Alexandra introduced me to the single rein work through the riding clinics
and the results have been excellent. There are several things about it that I
really appreciate. First of all, it has helped me to develop a calm down cue
(head lowering) and a single rein stop without ever making my horse feel
trapped between two reins. This aspect of it really helped me feel safe because my
mare Allie used to be a very anxious horse. The 'give to the bit' work which
is also done on a single rein initially, took a horse that used to pull like a
freight train and transformed her into a horse who is so soft and light she
is such a joy to ride! Because I was working on one thing at a time (head
lowering, giving to the bit, etc.) it helped me to be clear in my timing, and to
notice and respond to the changes that I was feeling in my horse.
I also really like the single rein approach because it has taught me the
"jobs" of the inside and outside reins. Because I learned how to use the inside
rein first, in a chunked down, sequential process, the function of each rein is
now much clearer to me. In the past instructors would give many directions
about what to do with both reins at the same time, and I would try my best to
follow what they said, but since I didn't really understand the functions of
each rein I had limited results.
I will say the trickiest part was learning how to stay on a single rein and
straighten the horse out again once you have them soft and giving to the bit.
From talking with and watching other people it seems as though this is a
common 'challenge' of the work but like anything else, once you have learned it,
Have you seen Alexandra Kurland's Lesson #4 video (Stimulus Control)? If not
I highly recommend it. On the video Alex explains how she has combined the
John Lyons work with clicker training as well as her dressage background. She
demonstrates several aspects of single rein riding on her thoroughbred
Peregrine, and shows what it can develop into as the training progresses. Then she
shows horses at various layers of the single rein work. We get to see one
horse having her first single rein riding lesson, learning to give to the bit, and
by the end of the lesson the rider has generated the beginning of lateral
movement. (By the way this horse lives in the same barn as my Allie and they have
continued to progress with the work and are even more beautiful to watch
There is also an article that I've found really helpful on Repetitions in
relation to head lowering: http://www.angelfire.com/az/clickryder/reps.html
So those are a few thoughts on how much the single rein work has helped
me....hope it's helpful to you too!
One of the reasons it is so wonderful to work on one rein is
that exercise will clarify the rider's weaknesses, the
horse's dependency on the reins for direction/guidance and
if there is any confusion about other aids (or lack of
understanding about them). The point is that it takes *two*
reins to produce the kind of compression that Alex warned
against. At least I haven't been able to compress a horse
with only one rein!
Beyond that, if a rider is riding mostly with reins, as
opposed to balanced combination of leg, seat & weight aids,
if you take away one rein, it becomes painfully obvious
because nothing works any longer. So, the fastest way to
isolate what is really going on with a horse/rider to take
away one of the 'crutches'. Sometimes what happens is that
the horse falls into a tight circle because there are no
other aids to keep him from doing so. Sometimes he can't be
on the bit without two reins. Sometimes he is basically out
of control, like the guidance system has gone on the fritz.
Ideally, the rider should be able to function on one rein
(with light contact) with the strength of the rider's
position keeping the horse on track.
This is the real point that I think is missing in most
discussions about reins and aids is that if the rider's
position is clear enough to communicate with the horse, a
lot of pressure on the rein is not necessary. Training *is*
all about clarity, after all, isn't it?
Yes! Exactly right. You highlighted the two reasons I've
been so interested in single-rein riding. It takes away one
of the "crutches so you can really see what is going on in the
rider's/horse's balance, and, as you pointed out, you can't
compress a horse when you're on one rein. You can still pull
back and drag a horse around. You can create a wiggly,
out-of-balance horse, but you won't be damaging the horse's
spine in the process of learning how to untangle his legs and
brain. I use single-rein riding to teach riders how to go to
a point of contact and have the horse give to them, rather
than going to a point of contact and then applying traction to
drag the horse around. This is not just semantics. There is
a huge difference. When you carry pulling on a single rein
over to riding on two reins, the result is often the backwards
traction and compression of the spine I wrote about the other
day. When you learn to connect with the horse and then wait
for the horse to respond to you, what you get is balance and
self-carriage. Rein length and number then becomes a way of
polishing a performance, not forcing submission to a request.
Both the look and the feel will be very different.
Creating a connection and then waiting for the horse to
respond is hard. It goes against our hard-wired nature. We
want to "make things happen". It's easy to bend a horse's
head around, to get him off balance, and then to pull on the
rein to swing the hips over. It takes focus and it takes
discipline to go to the same point of contact and wait for the
horse to find the answer and to move his own hips. The
difference in the doing of the exercise might seem subtle,
almost trivial, to a novice handler, but to the horse it is
I remember years ago I was riding a super wiggly Arabian.
This was pre-clicker, so this was a chunk of years ago. I was
in the early stages of figuring out single-rein riding. When I
took away the crutch of the outside rein exactly what Elaine
described in her post happened. The horse fell in over his
inside shoulder. I lost all connection to a steering wheel,
and we wiggled our way around the arena. Add to this a round
as a barrel back and a tendency for the horse to stop every
few minutes and shake like a dog, and you have a totally
not-fun ride. Picking up two reins only exasperated the
situation because that made him contort his body, scrambling
his hips into one bend, and his shoulders into the opposite
bend. I was "schooling" him one afternoon, if you can call
being wiggled all over the arena schooling, when I decided my
goal for the day was to get him to walk a circle using only
When I started, we couldn't manage even one stride on a
circle. He'd fall in to the center, or bow out through his
outside shoulder and go drifting off into parts unknown. I
could have forced him onto a circle using both reins, but I
had set myself this challenge. I was determined to build a
consistent circle using only the inside rein. Four hours
later we were walking a perfect circle. Somewhere long before
that he stopped shaking like a dog. And sometime a little
later he stopped feeling as though I was in a log rolling
contest and had started to move in balance underneath me. In
that process of turning wiggling into riding I learned more
about circles than I had learned in all of my previous years
of riding. And that single ride formed the foundation of many
lessons I am still using and teaching.
One of those lessons is we often give up too soon. It would
have been easy within the first hour to get frustrated and
quit. I could easily have said this isn't working and given
up, except that I could feel the changes happening even if we
were still oceans away from being able to ride a circle. My
horse was not stressed. We never went out of the walk. I
wasn't hassling him to create a change. I was just saying:
"Not that way, try this way. Not that way, try this way." -
over and over again until he found his balance. Let me write
that again: until HE found his balance. And when he found his
balance, he was able to find it again and again. He had
started out a very crooked horse who would have been a
chiropractor's nightmare project, but he learned to organize
his own body and find a balance in which he could comfortably
carry a rider. Very neat. It came from picking a simple
exercise and staying with it long enough to see all the good
things that would fall out of it. That's something else that
goes against our nature. We get sucked in by the goal. If the
goal is to ride a circle, what's normal is to create a circle
by whatever means necessary. If that means grabbing up both
reins, then that's what you do. My goal, however, was to ride
a circle using only a single rein. By riding the exercise
without compromise I helped my horse on a very deep level to
become more sound, and I learned lessons that have stayed with
me to the present.
"The Click That Teaches"
I had my first single rein riding lesson at one of Alex's clinics. I can
identify with how you felt when your horse veered in toward the middle of the
arena! I took me a while to figure out how to take enough slack out of the
inside rein and really hold the rein against Allie's neck in order to say, "we
aren't going into the middle right now." It was really uncomfortable for me to
take that much slack out of the rein in the beginning, but it was necessary to
make my intent clear to my horse. Alex pointed out that when we ride on a
single rein we are not trapping the horse between two reins. She also stresses the
importance of sliding down the rein to gradually take out the slack. The
horse can feel us coming and make a response to us. And then as soon as they
begin to move in the direction we would like we can release the rein immediately.
Now that my horse and I both understand single rein riding, I am able to be
much lighter in my requests and Allie knows what to do.
"So, the question is: do I just let the outside rein hang
there and play with the inside rein or do I do the buckle at the
kind of slight contact with the outside rein while I manuever with
Thanks for any input."
In addition to the great information you have already received, I just wanted
to add that the outside hand does have a function in single rein riding.
Alex always stresses the importance of "staying alive" with the outside hand.
While we are not actively riding on the outside rein, the outside hand needs to
"stay alive" so that the horse doesn't feel that we are "absent" on the
outside. The outside hand holds the buckle, lifts up (rather than back), and is
there to support the inside hand. Our two hands are working together as a team
even though we aren't actively using the outside rein. One way to think of it
is that your two hands can work together to form a "pulley system". Your
inside hand is going to be stationed near the front of the saddle to hold the
inside rein and ask the horse to give to the bit, turn, or whatever. It really
helps to rest your inside hand right against the saddle to keep it from moving.
This makes the request to the horse much more clear and definite. With your
inside hand resting on the front of the saddle it is easy to then use your
outside hand to lift the rein up to gradually take the slack out of the rein. It
helps me to think of it as sort of a pulley system. I hope this makes sense.
There are certainly many levels of 'throughness'. On one level a horse who
is 'through' is 'savvy' to the contact. Contact again being that which
connects all parts of the horse with all other parts via the rider's aids.
The 'pressures' involved will certainly vary from horse to horse, rider to
rider, and well, moment to moment. But contact lets me 'talk' to every body
part as if they are my own. A horse who is through LETS you do this. He
lets the aids go 'through' his body rather than block them with resistances.
I would say that most people who's experience with 'contact' is unpleasant
is mainly due to the fact that the horse is not 'through' and able to remain
so under all circumstances. (not to mention the rider being able to support
the process) The rider picks up a feel on the reins and the horse, instead
of letting the feel go through to the hindlegs, he pushes against it.
Obviously discomfort in the mouth is not sufficient to motivate a horse
toward throughness. If it were then it wouldn't be so difficult a concept
to achieve. ;-) No, the horse must 'buy in' to the concept and allow you
When we speak of yielding the body it is the whole body with particular
emphasis on the hindlegs. There are many rein/seat combinations and many
are designed to influence the hind legs. Others influence the shoulders and
the flexion giving you more tools for refining steering and bending. Re the
hindlegs we seek to influence them either laterally (sideways movement)
and/or longitudinally (collection). As the horse progresses we seek more
and more that the horse is able to collect, go sideways, and go forward...
all at the same time. :-) In any gait, on any figure. Very difficult and it
won't be possible if the horse is not through.
Many people are concerned with the horse feeling light in their hand and so
are happy enough if the horse yields his poll. This may feel pleasant
enough up to a point but what usually goes along with that is the horse is
not engaged behind nor lifted at the base of the neck. If the horse is
compliant enough this may be fine for putzing around. But not fine if one
is looking to progress towards more advanced dressage work.
Lightness (meaning 'not heavy in the hand') is not the same as through.
Although if a horse is truly through then he will be light. The reverse is
not true however. There are a lot of horse who are 'light' and even very
obedient but not through. Mostly I would imagine due to the fact that their
riders just didn't ask or know to ask or know how to ask. So one day if
they are in a dressage lesson the instructor will say, "take some contact"
and the horse will prove he is not savvy to that contact. He will push
against it rather than yield his body to the contact. He will block the
energy somewhere along the way. Depending on the horse it might not get
past his mouth but with many it goes to about the withers and stops
I suspect that this is due in part to the fact that this is the part we can
see? Also many people have misunderstandings about 'hand riding' and so
will only fiddle lightly with the reins get a softening of the neck and that
is that. They never ASK the horse to be 'through'. Harry Whitney made it
clear to me this way, "When ever we touch the reins we need to get a change
clear *through* to the hindlegs." There is that word again!
Well there are a lot of words there but no guarantees that this makes sense
to anyone! Perhaps others will chime in with their perceptions. The next
question is how can clicker training help us develop throughness?
As usual it is by breaking things down. You start working with one rein for
turning, stopping, and backing. Your clicks should be focused on those
responses to the rein that include some softening and/or bending the joints
of the hindlegs. This will be easier on the ground when you can see.
Harder under saddle when you can not see, you must feel, and also harder for
the horse. A helper on the ground who has a good eye will be worth his/her
weight in gold at this point. :-)