I have noticed over the years that a lot of riders like to maintain a fixed length of rein between their hand and the horse’s mouth. As a young aspiring dressage rider, I was lectured on the importance of this practice as a way of maintaining a consistent contact. I see the logic of this argument and I feel it has merit. But I now believe that it only has merit with some horses in some circumstances. I no longer am convinced that for most people with most horses a constant length of rein is a better way of riding.
Every horse is a work in progress, just like every rider is a work in progress. No horse or rider is ever finished, nor will they ever be. When we are training something new into our horse that is not yet established there will always be some level of confusion, anxiety, and resistance for the horse, irrespective of how well it is trained in its other work. If thus wasn’t the case, we would no longer be in training mode – everything would be as we desired and there would be no need for corrections. But this is rarely the case.
In order to maximize our effectiveness to correct a mistake or misunderstanding, we need to attain as close a level of communication as possible at the time. Part of that is presenting just the exact amount of feel of the reins required to achieve the utmost clarity for our horse. Our signal needs to be unambiguous in both the degree of pressure and the timing of its implementation and release.
The trouble is that one fixed length of rein is not going to achieve this goal every time we need the reins to motivate a change of our horse’s thoughts. The rein length will influence the effectiveness of our timing and the feel our reins offer. If our reins are longer ideal to convey our intent we may be too late to apply the perfect amount of pressure and if they are shorter than required we may be too slow to present the perfect release.
I find one of the obstacles that get in the way of being fluid in the use of rein length is their aptitude (or lack of) at being able to adjust the length of rein easily and smoothly. People are clumsy with their hands and make it harder than it really is. I find rein-handling skills are very underrated and something people neglect but learn by necessity when the time arises. However, if a rider believes that a fixed length of rein is the way to ride, the skills to make smooth and rapid changes to rein length are generally never learned. As a result, when told to constantly re-adjust their reins to the needs of the horse they resist due to a lack of skill and confidence at doing it well. They thereby let the horse down by not being as clear as possible with the reins.
I do have sympathy for people who ride with a constant fixed length of rein because they have been ingrained on its importance. And to be fair, a lot of rider/horse combinations do very well with little or no fluidity in the length of rein. But it is by far a less than ideal situation. Just because we can get away with riding with a fixed rein length, doesn’t mean it is the best approach to providing clarity to our horse – and we should always be striving to present optimum clarity.
The video below outlines a couple of different techniques I apply when adjusting the length of rein. It is important to notice the smoothness that we incorporate when changing the length of rein. Above all, smoothness is something we need to constantly be mindful of when using the reins to converse with our horse.
“Amos, what d’ya reckon is the most important part of learning to get along with a horse?” I asked.
Amos and his twin brother, Walt had become my defacto mentors by default. They were old men when I met them, but they were sharp and wise when it came to horses.
I had been working at the riding school for a few years now and at the ripe old age of 16 I figured I knew a few things about being a good horseman. I knew there was more to learn, but my grasp of more than the basics was obvious. Afterall, people asked me to ride and compete with their horses. I had started several horses under saddle and been praised for the job I had done. I was teaching other people to ride. No doubt about it, I was on my way to being as good a horseman as the old brothers – maybe better one day.
“Mmm matey. I don’t reckon there is just one thing,” Amos replied as he continued mixing the evening feed for his horse.
“C’mon there must be something that stands above the rest when I ask that question. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”
“Well, matey I guess it’s probably different for different people, so I can’t give ya an answer that would work for everybody,” he said.
“But I reckon that ya can’t be a good horseman until ya really appreciate that there ain’t no bigger responsibility than takin care of ya horse’s emotions. Nothin is more important if ya goin to get along with a horse. It don’t matter if ya win blue ribbons or get paid a lot of money to train horses or ya write famous books about horsemanship. Bein famous and bein popular with the crowds don’t make a person a good horse person. Bein good with horses comes from inside a person to care about how their horse feels all the time.”
I could have almost predicted Amos’ answer because caring about horses feelings has been the mantra they have driven home to me every since I met them. To Walt and Amos there is no higher priority than helping a horse to feel okay in everything they do with them. So this revelation was no news flash for me. But what he said next did surprise.
“I already know that, Amos. Isn’t there something more?”
“Matey, ya may think ya know it, but ya don’t – not yet,” he said.
“What d’ya mean, Amos?”
“What ya don’t know yet is how hard it is to dig inside a horse where the emotions sit. And the reason it’s so hard is because life is a competition.”
Life is a competition! What the hell did that mean? So I asked.
“Did ya know that Walt is 17 minutes older than me, matey?” Amos asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“D’ya know why he is 17 minutes older? Of course ya don’t,” he asked and answered.
“It’s because Walt pushed, scratched, crawled and elbowed past me to get out of our mum ahead of me. We competed inside the womb and we are still competin and bickerin nearly 77 years later. I lived with that man almost my whole life and there ain’t nobody I love more and am closer to than me brother. But we are in constant competition. Still when he is feelin bad or he needs somethin all I care about is tryin to fix it for him. I take no pleasure that it’s his pain and not mine. But when it’s done, we are still arguin, bickerin and tryin to out do each other.
“It’s like that with horses too. People are always competin against our horses. Their need to feel safe competes with our need for them to load into a horse float. Their need to rest a sore back competes with our need to put a saddle on ‘em. Their need to see what moved in the next paddock competes with our need to have their attention. A horse’s needs and our needs are always in competition and it causes conflict.
“If ya gonna give priority to a horse’s emotions when workin with them, then ya have to care a lot about their needs – even when they clash with your needs. This is when ya discover that talking about caring about the emotions of horses is not the same as really doin it. People are always talkin about it, but Walt is maybe the only one I know who does it.
“So when you tell me ya understand the importance of lookin after a horse’s emotional welfare, give it a few more years and tell me again.”
I walked away from Amos feeling despondent, which I know was not Amos’ intention. He and Walt are long gone and there is nobody to confess to that I am still not sure I get it. I wish those cranky old blokes were still around to remind me where the path is.
A friend I have known for many years asked me recently how much does the earth weigh? I thought for a moment and said it depends, but it can weigh almost zero. This seemed impossible to my friend. He expressed his disbelief with colourful language. I quickly did some calculations using Newton’s equation and told him that the earth had a mass of approximately 5,900,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg (23 zeros), but that it weighed almost nothing. I explained that mass was constant (although this is not strictly true because the earth has a net loss of nearly 50,000 tons a year in mass), but that weight varied depending on gravity. But no matter what argument of logic I offered, my friend could not get pass the idea that since everything on, in and around the earth weighed something, therefore the earth must weigh the sum total of all those things added together. So I was unable to persuade my friend over to my side.
This got me thinking about the concept of persuasion. As a teacher, my working life is targeted to persuading people to my way of thinking about horses and horsemanship. I do this either by presenting my views and demonstrating the positive results they produce or by discussing the flaws of alternative ideas. Most of the time it is a mixture of both.
This seems to work pretty well for the most part, but from time to time I come across people at clinics who seem impervious to my powers of persuasion. They understand what I am saying. They see the results in their horses. But it doesn’t appear to be enough to change their mind. Why is this? I mean I could understand their dogged refusal to change their views if they didn’t understand what I was saying or they found a hole in the logic or their horse became more screwed up when I worked with it. But this is almost never the case. So what is getting in the way of change for the human? I don’t seem to have any problem changing the horse’s thought, but it is sometimes not so easy when it comes to changing the owner’s ideas.
I think part of it is history. We are often emotionally invested in what we do because we have been doing it for so long. I think this is linked to our ego and self-esteem and reluctance to admit to ourselves (and the world) that we are not as clever or talented as we thought we were. We don’t want to be so vulnerable. This is especially true for people who are professional horse people.
A lady came to a clinic that struggled to get her horse to slow down. I coached on her for a while, then suddenly she stopped her horse and looked at me with a frustrated expression and stress in her voice. “You’re telling me that everything I have been doing for the last 30 years is wrong.” My reply was, “No. I’m not telling you that. Your horse is telling you that.” She did not return the next day. Her reluctance to let go of her ego was stronger than her desire to listen to her horse.
Another obstacle can be that we cling strongest to the views and beliefs that we acquired in our early education. Often the first guru that made sense to us is the one whose teaching we have the strongest faith in and we are reluctant to let go of it irrespective of the merit of ideas we encounter down the road. We put so much faith in their infallibility that it becomes impossible to question their teaching. I think probably every trainer and teacher have a small number of followers like that. We are generally okay about taking on ideas that a consistent with the lessons of our teachers, but rarely do we embrace ideas that are counter to them.
About 4 years ago I agreed to a request from a young woman living in Europe to come and be a working pupil with me in Australia. I knew immediately it was a bad idea when she arrived and told me that she had been working with a certain trainer that she really liked and she would not be okay with anything I might say or have her do that was not consistent with what she had learned from him. I said to her that I didn’t know her trainer, but that she made a mistake coming all the way from Europe to Australia in the hope of learning from me but placing limitations on what she would listen to and what she wouldn’t. Needless to say, she did not have a very satisfying visit.
Another possible explanation for why occasionally I meet an owner whose ideas I can’t seem to shift is a personality conflict. As far-fetched as I am sure you think it is, some people just don’t like me. Whether it is my style of presentation or my corny jokes or my push for them to try harder or the intimidation of my over powering good looks, I don’t know. But it is a fact of life that when somebody has a personality that grates on us, we tend not to embrace their ideas very much. I can think of a handful of people who feel that way and have bad mouth me to anybody who will listen. Anything I say or do causes them to have an instant opposition reflex.
An example of this happened some years back. One person who didn’t like me for personal reasons posted on an internet forum that I was responsible for her horse breaking its hip when it tried to jump out of an arena. The only problem was that I had never met her horse and the whole event had never happened. Nevertheless, the story spread quickly.
I certainly don’t think or believe that I am the teacher or horseman for everybody. I know that every trainer and clinician has their fans and their detractors irrespective of their ability. So I want to be clear. I don’t have a problem with people who don’t like me and are not drawn to my work. That’s not the problem.
The point of this essay is to encourage people to really look at themselves and their reasons for both loving and hating the philosophy and methods of any trainer or clinician they meet. Make sure your reasons are true and honest and not based on irrational bias or personal vulnerabilities. Our horses deserve the best we can possibly offer them and that means we really should put aside our personal flaws and prejudices and consider everything we learn with an impartiality that is targeted towards what is best for our horse. Let go of the ego.