English And Western Rein Aids

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question: Dear Julie,
Please explain to me the rein aids for English and Western. I would like to know which ones to use for each discipline and what is the difference. For example, direct and direct opposition, indirect and indirect opposition? And how do you use these in riding?
Answer: Hi Elizabeth,
Thanks for the excellent questions. I find this is an area that is vaguely understood, at best, by the average horse person. First of all, as far as the difference in the rein aids between English and Western, to me there are none. The rein aids work the same and the horse responds the same way no matter what style of saddle you ride in. Some might argue that the neck rein is strictly Western, but I like my English horses to know the neck rein too and it is imperative for sports like polo (which may be considered an English discipline, since it is done in an English saddle but with one hand on the reins). All of the other rein aids, direct, leading/opening and indirect are definitely used both English and Western. I cover all of these aids in my #5 Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD if you’d like to see all in action. Here’s the written description…
The term “rein aid” refers simply to how the rider moves her hand and the direction of pull on the horse’s mouth (up, back, sideways). The term “rein of opposition” is sort of an old-fashioned term and is most often used with the term “direct rein,” as in “direct rein of opposition.” Opposition refers to the forward motion of the horse and whenever you pull back on a rein, you are pulling in opposition to the horse’s forward movement. Therefore, it tends to slow the horse down.
For the direct rein, the rider’s hand moves from the regular hand position (in front of the pommel, straight line from rider’s elbow to the corrner of the horse’s mouth), directly toward the rider’s hip. There is a backward (and slightly upward) pull on the rein and therefore it is a rein of opposition.
An opening rein or leading rein is when the rider moves her forearm to the side and not back and therefore it does not inhibit forward motion. This rein aid is often used as a training rein aid, such as when you are first teaching colts to turn or when you are teaching a horse to spin or turn on the haunches or do lateral movements. It is a leading rein when it is the inside rein (you are opening the rein on the same side as you want the horse to turn). It is an opening rein when you are using it as the outside rein, when the horse is bending away from the opening rein, but you want to move the horse’s shoulder or barrel out (like opening up a circle or leg yielding/two tracking).
There are two indirect rein aids: the “indirect rein in front of the withers” and the “indirect rein behind the withers.” The latter is a rein of opposition and the former is not. The indirect rein in front of the withers is a lift up and in on the rein toward the horse’s neck (an upward diagonal pull on the rein; from the normal hand position, just turn your pinkie toward the horse’s withers without pulling back; the inside rein comes across the horse’s neck in front of the withers). The indirect rein in front of the withers moves the 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 the horse to move his hip away from the rein hand while the horse stays bent toward the rein hand, such as in a turn on the forhand 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 the horse’s neck behind the withers).
Some important caveats for all rein aids: it is not the amount of pull or contact that causes a reaction in the horse, but the direction of the pressure on the horse’s mouth or the movement of the rider’s hand (when using the indirect rein aids especially- it is only effective when there is little or no pressure on the horse’s mouth). Also, when riding two-handed (as all of the above rein aids require) your hand should never cross the horse’s withers. If it does, the rein aid you are using is ineffective and may be interfering with the horse’s motion (pulling his nose in the wrong direction). All rein aids are supported by leg aids (but that is a whole other subject).
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 are 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 the horse’s nose. Eventually, the horse associates the neck rein with turning his neck and nose away from the rein and you no longer need the leading rein.
Like the indirect rein, the neck rein may be used in opposition or not. The basic neck rein is a gentle touch of the rein against the side of the horse’s neck well in front of the withers and has no opposition. The 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 there is a hard pull or the rider’s hand crosses too far over the midline of the horse’s neck, it will inhibit the horse’s movement and turn his nose the wrong way.
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 the horse back on his haunches, such as in a roll back or a pivot on the haunches.
This is a lot of information about how to use the reins effectively and it takes a lot of time and experience before the rider is able to use the rein aids so explicitly and effectively. And 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 the horse will respond.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host

Riding Right With Julie Goodnight

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Dear Julie,
I’m 15 and have been riding for 11 years. I just bought a Halflinger pony that stands at 14.2. He’s a pleasure to own but rests his head on the reins and often pulls. I would like to find out a way to get him lighter on the reins with lighter contact—but without him zooming off when I’m schooling him. I’ve tried lots of things. One trainer recommended that I put my rein and hand up on his neck then bring it back and repeat the process on the other side. This does reduce his resting on the reins a little but it also encourages him to take off in a fast trot. Then I have to pull on the reins and feel him pulling against me again. I don’t see any point of the exercise. Please help me!
Thank you for your time,
Tired of Pulling

Dear Tired of Pulling,
Whenever I get a horse with a training problem, the first thing I try to discover is what is the origin of the behavior? In other words, why is he doing this? Typically, horses that root the reins and throw their heads have learned to do that in response to tight, relentless and meaningless contact on the bit. Often horses are never taught how to respond properly to the reins to begin with and contact is totally confusing to them; more often, it is because the rider is unskilled and has uneducated hands. Usually fixing the cause is more effective than fixing the symptom (be wary of using artificial aids—like tie downs, martingales or draw reins– to fix bitting problems- they may only temporarily cover a symptom).

Most trained horses learn to lean and root on the reins from being ridden with too heavy or too static of contact. Some trainers think that riders should use heavy contact all the time, but most horses will not tolerate that. Until both horse and rider are skilled enough to ride with contact, it should not be used. For me, if I am training a horse that must work on contact, I prefer to keep the horse as light as possible, teaching him to give to light pressure and balance as little weight as possible in my hands. The first thing you should check whenever you have bitting problems is, “how am I contributing to this problem?”

He can only lean on you if you let him. Try this exercise: let a friend lean on your shoulder and notice that in order to hold her up, you will start leaning into her a little, balancing her weight. If you simply move away from her when she leans, she can’t lean on you and she will have to hold up her own weight. She can still place her hand on your shoulder to have a steady connection with you, she just can’t lean. When you feel your horse begin to lean, don’t contribute to the problem by holding him up; make him hold himself up. He should be able to trot slowly and steadily on a loose rein as well as on contact.

If he zooms away, immediately check and release, using your seat and hands in a rocking, repeated motion. Don’t pull continuously; that will only make him speed up. If your horse does not maintain a steady speed at every gait, you have some holes in your training and your horse is disobedient. See my website for more information on how to create an obedient horse, on static vs. dynamic pressure and how to use your seat to stop the horse. Learn to use the pulley rein if you need an emergency stop.

When he starts rooting on the reins, you should immediately stiffen and lock one hand on the rein so that he hits himself on one side of his mouth (it is much easier for him to lean and root on both reins than one). If every time he roots, he is successful in pulling reins out of your hand, he has gotten a reward. If every time he roots he hits a hard spot on one side of his mouth, he does not get a reward. Make sure he is rewarded with a lightening of contact when he is being a good boy.

Finally, make sure when you are riding that you have some feel and softness in your hands. I like to teach “giving” hands. That means they are always stretching toward the horse’s mouth and always offering more rein when the horse softens and carries himself. Your fingers must be soft and relaxed, not tense and gripping the reins; your elbows should be very supple to act as shock absorbers for your horse’s mouth.

One thing I would consider doing with this horse, is teach him to trot on a loose rein, as well as on-contact. I would put him in a trot and every time he speeds up without being asked, gently pick up ONE rein to put him into a tight turn; over-flexing his neck, bringing him to the right and then the left, alternating directions until you feel him slow down. As soon as he slows, go straight and find your way back to the rail. Rather than pulling back on two reins every time he speeds up, make him work harder when he speeds up so he learns that going fast is harder and that he will be rewarded with easier work when he slows down. Again, there is more info on my website on this subject.

By the way, your horse is bred to be a puller, and that certainly doesn’t help. Draft type horses (in your case, a draft pony) have short thick necks and heavy straight shoulders in order to pull heavy loads. Although I have certainly seen Haflingers that were light and responsive, they seem to naturally want to lean on you and drag you around from the ground. Although your horse definitely has this propensity, horses are a product of the handlers and riders that train them, for better or for worse. Hopefully you can take this information and make your horse better.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician

Canter Leads

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Rule Out the Physical

If you’re having trouble with your horse’s canter leads, make sure to rule out physical problems first. Whenever a horse only takes one lead at the canter, you always have to look to make sure the horse isn’t avoiding one lead or the other because of physical ailments. For instance, if it’s the right lead that your horse won’t pick up, then either the right fore or the left hind may be causing her pain. Because of the foot falls of the canter and the excessive weight put on these legs on the right lead (opposite for left lead) your horse may resist picking up the canter on one side to keep herself from feeling painful pressure. You should rule out any soreness or lameness issues with your veterinarian. It’s also possible that the horse’s unwillingness to take one lead comes from an old injury which is no longer causing any pain but which taught her a long time ago to favor one lead. If a horse is not thoroughly rehabilitated after an injury, she may develop a guarding or favoring on one leg just like humans do.

Sometimes horses become one-leaded simply because of poor training. If the rider only asks for a canter and is not specific about which lead he wants or doesn’t ensure that the horse works equally on both leads, the horse learns to favor one lead. Just like us, horses tend to favor one side over the other and with hit-and-miss training; the horse may learn that the cue to canter means “canter on your favorite lead.”

Two really common instances of this kind of inadequate training may be seen with ranch or trail horses that are ridden out of the arena very early on and trained out on the ranch/trail or roping horses that are always asked to canter on the left lead. Interestingly, off-the-track horses can be problematic for lead cues because they are used to picking which lead they need themselves—left lead around the corners and right lead on the straight-aways. So they are not used to having to think about which lead you want when cued.

Lead Training

Once a current physical problem is ruled out, two things will have to happen in your horses training before he will reliably take the correct lead when you ask. First, he will have to be pushed into the right lead once in each training session and then cantered on that lead for as long as he can take it so that he gets stronger on the weak lead. This may require weeks of conditioning and it will take considerable skill and patience on the part of the rider to get him on that lead.

To set your horse up for the correct lead, always cue as you move into a corner — not during the turn or coming out of the turn, but just before the turn. In this position, the horse should know which direction he is going and he’ll be positioned with his hips in, the way his body needs to be to take the correct lead, so that he can push off with the outside hind leg.

The cue for the canter on the correct lead use your outside leg, back about 6 inches (to bring his hips in and his outside leg underneath him), slightly lift your inside rein (to shift his and your weight to the outside and free-up his inside shoulder to take the lead.) and push with your seat in the canter motion. You might also use the kissing sound as a voice cue, which gives your horse a hint of what you are asking. If you are weighting the inside when you cue your horse to canter or you are cueing when his hips are positioned out, he will have difficulty taking the correct lead.

In the beginning, the rider may have to hold the horse in the lead with an exaggerated outside leg holding the horse’s hip to the inside and the riders weight off the back and off the inside. You will have to let the horse gallop faster than normal as he reconditions and re-coordinates on that lead.

Gradually as the horse becomes more conditioned on the right lead it should be easier and easier to cue for it. The rider has to make sure the cue for each lead is different and clear. You need to have considerable control over the horse’s haunches, to position her “haunches-in” when you ask for the canter and you will have to be able to lift the horse’s inside shoulder.

On my video about the canter, “Canter with Confidence,” (available at http://shop.juliegoodnight.com) lead problems are addressed and a series of training exercises are shown that will help you get the horse on the right lead (or left lead, whichever the case may be). It is volume 4 in my riding series and it covers everything from footfalls, to cueing and riding the canter, to lead problems to flying lead changes.
–Julie Goodnight