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What is the best way to teach a rider to be light in the hands?

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - March 31st, 2010 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY!: What is the best way to teach a rider to be light in the hands? Children always tend to be harder in the horse’s mouth, and I know this can lead to a horse that will take the bit and pull threw.
— Victoria Jensen, Cleveland, TN

HEY VICTORIA: I know exactly what you mean since I have six of my own children ranging from 4 to 16 years of age. There are a lot of things that you can do. One exercise that the beginner rider should first experience is riding with no reins at all. The safest way is by lunging them. Allow them to hold on first. Later, they should be able to ride off the seat of their pants with no hands.

After they achieve an independent seat and confidence, try this next: Take one of the reins off the bridle. This is a good exercise — providing the horse knows how to give to pressure — and stop by flexing. This teaches the inexperienced rider that when things are going well, (i.e. horse is moving straight and maintaining an adequate cadence and stride) hanging on the rein will change what is already working. They recognize quickly that staying out of the horse’s face not only makes the horse happy but it keeps him moving in the right direction! When you only have one rein and the horse only direct reins or plow reins, the options you have are turning in that one direction or flexing to a stop. It might be a good idea to practice these two exercises with the rider first, before turning them loose.

This is also a great exercise for young horses that have trouble rating themselves. The moment they begin to go too fast, the only option the rider has — inexperienced or not — is to flex them to a stop, which happens to be the right thing to do. For those horses that can actually neck rein, this exercise allows the rider to direct rein in one direction and neck rein in the other.

Riders should practice this exercise equally on both sides of the bit. You know you’ve practiced enough when control is no longer an issue. It will be obvious when you achieve the timing and feel necessary to make it look easy. You should not give both reins back to the young rider until he or she clearly sees the value and importance of keeping the horse comfortable in his mouth. Don’t hesitate to take back a rein if bad habits reoccur. Remember, it’s hard to hang on a horse’s mouth when you only have one rein.

If you actually have a horse that has learned that the only way to defend himself is by rooting (pulling threw the bit downward), try this:

Back him with his poll up while pulling back on both reins equally and releasing the moment he steps back a step or two. This will deliver the picture he needs to see in order to discourage him from continuing that behavior. Continue this process until there are no signs of pulling down on the part of the horse. Don’t forget to reward for each and every rein back. It’s important not to release the rein after the horse steps back, if he falls behind the vertical. You don’t want to reward evading the bit. You may want to refer to my previous HEY RAY! COLUMN (What exactly is “ On The Bit”). Manipulate the reins in such a way that he feels light when the poll is up after the horse steps back, before releasing. There are two ways your horse will feel light in your hands. One is by evading the bit by falling behind the vertical, and the other is by staying connected but in self carriage. The latter will prove more beneficial for your horse. If at any moment while doing this exercise you feel unsafe or threatened, flex to a stop and reevaluate your options.

Victoria, on behalf of every horse with a shy mouth, I thank you for your question! Remember always to trust your instincts, and think safe.


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horseand human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco, Calif., at his bustling Starbrite Riding Academy, where he currently has 50 horses in various stages of training, including Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Paints, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Mustangs and more. Ray attributes his training success to the support of his wife and partner, Pippa, and a system he calls S.W.A.P., to which he credits his multiple championships in several disciplines. His passionate understanding of the “human-horse” relationship was evident when he took on the challenge of training a wild Mustang and — in just 100 days — produced the highest-priced adopted Mustang ever — $50,000. Does your “horse-human relationship” leave you with a question for Ray? Click here to submit one!

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