Neck reining adds an extra level of finesse to a western training program; however, teaching it can be a bit of a mystery for many riders. As an English rider, entering the western world years ago, I felt awkward riding with one hand. So, like many, I’d train at home with two hands and hope that the stars would align when I entered the show ring with one hand. I encourage students to ride with one hand when using a curb bit, which is any bit that operates on the principle of leverage, using a curb strap.
The action of a curb bit enables a rider to use more subtle rein aids and lighter contact than a snaffle. Because the leverage action magnifies the rider’s hand, it takes less movement to achieve a lighter response. The required finesse is the next level of a horse’s education. Most breed associations require horses to be exhibited with one hand and a curb bit starting in the sixth year, except in novice classes where a snaffle with two hands is optional.
Most western horses I work with transition from snaffle to curb at three or four years of age, coinciding with when they’re ready to show in pattern classes like horsemanship or trail in which they’ll need more of a ‘handle’ for intricate steering and advanced manoeuvres.
If the horse is happy and responsive in a snaffle or hackamore, we may stay in that for a while longer. Be sure, before changing to a more advanced bit, that your horse willingly yields to pressure in every way:
- Will he flex to your hand without opening his mouth or bracing in the snaffle?
- Does he lengthen and shorten his stride without resistance, and back up softly?
- Does he move laterally from your light leg aids at all gaits?
While variations in bit mechanics are a topic for another article, you can refine your choice by understanding the mechanics of bitting – how the parts of the bit affect the individual structures of the mouth and head.
I typically start with a flexible, multiple joint mouthpiece and short, swivel shank. Because the oral cavity of each horse varies in size and shape, try a new bit for a few days to observe how your horse responds. Unfortunately, this can become an expensive process – most horse owners have quite a collection of ‘experiments’ at the bottom of their tack boxes!
Amplifying your cue to a horse who hasn’t mastered the skills is like a tourist with a megaphone barking their foreign language at a local, with hopes they’ll get the message. Louder doesn’t help! Along the same vein, ‘more bit’ is not the answer to a dull or resistant horse.
As with any equipment, start out with the mildest curb, increasing in intensity only when you know your horse absolutely understands you, yet needs motivation to respond.
I introduce any new bit to a horse from the ground before climbing aboard. By backing the horse and flexing his head from one side to the other, he discovers the answer to the question – that yielding to the bit results in freedom, every time. Once mastered, I follow the same routine from the saddle. When he comprehends how this curb action works, I’ll begin asking him to understand the new language of pressure on his neck.
After many repetitions, a horse figures out that every time he feels the rein press across his neck, and he moves his neck away from it, he finds instant relief – the rein goes slack.
Riders often avoid the whole process by relying on direct reining with index finger between the reins – like never removing the training wheels, these horses never really learn to guide with finesse.
Once your horse “gets it,” challenge yourself to ride only with one hand every time you choose a curb bit. That’s what I did years ago, and now I ride as well with one hand as with two!