How do you ride a downward transition? How do you develop engagement? How do you collect your horse? How do you stop your horse?
If the answer to any of those questions is, “I pull on the reins,” you’re in the right place to find out why that’s the wrong answer!
Read on to find out why you should not pull on the reins and how to stop doing that!
Why pulling on the reins is a bad thing
When you pull back on the reins, your horse is likely to shorten his neck, stiffen through his back, hollow away from your seat, lift his head above the bit, and/or come against the contact.
That “backward hand” causes the horse to stiffen, disengage the hindquarters, and puts the horse onto his forehand.
Pulling back on the reins can also encourage the horse to get stronger in the contact, as he will too will pull against the pressure. This often leads to a tug-of-war scenario where the rider has to resort to using stronger and stronger rein aids and bits.
Why you should ride with a forward hand
When riding, you must always offer your horse a “forward hand.”
Basically, that means that you should always think of riding your horse from “back to front,” never from “front to back.”
The horse should be working willingly and freely forward to seek the rider’s contact. The rider should never try to impose a rein contact on the horse!
If you try to pull the horse into a “shape,” the horse will either resist the hand and come above the bit or will bend his neck at the third or fourth vertebra. That puts the horse behind the vertical, which is incorrect.
How to stop your horse without pulling on the reins
So, now you know why you shouldn’t pull back on the rein, how do you go about stopping your horse?
First, establish a correct contact
Before you can start stopping your horse without pulling on the reins, you first need to establish a correct contact.
We highly recommend that you read those two articles linked above, but to help get you going, here are a few basic steps.
First, you have to encourage your horse to seek the contact and stretch into the rein, rather than you pulling back on the reins.
To do that, begin by riding a large circle in an active walk on a long rein.
Encourage the horse to march forward, pushing himself along from behind. The horse should follow the bit forward and down, stretching into the contact.
Do not pull back on the reins or fiddle with the contact to try to pull the horse’s head down!
Gradually start shortening the reins, keeping your wrists and elbows soft and being careful not to pull back. Keep your legs on all the time. The horse must seek the hand, never the other way around.
When you feel the horse reaching into the bridle and is at the end of the rein, stop shortening.
Keep your hands forward. That might feel strange at first, but you must get used to the feeling that the horse is taking you forward, not the other way around.
If you feel that the horse is drawing back away from your hand or coming against you, give the rein a little more, keep riding forward, and start the exercise again.
What you should feel in your hands
If you’ve become accustomed to pulling on the reins, you need to re-educate yourself and develop a new feel for the contact.
Here are some tips to help you.
- Picture your hands always ‘pushing’ the horse to the contact rather than pulling backwards.
- Remember that you are holding a piece of metal that’s inside your horse’s mouth. If you pull back on the reins or jiggle your hand around, that metal bit will bruise the horse’s sensitive mouth. For the horse to feel confident to seek your hand and work into the bridle, the contact must be comfortable and elastic.
- Allow your shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands to softly “breathe” with the horse as he moves. Don’t hold your body stiff and fixed.
- The rein length is held between your thumb over your index fingers. Your other fingers is how you communicate to your horse down the rein. Your fingers should be mobile as if you were flying a kite in the breeze.
So, the outline you’re looking for in dressage is achieved by riding the horse forward so that he works through his back and neck into an elastic contact.
Basically, you should never have more rein contact than the amount of impulsion that the horse is generating from behind. In short, your hand must only receive what your leg creates.
Second, learn to use your seat
Instead of pulling on the reins to slow your horse’s tempo, ride a downward transition, or to stop him altogether, you should use your seat.
The biggest communication channel between you and your horse is through your seat to his back.
When you are riding your horse correctly from back to front, energy is constantly flowing over the horse’s back from his hindquarters to the bit. You can control this energy through your seat and your thighs.
Think of yourself like a clothes peg on the horse’s back. When the peg is open, the energy can flow from the back to the front. When the peg is closed, this pauses the flow of energy.
Here’s how to do it.
Ride around the arena in an active working trot.
Ensure that the horse is working correctly in a good rhythm, through a supple back, into an elastic contact.
During this time, your seat and thighs should be relaxed as you follow the horse’s movement and allow him to move freely forward.
Take up sitting trot (if not already) and give your horse a small half-halt to let him know that something is going to happen and to help prepare him for a downward transition to walk.
Next, stop following the horse’s movement with your hips. Tighten your lower stomach muscles and slightly squeeze both thighs inwards.
This acts as the closing of the peg and your horse should transition into walk.
As soon as your horse walks, relax your stomach muscles and thighs and follow the horse’s movement once again with your hips.
This opens up the peg to allow the energy to flow from the hindlegs and over the back once again.
Troubleshooting: What if your horse still doesn’t stop?
If you have a young horse or one that has never been trained to respond to the rider’s seat aids before, then your horse may not stop.
Instead of resorting to pulling back on the reins, here are a few ways to help teach your horse what these seat aids mean.
Exercise 1 – Half-halt-give
Using the same exercise as above, if your horse doesn’t respond to you ceasing to follow his movement with your seat, then ride a sequence of half-halts until he transitions to walk.
So, ride half-halt-give, half-halt-give, half-halt-give, all whilst keeping your seat still, your lower abs contracted, and your thighs gently squeezing inwards.
As soon as the horse walks, relax your seat and thighs, follow his movement with your hips, give him a pat and repeat the exercise.
After a few attempts, the penny should drop and your horse should start to transition to walk as soon as he feels your seat stop.
Exercise 2 – Circles and corners
If you have a very onward-bound horse that gets faster and faster, the best way to teach him to respond to your seat is by using circles and corners.
Start by riding him on a circle next to an arena corner.
The circle will help to control his tempo. If he continues to get quicker, then just make the circle smaller.
The corner is where you are going to ask for your downward transition from trot to walk.
Use the same steps as above (including the half-halt-give if you need to) but ride deeper into the corner and use the arena boundary to help make it clear to the horse that you want him to walk.
Again, as soon as the horse walks, relax your seat and thighs, follow his movement with your hips, and allow him to walk forward. Give him a pat and repeat the exercise.
When your horse starts to get the idea, you can start to ride the transition at different places in the arena.
Pulling on the reins is a very negative and counterproductive way of riding that’s incorrect for dressage riding.
Instead of pulling on your horse’s mouth, learn how to develop a correct contact that entails the horse seeking contact with the reins.
Once you have that established you’ll be able to stop your horse, collect your horse, and ride downward transitions using your seat.