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Teaching a Horse to Neck Rein

15 August 2011 No Comment

Teaching a Horse to Neck Rein
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

My eight-year-old granddaughter has an eight-year-old, 14 hand Morgan mare that was trained, ridden and shown strictly as an English horse in a double-rein bridle. My granddaughter, who learned to ride English and has only shown English, would like to also show her western and do some trail riding. My question is what is the best, easiest way to teach the horse to neck-rein? She has accepted a low port western bit, and we also use a D-ring snaffle in training her. Also, any suggestions for slowing down her fast English trot, for use in Western, would be appreciated.

Thank you,

Hi Judy, First, let me start by saying that I’m impressed with a horse and rider pair of only eight-year-olds that sound as though they are both very mature. Because of this, I will offer more mature advice because I believe that your granddaughter will be able to implement it correctly.

To teach a simple neck rein, we will be using a leading (direct) rein, along with a neck rein (indirect rein). What I mean by direct rein is that if the rider wishes to turn the horse to the left for instance, they will gently pull on the left rein, thus, leading the horse directly to a turn to the left with the rein on the same side as the turn. We call a neck rein an indirect rein because once again, if we wish to turn the horse to the left, we train the horse that with both reins in one hand (either right or left hand, but most often in the left) we lay the right rein against the right side of the horses neck and the horse turns to the left away from the pressure of the right rein against their neck. So we are teaching the horse to turn to the left by applying indirect pressure on the right side of their neck, rather then a direct leading rein on the same side as the turn we wish to execute.

I prefer to teach the horse to neck rein with a fullcheek, frenchlink snaffle because we want to avoid pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth since we will be working with two hands for a while before we make the transition to one-handed neck reining. Bruising of the bars can occur sometimes during the training process if the horse is in a curb bit when we are still using two hands on the reins and I endeavor to avoid bruising a horse’s bars at all costs. The frenchlink snaffle will work on the corners of the horse’s mouth, but not on the roof of their mouth or on their tongue because by having the rounded, flat piece in the center of the snaffle, we avoid the “nutcracker” effect of a regular snaffle and also the poking on the roof of their mouth as when a regular single-jointed snaffle folds in the middle. The fullcheeks on the snaffle will prevent the bit from ever being pulled through the horse’s mouth and will also provide a little pressure on whatever side is away from the turn that we are asking for. Example: in our turn to the left, the left rein will apply pressure to the left side of the mouth and will also cause the right side fullcheek to press on the right side of the horses face by their mouth. That will encourage the horse to turn toward the pull and away from the pressure. Fullcheek frenchlink snaffles can be difficult to find and many times are mistaken for a Dr. Bristol that looks similar. One difference to look for is that the center piece of the frenchlink snaffle is smooth and rounded and will lie flat on the horses tongue, whereas the Dr. Bristol has edges on the center piece and will sit at an angle on the tongue, causing it to be more severe. Toklat makes a nice stainless steel fullcheek frenchlink snaffle and you can probably order it through your local tack store.

To begin teaching the neck rein, have your granddaughter direct rein her mare in the direction she wishes to turn and at the same time have her lay the opposite rein against the mares neck in an indirect neck rein. As her mare learns what the indirect rein means and begins to respond to the neck rein, your granddaughter will begin to phase out the direct leading rein. Instead of automatically using both reins, she will first ask with the neck rein for the turn and if her mare doesn’t respond, then while still applying the neck rein, she will also apply a “suggestion” to turn by using the direct leading rein. I also teach my horses to turn away from my leg pressure, so for our left turn again, she will at first apply a direct left rein, an indirect right neck rein and her right leg ever so slightly behind the girth. Make sure that she practices equally on both sides, otherwise she will have a better neck rein to one side then the other. Once the neck rein is established, you can then make a soft transition over to a curb bit. Since the mare will know what the neck rein is now, the chances of bruising her bars will become less because your granddaughter will be riding with both reins in one hand and there won’t be the possibility of her accidentally see-sawing or working the bit from side-to-side across her mare’s bars. I also will caution her to be as light-handed as possible when riding with a curb bit. If the mare starts to try and spit her bit out, or gapes her mouth open, she may be afraid of the bit because the hands are too hard or heavy. A horse should have a moist but quiet, closed mouth while being ridden in any bit if they are truly relaxed and accepting the bit well. Relaxed chewing is fine, but a gaping mouth, teeth grinding, tongue-over-the-bit or excessive chomping or clicking of the teeth are all signs of tension, anxiety and lack of acceptance of the bit. If any of these things occur, you need to immediately evaluate the training and also may need to have your veterinarian examine the horses mouth to make sure that there are no dental issues that need to be addressed.

What will take more time is the horse becoming conditioned physically to be able to “carry themselves” in the slower gait. Most often, when you watch horses frolicking in the arena or in a pasture, you don’t usually see the horse jogging and loping. Yes, I have seen some Quarter Horse youngsters that are bred for western pleasure that do have more of a natural jog and lope, but most horses in fact do the trot and the canter. Since the jog and lope are not natural gaits for most horses, we must educate their minds and teach them to go slower and we must condition their bodies to be able to “carry themselves” in the slower gaits.

The way that I begin teaching the jog is by doing a lot of transitions between walk and jog. I prefer to stay in the fullcheek frenchlink snaffle riding with two hands until I establish the jog. Your granddaughter will have her mare at a walk and then she will push her with even leg pressure up into the jog and her hands will regulate her speed by applying just enough pressure to keep her from racing forward in a fast trot. She will only ask for three or four jog steps before she will ask for the transition back to the walk again. In order to jog slowly, her mare will have more weight on each of her hind legs for a longer time then if she is simply forging ahead at the trot with her feet striking the ground more quickly before they are picked up again. This takes muscle conditioning and development to have that “pause” of weight on her haunches with each slow jog step she takes. So not only is a jog not natural for most horses, but it’s also more work for the horse too, so they get tired doing it fairly quickly until they are conditioned for it. Once her mare can “carry herself” in the jog for three or four steps, only then will your granddaughter start adding on steps. At the first signs of her mare speeding up into a more forward trot, she should do the transition back to the walk, which will cause her mare to re-gather her haunches underneath her in a position so that she can “carry herself” again. Many horses that have not been conditioned and trained properly will actually jog with the front legs and do what we call “walking behind” with the hind legs. The horse either doesn’t know how to do a “true” jog, they “cheat” and walk behind if the rider can’t feel them doing it because it’s easier for them, or they can’t sustain a slow jog because their muscles haven’t been conditioned for it. It’s for these same reasons that you see some horses do a 4-beat lope instead of a “true” 3-beat lope, or they may even lope with the front legs and “trot behind” with the hind legs. We are trying to teach correct gaits and this takes education and conditioning to achieve. As your granddaughter’s mare is able to “carry herself” in the jog for more and more steps, she will begin to drop some slack in her reins, make sure she doesn’t apply leg and see if her horse will stay in the slower jog and “carry herself” without your granddaughter either supporting her forehand, or having to hold her with her hand/s in the slower gait. Once she can put her into the jog and then slack her reins a bit and her mare stays in the slow, even gait, she will know that her horse has become educated mentally and also physically conditioned for the jog.

If your granddaughter is willing to proceed slowly and with patience on teaching the neck rein and the jog, I’m sure that she will be successful. A nice young horse and rider pair has plenty of time to achieve their goals, so encourage her to take the time and go slow.

Good Luck!

Laura Phelps-Bell

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