Language skills: Now I can go, how do I stop? –part 1: Contact

Hobbies are apt to run away with us, you know; it doesn't do to be run away with. We must keep the reins. By George Eliot

Why do people have reins in the first place? For the very reason that George Eliot says – so that we don’t get run away with. Very few riders will ride without reins or a rope of some sort (although rare exceptions occur) because the horse is a ‘fight or flight’ animal, with emphasis on the flight. It has survived the last 55 million years by running away from things that it thinks are dangerous (whether they are or not) and isn’t going to stop now. The reins may or may not be attached to a bit or to a noseband-type device, but in all cases they will be attached to the horses head.

However, reins will not stop a horse by force, as the horse is just too big and strong (although some degree of turning is possible). So, we need to train the horse to respond to a signal. Some horses will stop if the pain is great enough, but most people don’t want to cause their horse pain, and some horses will pull harder, rear, or bolt if the pain is too great. As with the legs aids, there are different types of signals we can use to communicate with the horse, and different degrees of pressure we can use (from a shout to a whisper) but, because the horse’s mouth is very soft, incorrect use of the reins is a form of abuse.

How sensitive is a horse’s mouth? – Try putting a bit across the top of your nose and giving it a pull; it doesn’t take much to cause pain does it? The horse’s mouth is very similar to the bony part of our nose, because there is very little tissue to cushion a pull. Note that for those who use bitless bridles, the same comments apply – when the reins are pulled the pressure goes onto the horse’s nose where it is sensitive (and sometimes other areas of the head) and can just as easily cause pain in the wrong hands as using a bit.

The fatter the bit the ‘kinder’ it is meant to be, as this spreads the pressure. However, it depends entirely on who is holding the other end of the reins and how forceful they are. Ideally, we want a horse that responds to a ‘light’ aid (= quietly asking the horse) and the horse wants a rider that gives a ‘light’ aid (=has good hands), rather than a strong one.

What is contact?
Contact is simply another way of having a connection with the horse, so if you keep a contact between the hand and the horse’s mouth then there will always be a connection there. The reins are used to maintain this contact.

Of course, you don’t have to ride with a contact at all; plenty of people ride on a loose rein (and this is also the basis of a lot of Western riding), and only take up a ‘contact’ if they need to. There is nothing wrong with this, however there are some disadvantages for horses in training and problem horses.

  • If you don’t have a constant contact with the mouth, then you need to take up the contact before you can give the horse a signal (this is presuming that the bridle is a traditional English type, and not a Western curb, bosal, or similar). This causes two further problems:
    • There is a time delay before the signal is received, so the rider thinks of giving an aid; then the rider’s body acts to move the hands; then the hands take up the rein contact; then the horse feels the increased rein contact; then the horse decides whether to react or not; then the message goes from the horse’s brain to its legs and/or head. I liken this to having a conversation by telephone with someone – if you lose the connection you will have to take the time to ring them back, or you can carry on the conversation but you will be talking to yourself.
    • The re-taking of a contact may not be smooth, particularly if the horse has suddenly reacted to something (e.g. shied, jumped forward, suddenly turned or increased speed) or if the rider is inexperienced.
  • If there is a delay in giving a signal, then the horse might have already chosen to do something the rider does not want, and/or the horse may become confused.
  • If the signal is not given in a smooth manner then the horse may misinterpret it (e.g. slow down when the rider means turn or soften) or the horse might start to ignore the aids (as you would if someone kept shouting at you).
  • Some horses also gain confidence by having a connection with the rider (which may relate to leadership and the horse trusting the rider to decide what is safe). These types of horses often shy more and are more tense/upset than when the rider has a contact of some sort.

How much pressure should I have?
There are some research studies that show that horses prefer a certain pressure (200g is commonly cited); however there is no one pressure that is preferred by all horses in all circumstances, and it is not easy to tell exactly how much pressure you are applying (unless using specialised equipment).

A good rule of thumb is to take up the contact as if you were holding someone’s hand in order to guide them i.e. you have a connection but it is not pulling them and it is not so light that they feel insecure.

  • Try this with a friend and a rein. Hold one end of the rein each, then one person closes their eyes while the other guides them in different directions. See if you can keep the contact smooth without pulling.

This is how guide dogs operate – the human and dog maintain a light connection between each other, so that they can communicate subtle signals in a smooth manner.

  • Now, close your eyes and have the other person pretend to be a horse tossing its head. Can you follow the contact without jerking on the reins?
  • Is your friend feeling brave? Put a bit (with two reins attached) over the bridge of their nose and see if you can keep the connection smooth (and without hurting them) while you negotiate a route around the yard or house.

What if my horse doesn’t like a contact?
Many horses will react to too strong a contact, but some don’t like even a light contact and show this by tossing their head, snatching at the reins, or even rearing. Another evasion that these horses use is to tuck their nose right into their chest and bounce or leap into the air.

Whereas it is easy to just avoid the whole problem and ride with a loose rein, do you really want to feel as if you have no control even when you want to? This would be equivalent to somebody snatching their hand away from you every time you tried to guide them somewhere. Imagine if you did this with a child and they snatched their hand away and ran in front of traffic. The same thing can occur with a horse.

Some horses over-react to a light pressure either because they have had a rider with too strong hands in the past or because they need training to accept a light contact. They need re-training to accept a light contact, but it is important that the rider can keep a light contact from their end of the reins so that the horse is not frightened or hurt. The basic principles involve getting the horse used to a light contact on the ground (e.g. standing in the stable, turning without a rider using long-reins etc., but because horses with very sensitive mouths can easily turn into rearers, this should only be done with expert help from someone experienced in re-schooling this type of horse.

Most sensitive-mouthed horses are not however this extreme and will readily accept a light contact if the riders hands are steady and follow the horses natural movement in a smooth manner. The rider needs to take up the reins until they feel a light pressure on both sides of the mouth (the horse will usually want to take up the contact on one side more than the other) and just keep the contact smooth and gentle until the horse accepts it. How long this takes will depend on how good the rider is and how quickly the horse responds, but it will take weeks of persistent effort.

What if my horse takes too strong a contact?
Some horses pull and lean on the bit, even to the extent of hurting their rider’s hands or arms. This is referred to as a ‘hard-mouthed’ horse, but it does not mean that the horse can no longer feel the bit. Indeed, the horse may be in just as much or even more pain than the rider, but the difference is that the horse does not know how to change the situation.

Most people will have seen a dog walking along the road ‘towing’ its owner by the lead as if it was pulling a sledge. It may even be semi-choking with the effort because the collar goes around its neck. From the human’s point of view, the dog is stupid because it pulls when it doesn’t need to. But have you thought about it from the dog’s point of view? We know that many dogs can walk without pulling their owners along, and guide-dogs are the ultimate example of this in that they guide their human and don’t just walk along with them. Of course, we don’t know what the pulling dog actually thinks, but it reacts as if it can only go for a walk if it tows the human with it – that that is its job, the same as a husky towing a sledge. The dog cannot work out how to change this, but the human can; the basics are to ask the dog not to pull and reward it when it doesn’t pull. The pulling-leaning horse can be changed using the same principles.

You have probably heard the saying ‘it takes two to pull’, and this is the same with the horse and rider. “But,” the rider says, “If I don’t hang on to the mouth then the horse will run away”! Surprisingly enough, even racehorses don’t always run away just because they have a light contact instead of a strong one. However, the horse may want to go faster than you choose (e.g. faster walk or faster trot) and this is where retraining comes in. The horse needs to learn to respond to the signals that the rider gives, and the rider needs to resist the instinct to pull back. Unless the horse is a bolter (suddenly takes off and ends up in dangerous situations e.g. running into traffic or through a fence) then most riders should be able to train their horses not to pull under normal riding conditions.

See part 2 on how to achieve this without the horse running away, but essentially the ultimate aim is for the rider to take a light contact with the horse’s mouth and maintain it smoothly at all times.

Continued in part 2.

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