Stop In An Emergency



The Trail Rider ~ May/June 2016

Riding Right


Stop in an Emergency

The one-rein stop is often taught as the go-to aid for slowing and stopping a rowdy horse. But on a straight and narrow trail, turning may not be a safe option. Learn the pulley rein stop with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight and stop any horse who is truly bolting and out of control on the trail. 


By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco ~ Photos by Heidi Melocco


Have you ever ridden a horse that spooked and bolted—and was ready to run fast and far? Bolting is a normal part of a horse’s flight response after he has spooked. To safely control the horse, you have a fraction of a second to choose your cues. If you are on a narrow trail without room to turn, it may be best to employ the pulley rein stop. This stopping cue is extreme and not meant as an every day method to halt—but in an emergency on a narrow trail, it just may save your life.

“What’s a true emergency?” trainer Julie Goodnight asks. “There’s a distinct difference in an emergency and a horse that just goes a little bit too fast. The pulley rein stop isn’t to be used when your horse is just going faster than you’d like. To me, an emergency is when the horse is out of control or the rider has lost their balance and someone is in danger of getting hurt. If you need a last-resort way to stop, knowing the pulley rein can help you stop any horse–no matter your size or the horse’s size.”

Goodnight says most riders are first taught to sit back and pull back on the reins to stop. That simple cue can be fine if your horse just needs to slow down. But if your horse is bucking and running off, simply pulling back is not going to stop to the emergency. A horse that is running off may brace his neck, pull back against you, grab the bit and continue to run off in response to your two-handed pull. “You can’t win that tug of war with a 1500-pound horse; the horse will ‘run through’ bit pressure alone if he is panicked and bolting,” she says.

Goodnight says many riders are also taught the one-rein stop. That is a great tool to help your horse slow down if you have the space to allow him to turn. However, the cue isn’t always the best option if your horse is moving at a great speed—turning a horse that is truly running off can cause the horse and rider to get off balance and to fall. If the trail is narrow or along a ledge, you don’t want your horse to turn.

“The one rein stop is something I teach in every clinic and it’s a great tool to teach your horse,” she says (see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding for how to teach the one-rein stop). “With practice, you can teach your horse to stop off one rein without turning—to respond to your one-rein cue to stop while staying on a straight line. But out on the trail, I may not want to take the chance the horse won’t turn–when stopping promptly is critical.”

“I’d like to teach you a rein aid that is only used in emergencies and that can stop any horse—trained or untrained to the cue. It is not the stop you should do every day. It is a rein aid to know to help save your life and your horse’s life if he is truly bolting and you are on terrain that does not allow you to turn or move to the side. ”

Practice Preparation

          If you’ve had an accident, need a confidence boost or ride on narrow trails, it’s important to know this skill. It boosts confidence to know that you can stop any horse. However, practicing this stop can be hard on your horse because you pull on the mouth to stop. Instead of teaching this skill while riding fast, Goodnight recommends learning while sitting still on your horse. Learn the hand motions without pulling hard or at all. You do need to practice on a horse, as your hands need to be in specific position on the horse’s neck.

Goodnight says that when she’s teaching the pulley rein, she teaches riders at the stand still, then, “once the rider knows the hand movements, we’ll move out into an open space where any horse may feel strong—especially when pointed back toward the barn. I watch closely to make sure that no one is excessively hard on the horse and is only practicing enough to get the hand movements memorized.”


Step 1. Shorten the First Rein

Put your hands out in front of you while riding with two reins. You can choose which hand moves first, but for illustration purposes, we will start with


the left.  Shorten the left rein by sliding your hand down that rein until it is quite short. Keep holding the rest of the reins if loop reins) or your opposite rein (if split reins) with your right hand.


Caveat: Get the first rein short enough. This first rein must be short enough to stop the horse from turning his nose right, when you pull the right rein. Make sure your hand is directly over the horse’s neck. If not, the horse will pull your hand down. You must be centered so that you have a place to push into the horse’s neck.


Step 2. Plant your Hand



With your shortened rein in your left hand, push your knuckles down into the center of horse’s mane—at the notch just above his withers. Your left hand will stay braced against the horse and continue to push into the horse’s neck. Imagine that this arm is the forward hand if you were holding a bow and arrow. It pushes forward and keeps your horse from turning his head.


Step 3.  Shorten the Second Rein.







Grab the tail of your second rein with your right thumb and slide your hand down the right rein.  Keep your left hand pushing forward into the horse’s mane.


Step 4. Pull Back, Sit Back.



Pull back and up with your right rein while your left arm pushes forward. Your arms must work in opposition. Pull back with your right hand like an archer pulls a bow just before he shoots it; push forward with your left arm to create opposition. As you pick up and back with your right hand, sit back with your whole body weight. If you are using this aid, you are in an emergency and you need to put your whole body weight into the stop. Release the cue immediately when your horse stops. Otherwise, the horse may go backwards or could rear.

Caveat: Many times Goodnight says she sees riders pull the left rein while also pulling the right rein. You must keep the left rein pushing in and the right rein pulling back.

Watch this emergency stop in action with Goodnight’s free Certified Horsemanship Association video: and type in “pulley rein video.”

Please note: Practicing the pulley rein is hard on your horse so only practice to help yourself learn the moves–without applying full force. Be gentle and don’t practice often. When you get it right, you will immediately feel the power you have. You’ll boost your confidence when riding in open spaces or on unfamiliar horses—as you have the means to stop a horse in an emergency.  [BUG]

For video how-to lessons and tips from Julie Goodnight, visit


For more information on equine behavior, including how to perform the one-rein stop, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from Thanks to Melissa Arnold for demonstrating the techniques.


Emergency Dismount

When should you stay on and stop the horse with the pulley rein versus dismounting and getting out of harm’s way? The risk of injury to the rider makes the emergency dismount a questionable skill for some to practice. Jumping from a horse can cause sprained ankles or falls. While children love to learn this skill while jumping from short ponies, those with joint pain may find practice difficult or dangerous.

Goodnight says that often, out on the trail, it is safer to stay on the horse than to dismount from a tall and fast horse onto unknown footing. However, she says the emergency dismount is great to know and there may be an instance where you choose to dismount safely instead of staying with the horse.

“I only want to jump off in a scenario where I will be safer if I am not with the horse–if a horse is running off with me and heading toward a barbed wire fence or a cliff, or some other instance where staying on the horse is more dangerous than the risks of falling as you vault off. I put this teaching—as well as teaching the pulley rein—in the category of ‘good to know, good to practice, hope you never need to use it.’”

If you need the skill, here’s what to do. For safety, consider practicing on a vaulting dummy or stack of hay bales instead of from your tall horse. Practice the rhythm of the vault so you know exactly what to do in what order.

  1. Kick your feet out of the stirrups. That seems obvious, but it is not your first instinct when you are panicking. kick

2. Place your hands on the pommel or on your horse’s neck. Use one hand to protect your stomach from the horn if riding in a Western saddle.



3. Let go of the reins and kick your right leg high up and over the saddle’s cantle. Be careful not to kick the horse in the back. If your horse is out of control and you’re dismounting, you don’t need to hold on. Holding onto the reins while dismounting could cause your horse to fall over onto you as you land.



4. Swing your legs together and land facing forward with your knees bent. The more you can move in a sweeping, athletic, flexed vault, the more likely you are to land on your feet without pain.