Steering a horse with one hand is like adding another language to your horse’s education. Initially trained to speak “direct rein”, as the horse advances in his education you’ll begin to communicate with a curb bit and introduce pressure on the neck.
In my article “How to Transition from a Snaffle to a Curb Bit” in the July/August 2014 issue of Horse Canada, I shared that as an English rider entering the western world, I felt awkward riding with one hand. So, like many riders, I’d train at home with two hands and hope that I’d be able to pull it off with one hand in the show ring! Very bad plan…
Why teach the neck rein?
It is always appropriate to ride a horse with one hand when using a curb bit, and in most competitive associations, even the momentary use of two hands on the reins is grounds for disqualification.
Most stock horse associations require riders to show with one hand and a curb bit (leverage bit with a curb strap), in the horse’s sixth year.
The enhanced feel of a curb bit enables subtle communication and lighter connection than in a snaffle. This “power steering” feature affords greater finesse in pattern classes such as horsemanship, reining, western riding and trail. For events in which the rider needs to use the free hand for opening a gate, holding a flag or roping a cow, neck reining just makes sense.
What do I do with my free hand?
Often betraying our tension or concentration, the flying free hand can be tamed by keeping the upper arm tucked in and aligned with the upper body. It can be carried bent at the elbow or straight down at the rider’s side.
When is my horse ready to learn?
Mastering the language of the curb is a necessary advanced step in the education of any western horse.
Horses in my program usually spend the first year of training in a snaffle with direct rein before learning to neck rein.
First, ensure that your horse understands how to give to rein (and leg) pressure in every way. Will he flex laterally to direct snaffle rein pressure without opening his mouth or locking his jaw? Does he back up softly and travel in a frame without resistance?
And are you able to communicate your signals clearly? Steering lessons can be confusing for your horse when reins are noisy, giving mixed messages. If your hand is unsteady with the stride of your horse, acts abruptly or becomes tense, gripping the reins when you focus on other things, hold off on introducing a leverage bit.
How do I do it?
With direct reining, your horse has learned that freedom from pressure on the corner of his mouth is found by turning towards it. Now he’ll learn to turn away from pressure on the side of his neck. Ultimately, every time he feels the rein lay into his neck, and he moves away from it, he’ll find instant relief – the rein goes slack.
At first, he’ll answer incorrectly. Counter-bending, he’ll tip his nose to the left. So, without interrupting neck pressure on the left, reach over with your free hand and use a direct rein to steer his head away from the neck rein – to the right. As soon as the nose tips into the helper-rein and away from the neck rein, let both reins go slack.
Follow these steps: 1. Neck pressure. 2. Opposite direct helper-rein. 3. Slack. If the three steps aren’t used independently, the lesson is confusing. Eventually, after many repetitions, the horse connects the dots and Step 2 is eliminated.
Resist short-cutting the process by slipping your index finger down between the reins to tip the nose. Slipping more than one finger between the reins is a show ring “D.Q.”
French immersion students rise above their French-class-only friends by operating in the language every day, in every class. Similarly, discipline yourself to ride only with one hand every time you choose a curb bit. Before long you and your horse will become fluent.