When talking about the reins and the amount of pressure exerted on the horse’s mouth, it’s essential to get specific. One person’s “light contact” could be another person’s downright pull. We work on the assumption that the horse would prefer the minimum amount of pressure with the maximum amount of clarity. In spite of this, we know there are horses that lean on the rein, even when the rider doesn’t want this to happen, and we shall address this issue, too. But if we agree that minimum force on the delicate structures of the horse’s mouth is desirable, let’s look at how to bring this about.
We particularly like the “touch, non-touch, and denting” model when it comes to the pressure of the bit on the mouth (and the legs on the side, for that matter). It’s pretty self-explanatory really. Think of applying pressure to the fleshy part of your arm: Touch you would just be able to feel, non-touch would be no contact at all, and denting would make a an indent. If you do this, you’ll see that not much pressure is required to dent. In fact about one ounce per square inch will even be enough to affect the blood supply, evidenced by the fact that your skin goes white under the pressure. We’re advocating that in most normal ridden situations, we work with touch and non-touch, and only go to denting in an emergency scenario. It can be helpful to put a scale on this. Zero is non-touch, 1-3 is the range of touch we would like to work within, 4-6 is denting, and more than would be ideal in a training scenario, and 7-10 is emergency “don’t run under the bus with me” territory. To clarify this, we also demonstrate this range of touch to the rider by having them hold the reins while we go through the stages of pressure. Once we’re clear that they can replicate the same scale, we know that we’ve got a clear basis to build on when it comes to work under saddle or in hand. The fact that we’re working towards the ideal of light touch does not, however, mean that the rider is never allowed to touch the rein. Like going forward from the leg, this is the horse’s responsibility too. The lack of denting doesn’t happen simply because the rider continually gives the rein and never allows the horse to meet the bit. It comes about after extensive training when the horse believes in the authority of the bit and doesn’t challenge it anymore. This can obviously take quite a while, and as mentioned previously, is harder to achieve in more demanding scenarios when the adrenaline is up.
What this commitment to light pressure does mean, however, is that the rider doesn’t hang on the rein for any reason. Under this approach, using the reins for the rider’s balance is a definite no-no, but so is using the reins for the horse’s balance or for “support”. I’m not saying that some horses don’t “go better” when “ridden up together”, and I accept that some trippers and stumblers do it less when held on a tight contact. But a horse who habitually stumbles indicates a serious problem, most likely in the foot balance, back problems, or rider imbalance, and tight reins do not fix the cause. Of course, if the rider is not in optimal, vertical ear-shoulder-hip-ankle balance, this can drastically affect the horse, and needs addressing. But in any scenario, whether it’s “lazy cob” tripping around the countryside, or “posh” dressage horse belting around in extended trot, if pressure on the reins is occurring, the horse cannot be in “self-carriage”. If the horse needs pressure on the reins to appear balanced, they’re not in balance within themselves, and this can’t be correct. It also means that if the reins are dropped at any time, the horse will be more likely to trip, or more likely to career around on their forehand.
So what of the horse that leans on the hand, the ones that apparently like to pull? If it’s so undesirable to have weight on the horse’s mouth, why do some of them appear to initiate it? One scenario is the horse who simply hasn’t been taught to come off the pressure. As with horses that pull back when tied up, the horse leans into the pressure of the bit on their tongue – a muscle – and can’t work out how not to do it, especially if the rider doesn’t understand release of pressure, or thinks it right to hang on to a “contact”. This leads to the horse becoming accustomed to such pressure, thinking of it as normal, and even seeking it out. They may then learn to use the rein to “balance”, as discussed above, and although they might find the pressure unpleasant, since there’s nothing they can do about it, they learn to live with it. This can lead to another common scenario where the horse uses the rein for support for tired neck muscles. If you think about it, the head is a very heavy part of the horse’s anatomy (as anyone who has ever supported the head of a sedated horse will know!), and to carry it in the prescribed fashion, rather like a fish on the end of a fishing line, with little or no pressure on the reins, and with the topline muscles doing all the work and the muscles under the neck being relaxed, requires a lot of energy. If the rein is tight, the horse can easily brace against it, and engage the muscles on the underside of the neck, and use the rider to prop himself up to some degree. It may be unpleasant to have that pressure on the mouth, but since it’s always there anyway, they might as well use it to their advantage. Remember that in their natural state horses would be head-down at ground level for about 18 hours a day, so unless they are conditioned carefully to it, even five minutes in self-carriage, not leaning on the hand, carrying their own heads, and supporting the weight of the rider will be hard work for them. A quick stretch on a long rein may be all that’s required to be able to continue, but continuous work without frequent breaks will be counter-productive.
Another scenario is the horse who wants control of the reins for themselves – to be free of the rider’s inhibiting influence. I think almost every rider will have experienced this with the excited horse who wants to gallop across country, and is finding the rider restrictive. Pulling is an attempt to lengthen the rein to be able to do so. Coming into a big fence is another time a horse might get strong- again to be allowed to tackle the fence in their own way, even if the rider is pretty certain it’s a bad plan. The horse has to be carefully trained to remain responsive in these higher-adrenaline situations, but it stands to reason that if a horse is pulling or leaning when just walking around in a school, they’re not suddenly going to become more responsive and lighter when out hunting!
So, how do you deal with the leaning horse? We’ve found the following approaches to be very effective, to the point that even a horse who has always leant will stop it within a session, or two. Of course, we’re assuming that the horse’s teeth are in good order, that they are comfortable in the tempo-manadibular joint, that they have no major muscle problems, that their feet are well trimmed, etc – in short that they are in good physical shape with correctly fitting tack. Then our first approach is to set an appropriate rein length. Start with a rein short enough to require the horse to carry their head no higher than their wither. In order to keep touch consistent as the horse walks, the rider must obviously move through the elbow joint. If there is no pressure on the rein at this point, gently shorten the rein until you feel the horse begin to lean slightly (if you can shorten your reins all the way up to piaffe or jumping length without any increase in pressure, you don’t have a problem!). Lightly vibrate the rein, as if trying to sieve flour or shake a tambourine, using either one hand (which most people find easier), or two, without taking more contact or giving contact away. We are asking the horse to stop leaning, at the rein length that we have set, so we have to keep the length consistent. The moment the horse gives, stop vibrating the rein. If at any time the horse increases the rein pressure at the length you have set, vibrate according to the amount of weight in your hand – it could just be a tiny bit, almost imperceptible, or it could be more vigorous. It can be with either rein or both. Find what works best. Remember, you’re not applying pressure in the vibrating, you’re simply making it difficult and uncomfortable for the horse to lean. If the horse slows down or stops as his head comes up allow him to do so. Keep asking him quietly and reward him when he starts to soften with a bit of ‘buckle time’- drop the rein completely.
If the horse persists in leaning, I’ve found giving the reins abruptly, and taking them back again, to be very effective. The horse suddenly finds what they were leaning on not to be there to lean on anymore, but they’re not rewarded by a longer rein length.
What I think I’m saying to the horse when I do this is “I will do my best not to pull back with my hands, and I’d like to think you could rely on them to be kind, but please don’t rely on them for your balance because occasionally they might suddenly move like that, and if you were leaning on them, they might drop you”.
It’s undoubtedly the case that some riders believe that a significant amount of pressure on the horse’s mouth is appropriate and desirable, but that doesn’t mean that every rider who exerts pressure on the mouth is doing so deliberately or even consciously. The fact is, it’s very easy to use the reins for rider balance, mostly because they are there, and grabbing is such a human thing to do, a legacy of our earlier days living in trees as monkeys. It’s a big ask to expect a rider to let go of the reins if doing so means she’ll fall off! The rider has to develop good biomechanics – particularly involving balance and core stability – to be able to let go with the hands. Proper, targeted, specific exercises on the lunge without reins (seat training) is an excellent starting point, as are lessons from coaches who understand core stability and how to bring it about. We used to do a lot of bridle-less riding, and not having the option to pull on the reins, because they’re simply not there, can break a habit very quickly!
Next time: STOP! How to get brakes. Also, horses that snatch (rather than lean) at the bit.