymore and he blows up and gets labeled as a “bad” horse.

We want the horse to drop his head low so you have to have a pretty loose rein to accommodate that, by dropping your hands feeding out rein as his head lowers. But too much of a good think is a bad thing and if the horse spooked on a really loose rein, you would be off balance trying to pick the reins up in time and in the critical time you lost gathering up the reins your horse may already be in a full speed bolt—with or without you.

Personally, I’d rather see people err on the side of a loose rein, than to see the horse punished for the rider’s lack of skill or awareness. There are times when I have my reins very draped–but usually my horse’s head is down very low and I am in a stable and secure situation. While riding out on the trail, it is prudent to not drape your reins too much but be aware of your horse’s comfort and let him lower his head and relax, leaving just a small drape in the reins.

Issues From The Saddle: Why One Rein Is Better Than Two

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: 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 everywhere 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

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