Is your horse responsive to bit pressure? Your first answer may be "Yes, of course. I give him a tug on the left rein and he turns left." But, how much pressure do you have to use? Does he give to rein pressure under ALL circumstances. During a spook? During leaving the barn? Or, leaving his buddies? Or a noisy truck passes by on the highway? It's easy to underestimate the importance of give to the bit, and to over-estimate how well we've trained our horses. But I've come to believe that having a horse that responds well to single rein pressure under any and all circumstances is the most important exercise we can work on for safety.
During a spook or other "melt down" situation the horse needs to release energy. We make the mistake of thinking we should pull back on both reins to STOP the horse. But, actually what we need to do is show them how to re-direct their energy by showing them where to put their feet. This can be achieved with single-rein work without making the horse feel blocked or cornered which could cause him to rear or buck. By training him to redirect his energy we can allow him to continue moving his feet, but in a circle or some other safe configuration until he settles.
- Full-cheek Snaffle bit (No curb chains or nosebands are required)
- A continuous, single rein - I prefer rope reins as the added weight helps you feel any response from the horse.
- A safe environment without distractions to you or your horse. (Later, you will begin introducing distractions as your horse progresses.)
STEP 1 - Give To The Bit (GTTB)
Take your bridled horse to a safe area. You can work on this exercise mounted, if you feel safe in doing so. Or, you can stand facing your horses shoulder on the ground. If you are not feeling confident about controlling your horse from the saddle, I recommend beginning these exercises on the ground. As the horse becomes more responsive to the bit, you will feel more confident about controlling him/her.
We will begin with an exercise on giving to the bit on the left. When we say "give to the bit" we mean that EVERY time we pick up the rein the horse responds with energy by moving a body part. With this exercise the body part we want to move is the nose. Our goal is for the horse to give energy from the lightest cue possible. By energy, I mean your horse may only give his nose a half inch, but with life - almost an electric response. You will release every give your horse responds with (even the dull ones) but when you start seeing those energetic ones, you can pat yourself on the back. This tells you he is beginning to truely understand and you are doing a great job.
With your right hand pick up the rein in the center (some people call this the buckle) being careful not to take the slack out on either side. Then, take hold of the rein with your left a few inches to the left of your right. Begin, very slowly pulling the slack out with your right hand, allowing the rein to pass thru your left hand. Make sure there is lots of slack on the right side at all times. Concentrate on his nose, being sure to release the instant he barely tips his nose to the left. Concentration, consistency and timing of the release are crucial to your success with this exercise. Remember, your horse may not have the slightest idea what you want when you start this exercise. However, he may surprise you and give his nose just by your sliding your hand down the rein. That's our goal. To create the lightest, most responsive horse possible. So, you want to be ready to release him should he give simply from feeling your hand slide. Your release tells him exactly what he has done correctly. If you do not release him he will think that is the wrong answer and will begin experimenting with other responses. It is also very possible that as you are pulling the rein thru, you will get no response at all from the sliding. In that case, continue slowly pulling the slack thru JUST until you've taken the slack out and made contact with the mouth. Do NOT pull. Just become a post and maintain that light contact waiting for any type of give to the left. He may pull to the right. If so, you must maintain that pressure. If you release him while he is pulling to the right, that will tell him that pulling to right is the correct response - which we absolutely do not want. He may put his head down. Again, be a post if he drops his head down low, he will cause additional pressure on his mouth, but you simply maintain to let him know this is not correct. He may also stand with his head directly forward in a neutral position, giving no response at all. In that case, just maintain that light pressure. In time, he will tip his nose to the left. During any of your horses attempts to find the right answer, study his nose position watching for anything at all that is a give to the left and release it. Then, pet him and tell him how wonderful he is. (If you are clicker training, you would pair your click at the moment of the release of rein pressure.)
You will work on this exercies on both sides, changing sides every 5th or 6th try. You should include, at least, one give-to-the-bit exercise every time you spend time with your horse. It will take literally thousands of repetitions for your horse to become truly trained at this exercise. However, you have a goal of getting in 50 - 100 reps with each session, it really doesn't take that long accumulate a couple of thousand. Always, keeping in mind you want to use slow hands, giving him the opportunity to respond to a lighter and lighter cue. Your practice and consistency of the release will make your horse very responsive to light pressure.
In time, you will begin to see your horse is not only giving with energy to pressure with his nose, but becoming softer and more supple throughout his neck and pole. This is partly due to the repetitions and partly due to your own savvy that you are developing as a trainer. As we become better trainers our horses suddenly become smarter! There is no end to this progression. With your continued efforts, this suppleness and responsiveness will continue throughout his body. The further you progress, the faster your progress will be. Most of your training time will be spent on those first couple of spots - the nose and jaw.
If you are currently neck reining while you ride, I suggest you put the neck reining aside and only allow yourself to use single rein directional cues for quite some time. You need to be training your horse to give to the bit every time you pick up on the rein or change directions.
There will be times when you want your horse to give to the bit for more extended periods of time. For example, you may be riding and want to go around a cone or barrel. You take the slack out he gives his jaw, you realease. But, you haven't made it around the cone yet! You are right to reward his correct response with a release, but now you can begin introducing the mini-release. A mini-release is a "you're on the right track but not quite finished yet" response from the handler. You will release, but not as fully and only for a second. Then, right away take slack out again, mini-release again, take slack out again. etc. until you make it around your cone and release fully. This should be a fluid movement of your hands. No jerking or pulling.a
STEP 2 - CONNECT THE REIN TO THE HIP
After you have spent several sessions of give-to-the-bit exercises and your horse is giving his nose and jaw actively from a light rein cue, you are ready to begin working on connecting the hip. By that we mean, you can cue the horse to move his hips over and disengage his hindquarters from a single-rein cue. This is building the foundation for your one-rein stop - which will be your emergency brake. When this lesson has been successfully taught, you will have an excellent tool to prevent bucking or runaways - far better than any harsh bit, tie down or gadget money can buy.
This lesson can also be taught either on the ground or mounted. At first, teach the lesson from a stand still. Again, we'll use the left hip as an example. (Of course, you will work equally on both sides.) If you are on the ground you will be standing at the horses shoulder. Begin by doing a few reps of give to the bit. Notice where your focus is? You are focusing on his nose/jaw. You can connect the rein to any body part - meaning you can pick up a single rein and get any body part you want to move by the proper timing of the release. You may ask, "How will my horse know the difference? How does he know this time I pick up the rein and want a left turn, next time I want him to pivot his hips?" That's a great question. Horses are masters of body language. They use it constantly with each other. Your horse will study your body language and make the connection of how your body is when you want a particular body part to move. At first, he won't know. He will experiment to see what it is you want each time you work on a knew body part. He will quickly learn how you are when you are thinking about his hip and how that differs from when you are thinking about his jaw. You don't need to try and stand a certain way or anything. You will be the same as long as your are focused. So, with your right hand begins sliding the rein thru the left. Right now you are focused on this jaw. You will see him give his jaw, but DON'T release the pressure this time. That isn't all you want. As soon as he gives his jaw switch your focus to his hip. Look at his hip and think "Hip move. Hip move" Continue holding the slack out of the rein waiting and watching for even a lean of the hips away from you. And, RELEASE fully the moment he starts leaning away. Scratch him and tell him he's the most wonderful horse in the world. Keep working on this over and over expecting more of a shift to the right of the hips each time, switching sides every few reps, as before. Our goal here is disengagement of the hips. When a horses hips are disengaged his power is gone. You will know you have disengagement when you see the inside hind cross over the outside hind. In the very beginning of these lessons, just release him for a shift--later don't release the rein until you get a step away--later, two steps away. Then, when you feel your horse is ready, continue holding the rein pressure until you see that inside leg cross over the outside.
STEP 3 - ONE-REIN STOP
Now, you are ready to install your emergency brakes. I consider this to be the most important lesson to train any horse for safety purposes. I won't ride a horse that doesn't know it. Beginning as before, either on the ground or mounted, start by refreshing your give-to-the-bit and connect the rein to the hip execises. Take the slack out of the rein, get the jaw, change the focus to the hip, get the hip, then disengage, BUT now don't release for the disengagement - that isn't all we want. While maintaining the slack out of the rein change your focus back forward and THINK stop. Hold until he stops moving his feet.