Recently, I have seen more and more riders who are extremely reluctant to touch their horses mouths’ and who love to ride with very long reins. Yet, these same riders don’t seem to relate the fact that some of their riding problems are due to these same long, loose reins.
Firstly, let me make my position clear on this – A highly schooled, well trained and well balanced horse does not need a bit or reins. There are examples on YouTube and elsewhere of Grand Prix standard horses performing beautiful school movements all without the help of a bit or bridle. Wonderful to watch. What so many people don’t understand is that the vast majority of these horses have been started and schooled conventionally, ie with a bitted bridle.
I’ve been privileged to watch a superb hunt rider ride his beautifully schooled hunter cross country and with only the benefit of a neck strap was able to stop, steer and control his mount and jump huge fences – how many of us would be able to do that with our mounts? But this lovely horse was schooled conventionally, and to the point where he no longer needed a bit to do his job out hunting.
Unfortunately, so many of us these days don’t really understand the process of training a horse to be able to carry himself with a rider on his back, and we see fewer and fewer horses that work consistently in self-carriage. What, indeed, is self-carriage?
Very simply, self- carriage is when a horse is able to carry 25% of its weight (and that of its rider) on each of its four feet, thus, 50% over the front pair of feet and 50% over the hind pair of feet. This is a very unnatural act for a horse, which naturally carries 60% over the front feet and 40% over the hind feet when it is out in the field, and can load up to 80% over the front feet when asked to carry a rider.
So, as it is a very unnatural act for a horse to balance evenly front and behind while carrying a rider, it is no surprise that the horse needs an awful lot of help and support while it is learning how to do this, and this is where the combination of the rider’s own balance and weight distribution and the support that the reins and bit give in the early stages of training are so essential.
I like to think of the bit and reins as being like training wheels on a toddlers’ bicycle. To begin with the toddler really needs those training wheels to help them get the idea of balancing on the bike. As the toddler grows in confidence, the wheels are used less and less, until they can finally be removed. And just like toddlers learning to ride bikes, horses learn at different speeds how to balance. Some horses have fantastic natural balance, and pretty much from day one don’t really need that much help, others are clumsy and lacking in self-confidence, and need to take things more slowly with a lot more support.
By riding with no contact from the early stages, we are denying our horses those training wheels, and as a result we see horses later in life which have learned to balance themselves with a rider in a variety of ways – all incorrect, and all causing problems.
The ones we see most commonly are where a horse leans on the bit, getting heavier and stronger throughout the ride. We generally accuse those horses of pulling, but often they are just propelling themselves along by ‘falling forward’ and the only thing stopping them falling on their noses is the poor rider hanging on for grim death.
The other common one is where the horse throws its head in the air, hollows and rushes away. This peculiar and uncomfortable habit is caused by the horse throwing the head up in an effort to balance, which results in hollowing and the back end disengaging, so the horse is still on the forehand and is an equally uncomfortable ride.
But why does this happen?
The most common thing I see is where a rider starts their own young horse, and when they take up a light contact, the horse snatches a tiny bit on the rein. The rider, instead of preventing that snatch, allows the horse to take the rein every time. But what they don’t realise is that horses are Thieves! They steal the rein, as obviously they would prefer not to have any contact at all as this is unnatural, and the horse quite rationally would prefer to operate in a way that feels most natural to them, ie head strung out, more weight over forehand. Every time the rider allows the horse to steal a little bit of rein (and quite often the rider doesn’t even notice it, as it can be so subtle), they are creating a horse that when you do take up a steady contact, quite reasonably objects, and starts to get fussy in the mouth or throw its head about. So the rider lets go of the rein again as the horse is ‘sensitive’. Then a variety of bits are tried out, some of which work for a while, but then the horse starts to object again. All this can be avoided if the rider from day 1 did not allow the horse to steal the rein. By insisting on a steady contact from the outset, the rider then has those all- important training wheels in place to then help the horse to re-balance so that it can eventually achieve self-carriage and become an absolute delight to ride.
It is those little, tiny things that can make such a big difference to a horse’s whole life of ridden work, and it is far easier to start a horse well, than to re-train a horse who has developed bad habits because of a trainers’ lack of knowledge of the action of bit and reins in the early stages of schooling.