by Scott Thomson
If you ride horses you've probably had one of these — a defining moment that lit the bulb of understanding for you and your horse. Perhaps it was a gem from some trainer or instructor that gave you the "ah-ha!" reaction of finally understanding how things fit together. Maybe it was just seeing someone else's struggles or watching a skilled horse handler that made you say to yourself, "Now I get what they're talking about."
That moment for me seemed pretty minor at the time, a couple of phrases from an early teacher. I'm not embarrassed to admit that when I started riding I was pretty nervous. With no riding background, I looked for similarities in other activities where you sat or stood on something that could go very fast. I had ridden motorcycles, bicycles, go-carts, surfboards, skis, skateboards, snow saucers, sleds and toboggans. I was never a speed freak, preferring to keep things sane and focused more on style and smoothness than thrills. I was always trying to avoid an injury from a part-time recreational activity that would sideline me from school, my job or my primary athletic pursuits.
On horseback I was immediately struck by how fast and agile these animals were, even the old school horses at the local barn. Like most novice riders and, I'm sad to say after years of teaching, far too many "experienced" riders, I looked at the reins as the steering wheel and brakes, and the legs as the way to keep yourself in the saddle on this unpredictable beast. From what I could see, your only means of control were your two reins and your two legs.
It was in my first long clinic that I had my "moment." It was a nine-day winter clinic with few participants, a positive as it meant more one-to-one interaction with the clinician, Dennis Reis. After the first day of some basic work and watching our skill levels (and I'm sure lots of rolling his eyes and shaking his head!), Dennis started the second day in the classroom. He wrote a few statements on the board that seemed crazy at the time:
You use one rein for control.
You use two reins for communication.
If you can't ride confidently with one rein, why on earth should you get two?
This made no sense to me, but these three philosophical comments changed everything I thought about when I got on my horse. I realized if I honestly believed I could control and communicate with my horse in any situation with just one rein — I could turn him, bend him, stop him, even soften him — then I would relax into a deeper seat and begin to learn how to use my aids (my hands, my legs, my seat) to work with the horse.
As I advanced in my horsemanship, becoming a certified instructor for Dennis two years later before going out on my own, I saw the inability of so many riders to ride with an independent seat and separate their aids as a major reason for frustration and accidents. As a result, even after a decade of teaching, I constantly go back to those phrases in an effort to help people.
Now, I can tell you from my own experiences early on, it is hard to get on your horse, take away your bit and bridle, put on a rope halter with a lead rope that is not tied off into reins, and go for a ride. Even in the relative safety of an arena or round pen, you instinctively pull back on the lead rope to stop or slow the horse (doesn't work!) or get into some pretty contorted positions to try to steer the horse. Using only one rein is a big leap intellectually. Fear tells us we're not in control when we do this, and when that internal conversation goes on, you can't relax into the saddle and just work with the horse.
It took me a long time to come up with a way to get people over the mental hurdle of one-rein riding as a foundation step for developing a better seat, hands that work independently and legs that talk to the horse. After lots of words, coaching and demonstrations, I finally saw that the answer for understanding was right in front of me:
Think about that. Working with your horse on the ground with a lead rope and halter is essentially riding the horse with one rein. You have a single line going to the horse's head that you use to set the direction, shape his body, bend him to a stop, control his speed, send him over obstacles, send him into a trailer, and play ground games. You have a training stick that acts independently from your lead rope, doing many of the things you would do with your legs. Your body and position act much like a leg as well. In the truest sense, you are riding the horse from the ground with one rein and you are in complete control. Your lead rope adjusts the head; everything else you do is directed at the body.
If you feel confident and in control when you do this on the ground, and you're able to do different but coordinated things with your lead rope, stick and body, then the idea of using just one rein for control when riding should now make some sense.
If a student gets this connection between ground work and riding, then it's time to get on the horse. I start in a round pen so the shape helps with direction. Have your horse in a rope halter with a 12-foot lead. Assuming we're going to the left, hold the lead like a rein at a comfortable length (slack but allowing you to make some contact with the horse's head if needed). Neatly layer the rest of the lead rope in your right hand. You won't need the extra rope or your other hand except for rein length adjustments. Then go for a ride.
Try to keep the horse on the rail. If he tries to turn off the rail, use your inside leg as a block. If he's just walking out nicely, you should be relaxed, deep in the saddle and on a loose rein. At the start, make all your turns in the same direction using your rein to "point" the horse where you want him to go. If he goes too fast, you can go to a one-rein stop, circle the horse or "jiggle" the rope to apply some pressure just as you would do on the ground. When ready, bring the horse to a stop — with a one-rein stop or hopefully a "whoa" that works — shift your lead rope and slack to the opposite hands (you'll have to flip your lead rope over your horse's head), and ride off in the other direction. Increase speed and gaits as you improve.
Here's what happens almost immediately. The horse softens, relaxes and walks out. The rider sits deeper in the saddle and starts moving with the horse. The hands become quieter and more relaxed, and rein adjustments become smoother and more instinctive.
There is an old saying in riding that a good rider rides the body of the horse, and most everyone else rides the head and neck. That is, a good rider uses the hands to position the head and soften the jaw, poll and neck, then uses his eyes, seat and legs to move and turn the horse. The poor rider just uses the head for everything. When a rider gets comfortable and confident riding with just one rein, it is easier to go back to two reins and to really learn how to use each rein independently to actually communicate with your horse. When you know you only need one for control, it is easier to learn how to use two correctly, to shape and balance the horse while you ride the body. It is impossible to commit the sin of balancing on your hands — and therefore in the horse's mouth — with only one rein.
This is one of the most effective tools I have for helping riders gain confidence and build a better riding relationship with their horses. It is also one of the best ways I know to simplify the understanding of how our aids need to be both separate and coordinated to help the horse be better under saddle. Give it a try!
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him
at firstname.lastname@example.org or (575) 388-1830.