California Riding Magazine • June, 2014

Hold Your Horses!
The phrase is not part of
effective training technique.

by Chris Irwin

We've all heard the two polar opposite sayings; "hold your horses" as opposed to "free rein." And yet there is absolutely no ancient wisdom that tells us to pull on our horses.

It is "natural" for riders to want to use their hands to steer the horse just like we turn the steering wheel in our cars. But horses are not cars; they are much more like boats. When we want a boat to turn right we do not pull the bow of the boat into the right, we push the back of the boat out to the left.

And when we ski or surf or skateboard, we do not pull the front of our boards into turns. Instead, we use our body language into the central core of the board and we push it out of the turn.

My point? Humans stand upright and walk on a vertical body with two legs. But horses have a horizontal body with that legs that is designed to move like we move our horizontal boards in other sports. Imagine a surfer, skateboarder or skier, tying ropes to the front of their boards and trying to turn by pulling the tips of the boards into turns. We'd crash in an instant! And yet our instinct is to do this with horses and it is the leading cause of most performance and behavior issues with horses.

If we pull the reins to steer the horse then his or her nose is the first thing into the turn and it throws them off balance. Like our skis, skateboards and surfboards, we need to turn the horse from our core into their core, their barrel, and use our hands not to steer but instead to hold or block to prevent the neck and head of the horse from coming into the turn before the body of the horse has been moved out.

In photo 1, I am showing a rider who wanted to steer with her hands what to do instead. Notice that the zipper on her jacket, the visual line of her spinal column, is perfectly aligned down the poll and directly between the horse's ears. The horse and rider are perfectly centered together with what I call "spine on spine." And also notice that the mare's nose is perfectly aligned with the center of her chest.  

Now, from the perfectly balanced center of spine on spine, the job of the left rein is never to pull left but rather to hold, or block, to disallow the nose from going to the right of center. And the job of the right rein is never to pull right but rather to block unwanted left. The hands are only to hold or block the horse from coming out of balance while we steer with our bodies into their bodies. We do not want a horse looking left while we turn right because that would be like piloting the motorcycle and turning right while a passenger in back is leaning left.
Not a good feeling!    

In photo 2, we see a rider turning left on a grey gelding. We can see that his neck is too far to the inside.  His nose is going into the turn ahead of the rider's centre (navel). This is why you hear coaches telling their students "more outside rein." Her right rein, the outside rein, did not hold the horse soon enough to keep him balanced in this turn.

In photo 3, the same rider has done her job of "aiding" the horse with the "support" of the outside rein. Now his spine is perfectly balanced in his body from tail to nose. Notice that his breast collar is perfectly centered between his chest and his nostrils. This is a beautifully balanced horse and we can see how light the contact is on the inside rein, clearly indicating that he was not pulled in but has been bent from her leg and turned from her core while her hands held him centered.

In photo 4, we see "self carriage" that allows for "free rein." The trainer has done such an excellent job with his hands holding his mare consistently that she is fully mesmerized by the flow of energy she feels through her own spinal column and she is holding herself centered in her body.  

So when do we give the horse a free rein? When the horse consistently stays between the boundaries of the holding hands without trying to go right or left of the rider's center, then the horse is truly ready for the "liberty" of the "free rein."  

Please remember, be kind and hold your horses gently while you turn their core from your core.
Happy trails and may your horses always be in good hands!

Author Chris Irwin is an internationally renowned horseman, best-selling author and a leading pioneer in the equine assisted movement.  It was discovering how to transform BLM wIld Mustangs into18 calm and collected U.S. National Champions in english, western and driving competitions, that first showed Chris his greatest insights into learning how to learn. To connect with Chris Irwin visit his website at