Try This Exercise to Improve Your Rein Contact

rein pressure 1

Take enough pressure to feel the “horse” (on right).


Regardless of whether you are just beginning to ride, or if you’ve ridden for years, there is a way to develop your horse’s trust and confidence, especially as it relates to his mouth and head.

As we progress in our skill and coordination, we eventually learn that we can ride from our seat and core first, before we use the hands. But the hands are the first thing we tend to want to go to, especially when we find ourselves in a sticky situation.

So this article is about how you can “take contact” in a predictable, consistent manner. Although we are talking about the reins in this article, bear in mind that nothing in riding is done in isolation, including taking up rein pressure. Whenever you use the reins, you should first be riding forward from the seat and legs. However, we will focus on just the reins at this time.

If you can learn to give and take the bit in a calm, sure way, the horse will always benefit. It doesn’t matter if you ride in a snaffle bit, a curb bit or riding bitless – the technique works the same way on all reins and on all rein lengths. If you are not already doing this when you develop your contact, give it a try and see what happens.

Try This Without the Horse

Play with the feel of contact and rein pressure with the help of a friend. One of you is the horse while the other is the rider (you can take turns).

1. Take up the pressure to a point that it feels good for the “horse”. Not too much but also avoid leaving the reins too loose. Have the “horse” pull on you left and right, and practice moving your hands with the pull in a way that doesn’t increase the pressure regardless of what your horse does. In reality, your horse won’t be pulling in this manner, but it is a good way to develop steady contact regardless of what is happening.

2. Then give the reins incrementally in a way that the “horse” doesn’t feel like she was dropped suddenly with nothing in the mouth. You create space with the reins but you don’t just give it all away at once.

Rein pressure 3

The slight give – almost not noticeable to the onlooker, but the horse will certainly feel the difference.


3. Now just for fun, try dropping the reins. Take up the pressure and suddenly let go. This will let the “horse” feel what it’s like to suddenly have no pressure on the “mouth”. Also try jerking – sudden pulls and drops in the rein. This is exactly why you don’t want to drop the reins suddenly, or jerk the rein contact on and off.

rein pressure 2

The sudden drop in the reins.

The give should be so slight that it’s almost not possible for an onlooker to see the difference in rein length. What she will see if you are riding a horse, however, is the response of the horse – he will round, soften in his head, neck and eyes and generally appear less tense or forced into position.

Now Try It on the Horse

Take a steady and firm hold of the reins. How much you want to shorten the reins depends on your bit and riding style. Let’s assume you are riding in a snaffle bit. Shorten the reins enough that you have some pressure on the horse’s mouth, as required by your horse and the situation. In most cases, a light but steady pressure is ideal.

Keep your hands in front of the saddle and shorten the reins enough so that you can feel the horse’s mouth. Maintain an even pressure regardless of what the horse does, or what your body does to balance. Avoid increasing pressure unless necessary.

Try giving the reins. There are many occasions when you want to “release” the reins to the horse.

Maybe your horse softened his poll or jaw or lightened the pressure on your hands. You want to let him know he’s right by giving a little in the reins.

Maybe you want to give him a little “space” to move forward to the bit or lengthen his neck. By giving him this slight release and forward aids from your seat and legs, he can step deeper underneath his body and increase in impulsion.

In any case, give the reins smoothly and steadily forward. It should feel like you are almost pushing the reins forward rather than dropping them. Avoid making an abrupt change of pressure. You can always give the reins out more and more (as in the case of a stretchy walk, trot or canter) as the horse reaches forward toward the space you have created.

With a little experimentation, you can find out the amount of pressure your horse likes the most. Some horses want very little rein pressure while others feel secure with more pressure. While you want to always work toward the least amount of pressure necessary, don’t feel that you can’t take pressure.

As long as you do it smoothly and calmly, your horse will learn that he can trust the hands at the end of the reins!

What are your thoughts on rein pressure? Comment below.

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New! Horse Listening – Book 2: Forward and Round to Training Success

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Read more here:

5 Steps to Effective Short Reins: Just as with any other movement and technique that is taught to horses, short reins can be very beneficial to the horse when applied correctly.

Find the Space Between the Give and Take in Horse Riding: As with so many other things in life, we need to find the happy medium.

Why A Release Is Not A Let Go in Horseback Riding: Many people interpret the term ‘Release’ literally – but that’s not what really means.

Here’s How (and Why) You Should Ride With Bent Elbows: How to avoid an on-again, off-again contact with the horse’s mouth.

In Praise of the (Horse Riding) Hand: How to develop hands that sing poetry in your horse’s mind!

Get in Rhythm… Stay in Rhythm

At Horse Listening, we are emphatic life-long learners of all things horsey. You will be reminded time and again about how there is so much to be learned from horses and other horse people, if only we listened.

ppThis guest post is by Patricia Pitt, better known as The Dressage Tipster on Facebook.  She is the author of “The Crystal System – Dressage, clear and transparent – like crystal” which will be launched in Spring 2015 and has been developed from her award winning blog at  

Get In Rhythm … Stay In Rhythm

Imagine your horse ambling along in walk, jogging instead of trotting, stumbling through a test constantly breaking the three beat canter.  Not often do you see all of these faults in one horse but sure as night follows day you will experience these faults, at least to some extent, if you have not focussed your training on rhythm.  Because in this small, rather oddly spelled word (should be ritham, right?) you have wrapped up a whole host of skills you and your horse must master; energy, even tempo, clear and regular paces, balance, rein contact … the list goes on!

RhythmIf you consider that impurities or irregularities in the rhythm, tempo and stride length are serious flaws in your horse’s ability to perform you can begin to appreciate that not only should you begin to focus on rhythm, but you should remain focussed on rhythm throughout your riding career.

The walk is the gait that is most prone to impurities.  You can have considerable influence on the way your horse walks which means that you can induce faults too.  So, if you over ride the walk and push your horse into a faster, bigger walk than he is capable of, he will fall onto the forehand and tighten his back.  Likewise if you attempt to collect more than your horse is capable of, his back will tighten and the walk will become irregular.

Consider your ‘free walk on a long rein’.  Your horse needs to show a clear, pure, four-beat walk and most likely is able to – as long as the rider is not touching reins.  Then immediately the rider picks up the reins, the horse responds with unequal strides. This happens as a result of the rider using too much rein; not enough leg support and usually too heavy a seat. Go figure!  Relaxing more and reducing the demands will in most cases restore the clear four beat rhythm.

The safest way out of jigging is to start the working trot afresh, if it is a walk push the horse up into a working trot, establish the rhythm and relaxation and when the hind legs have started thrusting and the back has started swinging again, the walk will most likely be improved as well.  The important point I would like to make here is, as with many, many other issues, you will not be able to regulate your horse’s paces without a good forward thrust, so first of all check that you have a forward thinking and willing horse, otherwise you will not have anything to work with.

The majority of young horses and horses that are being retrained need to be reminded periodically not to slack off the forward propulsion; left to their own devices they will gradually fade after a few strides with good effort and that means the power with which their hind legs propel decreases, the gait loses its intensity and becomes dull.  The result?  the horse’s back stops swinging and the trot deteriorates into a jog, loses its gymnastic value and the horse’s musculature development over his haunches, back and top line is hindered.

RhythmThis, coupled with the potential issue of losing forwardness on the corners if the horse is not strong enough or trying to avoid the flexing of his joints  (seeSlowing Down and Speeding Up – Check the Flex) you may have to go back to basics and that means rhythm.

Most untrained horses assume that the leg aid means ‘speed up’, so they increase the tempo as soon as the rider asks, thus losing rhythm.  It is up to you to ‘clarify’ with your horse that the leg aid means ‘put more effort into your work, but keep your tempo’.  This is achieved using an effective half-halt. (see Heavy on the Forehand for more tips about the half halt).  So it is through systematic training that the horse should learn to adjust the tempo, adjust the stride length and adjust his energy levels independently of each other.

Loss of impulsion and slowing of the tempo often happens because keeping the impulsion and tempo requires more strength from the horse.  Pay really close attention to the regularity of the tempo, stride length and energy level throughout all exercises, patterns, and movements in order to develop the purity of the gaits to the highest level and to develop the horse’s strength and suppleness to its fullest potential in the process.

You have to be progressive in your training.  Your horse will respond with little and often.  It will take six weeks for him to build the muscle power and stamina required to be able to efficiently execute new and demanding exercises.  Too much too soon could result in injury.

Here’s some food for thought, like your heartbeat is the ‘rhythm of life’ so rhythm is to your horse’s gymnastic development.  Without it … not gonna happen!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

This article was originally published here.

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More guest posts:

Which Pasture Plants Are Dangerous for Horses? by Hayley and Rebecca from Anything Equine, this informative article covers many different types of plants. Pictures included.

Ten Truths of Equestrianism – Reblog from @SnarkyRider, by Quill: Are you really fit for horse ownership?

Little Known Qualities of Great Farriers, by K. Arbuckle, professional farrier: The farrier, though required to scientifically balance and shoe a horse, is an artist working with a living canvas.

Scoring the Hunter Round, by L. Kelland-May, senior judge: Have you always wondered how the hunter class is judged? Read it here straight from the judge’s perspective!


Heel Healing: Here’s An On-the-Horse Leg Stretching Exercise

straighten legI’ve already written about the heels of the rider before. In that post, I explained why I think we should not be forcing our heels down while we ride. Even though we’ve been told again and again to get those heels down, and it might in fact look good to an uneducated observer, forced heels cause all sorts of problems for the rider and even for the horse.

From collapsed heels to tightened calves and thighs to stiffened seat and lower back, forcing your heels down can affect the clarity and effectiveness of our aids to the horse. And while I said in my article that forcing ain’t the way to go, I didn’t mean that we should placidly accept the fact that we can never ever get the heels to be lower than the stirrup.

There is one main reason to lower the heels – to lengthen the leg and position it so that the rider’s center of balance is evenly distributed on the horse. Many people explain that the rider’s legs should be hanging softly in line with the hips, so that if the horse were taken out from underneath the rider, she could still be in a balanced enough position to stay standing up.

So what can we do if our heels don’t drop on their own, if we can’t force them down?

Do we completely give up on the concept and hope that it’s fine to ride along with a stiff leg with tight ligaments and tendons? Well, not really.

In my previous article, I did mention an off-the-horse technique you can use to develop more stretch through the backs of your legs. However, there is an exercise you can do on the horse that will also be of benefit. Try this especially in walk, then canter and finally the trot (yes, even if you post the trot).

You can try it first at the halt just to get the feel.

The secret to dropped heels is in the release of your muscles, ligaments and tendons from your hips all the way down. Here’s how.

1. Stand up in your stirrups.

Stand right up. Get your knees straight and go high enough that you are well off the saddle.

2. Lean forward.

Slowly tilt your body so that your thighs are resting toward the pommel. At this point, your thighs will hold your balance for the moment.

3. Let your feet go as far back as possible.

Once you have balance on your thighs, your feet will be free to slide back. Your knees should still be straight at this point. Push the feet past the girth just for a few seconds.

4. Sit down straight in the saddle.

Now sit toward the front of the saddle (don’t lean back into the cantle). Make sure you aren’t leaning forward or backward.

This is obviously the point where you allow your knees to bend again. But keep your feet in the same position you had them when you were still leaning forward. This way, your hips open enough to allow your feet to fall naturally (well, it might not feel very natural!) under your seat. Ideally, if you had a plumb line drawn from your hips to your heels, your heels would line up with your hips.

Your knees should be straighter now than before. The angle in your knees will be more open, and your leg will feel longer.

5. Allow your heels to drop.

The key is to allow.

Don’t let your toes go right through the stirrups. Make sure the balls of your feet are on the stirrups. 

At this point, if you were able to really lengthen out your leg, straighten your knees a bit and sit toward the front of the saddle, you should be able to let your heels take up the extra length by dropping below your stirrups.

And voila, you will find a magically longer leg with heels that want to hang toward the ground! :-)

I often like to hold on to the bucking strap (or the horn in a western saddle) to really stabilize my seat toward the front of the saddle. This allows me to open my hips more and free my legs to do the stretching that is needed.

Now what?

Well, keep your new position in each of the gaits! Easier said than done, I know! But you won’t get there without the practice so get on with it!

You have absolutely no excuse at the walk! Every time your horse is walking, you check and fix your leg position.

As you get better, you won’t have to stand up in your stirrups to establish the open hips and long legs. You should be able to find the “feel” just by briefly taking your legs up off the saddle and then extending your leg down.

You might be able to even correct your leg position within the horse’s movement. 

If you have a chance to give this a try, let us know how it worked out for you. Or give us other leg position fixes.

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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

New! Horse Listening – Book 2: Forward and Round to Training Success

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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Read more here:

What Do Leg Aids Mean? All riders regularly use their legs to give messages to the horse, but most of the time, the legs mean go faster or change gait.

#1 Rider Problem of the Year: Confusing Aids: At some point, we have to move away from separating our aids and becoming more “holistic” with our messages.

The #1 Rider Problem of the Year: The Leg Aid:  You probably know from experience – kicking the horse along often does not get the response you really want

Bend: How to Drift Out On Purpose: There is a time that it is perfectly fine, or almost advisable, for you to allow the horse to drift to the outside, seemingly contradicting all rational reasoning.

Impulsion: How Two Easy Strides of Energy Might Solve Your Problem: If the stride is longer, the hind legs can reach further underneath the body and support the horse’s balance with more strength and agility.


A Horse Listening Reading Roundup for the New Year


Happy New Year! The festivities are over. The new year has sprung.

What a perfect time to kick back, grab a book and spend some time in quiet contemplation! Do you feel like reading a book?

In previous articles, I have often encouraged you to include reading about horses and riding as part of your “study”. In no particular order, here are 9 books that have made significant impact on me over the years.

The books are from various riding disciplines. Click on the images for more information about each book. Some are new and some have been around for decades, but all continue to be relevant and inspiring in their own way.


The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse by Charles de Kunffy, 1992. Howell Book House, New York.

This book is one of those all-time go-to books about horse training and dressage. And if you’re an avid reader of this blog, you might notice that I mention Charles de Kunffy books repeatedly. They have made an incredible impact on my understanding of riding horses and dressage.

I’ve had this book for too many years to mention. But what has amazed me is that I’ve gleaned new information from each and every reading. Initially, I read through the whole thing, even the parts that were far beyond my scope at the time. Then as I came back to the book year to year, I would be able to understand more and relate better to the concepts of feel and timing that he discusses.

What is special about this book is that although there is considerable discussion about some of the basic aspects of dressage such as training, instruction and the rider, the majority of it is dedicated to “manege patterns” that develop the horse’s suppleness, engagement and gaits. You can use the patterns at different points of development. They begin with basic gymnastics and move on to more advanced patterns at the end of the book.

Get this book if you are looking for quality training exercises.


The Poetry of Horses – A Collection by Olwen Way, 1994. J.A. Allen, London.

If you’re into poetry, this book is for you! It’s not just any book with a bunch of horsey poems. This is a thorough collection of poems that have been written over the generations. You can find the likes of Yeats, Blake, Lawrence and Kipling, all the way to Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and even lesser known authors.

What I like most about the book is that unlike horse poetry where there is a token horse mentioned in an otherwise non-equine related verse, these works are entirely horse-centered. You read about horses by authors who knew horses.

This book is for you if you are lyrically inclined and love horses.


Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement by Susan E. Harris, 1993. Howell Book House, New York.

Aside from the fact that I was lucky enough to watch Susan Harris in action several times over the years, her books are clear and complete and superbly illustrated. Besides being a fantastic author, she is also an equally accomplished artist, and the drawings in this book tie in to her explanations in a way that books rarely do.

Susan Harris was one of the first to demonstrate “painted horses” with the bones and muscles drawn on live horses. She simply drew the horse’s bones and muscles on each side of the body and then put him in motion. Then she explained his movement and how conformation relates to gaits.

This book is an indispensable resource about horse conformation, biomechanics, gait and balance. Read it if you want to learn more about the intricacies of horse and rider movement.


Go the Distance: The Complete Resource for Endurance Horses by Nancy S Loving, DVM, 1997. Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, Vermont.

This book is a throwback to my endurance days. One of the most important things I learned from long distance trail is how to properly condition a horse. This book covers everything from tack to nutrition and conditioning principles to how to maintain health and soundness. Although the book is endurance specific, the goal of the author is to help the you assess and create a program for your particular horse.

Whether you ride endurance or not, every horse benefits from a carefully developed conditioning program. Done properly, you can use a well thought-out schedule to help keep your horse healthy and performing well over the long term.

Read this book if you want detailed information about horse health, performance and soundness from a trail riding perspective.


That Winning Feeling! A New Approach to Riding Using Psychocybernetics by Jane Savoie, 1992. Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, Vermont.

Jane Savoie is one of my all-time favorite clinicians and authors. I like this book in particular because although the title leads you to think that the book is about competition dressage, the contents lend themselves to everything else including just how to get along better in life. The author has an easy way of explaining many things critical to goal setting, evaluating your beliefs and values, and understanding how mental training affects physical performance.

Although the book is all about horses, riding and showing, it’s also all about personal development and training. I’ve often mentioned how horse riding is a vehicle for self-development, and this book is like a blueprint that takes you through the mental and physical path of becoming successful at horse shows, but more importantly, at everything else in life! 


Balance in Movement: How to Achieve the Perfect Seat by Suzanne Von Dietze, 2005. Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, Vermont.

The rider’s body. 

This book is all about you. How to use your seat. How to be more balanced on the horse. How to become more flexible.

Get this book if you want to learn all about leaning, collapsing, chair seat, proper use of aids and much more. Although there is no replacement for an eye on the ground to help you develop correct feel of your body, aids and balance, this book can fill in any gaps of understanding you might have about how you can find your way to riding “as one” with the horse.

There are practical exercises you can try on your horse to develop flexibility and balance. There are specific analyses of various body types and corrections for common problems. 

It helps that Suzanne Von Dietz is not only a top-level dressage rider, but also a physiotherapist. She brings both her riding and anatomical understanding to the topics in this book. Read this one if you want to develop your own skills and physical awareness.


So there you have it. These are a few of the books that I have in my bookshelf that have made significant impact on my understanding of riding, training and horses. 

What books have impacted your riding life? Let us know in the comments below.

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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

New! Horse Listening – Book 2: Forward and Round to Training Success

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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Why Would You Bother to “Scoop” Your Seat Bones? Learning to use your seat effectively should take a lifetime to develop, so we will begin with just one basic aspect: how to move the seat bones.

How to Ride Your Excited Horse in 5 Easy Steps: Let’s face it – horses aren’t always calm and accommodating. There are times when they can be… shall we say… a little over-exuberant!

Interpreting the Half-Halt: This topic is a tricky one but here is a shot at it.

Do A “Forward” Back-Up! Tricks to developing an easy and rhythmical back-up.

Top 10 Ways to Reward Your Horse: A happy horse is a willing partner, and many horses will give everything they have if they feel your acknowledgement and generosity of spirit.