Stop With Your Seat

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Use your voice and seat as stopping cues to help your horse understand that you want to slow down. This will give him the chance to stop willingly, so you won’t have to apply rein pressure to his mouth during everyday riding.

In the November/December 2010 issue of The Trail Rider, Julie Goodnight explains how to use emergency stopping techniques.

While it’s important to know how to stop in an emergency, such techniques aren’t the best way to stop your horse during everyday rides. Instead, learn to stop your horse with voice and seat cues and without needing to pull on the reins.

By using your voice and seat as stopping cues, you’ll help your horse understand that you want him to slow down. This will give him the chance to stop willingly, so you won’t have to apply rein pressure to his mouth during everyday riding.

(Note: For Goodnight’s Horse Master video clips on how to teach the stop, visit http://horsemaster.tv, and look for “Out of Hand” and “Whoa Means Whoa.”)

Avoid the Pull

If you pull on two reins to stop your horse, the pressure on his mouth is so great that he’ll lean into and brace against it. If he is constantly leaning into the pressure, he’ll develop a stiff brace in each side of his neck.

When this happens, you’re in a tug-o-war with the horse—a game that’s impossible to win, because of the weight difference between you and him.

It’s imperative that you use your seat/weight aid when asking your horse to stop, Goodnight teaches. If you pull on the reins first, without using your seat, you are sending him conflicting signals. Your seat says go and your reins say whoa.

3 Steps to the Stop

When teaching any new cue to your horse, sequence the cue into three parts. In this case, the three steps consist of the following:

  • Step 1.Exhale, and say “whoa.”
  • Step 2: Shift your seat/weight back.
  • Step 3: Pick up the reins, but only if necessary.

If your horse ignores the pre-signals and needs a bit of rein pressure as a teaching tool, pull back gently with a right-left motion, instead of pulling on both reins at the same time.

If you use this sequence consistently, your horse will learn to stop before you ever touch his mouth.

(Note: For details and a visual aid, go to www.juliegoodnight.com, and look for Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD, “Communication and Control.” You’ll learn to break down the whoa cue into distinct parts, so that your horse gets a pre-signal with your voice and seat before feeling pressure on his mouth.)

Enlist a Friend

Although this pattern seems simple, it’s not always easy to distinguish your cues into three parts. Have a knowledgeable riding buddy watch you to make sure that you’re making this distinction. Ask her to make sure you’re first saying “whoa,” then shifting your seat, then picking up the reins.

Your friend just might catch you saying whoa and using your seat at the same time—even if you feel like you’re executing these steps in order.

Keep practicing! Your horse will love you for it! All horses are happy to do that if they know it to be an option. No horse in the world wants you to pull on his mouth.

Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).

Heidi Nyland (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Longmont, Colorado.

English And Western Rein Aids

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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?
Elizabeth
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
http://www.juliegoodnight.com

Riding Right With Julie Goodnight

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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
www.juliegoodnight.com

Fear Of Cantering

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
How do I overcome fears of cantering?

Hi Julie,
I have been riding for about 2 years. I’m 53, and although I have been around horses (started my daughter riding @ 4-5 yrs old, own a race horse) have always been terrified of horses, yet love them. I want desperately to ride well. Lately, I have been “stuck”; cantering sends me into a panic. I try, and yet I freeze, I can’t focus on steering or keeping him going, all I can think is stop! I think my instructor, patient as she is, as well as the barn staff have written me off, and are losing patience with me, (and I don’t blame them). What should I do, how do I combat this and get past it? Do you run intensive, submersed horse clinics to overcome debilitating fear? Or recommend one? Please help!

Sue

Dear Sue,
Fear and lack of confidence are more common in riders than you think. In fact, most people that have been around horses have dealt with this issue at some time or another. Let’s face it; they are big, scary animals capable of spontaneous violent combustion at any moment. I’d be more concerned about someone who said they’ve never had any fear around horses. Fear is a natural emotion and it’s one that keeps us safe—keeps us from doing really stupid stuff. But when fear begins to impact your enjoyment or begins to control what you do and do not do, it’s time to take action.

It always amazes me how many people want so desperately to ride and be with horses, in spite of their over-powering fear or after a bad accident or injury. There is a deeply rooted passion there that keeps you motivated even though the fear is sometimes crippling. That is why it is always important to think about why you are doing this—what is your purpose? Passion? Fulfilling a life-long dream? Enjoying an activity with your spouse? Whatever your purpose is, you need to define it and embrace it. Purpose leads to courage.

Canter is certainly the most fear-inducing gait and at just about every clinic I do, there are people that are fearful of the canter. That makes sense because if things are going to go wrong, it is likely to be at the canter. So your fear is perfectly understandable. Since canter is the closest thing to the flight response that we ask our horses to do, sometimes it can trigger undesirable behavior. So before you ever tackle the canter, make sure everything else is going well—your horse is responsive and obedient, you feel ready, the footing is good, the situation is right. I always tell my riders: Never get in a hurry to canter—it will happen when you are ready. If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it.

There’s an old saying in horsemanship that says, “The best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” In other words, you can accomplish much at the trot and unless and until your horse is working really well at the trot, there’s no point in asking for canter. The same things goes for you—if you work on improving your riding skills at the trot, it will prepare you better for canter. So work on posting and sitting trot; do lots of transitions—collected trot, extended trot, collected trot. Trot figures like circles, serpentines and figure 8s. You may even want to start working on lateral movements, like leg yielding at the walk and trot before you tackle canter. When you can do all these things confidently, the canter will be easy.

When all the stars are aligned and you feel like it’s ready to tackle the canter, I can share a few things with you that may help. First, make sure you know and understand the canter cue, so you can be clear to your horse. When you haven’t cantered a horse for some time, he isn’t thinking about a canter cue and so he may go into a fast trot instead of a canter. If he does, slow him down firmly and immediately ask for canter again, as if to say, “wrong answer; try again.” Repeat until he canters on cue. Once he realizes that you actually want him to canter, the cue will get easier.

Make absolutely certain you do not pull back on the reins when you cue for canter; in fact, you’ll want to reach up toward his ears as you cue him. One of the first things that happens in the canter departure is that your horse’s head will drop down as he launches himself into the gait—if he hits the bit at this moment, he will think you do not want him to canter. This is a HUGE source of problems at the canter; people are pulling back without realizing it, especially if they are nervous about it. It is a very frustrating problem for the horse because you are punishing him for doing what you asked him to do.

I suggest working on the canter in the arena, but only cantering a few strides down the long side of the arena at first, transitioning back to trot in the corners. The turns are harder and you are more likely to lose balance in the turn, so staying on the straight-away will help. Also, I’ve noticed that nervous riders will do okay on the first few strides but the longer they go, the worse they ride. So if you’ll just canter a few strides, then stop, then do it again, you will probably accomplish more. Gradually increase the distance you canter. Remember to breathe!

Some riders and/or horses will do better cantering out on the trail with other horses than they do in the arena. Often it is easier to get the horses into it and they will canter along naturally with the other horses. I have used this technique many times with nervous riders and we will generally canter on a slight uphill slope so the horses are working too hard to act up in any way. But you have to know your horse before trying this out on the trail; some horses will be better while others may be worse.

The biggest mistake people make in trying to ride the canter is to lean forward, thus closing your hip angle, which causes you to be thrown up and out of the saddle with each stride. To counter-act this, you need to sit well back, with your shoulders even slightly behind your hips. The canter involves a motion similar to pushing a swing—your shoulders come back as you push with your seat. So before you ask for canter, always remind yourself to sit way back and push the swing. Fear will make you want to perch forward in the fetal position; try to remind yourself to sit extra far back to counter-act this tendency.

One more thought on working up the courage to canter—try it first in a Western saddle. Even if you plan to ride English, getting confidence with the gait will be easier in a Western saddle since you have to the horn to hold onto if necessary and a little more support than in an English saddle. Take all the help you can get. Once you gain some confidence, you can switch back to an English saddle.

My video, “Canter with Confidence,” will give you all the information you need to cue, ride the canter, understand leads and all the way up to flying lead changes. Knowledge will help your confidence. I also have a new video coming out in September which is a compilation of Horse Master episodes dealing with real horses and riders that are working on the canter, from cueing to slowing down the canter to lead changes.

For anyone dealing with fear of horses, it is important that you do not allow others to push you into something you are not ready to do. There is no law anywhere that says you have to canter a horse. When you are ready and you want it to happen, it will. If you don’t canter—so what? It is also important to surround yourself with supportive people and share your goals and your plan with them and let them know how they can support you. I have written a lot about rebuilding confidence, so there are many articles in my Training Library that will help. I also have a motivational audio called “Build Your Confidence with Horses,” which you can download from my website (or purchase the CD). Many riders have found this to be a very useful tool in overcoming fear. Listen to it on the way to the barn.

By the way, it is your instructor’s job to be patient, keep you safe and help you attain your goals. You are not beholden to her and her staff—they are beholden to you. Don’t worry about them and don’t let anyone else pressure you or frustrate you. You are doing this for you—not for them. Don’t worry about what others think; surround yourself with people that are supportive of your goals. And don’t forget to celebrate your successes, no matter how small they are!

I have heard from hundreds of riders who have used my techniques to overcome their fear and learn to enjoy horses with confidence. You can make it happen but you have to work at it—have a plan, know what you are going to do when you feel fearful. Because of the mind-body-spirit connection, if you cave into the emotion, it will overtake your mind and body. If you have the mental discipline to think positive thoughts and control your body language (looking confident even when you don’t feel that way, the emotion cannot take over. Don’t ever give up! You can make this happen. I know you can.

Good luck!
Julie
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
Canter with Confidence DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Goodnights-Principles-of-Riding-vol-4-Canter-with-Confidence-GPRV4DVD.htm
Canter Master DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Horse-Master-Canter-Master-Horse-Master-Cantering.htm

Keeping Focused

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
What can I do to keep my horse focused when we’re on the trail?

Question: Dear Julie,
My 6-year-old-AQHA gelding is very focused in the arena, on or off cattle, keeping his face directed at our target or direction. On the trail, he likes to look all around and, if I don’t re-direct him, follow his face off toward whatever catches his attention. If I allow that behavior (meandering, I call it), am I creating long-term problems for us? As always, I appreciate your expertise. Thanks, Doc.

Answer: Doc,

In defense of your horse and in the spirit of “you can’t have everything,” you have to understand that a horse bred to work cattle does not always make the best trail horse. A “cowy” horse’s mind is keyed into movement and wants to follow it; he notices every little thing and tends to stay on alert. While this works out great in the arena and on cattle, it is not ideal for trail riding. Having said that, being cowy is no excuse for disobedience, and yes, if you allow disobedience it will cause bigger problems for you down the road because it erodes your authority and leadership.

An obedient horse will be focused straight ahead and will go in the direction you ask, at the speed you dictate, without constant direction from you. Many riders micro-manage their horses by constantly steering and correcting speed with the reins, so the horse becomes dependent on that. Once you cue a horse to go at a certain speed and in a certain direction, he should continue on that path and at that speed/gait until you ask him to speed up, slow down, turn right or turn left.

To check how obedient your horse is, find a target and give him a cue to walk or trot straight toward your target, then lay your hand down on his neck with a loose rein, and see if he continues. If he changes speed or direction without a cue from you, it means you have a horse that is either disobedient or co-dependent on you and you have some work to do. You need to break your habit of micro-managing, give clear directives, then give your horse the responsibility to obey. Correct him with your reins and legs if he makes a mistake; but leave him alone when he is obedient. Use enough pressure in your corrections that he is motivated to behave.

I have written a lot about having nose control on your horse. He should not be looking around while you are riding him, either in the arena or on the trail. Simply correct the nose with the opposite rein—if he looks right, bump the left rein, and visa-versa. Do not try to hold the nose in place; just correct it when he is wrong. I use the point of shoulder as a guideline; he can move his nose all he wants as long as it stays between the points of his shoulder; as soon as it crosses the line, he gets a correction. In short order, he will keep his nose pointed in the right direction.

Keep in mind, that just because you control the nose, does not mean you control the rest of the horse. He can easily run through his shoulder and go in the opposite direction that his nose is pointed. The most important thing is to control the horse’s shoulder but if you cannot control the nose, you have little chance of controlling the rest of the body.

How strict I am on the horse’s nose and his looking around, depends somewhat on the horse, his level of training and his willingness to be obedient and subordinate. If I am riding a horse that has proven to be well-behaved, responsive and obedient, I may let him look around a little, as long as he does not alter the course I have set in either speed or direction. On the other hand, if I have a horse that has proven to be disobedient, spooky or otherwise fractious, I will have a zero tolerance for looking around.

For your cow-bred horse, you will have to factor in his training, temperament and obedience and decide how strict you will be. Always correct a horse when he changes course without a cue from you, but with a cowy horse, that is bred to be very alert to any movement in his environment, you may have to cut him a little slack as long as he remains obedient.

The most important thing for you is that you have a clear and consistent view of what will be corrected and what is expected of your horse. That’s why I use the points of shoulder as a landmark—that way I have clearly defined what I expect and I know exactly when to correct the horse and when not to, so that the horse can clearly understand the rule and that I can give consistent corrections.

You’ll have to use your own judgment with your horse, but as long as it is clear and consistent, your horse will learn quickly. Good luck!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
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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 719-530-0531 for ordering help):
The Goodnight Bitting System
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

Split Rein Hold

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Split rein hold
Split reins are commonly used by western riders and there are several ways to hold them– the two-handed trainer’s hold (with the reins bridged and both reins in both hands), one-handed trainer’s hold (reins bridged with four fingers between the reins) and the proper split rein, like what is required in competition. The split reins hold is sometimes called the “pistol grip” and is easily taught to riders by having them make a pistol, then grab the reins with the index finger between the reins.
–Julie Goodnight

Know Your Rein Aids

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Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Know Your Rein Aids

Dear Julie,
I’m a bit confused about rein aids—how they differ in English and Western riding. I’ve been hearing terms like direct and direct opposition, indirect and indirect opposition. What do these terms mean and when do you use them while riding?
Signed, Reining in the Answers

Dear Reining in the Answers,
Excellent questions—rein cues are seldom fully understood. First of all, there aren’t differences when it comes to English versus Western rein cues. The rein aids work the same and your horse will respond the same way no matter what style of saddle you ride in. Some might argue that the neck rein is strictly Western. However, I like my English horses to know the neck rein, too. It’s imperative for sports like polo (which is considered an English discipline because it’s done in an English saddle) where the competitor can only have one hand on the reins in order to play the game. Neck reining is also helpful when trail riding—if you need to have a hand free to open a gate or move a branch.

Let’s clarify some other rein-aid terms. Neck, direct, leading/opening and indirect rein aids are all used when riding English or Western. The term “rein aid” simply refers to how you move your hand and the direction of pull you create on your horse’s mouth (up, back, sideways). The term “rein of opposition” refers to your horse’s forward motion when you’re pulling back on the rein. You’re pulling in a direction that is opposite to your horse’s forward movement. A “rein of opposition” tends to slow down your horse.

For a direct rein, your hand moves from its neutral position (in front of the pommel, creating a straight line from your elbow to the corner of your horse’s mouth) directly toward your hip. There’s a backward (and slightly upward) pull on the rein and therefore it’s a rein of opposition.

An opening rein or leading rein occurs when you move your forearm to the side instead of back toward your hip. There’s no opposition and your aid doesn’t inhibit forward motion. The leading/opening rein is often used as a training rein aid—when you’re first teaching colts to turn, teaching a horse to spin or when asking for lateral movement. It’s a leading rein when it’s the inside rein (you’re moving the rein on the same side as you want your horse to turn). Use the term “opening rein” when you’re cuing with the outside rein— when your horse is tracking or bending away from the opening rein. You’ll use an opening rein when you want to move your horse’s shoulder or barrel out to make a circle larger. Tip: Remember the opening rein is on the outside—both start with “o.”

The basic neck rein is a gentle touch of the rein against the side of your horse’s neck, well in front of the withers and without opposition. In neck reining, your 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 you pull too hard or cross your hand too far past the middle of your horse’s neck, you’ll inhibit your horse’s movement and he’ll actually turn his head the wrong way. 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’re 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 your horse’s nose. Eventually, your horse associates the neck rein with turning his neck and nose away from the rein and you no longer need the leading rein.

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 your horse back on his haunches, such as in a roll back or a pivot on the haunches.

There are two indirect rein aids: the “indirect rein in front of the withers” (not a rein of opposition) and the “indirect rein behind the withers” (a rein of opposition). The indirect rein in front of the withers is a lift up and in on the rein toward your horse’s neck, an upward diagonal pull on the rein; from the normal hand position, just lift your pinkie finger up toward your horse’s withers without pulling back, like you’re turning a key in a door. The indirect rein in front of the withers moves your 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 your horse to move his hip away from the rein hand while your horse stays bent toward the rein hand, such as in a turn on the forehand 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 your horse’s neck behind the withers).

Some important caveats for all rein aids: it’s not the amount of pull or contact that causes a reaction in your horse, but the direction of the pressure on your horse’s mouth and the movement of the rider’s hand (when using the indirect rein aids especially—it’s only effective when there’s little or no pressure on your horse’s mouth). Also, when riding two-handed your hands should never cross your horse’s withers. If they do, the rein aid you’re using is ineffective and may be interfering with your horse’s motion (pulling his nose in the wrong direction). The rein aids are always supported by leg aids—we’ll cover that soon.

This is a lot of information! It takes a lot of time and experience before a rider is able to use the rein aids articulately and effectively. For further information, refer to Volume 5 in my Principles of Riding DVD series, Refinement and Collection. This DVD explains and demonstrates the rein aids in detail. 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 your horse will respond.

Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com
In this series, master trainer and clinician Julie Goodnight discusses the riding terms and techniques you probably know (or should know). She’ll define rein, seat and leg cues you’ll need for the best communication with your horse. Then she’ll help riders solve problems with their own horses. Learn the proper terms and apply your aids for a better grasp of horsemanship and a better riding relationship with your horse.

Riding Skills: Western Rein Hold

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Which hand should you hold the reins in when riding Western? And what should you do with your free hand?

Answer: Traditionally, the left hand is used for the reins, in order to leave the right hand free to throw a rope, lead a pack horse, shoot at train robbers or whatever task the rider needs to accomplish. In competition, most riders still use the left hand for the reins, since this is more traditionally correct and many judges fall into the “traditional” category. However, in recreational riding, it is less important which hand is used. I would suggest that if your students might be getting into competition at some point, they should probably get used to holding the reins in the left hand. It is also important that they do not switch hands from right to left, but hold the reins consistently in one hand.

As for what to do with the free hand, this is an excellent question. In the competition arena, you will see two different styles: in pleasure or rail classes, most riders will allow their free hand to hang down or rest on their thigh; in Horsemanship (Western equitation) or higher performance classes such as reining, the riders will usually hold the free arm in front of their waist, like the way a man escorts a lady that is holding onto his arm. The reasons for these different positions are that the pleasure horse rider is trying to look very casual and relaxed on the horse, as if she has not a care in the world. On the other hand, the performance rider needs the better balance that the arm-at-waist position allows and is riding in a position poised for action.

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Riding Skills: Making Smooth Gait Transitions

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Clinician Julie Goodnight tells you how to use pre-signals and breathing techniques to improve your horse’s transitions between gaits.

Are your horse’s transitions between gaits as smooth as glass? Or do you hold your breath and hope for the best as your horse hops on his forehand to slow down and lurches forward when asked to go?

If your response is the latter, then it’s time to relax and take a big breath, in and out, says horse clinician Julie Goodnight.

That deep breath, she finds, is the first step to making well-balanced and easily executed transitions in your horse from one gait to another. By combining breathing with a good pre-signal and consistent cues, you’ll set your horse up to smoothly switch gears.

Level of Intention
To get a good transition from your horse, you have to make your intentions really clear to him. If you’re unsure about making a transition, your horse will feel that apprehension.

“The rider has to be committed to whatever she’s asking the horse to do,” Julie says. “Horses are really keen to your level of intention when you’re riding-sometimes they know it better than you know yourself.”

For example, if you’re asking your horse to canter, but you’re nervous about cantering, it’s likely that you’ll unintentionally pull back on the reins as you’re kicking your horse forward. That sends your horse a mixed message. When the lines of communication falter, you’re unlikely to get that beautiful, prompt transition.

The inadvertent use of the reins during a transition, whether speeding up or slowing down, is one of the most common problems Goodnight sees. The end result is a horse that becomes nervous, antsy, angry, or indifferent in response to his rider’s unclear directions.

If you are unintentionally grabbing for the reins, you need to address the underlying issue. Are you scared of your horse’s next gear? Nerves are okay, and pretty darn normal. You just need to find a way to deal with them. Maybe you need more riding lessons to improve your balance, or your horse needs time with an experienced rider to build his confidence as he moves to the next gait. Or maybe you just need to work through the transition and really focus on not pulling on your reins when you become uncomfortable.

Perfecting the Pre-Signal

The best way to get a good transition is to give your horse a clue that you’re about to change something. Julie refers to this as a pre-signal. “It’s typically just a matter of shortening the reins and closing your legs around the horse,” Julie says.

With that subtle shift, your horse’s attention should switch directly to you, with him waiting for your next request.

“If your horse isn’t listening to you, then you might as well not bother asking for the transition,” Julie adds.

When your horse does respond appropriately to your pre-signal, you should feel like he’s tuned in mentally-and preparing himself physically-for the transition, whether you’re going to ask him to speed up, slow down, or stop.

As a pre-signal to her horse, Julie shortens her reins and applies pressure with her legs. These pre-signals let her horse know that he needs to pay attention, because something is about to change.

Your breathing can also become part of your cue to your horse, Julie says. Before an upward transition, she suggests inhaling, which is associated with movement. For example, a deep inhalation fills the lungs, and then the blood, with oxygen, which helps prepare the body for exertion or exercise. Breathing in also fills your chest with air, and naturally moves your center of gravity forward into an anterior tilt. “Inhaling is like saying, ‘Okay, get ready to move with me,’” Julie says.

When pre-signaling for a downward transition, do the opposite by exhaling and emptying your lungs.

“When you exhale, you kick back and relax,” Julie points out. Often, breathing out-or sighing-releases stress and tension. In the same way, it tells your horse it’s time to slow down, too.

If you’re consistent with your breathing, your horse will begin to associate your deliberate breathing with your pre-signal and, ultimately, the transition.

Cueing for the Transition

The next step for your transition is to actually cue your horse. Make sure your cues are deliberate and consistent, so your horse understands the request.

For your upward transitions from a halt to a walk, or a walk to a trot, squeeze both of your legs and give the go-forward cue. Also use a verbal cue, such as a specific word, cluck, or chirp. To ask for the canter, Julie suggests applying pressure at the girth with your outside leg as you tip your horse’s nose to the inside. Then add the motion of your seat going into the canter. Again, combine your body cues with your verbal cue, this time a kissing noise, the word “canter,” or whatever word or noise works for you.

If your horse is unresponsive to your request for a transition, Julie suggests the “ask, tell, demand” method of cueing. Start by asking nicely, then up the pressure and tell your horse what you expect, and, finally, demand with a light tap or spank with a crop or the ends of your reins, Julie says. Let your horse know exactly what you expect him to do.

Julie uses her breath to help cue her horse. Here, she blows out, letting the air expel from her lungs. This action causes her body to sit back, another clue to her horse that he’s supposed to slow down. The opposite happens when Julie breaths in. Now her chest rises and body moves forward, telling her horse to get ready to move forward.

When executed properly, the upward transitions should feel as though your horse is springing and stepping forward into the next gait.

In the downward transitions, you want to help your horse stay balanced, so he steps down from the gait, rather than lurching and falling on his forehand. To help your horse stay balanced, Julie says to avoid using the reins to slow your horse. Instead, use your breathing, along with the weight of your seat. Sit back and down into your saddle, and combine it with a verbal cue. The word “easy” is a popular choice for slowing between gaits. The word “whoa,” of course, should be reserved for complete stops. Most horses are pretty happy to stop, and will happily do so without their riders pulling on the reins, Julie points out. If you always use your aids in this sequence when you cue for the stop: voice-seat/legs-hands (only used if needed), your horse will elect to stop before the pull on his mouth comes.

Practice Makes Perfect

Once you’ve perfected your pre-signals, breathing techniques, and cues for transitions, it’s time to keep practicing. The more transitions you do when you’re riding, the more responsive and engaged your horse will become. He’ll also become physically stronger, especially through his back and hindquarters, which only makes his transitions better. Pretty soon, you’ll feel like you’re sailing over glassy water to get to your horse’s next gait.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Talk About Tack: What Is The Best Rein To Use?

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Question Category: Talk about Tack

Question: Dear Julie,

When starting my colt I was advised to use slobber straps and a rope rein for several reasons. When the horse was further along several people recommended using a heavy leather rein that attached directly to the bit (1″ split reins). I was really excited to find Julie’s weighted rope reins since I’m not real good with split reins! Now I’m wondering if at some point should the horse move into a lighter weight rein or are the heavy rope reins a long term rein to use if not showing.

Thanks!
Cindy
Mariposa, CA

Answer: Dear Cindy,

Another great question! What type of reins should you use? There are many factors involved in determining the best answer, including the type of riding you do, your skill level, the kind of bit you use and the level of training in your horse. Comfort in your hands is also an important consideration, how effective the reins are in giving you a clear line of communication to the horse through your hands and a good “feel” of the horse’s mouth.

It took me several years to design my rope reins—starting with finding the perfect rope and ending with making them more functional and easier to use than other reins. I have also designed into them an ideal length, a center marker that helps the rider keep the reins even and a quick-connect to the bit that delivers a good feel.

A long single-loop rope (or horse hair) rein is best for riding in a snaffle; when you are riding two-handed. Iit should be 9 or 10 feet in length so that your horse can walk in a relaxed and level frame on a loose rein. The single loop rope rein is easy to use because it is easy to shorten and lengthen your reins—something you need to do constantly as you ride. Too short a length in the rein will cause you to be in the horse’s face too much and he’ll never relax—that can lead to an agitated and nervous horse.

The Mecate (meh-cah-tay) rein is a single loop rope (or horse hair) rein, tied from a 22 foot rope, with a long enough tail left over at one end to be used as a lead rope. It can be handy if you are on and off your horse a lot and ground tying him or leading him around. But the extra rope can be cumbersome to the rider and has to be either tied up to the horn or looped in a belt loop as you ride.

If you ever ask the horse to ground tie with a single loop rein, either you leave the reins up over the horn or use a Mecate rein, with the loop of reins secured on the horn and the lead part—the Mecate—laying on the ground. You can’t leave the loop down on the ground—it’s too easy for the horse to step through it and get in a wreck.

The rope should be heavy, supple and comfortable in your hands—not too stiff, not too thick or abrasive. I have chosen the high-quality marine rope that is used in my reins because it is soft and shapes nicely to your hand. It is the same high-quality marine rope as used in my training leads and has a really nice feel in your hands. It is 5/8th inch diameter, which I find is good for most people—even people like me with small hands.
Reins, whether leather or rope, should attach to the bit easily with not metal to metal connection—a metal connector is handy to the rider but creates an obnoxious clinking to the horse and does not give the rider a proper feel of the horse’s mouth. The rein should be weighted at the bit and it should swing freely, so the horse can feel the slightest lift and drop in the rein. For this reason, I am not a huge fan of slobber straps and I prefer the corded quick-connect that is designed into my reins instead.

You’ll always want your reins to be heavy, no matter what kind they are. The weight gives you a better feel in your hands and a steadier feel of your horse’s mouth. Think about which is easier to balance on your finger, a feather or a penny? Also keep in mind that the higher quality the leather is, the more it weighs. That’s why you want harness leather split reins—the heavier the better. Cheap reins and cheap saddles are much lighter than their higher quality cousins.

Split reins and Rommel reins are the two best options in leather reins for one-handed riding in a curb bit. Once you put both reins in one hand, the rope is way too bulky. Split reins require the most skill to handle, but they give you the most flexibility in how you ride—you can ride one-handed with the legal split rein hold (one finger between the reins) or one-handed with a trainer’s hold (four finger between crossed reins) or two-handed (one rein in each hand).

The Rommel rein is traditional for the “bridle horse” (the finished Western performance horse) and is more popular on the west coast. It is a shorter single loop leather or rawhide braided rein with a tail (the Rommel) on the end. You hold the end of the loop in your left hand, like an ice cream cone (no fingers between the reins) and the tail in your right hand.

The Rommel rein is easier to shorten and lengthen than the split rein and the tail makes a nice spanker when needed (and gives you something to hold on to with your free hand). But you have less ability to correct your horse and work the reins independently, than with the split rein. That is why the Rommel rein is considered to be for a more finished horse than the split reins. And it is also easier for a novice rider than the split reins.

So, as you can see, not all reins are created equally—and there’s a lot to factor into what is best for you. I use my rope reins on my snaffle bridles and harness leather split reins on my curb bits, but each rider is a little different in his/her needs. I hope this info helps you make an informed decision when it comes to finding the right reins for you!

Good luck!
Julie

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