Communication - the Essence of Connectivity and Harmony
“You want your body and the horse’s body to become one with your arms and body working in rhythm with his feet and legs. When it’s right, it should weigh nothin'” -Ray Hunt, Master Horseman
“I believe what we have here is a failure to communicate.” This famous line, from the movie Cool Hand Luke could well be said of the dichotomy that generally exists between the rider and the horse.
Too many people assume that they have the right to ride a horse without first gaining some knowledge of how to correctly establish a communication system between them. However, without this communication system in place there can be no connectivity (something that connects or joins one thing to another) or harmony (a consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement between individuals). How a trainer or rider handles the development and education of the horse is directly related to how well they know the history of classical horsemanship.
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to present the methodologies of classical horsemanship as they relate to the communication process in order to assist those interested in gaining a closer relationship with their horse.
If one handles a ‘teaching moment’ that the horse presents with force, one doesn’t need technique or knowledge, just bigger muscles. If one wants to handle this ‘teaching moment’ in other ways and be successful in obtaining lasting beneficial results, it is going to be directly related to the level of one’s skills the quality of one’s horsemanship plus the knowledge of different options to be used at any given moment in any given situation (in other words, one must have a full complement of ‘tools’ in the toolbox – not just one or two.) It is also important to keep in mind that quietly communicating without force but always being ready to call your horse ‘to attention’ whenever necessary is the hallmark of a good rider. Ultimately, you want to be precise, but soft with your leg and rein cues (a cue being a precursor to the application of a physical aid applied with pressure) so that the horse responds quickly without resistance. As a friend of mine is fond of saying: “When the phone rings, I want the horse to pick it up and answer it immediately.”
Productive Use of the Arena
In handling these ‘teaching moments’, one of the key ingredients to the solution process is for the rider to learn how to make smart use of the arena (the classroom) and to acquire a storehouse of knowledge of the vast array of exercises available that can be geared to each problem that the horse presents in order to help reduce or eliminate the problem. To give just one example, the rider can start riding round circles (not ovals or ‘Irish’ potatoes1 to fix lateral stiffness in the horse’s body. Round means that the radius from a fixed center point out to the edge of the circle stays the same throughout the entire circle and on the narrowest of tracks, which means that the horse’s hind feet follow in the tracks of his fore feet without deviation (this holds true down to a six meter [19.68 feet] circle when the horse’s inside hind foot will step more under the mass of his body instead of tracking in line with the inside front foot.).
Any deviation with the horse stepping more into the circle or stepping more to the outside of the circle either with his front feet or his hind feet means that the circle is no longer round. It becomes what I call an ‘Irish potato’ having all sorts of distortions in it. A truly round circle is hard to ride and takes a lot of time to develop. Returning to the example, the rider should start with big circles (20 meters), then small circles (8 to 10 meters), little circles (5 to 8 meters), tiny circles (10 feet), spiraling in and-out circles, enlarging and reducing circle size through the use of leg yielding and shoulder-in, serpentines, etc. – and, at the same time, keep it interesting for the horse. Of course, these exercises should not be done all at once. But, if they are ridden with diligent practice over a period of three or four weeks, first at the walk, then trot, and finally canter, the stiffness will eventually disappear. Regarding the use of exercises, Gustav Steinbrecht, author of the book The Gymnasium of the Horse published in 1885 that is considered to be ‘The Bible” for classical dressage training said: … “The training exercises should all follow one another in such a way that the preceding exercise always constitutes a secure basis for the next one. Violations of this rule will always exert payment later on; not only by a triple loss of time but very frequently by resistances, which for a long time if not forever will interfere with the relationship between horse and rider.”
Prerequisites for Success
However, before this communication system can be operated with efficiency as well as effectiveness, there are two parts to it that must be in place. FIRST, sine qua non, is the education of the rider and only after that can come the SECOND part; the education of the horse. The order cannot be reversed (as it usually is, unfortunately) without dire consequences for the horse.
Mastery of the Aids
Therefore, the rider must learn to master the use of the aids. Until and unless one gains competency in the use of the ‘tools of the trade’, so to speak, one cannot reasonably expect to become proficient in one’s craft. And so, it is with the instruments and methods used to send signals to the horse. This means that the rider must not only have theoretical knowledge of what they are and how they are to be used but he must have the ability to use them effectively and in a timely manner. To not become familiar with and learn how to make use of all the aids deprives one of the full range of modes of communicating with the horse, unfortunately, to the detriment of the horse. This can only be done if one has such absolute control over one’s body that one is able to move only that part of the body needed to signal the horse without, inadvertently, stiffening or using other not needed parts.
Education of the Rider
The education of the rider entails the development of a secure, steady seat in balance with the horse’s movements (meaning that the horse should neither have to ‘pull’ the rider along nor ‘push’ the rider) and the elimination of bouncing or locked-in-place hands, chattering legs, and an ill-toned body with no core firmness or, conversely, looking like rigor mortis is about to set in. The rider must also gain the ability to use the aids smoothly and quickly which means that one’s reflexes must become so highly developed as to instinctively reply to any unwanted movements of or in the horse’s body. Practice in the use of the aids will give birth to the feel of the horse and equestrian tact. Feel enables the rider to judge the degrees of submission or of resistance in the horse. Equestrian tact is the rider’s acquired ability to regulate the degree, duration, and intensity of support or redirection that is needed at the moment it is needed. It is obvious then that without having the correct position the rider will not be able to successfully communicate with the horse with the result that accidentally delivered communication signals through instability and lack of balance will lead to misinforming and confusing the horse, thus negating the harmony that we are all striving for with the horse. One must understand that these aids can be used independent of one another or in support of each other. One should not be hesitant to experiment and ‘rummage around’ to find out what combination of aids work best for each horse and in what situation. But it is imperative that the grotesque habit of using aids that contradict one another not be tolerated or allowed to creep into one’s riding habits to begin with. For example, pulling backwards on the reins and squeezing with both legs at the same time will only lead to confusion and possible resistance by the horse because he is being directed to GO and DON’T GO at the same time, which, over time, will result in him ignoring both aids.
A Word about Natural and Artificial Aids
Over one hundred years ago, two German veterinarians discovered that the fine balance between the ability of the horse to bend and its ability to stretch could be attributed to the undisturbed flow of energy through what they termed the ring of muscles. As the muscles of the horse work in an integrated ring pattern from the poll over the neck and the back to the croup, then over the hindquarters and under the belly back to the chest and into the jaw, so do the aids of the rider work in a like manner in what is called the circle of aids. This is a technical term referring to the rider’s communication with his partner – the horse – and can also be thought of as a circular flow of ‘signals’. The normal aids (or ‘signals’) to be used by the rider consist of both the natural ones – seat, legs, hands, weight – as well as a few artificial ones – spurs, riding (dressage) whip, reins. Riders and trainers must be familiar with these artificial ‘tools of the trade’, which are precision instruments, and make it their job to learn how to use them effectively as aids when communicating with the horse. The aids are neither instruments to be used to punish the horse nor to ‘ambush’ or surprise him with sharp sudden movements. They should be used with finesse and to do that great equestrian tact and accuracy in using them must be developed. However, it must be understood that in the education of a young horse or the reprogramming of an older or undereducated one, clarity of signals must precede subtlety of signals. This does not mean being harsh or punitive; just using more firmness with the duration and intensity of signals keyed to getting a change in the horse. Once a modicum of understanding starts to take place, then the amount of firmness can be reduced accordingly.
Additional Artificial Aids
While there is a plethora of other artificial aids – martingales, running reins, tie-downs, nosebands, etc. they will not be further considered in this article because in the hands of all but the most experienced rider (which most trainers and riders are not, generally speaking), even though they can sometimes be temporarily beneficial, they are generally only superficial and cannot really take the place of the true education of the horse, which depends as much upon his moral submission as upon his physical obedience to the natural aids. Furthermore, in a majority of cases, especially with regards to uneducated riders and trainers, these temporary-use type aids move from being an aid to becoming a crutch without which these riders and trainers no longer have any influence over the horse and so these aids become a permanent part of the riding equipment.
Considering the Horse
One must also keep in mind at all times that the horse may not be physically capable at a particular juncture of his development and training to execute what the rider requests of him or he may not understand what is being asked of him. Most likely, the latter occurs because of the rider’s muddled communication signals – but the horse is trying his best to give the rider his best guess as to what he (the rider) wants. The horse in his own way tries to communicate to the rider his confusion, but, unfortunately, the rider seldom listens to what the horse is saying to him because he is too focused on dominating the conversation and thus begins or continues the breakdown of the horse human communication system. So, let’s take a look at the specifics of how the rider can improve this horse-human communication system through the circular flow of ‘signals’.
Too Many Notes?
In the award-winning movie Amadeus, Mozart (played by Tom Hulce) plays one of his compositions for the Emperor Joseph II. After finishing, he then asks the Emperor what he thinks of the piece. The Emperor places his hands on both sides of his head and says, “It hurts my head. There are too many notes; take out some notes”. What will be presented in the following pages may well have you, the reader, saying the same thing. But if some of the ‘notes’ are taken out then the end result will be a deficiency in the communication process. So, bear with me as we present this communication ‘composition’. It will become a symphony in the long run.
Circular Flow of ‘Signals’
That having been said, let’s get started. The circular flow of ‘signals’ works in the following manner: the whip brings the horse into the rider’s legs; the legs bring the horse into the bit and from there through the reins into the rider’s hands. The rider completes this circle by allowing his relaxed hands that are merely an extension of his body weight to influence the horse’s body through his seat and stirrup pressure, thus bending the horse’s hind legs by connecting them more effectively to the ground.
The use of weight aids is perhaps the most subtle form of communication to be used with the horse. It can entail small displacements of the trunk of the rider without disrupting the position of the pelvis; the weighing of the pelvis in different directions without a corresponding movement of the trunk; the mere weighing of the stirrups without disturbing the upper part of the rider’s body; or the use of a combination of all these weight shifts. The nuanced use of these weight aids requires an exquisite sense of feel (of where the horse’s feet are and how his body is moving) and timing (of when to apply the various signals so that they will be most effective) from the rider and can be used to great effect in conjunction with the use of the other aids covered in this article.
At this point, let’s take but one example of a weight aid and explore just a few ways that a technique called ‘stirrup-stepping’ Can be used. It is as effective as it is subtle and it is little known to the majority of riders at any level or discipline of riding, but it is an aid that works in complete harmony with the movements of the horse when used with feel and timing. However, as with the use of all aids, if it is applied too often, too intensively, or too long, it can have negative consequences. Further, as with most refined training methods, stirrup-stepping will not be optimally effective with horses that are heavy in the bridle, exhibit tension in the neck, poll, shoulders, back or hindquarters, or ignore or resist the rider’s rein, leg, riding whip or spur aids. This technique will only work on horses that are well in front of the leg and the seat, meaning that the horse immediately and unquestionably responds to the slightest indication of either.
Uses for Stirrup-Stepping
This aid can be used, depending on the duration and intensity of its use, to keep the targeted leg or legs on the ground for a longer period of time, called ‘loading’; slow down the tempo of the gait; or stop the horse if the pressure into the stirrup is firm enough and lasts long enough. It can even assist in turning or bending the horse.
Purpose of Stirrup-Stepping
The main purpose is to shift the combined body mass of the horse and rider. When using this aid, it is important that the rider release the stirrup pressure immediately upon the horse responding and not brace against the stirrup permanently with the foot. In between stirrup aids the stirrup should only carry the weight of the lower leg and foot, no more.
As an aside, the weight of the rider in the saddle should be distributed into thirds – one-third being in the seat and one-third in each stirrup for equal balance throughout the whole body so that the horse can feel any displacement of weight wherever and whenever it is applied.
Application of Stirrup-Stepping
The desired pressure into the stirrup should generally be light, ounces, not pounds, but it can be increased as needed if the horse ignores the initial pressure. It is applied by pointing the toe of the boot downward from a supple ankle joint with the rest of the rider’s body above the ankle joint remaining uninvolved. This is most effectively accomplished when the stirrup is held across the ball of the foot allowing the ankle joint to flex.
When first learning how to subtly use this signal, most riders overreact by pressing down too hard on the stirrup, sometimes caused by riding with the foot placed ‘all the way home’ so that there is no flexion in the ankle joint. Pressing is not stepping. Pressing is applied with stiff ankles and tight muscles as a result of stiffness in the rider’s position that, in turn, creates a corresponding stiffness and tension in the horse. So, therefore, it is imperative that the rider maintains a very relaxed ankle. If the rider’s ankle is stiff then he will be ‘lifted out’ of the saddle when stepping into the stirrup instead. of ‘stepping down’ into the horse’s body. ‘Stepping down’ is simply following the horse’s natural movements by letting the foot ‘sink’ more into the stirrup in complete relaxation. When beginning, it would be wise to not practice this technique more than once around the arena at any one time and spread out the practice over the entire length of the work session, thus giving both the horse as well as the rider ample time to think, reflect, and relax.
Stirrup-Stepping – Down Transitions and Turns
In its most elementary application, let’s take a look at how to use this technique as it relates to riding down transitions and turns. Let it be said regarding down transitions (transitions between gaits as well as within a particular gait} that it would be ‘work without end’ if you were to try to teach any kind of movement to a horse that will not first slowdown in balance. And, by the way, there is no difference in slowing down and stopping a horse except the duration.
Regulating the Gait
Before a horse can halt correctly he has to be able to slow down correctly. So, start at the walk and progress from there. The end result of the schooling will be to have a horse that is willing to elevate his shoulders and ‘load up’ his hindquarters in a more horizontal balance so that you have the ‘feeling’ he is shortening behind the saddle and not in the neck as well as not falling onto the forehand.
In riding down transitions (trot to walk/ canter to walk/ walk to stop, etc.), begin with a ‘big’ walk and down transition to a ‘little’ walk. You will be signaling the horse to do this by stepping straight down into both stirrups, i.e., “reaching for your stirrups.” There may also be occasions when you will have to “lift up” on the corners of the horse’s mouth with the reins (do not bring your hands backward toward your body because that would be pulling on the reins). Instead extend your arms toward the horse’s head and, at the same time, lift them straight up and outward from the horse’s neck on both sides about six to eight inches. Your hands may have to go all the way up to the ears, if necessary.
Important Point to Remember
The point you are trying to make to the horse is “I want you to shorten your step and not pull on me”. The sensation you should feel is that you are lifting the shoulders and chest up and not pulling the head back. Simultaneously, “make yourself tall” in the upper body by stretching upward as if someone were pulling a string attached to the hair at the top of your head (or the top of your helmet). When your horse responds correctly, even a little bit, praise him and when he doesn’t respond correctly, don’t get after him, just start over and give him the signals him again. You may have to do this 10, 20, or 120 times until the horse shortens his step and does not pull on the reins – not even a little bit. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. It could take a few days to a few weeks at the walk. What matters is that you are “getting to the point”. You must have PATIENCE without which you will have nothing.
Whatever you do, DO NOT move on to the trot until you have completed the work at the walk. If you make the mistake of moving on prematurely, you will defeat your purpose and it will take double the time to correct it. And, if things don’t go right at the trot and you start to have problems, then you must regress back to the walk, “fix it”, and then return again to work at the trot. This same evolution applies to the canter as well. In fact, don’t be surprised if you have to go all the way back to the walk to reestablish balance in the downward transitions when dealing with the canter.
You can slow down a horse by stepping straight down into both stirrups and rolling forward slightly onto your pelvis, i.e., having a slightly arched lower back (lumbar area).
Really Slowing Down
When the walk is going nicely and the horse is no longer leaning on your hands (‘diving for donuts’ so to speak) and he has his horizontal balance, then you can also really slow down the horse’s walk even more (almost to a hesitation walk). This is done by stepping straight down into both stirrups as before, arching your lower back and then turning your toes slightly inward toward the horse’s elbows which will close your thighs on the horse.
Stopping the Horse
To stop the horse, step straight down into the stirrups, bring your shoulders back, and “open up your chest”, in other words, stretch. At the same time, brace the lower (lumbar) back to the extent that your hips stop moving and, simultaneously, turn the toes of your boots slightly outward to allow the calf muscles to just lightly touch the horse’s sides. Maintaining a light contact with the calf muscles will keep the horse’s abdominal and oblique muscles contracted thus holding up his back and keeping his hindquarters engaged to be ready to quickly perform the next requested movement. Do not pull the reins with your hands. The action of stretching and making yourself “tall in the saddle” will move your hands, but you must make sure that a light connection between the bit and you hand is maintained. Avoid leaning back. This action will drive the seat bones into the horse’s back causing him to hollow it.
Furthermore, it can cause the seat bones to move forward thus creating a driving aid when the opposite effect is desired.
Returning to the “Big Walk’
When you want to return to a ‘big walk’ from a ‘little walk’, you will assume your normal riding position, then alternately touch the horse’s flanks a little behind the girth each time each hip is in the ‘up’ position until you attain the desired response. This action will accelerate the thrusting power of the affected leg.
When riding circles, to make the circle smaller, just step down into the inside stirrup – step down, release, step down, release, etc. – until the circle is the size that you want it to be. Step down when the horse’s inside hip is down (the inside shoulder will be back); then there will be no weight on those two legs so they will be able to move freely.
Conversely, to increase the size of the circle, step down into the outside stirrup when the horse’s outside hip is down (the outside shoulder will be back) – step down, release, step down, release, etc. – just as you did when you decreased the size of the circle using your inside stirrup.
Stepping down into either the inside or the outside stirrup can also be helpful when asking the horse to turn or move forward-sideways on a diagonal line of travel, remembering to do so when the corresponding hip is down because the most mobile part of the horse is the part that has no weight on it. You can even alternate stepping into each stirrup to rock your weight from side to side if the horse’s feet “get stuck” to the ground and he doesn’t want to move in order to get him going again. This action will cause the horse to shift his weight back and forth over his feet so that he can stay balanced. Once the horse’s feet are moving again (“free from the earth”, so to speak), then just direct them to where you would like him to go. This is a better and more natural method to use than kicking him in his sides, which will only cause him to stiffen and resist subsequent kicks. While there are many more applications of this stirrup-stepping technique, this elementary introduction will suffice to get you going down the right path.
Purpose of the Whip
It should also be kept in mind that celerity in the use of the aids is absolutely necessary to have the horse learn to respond with alacrity. In other words, the job of the rider’s leg, spur, and / or whip is not to work harder but to awaken the sensitivity level of the horse by requesting a faster response. A fast response toward a leg, spur, or whip ‘signal ‘at a walk is the best proof that the horse is listening. The horse has to learn to listen and immediately respond to the whisper of leg pressure (or as the French say, the ‘wind of the boot’), which is called ‘being in front of the leg’ in the discipline of dressage, the hug of the spur, and the touch (creating more power while in motion in a trained horse) and the vibration (transmitting a stay alert ‘signal’) of the riding whip to move forward and maintain a certain level of sensitivity that has been assigned to him). The results being that he is willing to GO FORWARD without delay and without tension when he feels them. As mentioned by Gustav Steinbrecht in his book Gymnasium of the Horse, 1885, “No stride should be allowed in which the hindquarters are not acting energetically.” Said another way, the function of the whip is to liven up the horse’s sensitivity to forward movement, which, in a classical sense, is only achieved when the horse can relax mentally as well as physically with the rider’s seat, leg, spur, whip, and reins, accepting the influence of these aids without any resistance. Without establishing a degree of sensitivity to the whip from the very beginning, there will be little respect for the rider’s legs later on. The whip prepares the horse for the rider’s legs and obedience to the reins is not possible without the unconditional obedience to the rider’s legs and that depends entirely on the horse’s understanding of the meaning of the whip.
Requirements for the Use of the Whip
The whip should be about 120cm (45″) or 130cm (48″ long), not too stiff (it will have no energy) or too soft (it will be too ‘whippy’ with too much energy) and it requires the rider to have a very relaxed wrist and a good ‘feel’ of the whip in the hand so that he knows when the whip makes contact with the horse’s sides and that contact can be maintained while in motion. A rider with stiff wrists, tense lower arm muscles and tight shoulders, cannot possibly handle the whip with grace and feeling and will, most likely, cause short, sharp, and meaningless signals to be transmitted to the horse. Also, using a quirt, crop, or tail end of a mecate (rope) is not the same as using a whip. These instruments are slow in action and generally put the rider out of position when using them.
Use of the Whip
Do not be afraid to move the whip around to influence different parts of the horse depending on what you are trying to accomplish. For example, if you are trying to teach the horse to move his shoulders quicker as in a turnaround or a walk pirouette, in other words, not have his foot stay on the ground too long because the longer the foot is planted on the ground the heavier he will get in your hand, then the whip should be carried next to the shoulder that you want to move so you can tap it to have the horse pick it up quicker. Use the whip to influence that part of the horse that you are trying to lighten up and move quicker. It almost goes without saying that the whip aid must be backed up by the leg aid and vice versa. Under no circumstances do you want to be like the character, played by Shirley MacLaine, in the Clint Eastwood movie Two Miles for Sister Sara, who was constantly using a stick to whack the burro she rides to get it to move faster than a walk or even, sometimes, to just get it to walk.
The Rider’s Legs
Once the horse becomes accustomed to the touch of the whip without tension and reliably responds to its pressure with power and liveliness in its hind legs, then the rider can move on to teaching him to do the same with the use of the rider’s legs which will bring the horse on the bit. But if the rider’s legs are stiff because they are attached to a stiff body, then they can neither feel the horse’s movements nor properly time their actions. If the rider’s use of the whip is often misunderstood, so too is the application of the legs. Nothing is more detrimental to the training of a horse than the rider who constantly kicks, pushes, or squeezes with the legs. This clumsy application of the legs not only serves to deaden all feeling along the sides of the horse but contributes to his stiffening of his belly muscles as well, which, in turn, will create tension so that the horse will not be able to use his hind legs as fluidly as the rider desires him to do. The rider’s legs should act mainly as guiding rails to invite the horse, with light pressure, to bend and turn, side-step into or away from the bending, transition up and down as well as stop easily from all gaits and become obedient to stand still like a statue upon request and stay that way until directed otherwise.
Only when the horse responds to the pressure of the whip and has an understanding of leg pressure, will he then be ready for the introduction of the spur. Again, as a reminder, before one can begin to teach the horse the meaning of the spur (or any other aid for that matter) one must have acquired a firm and independent seat. Without this requirement in place, any positive influence over the horse will remain merely wishful thinking.
Selection of a Spur
The length of the spur should be determined by the length of the rider’s leg as well as the size and shape of the horse’s barrel. They should also have some weight to them because the weight will affect, in a positive manner, the response time, i.e., quicker, of the horse. The important thing about the selection of spurs is to find those that enable the rider to feel the sides of the horse without delay and provide the right leverage between the rider’s ankle, stirrup, and the horse’s barrel. If the spurs are too short, the rider will be forced to turn the toes outward or downward excessively resulting in a gripping lower leg that will have a negative effect on the horse as well as being detrimental to the security of the seat. When the foot rests normally in the stirrup, a slight turning of the toe outward not more than about 15 degrees should bring a correctly chosen spur in light contact with the horse’s barrel. If the rider rides several different horses, then it would be beneficial to own several different pairs of spurs of varying configuration, length, and weight to accommodate the varying shapes of the horses. The decision to have rowels or not to have rowels (with blunt or sharp ends – sharp providing a quicker response from the horse with less pressure) as well as the size and shape of them is a personal choice but should be determined by the degree of discipline that the rider has over the use of the leg. The rider’s ability to keep the knees and the ankles relaxed and free of stiffness and tension along with his ability to have his legs breathe with the horse ought to have a relaxing effect on the horse’s belly muscles, – thus encouraging the horse’s hind legs to freely step forward and under the center of mass.
Conditioning the Horse to the Spur
The spur can be introduced first to the horse while the rider is un mounted on the ground. The rider holds the spur in one hand and proceeds with a soft touch that gradually increases to a soft pressure while flexing the horse slightly to the side where the spur touches. On the pressure of the spur, the horse should learn to step sideways, similar to a turn on the forehand, and begin to understand that it is nothing to be afraid of, just another means of yielding to pressure. This approach can then be transferred to the saddle. With the right weight, the softest spur aids can be applied – either as a touch and press action or a light pricking, or simply allowing the spur to fall against the horse’s sides in the rhythm of the gait. It of great importance for the rider, at all times, to avoid forming the appalling habit of constantly using spurs (‘ticky, ticky, ticky1 without the horse responding to them or, if the horse ignores the initial touch of the spurs, to start kicking him – one should just apply more pressure or perhaps reinforce one’s actions with a touch of the whip. The touch – and – pressure with the spur should put the spirit and the power into the horse’s strides, which should put him on the bit as he ‘steps into the rider’s hands’.
The Rider’s Hands and Connection with the Reins
This now leads us to the use of the rider’s hands and the use of the reins in those hands. Asther horse gains a clearer understanding of and a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity in responding to the whip, leg, and spur, he now should be moving forward with a swinging back (not just moving with the legs alone because of a stiffened back) and lightened shoulders resulting in him ‘stepping into the rider’s hands’.
The hands are the gateway, through the reins, to the horse’s mouth and jaw. Simply speaking, they receive the energy from the horse coming forward and direct and regulate that energy through the use of the reins.
Thoughts on Rein Use
The reins are NOT a third stirrup to be used in balancing the rider, and, except in rare cases (about to go over a cliff, for instance), THEY MUST NOT BE PULLED. If the reins are pulled backward, here is what happens. The horse ‘locks’ his jaw to protect his mouth from pain or discomfort. This causes the poll to become stiff at the temporo mandibular joint (TMJ), which is located in a general area two inches behind the eye and the same distance below the ear. When this happens, it causes the nuchal ligament (a ligament that runs from the poll to the croup) to become slack. Then the muscles at the base of the neck bulge out, the withers and shoulders drop, the back becomes hollow (think of a sling rather than a bow), and the hindquarters become stiff so that the movement of the hind legs is restricted and they cannot freely move forward under the mass of the body with a full stroke. In other words, the rider has ‘lost’ the horse – all because the reins were pulled backward. The action of the reins also should not contradict each other when riding the horse with two reins.
Finesse of the Hands
Finesse in the use of the hands is the most difficult part of horsemanship to master and it should NEVER be forgotten that the technique of using the hands is always subject to improvement because at no time are they ever completely ‘made’. Progress in fine-tuning this skill is without limit. Hands really pertain to learning how to manipulate the fingers by opening and closing them just slightly or completely as well as being able to move each finger joint by joint and each finger individually – AND switch from one or another of the positions in a nanosecond to correspond to what is felt in the hand. The qualities of a good hand are steadiness, lightness, softness, and finesse. Steadiness is the first quality to be sought. It is the most important of all. Without it the other qualities cannot be fully developed. Steadiness being relative to the horse’s mouth, not relative to the position of the hands in regards to the pommel on an English saddle or the horn of a western saddle. This does not mean that the hand remains immovable; it should, on the contrary, move up, down, to the right or left according to the need, but it should be free from all involuntary or meaningless movement. The light hand maintains the slightest connection with the horse’s mouth. The soft hand gives support and the finn hand gives a definite, decided feel to the horse.
Categories of Hand Actions
Additionally, the hands can be active, passive, fixed or educated. When the hand becomes active, it should be moved only the distance necessary to produce the result desired on the horse’s movement. When the horse is traveling in the direction and at the gait and rate desired, the hands should be passive, i.e., quiet, and follow the horse’s mouth with a soft even tension on the reins. The hand becomes fixed in place maintaining an additional resistance as a block against the horse’s resistance until the horse obeys the hand and resistance ceases, whereupon the fingers instantly open as a reward. But they may have to close again almost instantly, if the horse attempts to resist once more. This may continue until the horse learns the lesson of not leaning on the rider’s hand. Most of the time, especially during the schooling process, the feeling in the hand should be one of ounces not pounds. This will change depending on the speed and activity of the horse, but he should never be pulling the rider out of the tack. Fixing the hand often requires simultaneous fixing, or immobilizing, of the elbows, by holding them close to the side, and shoulder joints, by sitting taller. Occasionally, it may even be necessary to fix the hands on the saddle or on the horse’s neck – especially with obstinate or spoiled horses. Educated hands are those that can more smoothly and quickly relax or resist at the appropriate time and can more accurately measure or feel the correct amount of resistance to be used at any time in the schooling of the horse. Educated hands can be acquired, not in a day, week, or year, but only through years of thinking and feeling when in the saddle, and then reflecting on the results obtained after the session is over. All of this can only be accomplished, as has been stated previously, when the rider has a secure, steady seat and independent use of the aids.
We now come to the use of the rein aids and their effects on the horse. The purpose of the reins is to provide guidance, direction, regulation, and support -they are NOT for control or for punishment. In the schooling of the horse the reins should neither be loose or flapping because that will cause a delay in the horse responding to the rider’s signals or the rider being able to swiftly provide a needed redirection and support to the horse nor should they be held with too much tension – there should just be a soft feel of the bit in the rider’s hands. The great danger for the novice rider (or anyone else seeking to obtain a higher level of horsemanship) is to think that anyone rein can be used isolation. It cannot. Each rein has to be supported effectively by the other one to moderate or increase the action. In a perfect setting, the use of the rein effects, singly and in coordination, ultimately will become instinctive and will meld into one harmonious whole. However, they will be effective only when there is ample sustained impulsion and they are always subordinate to the action of the legs. Therefore, it must be emphasized from the start that one should NEVER do anything with the reins unless one makes use of the legs also as an action agent. Active legs mean maintaining forwardness and impulsion (energy emanating from the hindquarters). Passive legs mean no action, but they are used to support the active leg. They do not hang along the horse’s sides as limp dishrags.
The Five Rein Effects
The reins, attached to the bit, act through the horse’s mouth on the head, neck, and shoulders. The effect of their use can displace the head with respect to the neck; the neck with respect to the shoulders; and the shoulders with respect to the haunches. They may also act indirectly on the haunches by putting the shoulders in such a position that the haunches must move in another direction. Not only for educational purposes but also for practical use, it is useful to have knowledge of how to produce what are called the effects of the reins, through the movement of the hands. The rein effects have been placed into five generally accepted categories. These are only theoretical divisions that help in the study of the use of rein aids, because these five categories of rein effects are capable of being used in an infinite number of combinations and permutations as the situation dictates. While they are simple to understand, it is somewhat more difficult to acquire the knack of using them to best advantage. But they do increase the rider’s ability to position the horse effectively and with finesse. In fact, anyone who self-ordains himself or herself with the title of ‘trainer’ or ‘instructor’ should not do so (but, sad to say, in the majority of cases, they do) if they do not know what these five rein effects are and know when and how to use them (that being the correct timing so that they are in harmony with the sequence of movement of the horse’s feet). Additionally, the rider who is not familiar with the rein effects will be limited in the level of performance achieved.
The Influence of the Rein on the Horse
Of the five rein effects, the first two act on the forehand of the horse and do not impede his forward movement. By contrast, the other three rein effects are called reins of opposition meaning that they affect the movement of the haunches by impeding the free movement of the shoulder. This opposition impairs the forward movement of the horse.
Explanation of Rein Terminology
A brief explanation and comment concerning rein terminology would also be useful at this point. The term for the primary use rein is, obviously, the active rein. The term for the non-primary or secondary rein is the supporting rein. Singular to this writer is the belief that the use of this commonly accepted term for the supporting rein diminishes, to some degree, the importance of this rein. Therefore, I chose to call it the ‘regulator’ or ‘governor’ rein. My reasoning for this is that it plays an important role, and at times, a more important one, in influencing the horse than does the active rein since it controls, regulates and governs the degree of action initiated by the active rein.
An Important Point to Remember, it is vital to always remember that the rider is not trying to direct the horse’s lips; but rather is trying to direct the horse’s feet at all times.
The First Rein Effect
The first rein effect is called the opening or leading rein. It is generally used when turning or riding circles with the horse bent to the inside with the head and neck aligned to the direction of the movement.
Application of this Rein
The active rein, which draws the horse in the direction one wants to go, moves first forward, then out to the side (never to the rear and down). The supporting rein gives slightly as the horse turns his head. It also controls the amount of bend in the neck as well as holding-in the opposite shoulder. Never pull on this rein or carry it across the horse’s neck, as that action will counteract the effect sought with the active rein. The effect of the opening rein is to lead the horse NOT PULL him around when changing direction – a common fault not easily corrected if practiced too long.
The Second Rein Effect
The second rein effect is called the neck, ‘bearing’ or counter-rein. It is the only rein effect allowing one to ride the horse easier with one hand. It acts upon the base of the neck. It is the ‘forgotten rein’ as it is not generally taught and if it is, not correctly. Obedience to the neck rein is an essential accomplishment of any performance horse: the polo pony, the California Vaquero-style bridle horse, a Doma Vaquera discipline style horse, a working equitation horse, a competition dressage horse, etc. The neck rein is useful for a number of reasons. It helps accelerate the shoulders; it teaches the horse to turn off the outside rein; and it mobilizes the shoulders, resulting in a horse that can move his shoulders in any direction, at any time, from any gait, and at any speed.
Application of this Rein
The active rein is applied at the base of the horse’s neck, but the hand does NOT cross the crest of the neck. The effect of the neck rein is to nudge the horse to move in the direction opposite from the side of the neck the rein is placed on. One wants the shoulder to move when the horse’s head and neck move as the rider picks up the reins. For example, when moving the horse to the right, think about ‘pushing’ with the left rein against the base of the horse’s neck on the left side (but one may have to ‘run’ the rein up the neck, against the hair, so to speak, toward the horse’s left ear). The supporting rein, in this case, the right rein, may be used as an opening rein (first rein effect) in the beginning of training in order to have the horse look slightly in the direction that the neck rein is nudging the shoulder towards. Since the horse is able to evade the neck rein without trouble, he must be intensively trained to respond to it correctly.
CAUTIONARY NOTE: A key thing to remember always is that when the horse’s inside ear moves, the horse’s outside shoulder must move with it. This keeps the horse connected from poll to hindquarters. If his head is bent around from the neck only then he is disconnected; with one part of the horse being from the base of the neck to the poll and the other part of the horse being from the shoulders to the hindquarters. In essence, the rider will now have two horses to ride (the front and the back), which is not possible. If one continually over-bends the horse at the base of the neck, one will make the antagonist muscles on the opposite side of the bend too slack (loose) and lose the steadiness in the neck.
Over-bending can also result in the outside shoulder being perpetually late in moving; promote too much involvement of the front end while turning; take away one’s ability to keep the shoulders elevated; and lose some or all of one’s speed in turning. Additionally, one will also lose the ability to stop the flexion at a specific point because the neck will just become ‘too raggy’. All of the preceding conveys the danger inherent in over-bending the horse’s neck so that his head touches the rider’s knee or, even worse, the foot because, in that particular case, the horse’s head will also be twisted. It results in what is termed a ‘rubber-necked’ horse; the significance of which is that the rider will have a minimum of, or more likely, no influence over the horse because he can escape the effects of the reins. Reiner Klimke, a five-time Olympic gold medal winner in Dressage, said this about the neck: “We must be careful when making the horse straight not to bend the neck in front of the withers. We must not loosen the muscles in front of the withers for we need to build up either side of the neck so it is steady in front of the withers. We need a steady feel in our reins so if we take the right rein the horse flexes and goes right and does not simply bend in front of the withers which lets the shoulder fall out.” It would also be wise to heed the words of General Decarpentry, a co-author of the FEI regulations used in Olympic and international competition as well as authoring several books about the training and education of the horse, who said: “If the horse over-bends his neck because the head is drawn back towards his body, the flexibility of the loin diminishes in the opposite direction, and it remains somewhat hollow…The hindquarters will then lose some of their suppleness.”
The Third Rein Effect
The third rein effect is called the direct rein of opposition. The effect of this rein opposes the forward movement of the horse’s shoulder on the side on which it is applied. For example, when the right rein, the active rein. is used, it causes the horse to bring his head and neck more to the right which puts more weight on his right shoulder which, in turn, will keep the right front foot on the ground longer thus impeding the forward movement of the horse’s right hind leg and as a result will cause the hindquarters to shift to the left so that the horse can maintain his balance. When moving, the horse, again depending on the tension put on this rein, is forced to turn to the right; the sharpness of the curve also being governed by the amount of right rein tension.
Application of this Rein
To make this happen, again using the right rein as an example, the rider moves the right hand slightly to the right (in some cases, the hand may also be drawn slightly to the rear and then fixed in place for the sake of clarity) and tightens the fingers on the right rein, the active rein, in the direction of the right knee and at the same time slightly relaxes the
fingers of the left hand, the supporting rein, so as to not contradict the action of the right rein as well as to allow the horse to understand more clearly the action of the right rein. However, when applicable, this supporting rein can also be used to govern the amount of bending of the head and neck. When using this rein effect, both reins remain parallel to the horse’s axis – it is, generally speaking, just the closing and opening of the fingers that bring about this effect. This is a powerful rein effect and should be taught to all horses. When, through fear or obstinacy, the horse resists turning, this rein effect, together with the use of the leg and spur on the same side of the horse as the active rein, should be used in a rather firm manner. Also, with a horse that gets heavy on the forehand, and is inclined to pull on the rider’s hand, this rein effect, enhanced by the raising up of the active rein hand, will cause the horse to raise his head which will decrease the weight on the shoulders.
The Fourth Rein Effect
The fourth rein effect is called the indirect rein of opposition in front of the withers or, sometimes, the ‘shoulder rein’. It can be very effective in balancing the forehand, especially if the horse is leaning to the inside. When initiated, the effect of this rein acts upon the shoulders of the horse by ‘pushing’ the shoulders in the opposite direction from the rein being applied.
Application of this Rein
Staying with the use of the right rein, the active rein, as an example, the rider moves the right rein, slightly raised, so that it is carried to the left, pressing against the horse’s neck in front of the withers and with tension to the left rear. The angle of the rein will be from the horse’s mouth to somewhere between the rider’s opposite hip to the rider’s opposite shoulder. The supporting rein, the left one, may be used, if needed, by acting parallel to and in concert with the right rein.
The Fifth Rein Effect
The fifth rein effect is called the indirect rein of opposition behind the withers or, sometimes, the intermediate rein. It is called the intermediate rein because it is intermediate between the THIRD rein effect, which only acts upon the haunches, and the FOURTH rein effect, which acts primarily on the shoulders. It is up to the rider to determine, depending on what is desired and needed, where this rein needs to be positioned. The more this intermediate rein approaches the angle of the THIRD rein effect, the direct rein of opposition the more it will affect the haunches; the more it approaches the angle of the FOURTH rein effect, the indirect rein of opposition in front of the withers, the more it will affect the shoulders. So, when using this fifth rein effect the rider must explore how far behind the withers the active rein must pass in order for it to act with equal intensity on both the shoulders and haunches equally. This is the most powerful and dominating of the five rein effects and because of this it is sometimes called the ‘Queen of Reins’. The effect of this rein is to move both the horse’s shoulders AND haunches forward and on an oblique angle.
Application of this Rein
As an example of how to make use of this rein effect, the right rein will be used as the active rein. The rider will move the right rein at an angle towards the horse’s left hip so that it is moving obliquely to the left and rear, but it will not cross over his neck, and will use the right leg to assist in moving the horse’s croup to the left. The supporting rein in the rider’s left hand may assist the right rein by acting in a parallel manner to the active rein or as a FIRST rein effect, the leading rein. The rider’s left leg will remain inactive. So, the horse, being bent around the rider’s right leg and overbalanced to the left, must move his whole body forward as well as on a diagonal line, crossing his front and hind legs respectively, in order to maintain his balance.
Summary of the Five Rein Effects
These five rein effects can produce an infinite number of different actions and anyone who has aspirations of becoming a horseman (not being content to merely have the horse ‘pack’ you around on occasion) must acquire the theoretical knowledge of how they work, and then through diligent practice, master the use of them, both singly and in combination with each other. As a horse trainer friend of mine likes to say, “If you don’t know the effects of the reins on the horse and how to use them, go back in the house and watch TV.”
The Final Results of the Use of All the Aids
The final results and proof of the educated use of all the aids by the rider, in combination with each other, would be to have a horse that ‘steps to the bit’ (rather than being pulled into it), arcs his neck, elevates his shoulders, coils his loins, moves with a swinging back (not just pulls himself along with only his legs, called a ‘leg-mover’) and ‘rotates’ his head around the bit – all done in a relaxed manner without mental or physical tension. In other words, a horse that is collected. But he can only be collected if, first, he is connected by being comfortable with, sensitive to and responsive to all the aids – seat, legs, weight, hands, reins, spur, and riding whip.
I will end this article with some words of advice:
First, if you continue to do what you have always done, then you will continue to get what you have always gotten instead of changing what you have always done to get what you have never gotten but want to have.
Second, you must ‘own’ the ride and ride every stride or else the horse will take you for a ride.
Third, when all is said and done, in the final analysis, the education of the rider and the education of the horse is not a causal undertaking.
Lastly, without the complete education of the rider, which reflects the education of the teacher, there can be no comprehensive and cohesive education of the horse, and so the desired connectivity and harmony between horse and rider will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.