I want to briefly discuss a technical aspect of groundwork that I believe is worth mentioning. It’s to do with working horses in hand and in a bridle and the way people use the reins. It’s a small blemish in the scheme of things, but when it comes to working with green-ish horses that have yet to truly understand how to yield and soften to the reins, I think my concern is worth a post.
I want to emphasize that I am mainly talking about horses that are not clear how to yield and soften to the reins. They may know how to steer, stop and be obedient, but not give over with their thought and feel okay to the pressure of the reins. These are the horses I am mainly referring to in this article.
We had a short discussion last weekend when Shelly worked her mare (Blue) in hand with the bridle. I noticed that when Shelly was walking beside Blue and asking for turns, stops and lateral movements she held both reins on the same side of her horse – the side she was standing.
I almost never do that because I rarely handle horses that are ready. My preference is to use the left rein on the left side and the right rein on the right side. It means that one rein is held on the side closest to me and the other rein is held by reaching across the horse’s neck to the opposite side. This enables both reins to be applied with a direct feel. It makes flexion to either side clearer during turns and lateral movement.
If both reins are held and applied on the same side, one rein is being used with a direct pressure and the other rein applies an indirect pressure. For example, if I am standing on the left side of a horse with the reins held in each hand on the left side, in order to perform a right turn requires the right rein (inside rein) to pull back and against the neck of the horse. On a novice or poorly educated horse, this can have the effect of blocking the right shoulder from stepping to the right and instead cause the shoulders to drift to the left. A similar issue develops when teaching certain lateral movements.
It could be argued that overall it is a small problem and could be overcome if people were more mindful of the effect of the reins. But it could equally be argued that it is not such a small problem considering the epidemic of horses that don’t yield and soften correctly to the reins. If we start on the ground teaching a horse to be incorrect, we make it so much more difficult for a horse to be correct when we ride.
There are many top-level trainers who perform work in hand by walking next to their horse with both reins on the same side. They get the job done because they have the experience to do that despite the limitations of having one rein acting as an indirect rein. But most people are not top-level trainers. Most people struggle to build in correctness to a horse even when doing everything the easier way. These are the people I am writing this for.
When I have brought up this topic in past clinics the first objection comes from the small women with giant horses. “I’m only 1.5m and my horse is 2m. How can I possibly reach across its neck?”
Firstly, to paraphrase my friend, “nobody needs a horse they can’t look over.” But secondly, teach your horse to lower its neck and position yourself at the base of the neck to reach across. I know it works for most people because I have taught many petite women with tall horses.
I don’t believe that handling the reins on the same side during work in hand is going to be the difference between brilliant training and crappy training. Nevertheless, I do believe starting out with the reins on opposite sides of the horse so they both act in a direct manner and not an indirect manner is a better option for the horse in providing clarity of the reins.
Photo: Today we have our lovely models, Shelly and Blue showing the different rein positions for work in hand.