My Introduction To Parelli

Some people advocate Parelli, others resent it. It’s had good press, it’s had bad press. Whatever. Each to their own. I’m not going to go into depth here – do some reading and develop your own opinion.

Anyway, I’ve never really had anything to do with Parelli, nor have I had a need to try it with my horses.  But when I went to do a practice lunge lesson with a riding club member last week I was horrified, embarrassed, whatever you want to say, that I couldn’t get the horse to lunge when I warmed her up.

“Oh, she’s Parelli trained” announced her owner as an explanation. That still didn’t help me, so she gave me a quick lesson on lunging the Parelli way.

Firstly, she explained that my belly button should be pointing in the direction I want the horse to go. So to send a horse forwards, turn to look (and point your belly button) in that direction. When you face the horse, they think you are wanting them to reverse. Which was the problem I was having. 

You can also fling your rein arm in the direction you want them to go, thus giving a clearer instruction. Once I’d got the hang of this then it did make a bit of sense and the mare responded well.

To slow a horse the Parelli way, you either put the whip out in front of their body, or waggle the lunge line. I found this part trickier, until I accidentally said the word “Good” at which point the mare stopped dead! Apparently that’s a cue word for the end of the session and tit bit time.

Parelli people also don’t use many words, as this lady told me. They expect to say go, and then say nothing until they want the horse to do something different. Which when we’re riding is something we should aim for so our aids remain subtle and clear, but most of us use a dialogue when lunging to either settle the horse, or to regulate their gait. 

The whip is also often used instead of the voice to get a horse to move off. Smack it on the ground behind the horse twice, and they should move forwards until told otherwise. This is more to do with the obedience aspect of Parelli, so apart from being told about it I didn’t use this technique.

Regardless of my views on Parelli, it was actually an interesting learning experience because it means I have another trick up my sleeve if I ever come across a horse who “won’t” lunge – I may just be talking the wrong language to them. 

Symmetrical Riders

I always think the best riders are those who are ambidextrous, and can use one side of their body as well as the other side. After all, the penultimate stage on the scales of training is straightness, so if a rider isn’t straight then they’ll never be able to apply the correct balance of aids to create a straight horse, which means that collection remains tantalising out of reach. 

I often wonder if you ran some tests on professional top level riders, if you’d find a high degree of ambidextrousness. Perhaps some uni students would like to take up the challenge.

Ask yourselves a question. Do you favour one hand more than the other? Or is one leg stronger than the other? Is this reflected in your horse and your own riding? Perhaps you maintain a better right bend because your left arm is dominant so provides a more consistent outside rein.

How do you know if you’re ambidextrous? Start taking note of how you pick things up in every day life. If something’s on the floor, do you always use your right hand to pick it up? Can you clean your teeth using your right hand as well as your left? Can you stand on each leg comfortably, or do you wobble around precariously on one foot? 

A good test I sometimes use on my clients, to highlight their asymmetry, is to get them to take one foot out of the stirrup and carry on rising to the trot. If their dominant foot is in the stirrup this is fairly easy, but if it’s their lazy leg then they find it almost impossible!

I think that’s the one thing that makes me go to Pilates each week. Yes, the exercises are all useful and I work hard, but I find the roll downs and resetting my body and developing my proprioception most beneficial. After all, once you start to overuse one area of your body you’ll be prone to strain injuries, and then will compensate elsewhere in your body.

I’ve noticed it this last week. Where I’ve been hobbling around (a note to the wise, don’t get between a Shire horse’s foot and the ground) I’ve noticed that as well as my foot hurting, I can feel muscles in my opposite hip aching from the added effort, and my opposite knee is definitely taking more of a load. As soon as my foot is healed I’ll be getting myself checked out by the osteopath to reset me and prevent any further aches and pains. Feeling myself compensate made me realise the problems a neuronectomy would cause Otis, because he’d be loading his limbs differently and whilst doing this is tolerable whilst recuperating, problems will occur if he, or any of us for that matter, over exert ourselves whilst compensating for an injury. Which also means that it’s a good idea to have your horse checked by a chiropractor if they have been off injured for any length of time.

But if we aren’t symmetrical; either from previous injuries or because we have a dominant side, then we won’t put pressure on the horse evenly. One seatbone may be heavier than the other, or one leg aid is stronger, or one rein aid is less consistent. This means that the horse will adjust their way of going to compensate for the pressure points. So they aren’t going to be straight, which stresses their legs and joints, making them more prone to injury. Out of interest, I wonder how many equine lamenesses are from an asymmetrical rider? 

Of course, we aren’t perfect and our past shapes our present. If you’d broken your arm as a child you may have developed a protection mechanism, which still today causes the opposite arm to be more dominant. But I would say that in order to improve your riding, regardless of discipline, it is vital that you learn to use your body equally. Swap hands to do the washing up: so right hand holds the plate and left hand scrubs… although perhaps best not done with the best china initially! I would recommend Pilates as a method of becoming more away of tighter, or weaker sides, and then regular checks to make sure you are aligned, with no areas of tension on one side of the body, to enable you to sit level, apply even aids, and to create a straight horse who hopefully will have a longer athletic career as a result. 

Heels Down!

It’s the old adage of riding instructors, and if we were paid a pound every time we said those two words we’d all be millionaires.

Last week someone asked how they could get their heels down on a Facebook group. And there were hundreds of comments. Some keyboard warriors obviously got involved, and some suggestions were useful, others not so.

Really, you could write a dissertation on the subject, but I thought I’d try and sum up the topic for you.

Firstly, your ability to put your heels down depends on part on your conformation. Some people have longer, stretchier calves and tendons so their heels naturally drop. If you have short, tight calves then the first thing to do it regular stretching. We do these horrible stretches in Pilates which I find really painful, because of my right calves. You lie on your back and with the help of an exercise hand lift one leg up as far as it will go without the knee bending. And just hold it there. Eventually your muscles relax and lengthen. Perhaps my New Years resolution should be to do this stretch more often. Another way of stretching is to stand with the balls of your feet on a step, and let your heels drop off the step. This is quite an easy one to do on a daily basis. 

The next thing you should know about putting the heels down is that they shouldn’t be forced down. This locks the knee, brings the lower leg away from the horse, and puts the heel in front of the vertical ear-hip line, making rising and maintains your balance harder. 

Instead think about the heel being marginally lower than the toe, but the weight of your foot being in the heel. Imagine a loads of marbles rolling round your foot. Point your toe down and the marbles (your weight) go forwards.  Lift the toe and drop the heel so they roll back towards the back of the foot.

The reason we want the weight off the toes is that you’re less likely to go head first over the horse’s neck, or at worst, collapse forward onto the shoulders and neck, which already carry 60% of the horse’s body weight.

Which brings me onto ways of keeping the heels below the toe. Firstly, our favourite sitting trot without stirrups, and the possibly dropping your stirrup length.This deepens the seat, opens up the hip joint, lengthens the leg and gives you the vertical ear-shoulder-elbow-hip-heel line we all desire. Having the leg longer puts less strain on your calf which makes it easier to keep the lower leg in the correct place and balance. 

With children I spend a lot of time practising standing up out of their stirrups. Either standing tall, or maintaining jumping position. In order to stay up our of the saddle they must keep the weight into the heels. Otherwise they pitch onto their pony’s neck. They usually enjoy this challenge and you can soon see the difference in the security of their lower leg position. A little girl I taught last week proved this because after doing jumping position with a very strong lower leg her rising trot improved massively and she was more effective with her legs in keeping the pony trotting.

I would always say don’t stress about keeping your heels down because forcing them can creat just as many other problems; just work on a few stretching exercises and keep remembering to relax the knee to allow the weight to drop into the foot, lowering your centre of gravity and making you a more secure and balanced rider.

Giving And Retaking Reins

Last week I wrote for a judge at the riding club dressage competition. I did it with the idea of developing my eye for the standards of novice and elementary movements and help me understand what the judge is looking for.

The most revealing element of all the tests was the giving and retaking of reins. If a horse was resisting the hands or being fixed into an outline then during the giving the horse took his neck out and looked to relax. But when the reins were taken back up the horse immediately tensed and lost the rhythm and impulsion – a bit like driving with the handbrake on. I found it really highlighted poor hands – restrictive, heavy or mobile – because the horse immediately relaxed, went more forwards, with a more freer stride, and with a rounder back when the reins were given away. The difference in some horses was unbelievable. Without the rider’s hands some of them were in the ideal outline for the level of test that they were doing.

As the judge said to me, some riders have very tolerant horses, so get away with riding hand to leg to “fix” the outline. During a dressage test it is the horse being judged and if the horse has done nothing wrong the marks still tend to be good, even though with a change in the style of riding the marks could be far better. However, the giving and retaking of the reins shows that the horse isn’t working correctly, even though at first glance it looks to be a pretty picture. This means that judges can give a fairer assessment of the rider for the collective marks. It also shows the true potential of the horse in terms of length of stride and activity of the gait which then highlights the extent that the rider restricts the horse’s natural way of going, which has more importance from a training point of view.

With this whole business of giving and retaking fresh in my mind, I decided to try to utilise it more in lessons. Conveniently it coincided with my second dressage lesson with Matt, where we checked his level of self carriage by giving away the reins.

Sometimes if a horse is a bit tense they can make you tense – it’s a natural reaction. So giving and retaking the reins can be a reset button. It removes the direct line of communication and enables the horse to relax, and the riders arms to relax, so when the reins are taken back it should be a far more positive picture. So for riders who are tense in their arms, or for horses who are above the bridle, hollow, and tense in their neck, this is a useful exercise to utilise during the warm up.

If a horse is fizzy or unsettled then giving and retaking the reins is a sign of trust. Trust in the horse not to speed up, and trust in the riders own ability not to panic and to relax, so again it can be a useful aid to reducing anxiety and help settle a horse. When settling a horse who is a bit excitable then giving and retaking the reins shows when he has put his mind into his work because he doesn’t speed up or gaze around, and it just reminds the rider to relax to him which helps stop him getting fizzy again.

The ideal way of going is for the horse to be in self carriage, and giving and retaking reins is a simple way to check this during your workout, as well as handing over some responsibility to the horse to carry himself. If a horse is in self carriage their rhythm, balance, and frame should not be lost during the giving of the reins.

Finally, giving away the reins can make a rider far more aware of their other aids and can also make them aware of how much they rely on the reins, either for balance, or for control. Increasing awareness helps create independent, still hands, which will have a positive impact on the horse’s way of going.

Thinking On Your Feet

Last week I taught a pair of siblings at a cross country venue. They both rode well and it was a positive experience for both them and their horses, however I came away thinking that both riders needed to be a bit quicker on their feet; more reactive if something was going wrong, and quicker to correct their horses as they erred.

So I drew up a plan for the next chapter of lessons.

Firstly, I am going to leave them to warm up their horses independently; I will observe, ask questions, and expect feedback from them. Initially I`ll probably have to guide them closely, but I hope to soon see them giving me feedback such as “he feels a bit stiff on the left rein so I spent a bit longer riding circles to improve his suppleness” or “he`s not responsive to my leg in the transitions so I`ve been riding more frequent transitions and correcting my aids …”

Today we warmed up in this fashion, and I hope they understood the general direction my teaching is taking them in. Now for the jumping part.

Both horses are very capable, but I wanted my riders to stop being passengers who aim and fire, but to think about each stride of a jumping exercise or course, so I concocted this exercise which can be adjusted to suit various abilities.

I strode out a line of three jumps; two strides between the first and second, and three between the second and third. I made them uprights of approximately 2`3″ so that height as not an issue. To make the exercise harder, both on the rider`s mental agility and the horse`s suppleness, you could reduce the number of strides between each fence. Once they had ridden through the grid on both reins to warm up I added in the extra element.

After jumping the second element my riders had to turn right or left, jump a small cross pole on a curve before re-jumping the second element and finishing the grid. This took both horses by surprised, and initially the circle was a bit more egg-shaped than I would like, but after a couple of goes they all got the hang of it. As they jumped the second fence they needed to be riding and turning towards the cross pole, with their outside leg behind the girth, and as they jumped the cross pole, they had to be turning towards the second element. This meant that the riders had to quicken their thinking. The cross pole drew both horse and rider to the middle of the jumps, thus giving them a good eye for the circle.

Here I should mention that the younger of the two siblings nailed this exercise first time on the left rein. He rode a perfect circle in a lovely balanced canter – I almost didn`t want him to repeat the exercise!

Now that they were both getting on top of the exercise, and riding their horses to each fence I asked them to ride a figure of eight from the second fence. Initially both found it quite tricky, but as soon as the elder balanced and collected her canter on the approach her horse stopped getting flat over the fences so was much more rideable round the turns. The younger has a very supple horse, who quite happily rode counter canter on the circles, so we need to work on his ability to change legs over and after fences so that they didn`t lose the rhythm and quality of their canter which has a detrimental effect on the jumps.

I couldn`t quite decide how to take this exercise forward now, but as both horses were very consistent in their canter leads I decided not to get the riders to choose their direction as they went over the second fence, but rather I chose to focus on their accuracy and make the second element a skinny fence and raise the height of the first and last fence. The final fence was the biggest to encourage the riders to ride positively away from the exercise, and help the horses go from quite a collected canter to a biger, more powerful canter.

It took a couple of tries, but I was really pleased with how they both jumped through the exercise. The riders were thinking, the horses listening, and you could see the improvement in the horses canter and jumping technique because they had engaged their hindquarters and were utilising their hocks over the fences. Hopefully the riders feel better placed to make tight turns in a jump-off, but are also thinking more about the way the exercise is going so that next time they will be able to correct and support their horses better.

How to make this exercise harder:

  • reduce the number of strides between the line of fences
  • make each jump higher
  • make the cross poles uprights
  • bring the cross poles closer to the line of fences so that the circle is smaller
  • make the final fence into a skinny
  • make the second fence a skinny
  • get the rider to choose a left or right circle depending on the leg their horse lands on
  • instruct the rider as to which way to turn as they jump the second fence
  • ride the figure of eight instead of a single circle

Give and Retake the Reins

In most dressage tests there will be a movement of “give and retake the inside rein” or “give and retake the reins”. You could be in trot or canter. In a straight line or on a circle. In the middle of the arena or along the fenceline. The gait and positioning of the movement dictates it`s complexity.

What is the point of giving and retaking the reins? Well it proves to the judge that the horse is carrying themselves, be it in a prelim outline or an elementary outline, and that the rider is not relying too much on their reins.

At lower levels it tends to be “give and retake the inside rein” which is slightly easier, because the horse still has the support of the outside rein contact. To check the self-carriage of the horse, you give and retake both reins. The judge is looking for there to be very little, or no change to the horse`s way of going. A horse who is green and unbalanced will rush as the rider gives away the rein, or fall onto their forehand, or wobble on their circle. As you progress through the levels you will give away the inside rein in trot, and then both reins in trot, and then the inside rein in canter, and then both in canter.

How many instructors cover giving and retaking reins? I freely admit, I often overlook it, particularly if people aren`t learning dressage tests.

It was, however a useful teaching tool last week with a client of mine.

She is predominantly a happy hacker looking to improve her skills, and her mare is a rather rude cob, who is a bit heavy on the forehand. My rider finds the mare heavy and unresponsive to the rein aid, tending to push through the bridle in every transition.

In her first lesson I worked on engaging the rider`s seat and correcting the position of her hands so that her elbow is bent and the hand is carried out in front of the withers. This lesson I wanted to teach my rider what she should expect to feel from the rein contact.

After a quick warm up I explained the principles of giving and retaking the reins, and in trot on the long sides of the arena we gave away the inside rein a few times on each rein. Then we did it on a twenty metre circle. There were two purposes of this exercise for this rider; one, to highlight how much the mare relies on the rein aids for steering (the circle drastically changed shape with the giving of the inside rein) and to reset the rider`s arms as she tends to clench her fist and send tension down the reins, which gives the mare a good excuse to bear down on the reins. We moved on to giving away both reins, in which the mare ran onto her forehand the first few times. But each time my rider retook the reins she did so with a less demanding hold, and a with a more relaxed forearm and wrist.

After a few goes at this the rider had a softer rein contact and felt that the mare was less heavy in her hand, and then there was less of a loss of rhythm and balance from the horse when she gave the reins, and then retook them. We weren`t looking at perfect, but I was trying to highlight the fact that my rider needed to make sure she wasn’t entering a stand-off when she held her reins by clenching her fists. It seemed to work and the mare relaxed in her neck and jaw a bit.

I gave my rider this tool to check the way she was holding her reins, and to “reset” the rein contact. We moved on to practising using the leg and seat aids to perfect her turns and circles. She knew what to do, but needed to learn to use the leg and seat first, before panicking and tugging the inside rein. Yes, some looked messy, but others looked far more consistent. She could feel the difference in the horse because she didn’t lose her balance, or rush as much. 

My rider was left hand dominant; using the left rein to pull round on left hand turns, and on the right rein crossing her left hand over the withers. So I addressed this issue, and made her aware of the discrepancies between her hands and got her to make her left hand less dominant. This drastically improved their right rein turns.

A combination of giving and retaking the reins, focusing on the leg and seat more, and ensuring her hands were more symmetrical, my rider began to understand what she should be feeling down the reins with the correct level of contact – constant, quiet, positive, light. 

The next step for them both is learning that they are not in a tug of war. I will explain half-halts in more detail next time, but for the last fifteen minutes of this lesson I wanted to remove the idea that to slow a horse you pull constantly until they stop.

Horses are taught to move away from pressure. A hold on the reins creates pressure in the mouth, so the horse should slow down. Then the hand should relax to remove the pressure in the mouth, which acts as a reward for the horse. However, a horse who doesn’t get rewarded for slowing down by the reduction in mouth pressure will learn to set their jaw and lean against the bit and rider’s hand, not changing their speed one iota. 

This is what the mare does.

As my rider began to half halt with squeezes down the rein rather than a continuous pull, the mare began to listen and adjust her pace accordingly. 

They actually finished with the combination looking more harmonious, with less tension yet more succinct communication and the mare started to come off her forehand slightly.

We’ve a long way to go, but I think this could be the start of a much better friendship between horse and rider. Rider will be able to provide a more positive and supportive rein contact in a lighter manner, and the horse will carry herself with less reliance on the hand and respect the rein contact because it is quieter and only used when necessary. 



Softening Over The Back

I teach a new horse-rider combination who are getting to know each other. The horse is highly unfit and lethargic in his way of going, and the rider has ridden on-off for a couple of years so getting back into it with a project. A big project at that!

I knew the rider before, with her previous loan pony, but I first met the horse when she asked me to give her a lunge lesson. That is, a lesson to teach the horse to lunge. He already knew, but was rusty, so my job was to re-establish the basics with him and make sure his rider was doing the right things. She wanted to lunge him to help improve his fitness as under saddle she found he was very dead to the leg and fatigued quickly. We did put the Pessoa on as he is basically front end drive, and I wanted to demonstrate the correct usage of it so that his rider could bring it into her lunge sessions as he got fitter.

Since then the lessons have consisted of getting the horse to respond to the leg – akin to the blog post Another Analogy – and improving his basic trot and canter with hundreds of transitions and circles. He`s quite stale in the school so we`ve used poles and jumps to help incite him which has worked to a degree.

Then last week I sat on him. Immediately, it was obvious to me why he didn`t go forwards at all. His back was completely rigid. That meant that there was no way he could use his hindlegs to push forwards so relied completely on his shoulders and forehand. That also explains the pottery hindleg action and why he doesn`t have a very big stride anyway, because he`s not using his body properly! I did a bit of work on getting him to accept my contact and then stretch his neck out an inch or two, which released the muscles over his back so for a stride or two. Obviously this was hard for him, so we alternated between the two ways of going for much of the session.

In the next lesson, I sought to teach this to his rider, so that she can help get his back more relaxed and softer so that he finds it easier to move, and then we can further improve the gaits.

Initially I got her to think about the hindlegs in the warm up trot, because ultimately we want the inside hindleg to step under and take the weight of the horse, which will mean he has to lift his back and wither, and drop his nose to accommodate this. Corners are the easiest point to feel the inside hind leg action. A lazy horse will avoid taking the weight on his inside hind leg by falling out of the diagonal shoulder, so my rider had to think about her outside rein being a safety net, supporting the outside shoulder on all the turns, whilst the inside leg encouraged the inside hind leg to step under.

After a brief discussion about pulling the horse`s head in versus Charlotte Dujardin`s positive hand position and rein aids, we started to ask for a little more rein contact in the walk. Previously I`ve just wanted them to have a very light rein contact so that the handbrake is completely off, just to get the horse moving. Now the reins needed to stay positive, so the hand was held out in front of her, rather than in her lap, but held a little more firmly. She didn`t want to think of drawing the horse`s head towards her, but rather giving him a boundary and then using her leg to push him into the reins.

Combining the rein contact with the leg, the horse dropped his nose down and in. But it was all about looking pretty, there was no change to the rest of his body. When he dropped his nose down and in I asked his rider to encourage his head and neck out slightly by closing the leg and following him down with a slight extension of her arms (partially straightening the elbow without locking it). Then his back softened for a couple of strides before he came above the bridle and reverted to pulling himself along. She had to react immediately to him in order to maintain his way of going. After explaining and practising this for a few minutes we had a canter. I wanted to keep him fresh, hopefully loosen up some different muscles and make the trot easier when we came back to it.

I was pleased with the canter, the transitions were more instantaneous and they stayed in better balance round corners as well as maintaining the canter for longer.

Remember, this horse is still very unfit, so we needed a good walk rest before picking the trot up again. Using plenty of twenty metre circles to get the inside hindleg working a bit more, the rider using the rein contact to support his shoulders and ask him to soften his neck and then stretch it forwards. The work was intermittent, but hopefully you can see the three stages the horse goes through in the photos below. Now he needs more work like this to strengthen him and get him a bit fitter so that he can maintain the softness in his back which will enable him to open up his stride a bit more and eventually start swinging over his back as he moves.


Above, it is all about the forehand, you can see he’s above the bridle and the hind legs have a much shorter stride than the forelegs.

In the above two photos he has tucked his head in, behind the vertical. The hind leg stride has increased slightly, but he is still not using his hindquarters to push himself along, and his neck is tight. Unfortunately he tucked his nose in at awkward angles for my filming, so these pictures aren’t the more illustrative.

Here, he as taken his neck forwards so his nose is on the vertical, and he has come off the forehand slightly. The hind leg action has improved marginally, but you have to remember that he is now carrying more weight on them so we are making the task far harder, which means it will be a while before we see a substantial improvement.

Newton`s Cradle


This cartoon made me laugh the other day – as a science geek when I was young I loved playing with our Newton`s Cradle. It did give me an idea for an analogy to use with some clients though.

In a Newton`s cradle the energy is generated by lifting one ball, and letting it swing back down, sending waves of energy through the row of suspended balls until the energy projects the ball at the opposite end out.

Now compare this to a horse. We generate the energy in the hindquarters, and we want it to flow through the body so that it comes out in a forwards motion. Now, if you have a slack rein contact, or don`t half halt or use the seat, you are creating a gap between Newton`s balls. (I can`t actually think of another way to say that…) which means the energy you generate in the hindquarters is lost, or at least diluted.

As you know, riding is a balancing act, of keeping the horse between your leg and hand, or between your right and left. So as a rider if you can imagine the horse as a Newton`s cradle, and ride with a smooth flow of energy from the hindquarters forwards then the horse will move more easily, fluidly, and straight.

Likewise, if you can imagine the energy flowing from your leg, their hindquarters, to your seat and then to the hands, in a knock-on effect, then transitions will become more balanced. I also find it useful to think of this flow of energy when performing lateral work. When, in leg yield, you ask the horse to move over from the inside leg you should allow the outside shoulder over as the inside hind leg steps under, in a smooth flow. If you let the shoulder over before the hind leg then momentum is lost and the horse loses balance and falls onto the forehand. If you block the shoulder when the inside hind leg steps under then you don`t move sideways and the horse becomes confused.


Next time you ride, have a think about your aids and the way you apply them to see if you are encouraging the flow of energy and movement akin to Newton`s cradle, or if you are blocking, or creating voids for, the energy. Let me know if it helps!

A Pair of Hands

Recently I`ve had a theme flowing through my lessons, where I`m trying to encourage my riders not to pull back on the inside rein. I`ve often told riders to feel like they`re indicating with the inside rein, and it`s a forwards movement akin to opening a door away from you.

But anyway, I have a more succinct and elaborate analogy and explanation now.

The reins support the shoulders. That doesn`t mean that you bring your hands so close that you trap the horse`s shoulders in a narrow triangle. It means that the reins act as guides for the horse`s neck and shoulders.

Often when people are riding a centre line I tell them to imagine their reins are creating a tunnel for the horse and then the leg pushes the horse down the tunnel. Reins should be of an even length and even on each side of the wither.

Now we`ll think about applying the same theory when turning. If you open your inside rein you create some empty space by the inside shoulder. The horse will want to fill this space. Then by closing the outside rein against the neck you are encouraging the horse to move his shoulders to the inside, thus enabling him to turn.

This has many benefits in that it teaches the rider to ride the outside of the horse; the horse learns not to fall out through his shoulder and so steps under more with his inside leg; and the horse has a more uniform bend through their body so stays in better balance.

For some, this makes perfect sense, but I`ve found it really useful with riders whose horse tends to look out and fall in, especially on circles. Today, for example, the gelding I was teaching with falls in on the right rein. So I asked his rider to check that she had created a tunnel down the long side for him and that he was straight there. He was, and when he became straight his stride opened up because energy flows more efficiently in a straight line, rather than round corners (think of a flowing stream). However, my rider lost this straightness around the bend. I suggested that she thought about the inside rein supporting his inside shoulder, to stop it falling in, by closing towards his midline. When the inside leg was applied, the horse changed his bend and balance to fill the outside rein, which hadn`t changed, and he no longer fell in around the corner. Obviously when the horse improves his suppleness and bend to the right, the inside rein can take a step back and not be quite so supportive.

Another element of this that you can think of, is that the rider is creating a box for the horse`s forehand with their reins as the long sides and bit and gap between the hands as the short sides. The box needs to stay rectangular – i.e. no widening of the hands – but when you want to turn left or right, imagine moving the box left or right. It should help keep a consistent contact and even rein pressure, as well as the outside rein looking after the outside shoulder and stopping the horse falling through it.

Some people fall into the habit of closing both reins together, but you want to think of it as more of an airlock. In order to close one rein (or door) you need to open the other rein, otherwise the horse will feel trapped and unable to go forwards. Or you can imagine you have a rod between your wrists. One hand cannot move without the other moving too, and then you will maintain the same amount of space for the horse`s forehand.

When I`m doing lateral work I will open the outside rein to invite the horse to move into it, but if they move over too much then simply moving the reins back over can straighten them subtly, and without causing them to wiggle and become more crooked. You can also control the amount of sideways by the amount of space you give the shoulder.

This way of thinking verges on neck reining, except that when necessary you can use each rein independently! Make sure you feel that your reins are providing support and guidance to the forehand and not pulling the head about. The mere pressure of the cheeks of the bit will cause your horse to adjust his position and alleviate the pressure. Then, when he is straight, the bit and the contact should be neutral.

Another Analogy

I heard a good analogy recently, which I thought I`d share with you. It`s all about communicating clearly and precisely with your horse.

Imagine you are sitting in a library. You want to speak to your friend. So you whisper to them. And they hear perfectly clearly.

Now, imagine you`re sat in a crowded café. There`s no point whispering to your friend. If anything you need to speak loudly.

These situations directly relate to the way you communicate with your horse. When in the crowded café situation you are asking with heavy, repetitive aids. I call it white noise to some clients. In an ideal situation everything is quiet and motionless, and then you can give a refined, discreet aid and your horse will respond instantly.

So which of the two situations do you fit into?

I`ve done a lot of work about this recently. With Otis, I`ve worked on creating a totally consistent and quiet rein contact to enable us to perform harder lateral work, and to improve our collection work.

With clients I regularly tell them that they want to think about speaking clearly to their horse, and not nagging them. Children find it amusing when I liken it to their Mums nagging them to clean their rooms. Sometimes the children listen more when you speak firmly, clearly, and only once.

Sometimes, when you`re schooling a horse you have to “shout” at them a couple of times to get the message across, and then the horse will be very switched on to you and listen to a whisper of an aid. You know that feeling when your Mum has ranted and raved at you for not washing the dishes … and how you tread on eggshells afterwards. As a rider, you have to shout to get your horse`s attention, and then you can continue your conversation in a whisper.

Last week I rode a client`s pony and spent approximately half an hour in walk. Or trying to. He has the slowest walk imaginable and his young rider has gotten used to tapping away at his sides. So I gave a pony club kick and the pony shot off into trot. So I brought him back to walk and when he slowed to a snails pace he had another pony club kick. This went on until I could squeeze my calves around him and he marched forwards. His trot and canter work were beautiful after that.

Today, I rode him again, and his owner`s mother couldn`t believe the speed of our walk as we left the yard – he had remembered the correct response to my leg aids. Right from the off today he worked nicely, taking the contact forwards and using his hindquarters.

Interestingly, I had a conversation with a friend about improving the walk. She schools a 3* eventer and his Olympian rider has the same problem as a thirteen year old girl in improving the walk of their mounts – crazy isn`t it, to compare the two ends of the scale. We both agreed that a couple of loud leg aids were effective to get the attention of the horse and to get them respecting the leg and responding correctly and then you can use much quieter, more subtle aids.

Now this doesn`t mean we all want to go around pony club kicking, like the infamous Thelwell cartoons, but it does mean that riders shouldn`t be afraid of being a little bit loud in order to be effective in their riding, so long as the horse is rewarded for responding, and the rider reverts to a discrete riding style.

Again, I had a good example of this last night. My client`s horse jumped badly through the grid – he tried to fit in two strides when there was really only enough room for one, which resulted in a great feat of athletics to wriggle over the last fence. This meant that his confidence was knocked so he ran out. I took the first two elements down to rebuild his confidence. However, once he had run out once, the gelding decided to take advantage of his diminutive rider and run out every time. So I reminded my rider to be effective, not pretty. She could go back to looking pretty when her horse respected her again and was behaving. It took a few tries, but once the left leg and right rein were engaged the horse flew over the fence happily and we finished the lesson with the full grid up and my rider could revert to her quiet style of riding.

To conclude, we all want to aim to communicate with our horses as if we`re sat in a library, but the reality is that sometimes we need to shout to be heard, but once we`ve shouted we should try to eliminate the white noise so that the library situation is created.