Whichever style of rider you are, you have probably spent hours perfecting the way you hold your reins and wondered how to improve the contact between you and your horse.
If you ride Western, you’ve learned to aim for a long, loose rein. The goal is to train your horse to carry himself in a collected frame at all gaits without any direct rein contact. This makes sense because in the end, a working ranch horse has its own job to do while the rider takes care of his own set of tasks.
On the other hand, if you ride English the opposite is true. It’s the ability to develop an elastic feel while maintaining a straight line from your elbow to the bit that you’re after. English-style riding relies considerably more on contact between a rider’s hands and the bit. The argument for contact is that whether jumping or performing a dressage test, both horse and rider must work in harmony towards the same goal.
Both approaches are valid, but, in the end, it all comes down to this: Does your horse really understand what you are asking of him?
Many horses struggle with contact and although they have been trained to hold a frame or perform certain manoeuvres, their lack of understanding and acceptance of the rein shows up in the form of tightness and resistance through their minds and bodies.
In this issue, trainer and clinician Josh Nichol discusses his view of the reins and the role they should play in the conversation between horse and rider.
The Meaning of the Rein
“I have found that far too many people attempt to use the reins without having first defined their meaning,” said Nichol. “Because reins are a piece of tack, a lot of riders use them without having first invested the time to explain what they should mean to their horses. For that reason, it’s common to see a horse become nervous as soon as any contact comes into play.”
What effect do your hands have on your horse? “Well, when you pick up your reins, how does your horse respond”‘ asked Nichol.
This is an important question because each type of response requires a modified training approach. The common goal, regardless of your horse’s reaction, is to teach him to soften as soon as you pick up the reins.
When Reins Create Fear
If your horse becomes tense every time you pick up the reins, he is likely fearful and will need you to invest the necessary time to rebuild his confidence. “With a horse that is afraid of contact, I start by dropping the reins all-together and letting them rest on the horse’s withers,” said Nichol. “If you’re riding with split reins, cross them and allow them to loosely dangle on each side of your horse. For English riders, keep the buckle at the withers and allow the rein to be as loose as possible.”
Now, begin to ask very simple softening questions. “At a walk, pick up one rein and gently slide your hand along it while slowly tightening each finger until you begin to feel some tension,” said Nichol.
As soon as you feel the slightest amount of pull against your hand, maintain a steady pressure until your horse begins to soften his head and relax. Release immediately and let your reins return to their original resting place.
“A common problem at this stage for Western riders is that the horse will respond with too much bend in the head and neck,” said Nichol. “On the other hand, with English riders the opposite is often true. Not enough is done with the head and neck and horses are not encouraged to bend as much as I would like.”
In the end, the issue is one of balance. “We must be able to feel softness flow through a horse’s spine without creating any breaks in it,” said Nichol. “The head and neck should extend softly from the shoulders.”
To constructively develop this type of release through the spine, reward your horse every time you feel an increase in his level of relaxation. “When you reach through the rein, and feel that your horse is no longer bracing through his body at the walk, stop and praise him,” said Nichol.
Once this becomes easy, try the same exercise at a trot. “Every time you go up one gait you are increasing the level of difficulty and are likely to discover a new layer of anxiety and tension,” explained Nichol. “This provides a great opportunity to see how deeply you’ve dealt with the original worry.
“The test for this exercise is to observe what your horse’s response is when asked to go forward,” said Nichol.”If, for example, your horse objects to your leg as you ask him to pick up the trot, hold on to the tension in the rein as you use your leg and don’t let go until he relaxes a little. Reward every improvement in your horse’s ability to relax by releasing both the rein and leg.
“Keep working at this until your horse’s very first response is to relax whenever he feels your leg,” added Nichol.
As soon as the reins truly begin to generate softness, you will begin to feel impulsion flow through the spine and your horse will slowly begin to pick himself up and collect a little.
Reins Equal Softness
The goal of Nichol’s approach is to teach a horse that he can move forward softly, without worrying about the rider’s hands.
“To help teach a horse that he has nothing to worry about when it comes to contact, a rider really has to refrain from using his reins as handle-bars or brakes,” explained Nichol. “It’s important that a rider develop the necessary skills to use his core to direct a horse and his seat to regulate the gait.
“The reins should only ever mean ‘please soften’ whether on a loose rein or in contact,” added Nichol. “With the exception of guiding a young horse in the very beginning of his training, reins should never be used to direct a horse.”
When Reins are Ineffective
If your horse’s understanding of the reins is that he should run through them, Nichol suggests a slightly different approach. “With this type of horse, I start by redefining the rein from the ground,” he explained.
Stand next to your horse and gently hold the rein as you would the hand of a dance partner and wait for your horse to soften at the poll. Release. “Once I have done this a few times, I will ask my horse forward onto a small circle,” said Nichol. “I now want to affect my horse’s hindquarters through the reins while asking the head and neck to stay soft.
“The biggest reason that a horse runs through the reins is because the hindquarters are continually pushing fear and tension forward,” added Nichol. “Our job here is to encourage a softening in the hip and then to release into a completely loose rein when that happens.”
A full release is one of the most important elements of the training cycle: ask a question, wait for the right response, release and repeat. “It’s important to hold onto the weight in your hand that is caused by uncertainly and tension in your horse until it lessens,” said Nichol. “If you release too soon, you will have taught him that his struggle was the right answer.”
Practice this on both sides. Your goal is to look for a softening through your horse’s entire body. “As you work on both sides, reach further down the rein to increase the question to your horse’s hip,” said Nichol. “Do not release your hold on the rein until your horse steps more and more softly under himself with his inside hind leg. Once this happens, your horse should no longer be pushing through those reins.”
Frame and Self-Carriage
Many riders will go to great lengths to encourage their horses to carry their heads in a certain frame.
If you’re a Western rider, the focus is on the chin and asking a horse to give his face. “The problem with this is that we should be looking for a response through the whole spine not just in the face,” said Nichol.
English riders focus on what they know as ‘proper frame,’ a term used to describe a way of going that is often based on a horse’s head position. If you were to draw a line from the horse’s poll to the ground, the head should fall directly on that line or be slightly ahead of it according to English standards. “The trouble with English riders is that they are often trained to hold their horse’s head on this vertical by means of a restrictive rein,” said Nichol. “In order for a horse’s energy to truly move freely from his hindquarters to his poll, a horse must be able to hold himself up and have his head hang softly.
“A horse should not be balancing his weight on his rider’s hands, he should simply carry himself,” said Nichol.
Indeed, if the spine is softened correctly, there should not be any weight in the hands. Instead, there should be a feeling of softness as the spine elevates under the saddle. “At this point in training, a rider’s job is merely to guide the spine into self-carriage rather than force it into a false frame,” added Nichol.
This is where the half-halt comes in.
Introducing the Half-Halt
The half-halt is one of the fundamentals of good riding. Unfortunately, it is often feared to be a complicated skill to master. “This really shouldn’t be the case,” said Nichol. “The half-halt is really just a progression of using the rein to ask for softness. It should simply be viewed as a way for a rider to extend his leadership to his horse in order to encourage self-carriage.”
It is the slight pause in movement that occurs while a horse is reaching further under himself that creates what is conventionally known as the half-halt. “When riding Western, I will pick up the reins to ask for increased softness as I apply my legs,” said Nichol. “As the horse begins to soften and elevate, I then release the reins and allow him to carry himself without any help from me.
“In the beginning, it is to be expected that a horse will immediately fall out because he will not have developed the necessary muscles to support this new position. I will ask again and release. As time passes, I will ask for this half-halt with increasing frequency. Soon, the horse will begin to develop the necessary strength and will begin to understand how to carry himself without needing any support from the reins.”
From an English perspective, the principles remain the same. What differs is the way the rider holds the reins. ‘What I would like to see is a soft rein and an equally soft, guiding hand,’ said Nichol. Again, the English rein should not attempt to hold a horse up, but rather be available to ask for increased softening. Just like in Western riding, the inside rein can ask for softness while the leg engages to support that request. “Once the horse has stepped under himself with greater effort and the spine has released some tension, a noticeable increase in elevation will be felt.
“I know the half-halt is working when a horse visibly rebalances and elevates more and more softly whenever the rein is touched.”
Once the rein is able to consistently speak to your horse about relaxation rather than anxiety, the two of you will be well on your way towards advancing in your training. The type of riding you engage in might dictate the overall look of your horse’s performance and the placement of your hands but when it comes to good communication between the two of you, it’s what your reins are conveying that is key.
“The language of the reins should be universal,” concluded Nichol. “It’s not whether you ride Western or English that matters most to your horse. It’s that the two of you can work together in a softer, more communicative way.”