7 Ways to Listen to Your Horse

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Listening to your horse is such an important part of riding and horse ownership. In fact, the rider who is ignorant of the messages her horse sends is missing out on sometimes vital information. Knowing how to understand and correctly interpret the signs and behaviors of your horse allows you to know when something is off. The information can inform everything from general health care, to training and conditioning programs, to your horse’s mental well-being.

How can you learn to listen effectively, in a way that positively affects your horse? Here are a some ideas.

1. Body Condition

When you become familiar with the way your horse looks, you will notice very small changes in your horse’s body condition – even from one day to another. Does your horse’s body look a little lean? Maybe it’s time to increase hay or grain just a bit. Is your horse a bit rolly-poly? Cut back! How about when you notice super tight muscles? Maybe you’ll be in for a bit of a wilder ride that day! Is the horse tucked in the flank area? That can be a warning for gut problems or some sort of discomfort. Consistently evaluate your horse’s body condition to identify how he feels and what he needs – on a daily basis.

2. Herd Dynamics

Take a few minutes when you go to catch your horse, or alternately, when you turn him back out into the herd. How does he interact with his herd mates? Does he have any favorite pals that he spends time with regularly? How does he negotiate his way around the herd hierarchy?

Once you know what “normal” is, you will be able to tell when something just doesn’t seem right. If your horse is usually a member of the crowd, then finding him all alone at the end of the field might indicate that something is just not right.

3. Weather Conditions

Does your horse turn on his “inner stallion” when the temperature drops 20 degrees overnight? When you head to the barn, do you notice his that ample topline muscles dissolved overnight thanks to the chill in the air?

Then today might be the day that you should lunge him before you ride! (Trust me – I have the T-short on this one!) Or conversely, what happens to your horse with a 20 degree increase? Does he want to have nothing to do with exercise while he’s sweating just standing still? Maybe this is the day that you hose him off after a shorter ride and leave him inside during the highest heat of the day.

4. Distractibilty

Some days, your horse might want to do more TV watching than ride. Rather than respond to your aids, he’s looking left/right/straight – taking attention everywhere except where you want it! In this case, you might need to change your riding plans. Do more “pop quizzes” and be more active in your own riding. Insist on more suppleness. Slow down his leg speed. Do something different to challenge him and get his attention.

5. Body Language

Horses rely mainly on body language to communicate with each other. The signals are fairly consistent among all horses, so if you can learn to understand the behaviors, you will know exactly where you stand in your mini-herd of two.

For example, if you approach your horse and he turns his head away, you know that he isn’t completely comfortable with your approach. When you notice him getting out of your space, step back and invite him back. Given enough repetition and time, your horse will learn first, that you have no aggressive intentions when you walk up to him, and second, that he can step into your personal space. This fairly simple exchange develops your horse’s trust in you.

6. While Riding

After you ride the same horse for a while, you get to know how he feels under regular conditions. So if one day you get on, and all you get is tail swishes or reluctance to move forward, you know this is a sign that he isn’t quite right. Maybe your gelding was running around in the field yesterday and is muscle sore now. Or maybe your mare is in heat and not able to move as well as usual. Regardless of the reason, there is no need to push a horse that you know would normally be forward moving and willing. Always consider unusual discomfort as a sign to look into the horse’s physical (or mental) needs.

7. Eating Habits

What are your horse’s normal eating patterns? Does he wolf his feed down, or does he pick daintily at each and every oat kernel? It is important for you to know these things, because a change in eating behavior is a huge indicator of other impending problems. When you notice something abnormal, be ready to analyze everything from the feed itself to the horse’s physical health and mental well-being. Narrow it down by starting with the most obvious first.

These signs are only a few ways that you can learn to “listen” to your horse. The more time you can invest into getting to know your horse, and the more you can educate yourself about riding, horse health and body language, the more you will be able to almost literally understand about your horse. The concept of “horse listening” begins with the human. If we can improve our own knowledge and behavior, we will invariably be able to support our horses so they can be happy, healthy and active well into their old age.

How do you listen to your horse? Comment below.

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Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

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How to “Fill Up” Your Outside Rein for a True Neck Rein

Contact“Use your outside rein!”

“You need a better neck rein so you can balance the horse better.”

“Half-halt/check with the outside rein.”

In any of these three scenarios, your instructor is letting you know that your outside rein is either not being used correctly, or it isn’t active enough to be helping your horse. However, a neck rein isn’t an outside rein that is simply pulled backward.

We often rely so much on our inside reins that we tend to forget the purpose and use of the outside rein. We can apply the outside rein as a direct rein, or a neck rein. Although both work to achieve better balance and communication with the horse, there are significant differences to each. Today, we will talk about why and how to create an effective neck rein.

We use the neck rein in all disciplines. Regardless of the style of riding, the neck rein can and should be used for basic communication. Using a snaffle bit, the outside rein is generally shorter and used with contact. Using a curb bit, the rein is longer and ideally used with less contact. However, in general, the neck rein is used in the same manner in all disciplines and for the same purposes.

What Is A Neck Rein?

This specific type of rein aid is identified by the way that it “wraps around” the outside of the horse’s neck. In general, it sits gently along the horse’s neck and is always available to act within the right moment in the horse’s stride.

Why Use A Neck Rein?

The neck rein acts as a powerful communicator. Used with contact, it can help the horse maintain balance by half-halting the energy as it comes to the forehand. Too much energy left unchecked will cause the horse to fall forward onto the front legs. The neck rein can prevent the fall before it happens and help the horse maintain more weight on the hind legs. In this manner, when used at the end of a sequence of aids, the outside neck rein is a main actor in creating and maintaining collection.

Once you become more adept in using your body aids, the neck rein also can become the initiator of a turn. Rather than pulling on the inside rein, the horse learns to move away from the neck rein. So if you want to turn left, you apply the right neck rein and use your seat/leg/torso aids to indicate the direction. The horse feels the “wrapped around the neck” rein pressure and steps away from it. This way, you can limit the use of the inside rein to just maintaining flexion (so that you can see the corner of the horse’s inside eye). The by-product of less inside rein is that you will not restrict the inside hind leg from reaching as far as it should to balance around the turn.

“Filling Up” the Neck Rein

I use the term filling up because the neck rein isn’t about just pulling backward. In fact, the ideal situation is to hold the rein at the desired length you need for the moment, and then to “push” the horse into the rein. The horse steps toward the rein, feels the pressure and then responds.

- Use your inside aids to bend the horse.

Starting with your weight on your inside seat bone, then leg, then upper body, push the horse to the outside of the circle. As your horse gets better, and your timing gets better, your push will become lighter. But at the beginning, you may need a fair amount of pressure to be clear in what you want.

- Inside rein is for flexion.

The only thing your inside rein should do is to maintain the flexion in the horse’s head – that is, to keep the horse looking to the inside of the turn. Otherwise, it should be softly fluttering in and out of contact as needed. What it shouldn’t be doing is maintaining a rigid pressure on the horse’s mouth.

- Maintain a steady outside rein

If you can keep your outside rein at a consistently “good” length (depending on your discipline), you will begin to feel the horse as he steps to the outside, thereby filling up the outside rein.

At this point, you will have the neck rein positioned and the horse stepping into it. Now, it is up to you to use it to your advantage. As mentioned above you can use it to rebalance the horse, or use it to initiate a turn. As your horse begins the turn, you can keep the neck rein in light contact, being fairly inactive, unless you need to as again.

Once you discover the power of the neck rein, you’ll wonder how you ever rode without it. Using an effective neck rein is one more step in the direction of becoming more subtle and harmonious with your horse.  Not only that, but it will also allow him to move with a straighter body and spine.

How and why do you use a neck rein? Comment below.

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Read more related articles here:

Why A Straight Rein is Not A Bad Rein: Many people think that pulling a rein is a prerequisite to keeping it short.

One Simple Way to Quiet Your Hands While Riding Horse: It’s pretty simple to not use your hands, but it might not be so easy to increase the use of your other aids in lieu of the hands.

On Bubbleneck and Marshmallow Contact: When these new, exhilarating feels saunter into your world, they rarely stay around long enough for you to be able to really get a good sense of what just happened.

14 Ways to Communicate While Riding Your Horse: Horseback riding is unique among team sports precisely because of the horse that becomes your athletic partner.

Where Does Your Half-Halt Start? Here Are Four Suggestions: Although the hand certainly plays a role in the end of the sequence of aids, it shouldn’t be where the aids begin.

Why Interrupting A Horse’s Stride Might Be Just the Ticket for Better Balance


Does your horse pull down on the reins, getting heavier and heavier with every footfall? Does he  fall to the forehand, seemingly oblivious to you, the rider, at the end of the reins? Maybe his legs move faster and faster, rushing through your requests and leaning heavily onto his shoulders. Maybe he communicates discomfort through pinned ears, grinding teeth or tension.

If your horse has moments where he feels like a tank running through everything in his way, don’t despair. Many horses (and riders!) go through a pulling phase at some point in their development. Rest assured, he likely doesn’t want to pull you around the ring. But because of either the rider or the horse or both, he ends up sending most of his weight and energy to the front legs. The result is a pulling contest between the horse and rider, the kind of which never ends in a win for anyone.

Many people fall into this riding pattern, not sure of what to do when their horse “roots down” and leans into the bit. Try interrupting his movement as one way to help him rebalance.

What Not To Do

Kick the horse on.

Although it’s true that we always speak of “back to front” when it comes to energy, adding more oomph in this instance will only result in more weight coming to the forehand. This is one case where activating the hind end will only serve to be counterproductive. Keep working on establishing your horse’s best rhythm, but don’t let the legs go faster faster faster.

Pull harder on the reins.

While it seems that taking a stronger hold of the reins would be the most reasonable thing to do, your horse will likely be able to pull longer than you can and maybe even harder. So avoid the pulling match and look for a way to solve the balance problem instead.

Let the reins out.

Although grabbing the reins won’t work, you will soon realize that a complete release of the contact won’t help either. If the horse is already on the forehand, and the reins are lengthened, the horse will also lengthen in the body and then become “strung out” – a case where the hind end does not engage and the hind legs do not have the opportunity to step under the horse’s body. Some horses might also stumble or fall if the rider drops the reins, especially if they are used to having someone literally holding them up.

Now, let’s look at one way you can help your horse gain better balance without making a fuss. I call it an “interruption” because it helps me remember that all I want to do is stop what is happening, but not long enough to lose momentum and energy.

3 Steps to “Interrupt”

First off, don’t change anything much. So avoid lengthening/shortening/speeding/slowing down. Instead, focus on improving the horse’s balance using an interruption. Just like you might need to interrupt someone to get their attention, do the same with your horse. Just do it physically, through your body while you ride.

1. Do a “Full” Half-Halt

In other words, do a downward transition. If you are at trot and your horse pulls you down to the ground, lean back, sit into the saddle and make your half-halt strong and long enough to get the horse walking. If you are at canter, bring the horse to a trot.

Develop control over the horse’s legs – stop them for just a moment and help the hind legs come underneath the body.

The idea here is to get the horse to use the downward transition to shift back the overall balance in the body. You want to shift your weight as well as the horse’s toward the hind end. In rhythm with the stride, lean back (just slightly), half-halt through your body and hands, and interrupt your horse’s stride.

But don’t stop there and rest.

2. Set up better balance.

As soon as you get the downward transition, you may need to “fix” a few things. Check the horse’s bend. Check that you have an outside neck rein. Allow the horse to round over the topline so that he can work toward a better contact. Make sure he is moving straight – as in, develop a shoulder-fore if necessary.

But don’t stop there either!

3. Then, go right back to the original program.

This step is critical if you want your horse to begin to understand what he needs to do, and to help him find his happy place while being ridden. As soon as possible, go right back to what you were doing. If you were originally cantering around a 20-meter circle, then transition back to the canter and continue on the circle.

Do not change the program.

The only point of this technique is to interrupt the pull-down (whether caused by the horse or the rider). By transitioning down a gait, you help the horse shift his weight back and get his hind legs underneath him. But then you must go again! If not, you will end up disengaging the hind end and causing the energy to fizzle out. Stopping energy flow is never the solution to any problem.

But controlling the energy and directing it where we want is exactly what riding is all about.

If your horse lightens on the reins, you know you are on the right track,

If you feel a better uphill balance, you know that you’re helping your horse develop his strength and balance.

If you discover that your horse suddenly begins to offer you the lighter contact and uphill balance while doing the movement you were working on, you know that this was exactly what you needed to do.

Just ride on, then thank your horse for his efforts.

 What do you do to prevent a heavy forehand or too much pulling?

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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

Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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Read more here:

Finding the Magic of the Inside Rein: The inside rein plays into the picture when it pulls during the lifting of the hind leg stride. The rein pressure puts a stop into the energy of the hind leg as it reaches underneath the body.

Why You Must Shoulder-Fore On the Rail and How To Do It: If you watch a horse go up a rail from behind, you will clearly see the front end traveling on a line closer to the rail, while the hind end drifts somewhat off the rail. Here is a way to straighten the horse.

What Being On the Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.

How The “Not Canter” Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: Every time you ask (with the correct aids), the horse resists. What to do? This article remains one of our most popular posts of all-time.

“Go and No”: The Connection Between Forward and Half-Halt in Horse Riding: How to develop the two seemingly opposite aids.

One Simple Way to Quiet Your Hands While Riding Horses


Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Well, by now, if you’ve been reading my articles fairly regularly, you might already know that when something is “simple” in horse riding, it isn’t necessarily easy! Quieting your hands falls into this category.

What is this simple way? Well, stop using your hands!

It’s pretty simple to not use your hands, but it might not be so easy to increase the use of your other aids in lieu of the hands.

If you’re anything like me, and you developed the habit of controlling pretty much everything from the horse’s mouth long ago, then you know how difficult it can be to reduce your reliance on your hands.

However, I’m here to tell you that it can be done. It is possible to go to your other aids and save your hands for only two things: the end of the half-halt (in order to help with rebalancing the horse) and straightness/flexion.

The hands do play a role in the half-halt. I’ve explained it in detail along with the other aids here and more of a basic description here.

They also can maintain the horse’s straightness, especially in the shoulders, especially when you are on a bend or turn. They also can help with maintaining the flexion of the jaw (usually in the direction you are going).

Other than that…

… the hands should and can sing poetry in the horse’s mouth and help him develop confidence and strength within his own movement. (Click here to tweet that if you agree.)

The rest of the body can take over much of the in-movement communication with the horse. And this is where the difficulty comes in for some of us. It takes a quite a lot more coordination and core strength to aid your horse through your seat, legs and body. But with practice and guidance, it can be done. Only then can your horse lighten on his feet and carry you with more comfort and strength. And for the rider, there is a sense of freedom that comes along with the reduced reliance on the hands.

 4 Aids to Use in Lieu of the Hands

The Seat

The rider’s seat is the root of all good in horseback riding. Not only does the seat keep your balance and allow you to move in harmony with your horse, but it also sends an almost unlimited amount of communication to your horse.

Because, you see, the seat is the largest area of contact with your horse, and it sits (pun!) literally in the middle of the horse. From there, you have such an opportunity to send almost invisible signals to your horse. And he will likely respond easily just by virtue of the fact that it is easier for him to move from the middle of his body than the front.

The Weight

The use of weight is an off-shoot of the use of the seat and they work together in tandem. You could ride with a balanced seat that isn’t indicating anything in terms of weight, or you can use your weight to your advantage. Let’s imagine a turn – if you can weigh your inside seat bone into the turn, you will invariably help your horse turn easier and with better balance. How about a leg yield? Use your weight aid to invite your horse into the direction of the movement.

The Legs

The legs are critical for clear communication. The inside leg works on bend and keeping the inside shoulder moving straight. The outside leg is responsible for asking the hind end to stay in line with the front end (and not swing out, for example). It also is the main initiator of bends, shoulder-ins/haunches ins, canter departures and turns.

You can also “step into the stirrups” to support your seat aids, or to create a stronger leg if the horse is moving into it. The more educated you and your horse get, the more meaning you can offer through your leg aids.

The Voice

Especially at the beginning, either for a novice rider or horse, the voice can be a welcome reinforcer of the body aids. If the horse is young or relatively untrained, voice cues might not initially carry much meaning, but they can serve to calm the horse or conversely, add a little “spice” into the horse’s movement (if you need increased energy).

Voice cues can be words or sounds, depending on how you want to develop them. You do not have to be loud to be effective. Use consistent voice cues and your horse will in fact be able to understand and predict what you want.

Well, there you have it! Riding with less emphasis on the hands is possible and highly recommended, not only for your pleasure, but for your horse’s comfort as well. Although it might take more time than you might initially want to invest, developing your other aids to the point of clarity is well worth the effort.

What aids do you use instead of your hands? Share in the comments below.

Want to advertise your business on Horse Listening? Click here for more info.

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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

Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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  Related reading: 

Move to Stay Still on Horseback: How do we begin to look like we’re sitting still, doing nothing on the horse’s back?

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.

Rarely Considered, Often Neglected: Lunging to Develop the Riding Seat: Riding on the lunge is the best way to begin the search for the effective seat.

9 Amazing Effects From Lifting the Horse’s Back While Riding: What exactly is the result of a lifted back? What does it look and feel like?

14 Ways to Communicate While Riding Your Horse: The difference between other sports and ours is that we must learn to communicate to our teammate in less obvious ways than people do in other sports.