Riding on a Loose Rein, Continued

This post is in response to a comment from White Horse Pilgrim. Thanks WHP, for stopping by and for your great comment. I am so glad you brought up this subject, as it is something I didn’t address in my previous post, but probably should have!

White Horse Pilgrim said...

This is a most interesting discussion. I'm curious to hear your opinion about riding outside the arena.

I was taught by some stereotypical (and sometimes rather fierce) English instructors to ride on a firm contact and to drive the horse forward into it, and was told to trail ride in that style too! However it was a fatiguing way to ride, and didn't seem to help the horse, though many English horses seem to need that contact to push against.

I began to ride out on a loose rein using a curb bit after spending time with riders from the American West, and my horses (which were not English riding horses) performed well on the trail. I like them to be able to balance themselves when out riding for hours, especially on rough terrain, without a rider having to tell them what to do. They do seem to go forward with a fairly low head carriage.

However there are moments when they need to be collected up and given a bit of impulsion, such as when they are becoming lazy or not paying attention, and to obtain a precise canter transition. Work at close quarters, such as opening gates, requires contact too.

When I owned a trail riding centre, a proportion of riders wanted to go 5 or 6 hours with a firm contact on their horse, to the point where horses would resist and protest. It was a continual struggle to get such people to allow their horses the freedom to balance themselves. Some people (taught in the English way) felt lost without that contact to balance on. I started out that way. Obviously that is quite different to the light contact that you refer to.

So I am curious how much cross-over of riding style regarding contact and bitting that you see between arena riding and trail riding.

Finally, the information that you present regarding which bits are milder and which are more severe is very helpful. There is too much incorrect "folklore" about bits and their effects and relative severity.

The light contact I referred to in my previous post is so light (really it is just taking the slack out of the reins) that it could, in theory, be employed all the time, even on a trail or hacking out, without any undue fatigue or irritation to horse or rider (and I would recommend keeping a feel like this on a young, spooky or fresh horse going out of the arena anyway….) But I agree that it probably isn’t necessary – or even desirable – for a horse to be ridden this way at all times. I was referring primarily to dressage and jumping work, which is very different from trail riding. I always cringe when I see riders who can’t or won't let go of their horses’ mouths for a moment, and are constantly kicking and tugging to frame them up. It does seem an insecurity issue…

There is definitely something to be said for the value of those moments off the contact where the horse is given some freedom and has to learn to take care of itself, as when taking walk-breaks between exercises or riding out on a trail for hours. And so long as the work is not fast or over hilly terrain where more hind engagement might be helpful, I see no harm in doing this, provided the horse has had some prior work ‘on the bit’ to develop the necessary musculature to balance itself with a rider, or had some other opportunity to develop itself. After all, trail riding is supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable for both horse and rider!

What is more, I firmly believe that all dressage and hunter/jumper horses should have the opportunity to ride on trails or hack out regularly like this, as part of their training program. It does a horse no good to go around in circles in an arena, always in the same structured environment, where it never has to learn to look out for itself, and worse, never gets the opportunity to relax, get a break from intensive work and just be a horse. Horses and riders who never leave the arena are really missing out!

As for the curb, I think it is an excellent loose-rein riding bit for the reasons I stated in the previous post: the horse can feel the rider about to give an aid long before the pressure is applied (providing the rider gives the aids slowly and fairly) and can respond before it even feels the curb – and if the horse neck reins, all the better! But I have always ridden English, so I personally never felt completely comfortable riding with just a curb, and prefer a full bridle/pelham for the lateral aspect of the bradoon rein.

I have never agreed with the concept of driving the horse up into the bit, though is seems a lot of English riders, and many of the top-level dressage riders, do this. To me this means clashing the aids, and ultimately confusing the horse. It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the cap still on: You’re not going to get anything out of it, but if you push hard enough, it might just explode! I generally find that this kind of riding makes the horses heavy, strong or resistant – and sometimes violently so. I lean more toward the French School in this regard. I’ve found the best way (for me) is to keep a feather-light contact at all times (while working) and, if I need to ride the horse forward or create impulsion, I keep the rein soft and allow my hand to follow the horse’s mouth forward, and if I need to contain the forward motion, I keep my leg still while using my hand. And then I alternate between the two until I have the right amount of impulsion. I find, this way, the horses become less dependent on the hand for their balance and to contain their impulsion, and learn to carry themselves. And most importantly, they don’t get confused or frustrated.

As for the prejudices against certain types of bits, it’s reached insane proportions here in the US, where show hunters are penalized for going in anything but a snaffle (and some judges even penalize a loose ring snaffle over a dee, which I will never understand….) Horses will not place if they are ridden on the bit, and preference is given to the horse ridden on a loose, floppy rein. If only people understood the art of bitting and riding on a contact, they might not have the hang-ups they do about certain bits and use of the hand in general, and the horses might be happier for it…

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