Good Horsemanship

Single Rein Riding

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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, it's easy.

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 now!)

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!

Julie Varley

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 huge.

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 one rein.

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.

Alexandra Kurland
"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 chest kind of slight contact with the outside rein while I manuever with the inside rein? 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.

Julie Varley

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 'in'.

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 there.

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. :-)

Whew!! I sure hope this helps some!

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