When you’re doing effective groundwork, your body language and energy convey your intention to your horse, usually without the need for actual contact. When you’re riding, communicating your intention is just as important, but as your horse can’t really see what you’re asking, you must convey your requests in ways he can physically feel. In Relational Horsemanship, as in classical dressage, the main interface for ridden communication is the seat, for it is the seat aid that is best able to help your horse attain balanced self-carriage.
When a rider does not use the seat aid well due to stiffness, poor balance, or a lack of understanding, the resulting disconnect makes it difficult for the horse to understand what is being asked of him. This can have some significant consequences, including creating tension in the horse’s mind and body, which renders true self-carriage impossible.
A rider that doesn’t use their seat effectively often relies far too much on the reins, which also tends to cause anxiety in the horse. To prevent heavy use of the reins, you need to transmit your intention through your seat and legs. Once you understand how to use subtle changes in your seat and legs as the primary form of communication, you will be able to direct your horse’s movements without using the reins, which will also help improve your own balance.
This way of riding preserves the reins for two very important purposes: allowing you to pick up on and subtly direct changes in your horse’s thoughts and helping you sense release through the horse’s body. I call this the “Leadership definition” of the reins, and it is a very important aspect of helping a horse to build correct self-carriage. When applied in a leadership context, the reins are not primarily used to alter direction or speed, but they can support these functions in moments if necessary.
Good leadership in the saddle uses the reins to focus on softness in the mind, which manifests as yield in the body. This is not to be confused with using the reins to force a yield in the body. Keep in mind that leadership is not about dominance – it is about meeting your horse’s needs. This brings the horse peace, and it is this sense of peace, coupled with solid two-way communication, that enables the horse to respond with both softness and lightness.
When the reins are used primarily for softness and yield, it is the seat that directs changes of direction and speed. The leg is then used for pressure and release in connection to asking for a soft response to the rein, very much in the same way that a flag is used in groundwork for pressure and release to help a horse learn to soften to a feel on the lead rope. When you have used these techniques in your groundwork, taking the same principles into the saddle usually translates without much difficulty.
The beginning of this process (explained in detail in the exercises to follow) is to first make sure that your horse will follow a feel on one rein at a time and soften to it, just as he softens to the lead from the ground. The next step is to add your leg to deepen your horse’s ability to yield to your pressure vs simply moving. When the horse will yield softly to a gentle leg pressure rather than moving away from it in a tense state, it confirms that he understands pressure as part of a conversation, not something he needs to worry about, and it shows you that he is in a working mind frame. This is not the same thing as “driving the horse up into the bridle”; it is simply applying a light pressure to gently motivate the horse to find the response you are looking for.
Be mindful of keeping the softness you are asking for in your own body, meaning that you don’t want to be tight or braced in your hands, arms, back or hips. Just as in our in-hand groundwork, any brace in the rider tends to cause a corresponding brace in the horse. If you are feeling resistance or tightness in your horse, try taking a few soft breaths yourself, and imagine those breaths flowing through your entire body, releasing any tension they encounter. (Yes, kind of like yoga on horseback!) I know that might sound strange to some, but truly, a good leader is one who remains calm and relaxed, and you can’t communicate that to your horse if you are tight in your body or your hands.
There will be times when the focus of the reins is more about athleticism than leadership, but you must take care of the leadership needs of your horse first. If the needs of the horse are not met, we lose the ability to effectively shape the horse. We then tend to fall back on force, attempting to make the body do what we want despite the horse’s lack of comfort with our requests. This creates tension in the horse, and tension in the horse stymies athleticism. Therefore, if the horse is not calm and relaxed, the purpose of your rein should be leadership. Only when you have the mind and body in a positive space should you shift to an athletic focus.
When you are ready to ask for athleticism under saddle, the reins are primarily used for rotation of the poll, while the seat and legs are used for direction and balance. At this stage, the ability to influence both the poll and the motion of the shoulders is critical, as this makes it possible to use your balance and leg aids to shift your horse’s balance and help him achieve correct self-carriage. Once again, if you want all of this to go smoothly in the saddle, you need to have set the horse up for success through your groundwork, as we have discussed in our previous articles.
Assuming you have done the preliminary groundwork, here are some initial exercises to try in the saddle.
Exercise 1: Feeling and changing the horse’s thought through the reins
Can you tell what direction your horse’s thought is focused in? Can you touch the rein and feel the thought change?
How to do it: Gently pick up one rein and observe whether or not your horse’s thought changes focus to the same direction as your rein. If it does, he will easily flex in that direction, and you may see one or both ears move in that direction as well. If you do not feel a change, wait a bit or move your hand slightly until you see the thought change focus. Time your release to the moment the thought changes and observe the poll rotating. Gaining the ability to change the thought like this becomes the primary way to rotate the poll, for as the thought changes direction, the poll naturally changes with it.
Exercise 2: Using the rein to feel for tension/softness through the entire body
When you pick up the rein, can you use it to sense tension in different parts of your horse – namely the poll, neck, shoulders, barrel and hind end? Can you feel when your horse starts to soften a tense area and time your release with that?
How to do it: Once you have checked in with the poll using the first exercise, move into a walk, then pick up a slight feel with the reins and sense what the neck feels like. Is it stiff and resistant, or relaxed and soft? If you sense a soft yield in the neck, take a little more feel on the rein to see what the shoulder feels like and how it responds. The idea is to work your way through your horse and feel his entire body with the rein and sense a softness through each part. If, however, you feel tension anywhere in your horse, make sure you are not tense, then simply pause, staying soft within yourself, until you sense a yield in your horse.
You need to be able to tell the difference between a horse that is responding lightly vs one that is responding softly. This exercise allows you to sense the difference. If your horse is giving softly, you will feel a flow of release into the rein, whereas a horse that is only being light will move his body without letting go of tension. Without an awareness of this, the next exercise will be more difficult.
Exercise 3: Feeling the poll’s effect on straightness, balance and the hind end
Can you feel the poll rotate? When the poll rotates softly and subtly, can you feel the hind legs step under? Are you able to tell when the shoulders are centered vs. falling in or falling out?
How to do it: Begin at a walk so you can feel the process more easily. Connect with both reins so you can feel the poll with both hands. You will use your outside rein to feel that side of the horse and prevent over-flexion, and you will use your inside rein to ask for rotation of the poll. Start by making sure the shoulders are balanced and the head is relaxed. If the shoulders are leaning there will be an equal and opposite effect in the placement of the head, as the head acts as a cantilever to balance the shoulders. If the shoulders are falling in or out, first ensure that you are not dropping your own shoulder or weighting your seat bones unevenly – common habits with many riders. If needed, use a little bit of leg to encourage the shoulders to straighten, but avoid trying to “make it happen” with the reins.
Once the shoulders are straight and the head is relaxed, gently rotate the poll to the inside, looking for true softness in the horse, and lightly feel the outside rein to prevent overbending of the neck. As you feel a soft rotation of the poll, try to sense the hind end step under deeper as it happens. This may feel like a bigger motion under your seat, so be sure to stay relaxed throughout your own body so that you don’t block that motion. If you are not feeling any change, go back to the first two exercises and make sure you and your horse both have a good understanding there before coming back to this exercise.