A Framework for Developing Rein Control

Here's John's system for training any horse ― from a greenie with his first bit to a hardened old trail horse who knows every stiff trick.
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Here's John's system for training any horse ― from a greenie with his first bit to a hardened old trail horse who knows every stiff trick.
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You've read plenty of articles on how to solve different problems, and perhaps you've worked through various training exercises. But what's missing in your mind is the framework - the overall plan - so that you know how to fit all that training together. Well, here it is.

John uses this same system with every horse. It will give you control if you have a horse who's difficult to lead or who gets too frisky on the trail. But doing a thorough job with this lesson will also give you more sophisticated control, whether you're headed to the show pen or the back country. And when you run into a training problem, you'll have a back-to-basics plan to rely on.

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The Plan
• We work with just one part of the horse at a time, such as the horse's hip or nose.
• We teach the horse a rein language that says when there's pressure on the rein, we want the horse to move one part of his body. When he moves it in the direction we want, we release the rein.
• The bridle is the main means of communicating with the horse. Even though you might ordinarily use body language, voice cues or weight changes, when you really need control, you'll use the bridle. So that's what we want to get our horse more responsive to.

This lesson will be fun, because you'll find that by the time you're ready to do a step, the horse will already be doing it correctly about 50% of the time. Imagine how much fun spelling would have been if you already knew half of the words.

We're going to teach this lesson on the ground first, because it's easiest for the trainer (you) to learn it that way. After you've seen how the horse responds and where his legs move with each cue, you'll be able to translate that to a feel from the saddle.

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First, the Tail
Start out by putting a snaffle bit on your horse. Be sure that your reins are at least a medium length. Short, roping reins won't work easily. If you don't have long reins, attach a lead rope to the bit ring.

Stand facing the horse's shoulder, with your left hand on the left rein just a few inches from the bit. Hold a stiff whip (about 36 inches long) in your right hand.

Raise the whip until you can rest it on your horse's left hip. Look at the hip and begin tapping it lightly. Keep tapping until he begins to walk forward, then immediately stop tapping and let your right arm relax.

If the horse doesn't move forward after about six taps, then tap harder. Keep tapping until he moves a step forward. When he does, go along with him without pulling on the rein unless he tries to pull away from you.

When the horse is walking along well (usually about five or six strides), allow him to walk slightly past you, then look at his tail and pull the left rein toward his left hip. The moment he takes a big step to the right - that is, his tail is moving away from you - release the rein. It will take a few times for you to feel the timing. The sooner you release when the horse is actually making a big step over, the quicker the horse will learn the lesson.

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At first, the horse may pull against your rein, or he may throw his head. Ignore that and concentrate on the tail. As soon as the horse figures out that you're talking to his tail, he'll relax his head.

When the tail moves away from you, the horse will probably stop. That's fine. Pet him. Begin the exercise again.

After you've done this five times, then switch sides. You'll have to teach the "go forward" cue from the right side, since the horse won't automatically know it. Take your time and do one thing at a time.

Position yourself and look at the horse's right hip. Tap the hip with the whip in your left hand. After a few steps, look at his tail. Pull the right rein back toward his tail. The moment the tail moves away from you, release the rein. The horse will have turned almost 90 degrees to face you. Do the exercise five times from this side.

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Now that you have the idea, practice this for about 20 minutes. You'll be amazed at the difference in your horse. Go forward, look at the tail, move the tail, release the rein. Change sides. Do the same from the right, and then change sides.

You're going to change sides almost every time. Mix it up just a little, though, so that the horse is responding to your cues, not the pattern.

Be sure that you're actually using the rein to get the horse to turn. Sometimes horses learn the pattern and start the turn from your body language. That's not what we want. If the horse begins turning on his own, then tell him to go forward again. When he's going forward consistently, use the rein to tell his tail to move away from you.

We're going to teach a variety of movements in response to a rein cue, and each sequence will end with moving the tail.

Next, the Nose
A horse can turn in two manners. One is with his whole body stiff, and the other is with a nice bend. Horses often start out stiff, but by the time they've practiced the exercise, their body begins to bend. We're now going to get a little more specific and ask the horse to turn his nose toward us, even though he may be doing that about half of the time.

Ask the horse to go forward. Instead of looking at the tail, look at the horse's nose. Pull the rein lightly and hold steady, even pressure on it until the horse turns his nose toward you. It will be as if he looked at you to say, "Now what?" Release the rein. He doesn't have to turn his head fully - just a few inches - but it has to be a definite move. Be sure that you keep the horse walking forward, not stepping into you.

When the horse "gives" with his nose, release the rein. Immediately pick up the rein and ask the tail to move away from you, as you did before. When it does, release the rein and pet the horse. Change sides.

When you feel that the horse is consistently giving you his nose when you ask from each side, then you're ready for the next step.

Then the Ear
We speak about the horse's ear as a way of talking about the elevation of the horse's head. When you began this exercise, the horse's head was probably higher than it is now. That's to be expected.

The formula that we've been using is to put pressure on the rein in order to tell the horse we want him to move a part of his body. When he moves the right part in the right direction, we release the rein.

We can use the same language to ask him to move any part of his body. Even though it will seem like we're using the same cue to mean different things, the horse is able to figure out the difference. The important thing is to think about what you want the horse to do, to look at the tail (or the nose, ear, etc.) when you use the rein and to release the rein the moment the horse guesses the correct answer.

We can ask our horse to put his head at any elevation we want, but for this exercise, we want the ear about at the same level as the saddle horn.

• Ask the horse to walk, as before.
• Pick up the rein. Ask the nose to look toward you. When it does, release the rein.
• Pick up the left rein again and look at the left ear. When the horse's head (ear) goes down (usually as the horse turns his nose to the left), release the rein. If the horse raises his head, keep holding the rein until he drops his head about a half-inch, and then release the rein.
• Look at the hip. Pick up the rein and ask the tail to move away from you. When it does, release the rein and pet the horse.

If your horse's head was too low, use the same system to ask the head to come up. Hold the rein until he raises his head slightly.

Can you see that we're adding things into the pattern? We begin by asking the horse to walk forward, and we end each segment by asking him to move his tail away from us. Each movement in between sets the horse up to do the next one correctly. We want him to learn each cue, though, not just the pattern, so you have to do one thing at a time and pay close attention so that you can release on time.

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A Subtle Change
As you continue working through this lesson, the horse will get more and more relaxed. In fact, you'll realize why you needed a specific "go forward" cue, to tell him to get moving.

Up until now, we've asked a particular part of the horse to move. Now we're going to focus on the long muscle in the horse's neck, but we want to see or feel it relax. And like the other steps in this lesson plan, the horse will already be relaxing it 50% of the time before you focus on it.

Imagine you were shaking hands with someone. You'd easily be able to feel if the other person's arm was relaxed or tense. As the horse gives you his nose the second time, pretend that he was shaking hands with you. There will be a moment where his neck is tense, then it relaxes. That relaxation is what you want to reward.

It's subtle, and the horse may be automatically doing it. If you don't see any change, but you don't feel any stiffness or tension in his neck, then release. Move the tail and release to finish the exercise. Switch sides.

Here are the steps for this part of the lesson:
• Ask the horse to walk, as before.
• Ask the nose to look toward you. When it does, release the rein.
• Check the elevation of the horse's head. If it's where you want it, then go on to the next step. If not, then ask him to drop his head.
• Pick up the rein again, focusing on the long muscle on the horse's neck. When you see it relax (usually as the horse turns his nose toward you), release the rein.
• Move the tail, then release the rein.

From the Saddle
Now that you have the exercise down pat from the ground, you'll easily be able to translate it to riding. After all, it's the same horse and the same rein. The only difference is that your legs will tell him to go forward, instead of the whip signal. Be definite in your movements, but not hurried or aggressive.

Ride the horse forward. Pick up the left rein and think about the horse's hindquarters moving to the right. Hold steady, even pressure on the left rein until you feel the horse's rear end shift over. Release the rein. Ride him forward and do the same thing with the right rein.

Be sure that you don't use leg cues to tell the horse to turn. We're conditioning the horse to rein cues only right now.

When the horse is "giving" with his hindquarters well, then turn your attention to his nose. Ride forward and pick up the left rein. When the horse turns his nose to the left, release the rein. Immediately pick up the left rein and move the hips over. Release the rein. Practice from both sides.

Ride forward and pick up the left rein. Ask the nose to give to the left, as when you were on the ground. Release the rein. Pick up the left rein again and hold pressure on it until you see the tip of the horse's left ear go down, then release the rein. Pick it up and again move the tail over. Release and change sides.

As you repeat this exercise, notice when the long muscle in the horse's neck will relax. When that's happening at least 50% of the time, then it's time to ask for it to happen. Ride forward and ask for the nose. Release. Then the ear and release. Then pick up the rein again and release it the moment you see the long muscle relax. Move the tail and release the rein.

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Practical Application
So now that you have this drill down pat, what can you do with it? You can use the whole exercise or pieces of it, depending on your situation.

Having trouble turning your horse? Forget about steering his nose. Point his tail where you don't want to go, and he'll automatically be aimed in the correct direction.

What about the horse who's upset because his buddy is leaving? Work him through the entire exercise. It will help him to calm down and give you control over each part of his body at the same time.

Is your horse balking about going out of the driveway or trying to rear? Move his tail, release. Work through the exercise, getting his head at the elevation you want. That will keep his front feet on the ground.

Or maybe your horse is just a little frisky heading out on the trail or when another horse enters the arena. No problem. Move his hips, ask his nose to give, then drop his head, then relax his neck, move his hips, and so forth. You'll have him looking like a show ring winner in no time.