Language skills: now I can go, how do I stop? –part 2: Signalling

“Anyone can speak Troll. All you have to do is point and grunt.” By J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter

What signal should I use?
Many riding schools teach you to stop a horse by pulling on the reins. And many riding school horses/ponies will stop when you do so. But is this the best we can do? In the ‘language’ stakes, this is again equivalent to shouting at the horse. Yes it might work because the horse has learnt that the pressure goes away when it stops, but it is quite a crude way to have a conversation with your horse.

If we do one long pull then it is equivalent to yelling SSSTTTTTTOOOOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPP at the horse, whereas if we do a number of short jerks then it is equivalent to yelling STOP STOP STOP STOP. Whereas we might need to do this in an emergency, we don’t want our daily rides with the horse to be full of yanks and pulls (and nor does the horse). It is also a bad habit for the rider, because if the horse does not stop then they just pull harder and for longer; the horse may pull back and then a tug-of-war begins. The rider complains that the horse is ‘hard-mouthed’, while the horse (by pulling) complains that the rider is ‘hard-handed’.

If we pull hard on the reins of a young horse it will try to avoid the pressure. It will either throw its head up, pull downwards, toss its head, run away, duck its nose in towards its chest, or a combination of these things. If we’re lucky it will slow down. An older horse might also do any of these things, or it might just ignore the pull completely and just carry on what it is doing (particularly if its mouth has been damaged by bad riding in the past).

Unlike the legs, which basically can only move inward or backward (although they can be used in different places), the hands can act backwards or forwards and in a variety of different positions, including upwards and downwards. They can affect not only the head but also the direction of the hindquarters, and many classical texts will describe at least five different rein effects. When you think that each hand can be doing something different at the same time, then that gives a lot of different effects on the horse! If we tried to learn and practice all of these at once, then we would soon become confused (and so would our horses) so it is best to keep it simple and make sure that your hands are doing exactly what you want when you want them too (see the earlier article on hand position).

But you still haven’t told me how to slow down or stop!
Another problem is that there are more than one set of signals you can use, so the system described here is only one version. However, it can be found in many textbooks and has been used successfully by the author for training and retraining horses. You can still use the ‘both reins to stop’ method if you want to; this system is just a bit more sophisticated (but read on, as it is not as complex as it first looks!).

Firstly, consider the ‘inside rein’ as the softening rein, and the ‘outside rein’ as the brake rein or gearbox (this applies also to straight lines where one side is nominated as the outside). This is why your instructor will tell you that you need to keep the contact with the outside rein – i.e. keep your hand on the controls in case you need them!

Next, consider what signal you will use to ‘ask’ your horse something. This involves increasing the pressure on the horse’s mouth (in the scenario of holding someone’s hand, you would give them a light squeeze without hurting their fingers). To do this:

  • The reins should be held lightly across the fingers, rather than in the palm of your hand in a tight fist. Have a look at Google images of someone like Charlotte Dujardin riding and you will see that the fingers are not curled tightly round, but extend a little in front of the main part of the hand.
  • This means that if you keep your hand still and just close your fingers back towards the rest of your hand then the reins will move towards you. Do NOT round your wrists as you do this.
  • The movement is small – but it is approximately the same amount as you would use if you were giving someone’s hand a light squeeze. Therefore, it can easily be felt but does not hurt!
  • A common term to describe this is ‘squeezing a sponge’, but it is important to only close the fingers against the reins, not to squeeze by turning the wrists inward.
  • Practice this off the horse, before trying it on the horse.
  • AS SOON AS THE HORSE RESPONDS, YOU MUST RELEASE YOUR FINGERS AGAIN. The fingers return to the position they started at. So, your hand ‘asks’, the horse reacts, and the horse then receives a reward because the pressure on its mouth goes away. Remember, this is a request – you are not trying to force the horse to do something. You wouldn’t keep squeezing someone’s hand after they started to respond to what you wanted.
  • You can however ask the horse more than once (as with people, they are not always listening or attentive), but if you end up ‘nagging’ at the horse then something has gone wrong.

Many of you will now be saying – but my horse isn’t that sensitive, it won’t respond to that small a signal. But, although this section describes the rein aids to stop or slow down, we don’t just use rein aids alone! We also use our seat and our bodyweight to slow down (see next article) and these help us to signal to the horse what is wanted. However, it is very hard for us to learn how to co-ordinate lots of new things at once, so at this stage just practice the rein aid. The important thing to note is that YOU ARE NOT CONSCIOUSLY thinking of pulling your hand and arm back towards your body. This means that the signal is almost invisible to people watching you ride (unless they look for it) but it can clearly be felt by the horse.

The outside hand will use this signal to make a request of the horse, but whether or not it slows down also depends on the inside rein (and, of course, whether the horse has been trained to respond to the signals!) Remember that you and the horse must speak the same language. So, what can the inside rein do? The inside hand can either:

  • Keep following the horse’s natural movement, so that only one rein is acting. We can call this a ‘giving’ or ‘following’ rein (note that it does not mean giving away the contact, but just maintaining the same smooth contact).
  • Stop following the movement so that some pressure is exerted on the mouth (because the horse’s head will still move) but no specific signal is given. The fingers do not squeeze backwards, but the whole arm stops its natural swing (WITHOUT pulling backwards) as the horse’s head moves. We can call this ‘blocking’.
  • Ask the horse something by ‘squeezing the sponge’, as with the outside rein.

---If the outside rein ‘asks’ and the inside rein ‘gives’ then the horse will either check its stride momentarily or turn toward the outside rein (the actual result can depend on how well the horse is schooled and what the legs and seat are doing).

---If the outside rein ‘asks’ and the inside rein ‘blocks’ then the horse will slow down. Again, this depends on what the legs and seat are doing, but essentially this is the signal given by the rider to the horse that says ‘steady on, I don’t want to go that fast’. If repeated, then the horse should slow down further.

---If the both the outside and inside rein ‘ask’ then the horse should change down a pace, or halt. Initially, the horse should only change by one pace (e.g. trot to walk), but with further training and different variations in other signals the horse can readily learn when the rider is asking for, say, a canter-to-walk transition, or a halt-to-trot. This is where the fun really begins, when you can say to your horse ‘let’s do a really smooth canter to walk, and make it look like magic!’

Some horses will need a lighter or stronger aid than others, but the signal should still only come from the fingers and not by the movement backwards of the hand and arm.

Note that some people have a lot of difficulty doing different things with each hand, but this is an important skill to develop if you want to have a wider conversation with your horse. People who have learnt musical instruments (e.g. the piano) or similar hobbies/tasks where the hands do different things will find this easier, but it is possible to improve your skills with practice and this can easily be done off the horse. For example, a classic exercise taught at Pony Club is to pat your head with one hand and rub your tummy with another, then change hands (though you may want to try something a bit more subtle if you are, say, practicing on the train while going to work!). You will probably find it easier to do this in one direction than the other, so it easy to understand how a one-sided horse (as all horses are better in one direction than the other) and a one-sided rider can end up with a lot of confusion over signals and their meaning!

Note also that it is rare for either horse or rider to be completely balanced, and that even top riders have to work on this constantly.

But I still don’t know what to do if my horse pulls?
The method of stopping a horse pulling depends on why it is pulling in the first place, and may involve re-training the horse rather than just giving the correct aids. More than one method can be used to achieve this, with variations depending on how long the horse has been pulling and why (e.g. if it has been schooled properly in the past, not schooled at all, or has been pulling for most of its ridden life), and it is best to get help from an instructor. However, because it is a big problem for many people, one methods is described below that the author has used regularly for re-training racehorses and others. It involves training the horse to respond to a light signal by teaching it what the ‘ask’ signal on the outside rein means i.e. what the rider wants when they give this aid.

The method does depend on the rider getting having correct contact and giving the right signals and rewards at the right time, and also depends on the horse having no major underlying issues. No liability is accepted for trying it without correct help, and if it doesn’t begin to work within a 10-20 minutes, or if the horse gets worse, then it is advisable to seek professional help immediately. Remember too that some horses lean or pull because they are in pain, so all causes of pain must be ruled out before trying any method.

  • Be prepared to let go of the reins to some extent. To stop a horse pulling, the rider MUST stop pulling back. Release the reins until you have a light contact (suitable for guiding the horse); do not give the contact away completely. If you are worried about doing this, then consider having someone holding the horse on a lead rope or lunge line (for extra control).
    NB: if the horse is very spirited or fresh then begin at walk (see below) not at halt, as it is a lot harder for an excited horse to stand still than to walk. The instructions here though start with halt, as most riders feel more comfortable with this to start with.
  • Take a light contact on both reins
  • If the horse moves forward then turn it in a small circle (almost on the spot), saying ‘whoa/halt/stand’ (whichever you want to use). The horse will eventually stop – praise the horse lots! Repeat as necessary. NB: you will usually find it much easier to turn the horse in one direction than the other. Use the easy direction to start with, as training the horse to go both ways is a different lesson.
  • Do NOT let go of the rein contact completely (keep a light contact on the outside rein as you turn the horse.
  • Do NOT let the horse move off before you give it a leg aid. The signal for going forward is a leg movement, not a release of the reins.
  • When ready and you have a light even contact at halt, ask the horse to walk forward by giving the correct leg aid. Allow the horse to move forward by following the movement with the hands but DO NOT lose the light rein contact you have.
    • If the horse rushes forward then turn in a small circle (MUST be small enough to make the horse slow down, but not so tight that it risks falling over or damaging its legs). As above, make sure you keep a contact on both reins as you turn.
    • Take a breath, then ask the horse to slow down by signalling with the outside rein (squeeze the sponge) and say ‘steady’ (or similar). Use the circle to slow the horse down as you do this.
    • A common mistake is making the circle too big (e.g. 15-20 metres diameter). A small circle will cause the horse to slow down, and it will learn to associate the signals given with slowing down.
    • Reward the horse as soon as it slows down (even if it stops by mistake). This is VERY IMPORTANT and often forgotten. The horse must be given the signal (please slow down), then slow down – using the circle as needed, then instantly receive its reward (yes, that is what I want, well done!).
    • Once it has reached the chosen speed then KEEP THE HANDS STEADY (moving only enough to follow the horse’s natural movement) and keep the light contact/ connection until another aid is required.
  • Practice doing slower and faster walks until the horse responds to the signals without needing to be circled (will usually take more than one day!). Repeat the process at the trot until the horse is responsive to a light signal (usually takes weeks unless the horse has been schooled well in the past), then repeat the process for canter.
    • Give clear signals indicating when you want the horse to slow down or stop. (And clear signals when you want the horse to speed up or change pace to a faster one). Signals can vary depending on the training system used, but they must be consistent and easily understood by the horse.
    • Put the horse in a situation where it MUST slow down, without the rider pulling hard at the mouth, so that the horse can learn to link the signals with slowing down. The easiest way of doing this is a small circle, but remember to turn the horse onto the circle – don’t yank it round or cause it to lose its balance. Opening the inside hand out away from the horse is usually effective for stiffer horses, but don’t let go of the outside rein contact.
    • REWARD the horse for doing as it was told! There is not space to go into depth here on the best rewards, but the horse must recognise it as a reward (e.g. ‘good boy/girl’ is meaningless unless the horse has learnt that this sometimes means food or a scratch will come). While the horse is learning, it is not enough to just stop giving the signal when it behaves; there MUST be another form of reward every time the horse does as it is asked, or tries to do as it is asked (remember it isn’t going to be perfect straight away!)
  • DO NOT yank or jerk at the reins at any time; this is not a good way to have a conversation with your horse.

But my horse doesn’t hold its head in the right position if I use a ‘light’ rein contact!
It is a common misconception that the rider’s hand can put the horse’s head into the best position for balance and control. Yes, it is possible to hold the head in a position that ‘looks’ okay (and is commonly seen in dressage tests at the lower levels), but this isn’t the same. Once the horse has learnt what a number of signals (or words) mean, the rider can use the legs and seat in conjunction with the rein signals to ask the horse to hold its head at a different height or in a different position, but this must come from a combination of aids rather than pulling on the reins.

To use our example of a foreign language, it is easy to arrange someone’s body in a certain position, and you could readily teach them that one or two words meant they should assume that position, but could you train a gymnast or ballet dancer using only these one or two words? How would you ask them to make a movement smoother, shift their balance forward or backward, straighten their shoulder, hold themselves with more pride, or be more flexible?

Yes, it is hard work learning a new language, but think what you could achieve once you have!

Back to Top of Page
Or, click the link below to return to the Articles page.