During most english riding lessons, especially a dressage lesson, you’re more than likely going to hear the majority of coaches telling their riders over and over again that they “need more outside rein.” The irony here is that so many people feel that they are riding a horse that’s downhill and heavy in their hands to begin with; the notion that they need more rein when they already feel like their arms are being pulled out of their shoulder sockets to begin with is a bit confusing and daunting.
Let’s take a look at a series of photos of one of my gold certified trainers, Anne Gage, as she rides Shaugnessy, an aged, heavy and somewhat stiff veteran Irish gelding.
Photo One: As Anne rides a turn to the left at the trot we notice that the gelding is just slightly over bent, meaning his neck and head are not centered on his body but instead are to the inside of his body during the turn. If he was truly centered and balanced his nostrils would fall evenly on each side of the center strap of his breast collar. This slight over bend of the neck to the inside leaves him feeling like he is literally falling into the turn and this creates the symptom of becoming downhill or heavy in the hand.
Photo Two: During the turn to the right at the trot we also see that Shaugnessy is overbent in the neck to the inside of the turn. Anne has increased her contact in her outside left rein and we can see how taunt the contact is. However, the gelding has simply stiffened, raised his neck and pulled harder on Anne’s hand to take his neck too far to the inside. Note that I have asked Anne to demonstrate how most riders will take their lower legs off a horse that is fast and pulling. Having said that, the legs off dilemma is one of the first things we will need to change.
As Shaugnessy pulls on Anne’s hand to over bend his neck on the circle, he is trying to pull her to the inside to wind the circle down to a stop. Many horses will take the outside rein and turn their necks too far to the inside to spiral the circle in smaller and smaller until they come to a walk or full halt. Horses also love to over bend in order to “run through the outside shoulder.”
We’ve all been there at some point during our learning curve, when we’ve pulled a horse by the rein in one direction only to have them take us for a ride in the opposite direction. This is why we so often hear coaches telling riders about the need for the aid of the blocking boundary—more outside rein.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
Having said all of the above, the challenge of how to achieve a light and balanced horse while maintaining a boundary contact with the outside rein is threefold. First is the concept of being proactive instead of reactive.
When proactive, the second concept is to redefine the contact of the outside rein. Instead of thinking of outside rein contact as something you achieve with your hands we need to become proactively aware of the support of the outside rein as a feel or presence we maintain with our shoulders. After all, the outside rein in the hand is connected to the arm is connected to the shoulder. When a rider turns his or her outside shoulder into a turn too soon, then even when there is lots of contact in the hand the support and balance of the outside rein has been lost in the connection to the outside shoulder of the rider. In other words, an over bent rider at the shoulders allows for an over bent horse.
When reactive, the third concept is that once a horse is over bent a rider should not be a sore loser and simply pull or shorten the outside rein. This is riding backwards and only stresses horses out and most often leaves them inverted or pulling/rooting even harder on the bit. Once a horse is over bending, then the reactive fix is not to pull on the outside rein, but instead for the rider to use his or her outside leg to move the outside shoulder in underneath the neck. The rider also uses their inside leg to move the inside hip out so that the body of the horse is aided into moving into alignment from back to front. In other words, when a horse is over bending, don’t use your hands to pull the neck back to the body, use your legs to push the body forward and under the neck.
Photo Three: Very nice! Anne has opened her outside shoulder, like a bird spreading open a wing, and while her hands stay soft with the contact on the reins her outside shoulder is now back and is the very last thing to come around into the turn. Anne is relieved to now be using her leg aids as I just described, both inside and out, to help support this big horse in keeping his body underneath his overanxious neck.
Look closely at how centered Shaugnessy is now carrying his neck on his body and how he is no longer braced or heavy. While true self carriage and “light as a feather” are still many rides away, in just one short ride Anne has shown the horse that he can both straighten up and lighten up if he keeps his entire body balanced and on track.
It’s always important to remember with horses that the frame of body is also the frame of mind and that the better balanced a horse feels as it moves then the more desirable and rewarding the behavior will be. It’s true, out of hand behavior with horses is most often a reflection of out of balance bodies.
In closing, as always, please ask not what your horse can do for you, ask what you can do for your horse.
Internationally recognized horseman and best selling author, Chris Irwin, is at the forefront of the emerging industry of horses worked in with counseling and personal coaching programs. Training and transforming wild Mustangs into “calm and collected” national champions for riding and driving gave Chris great insight into learning how to learn. Contact Chris at 877-394-6773 or visit www.chrisirwin.com.