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…


  1. If only everyone could be taught the correct way to ride and judge it would be a much happier world for all the horse and riders. But alas, this will never happen until there is some sort of universal governing body to properly train coaches and judges.
    Thanks for another great post.

  2. Thank you for a very interesting post in respose to my comment. I can see that you are a very versatile rider with an unusually thoughtful and humane approach.

    Your explanation of this very light contact is helpful. It is an enormous challenge for a rider to develop a light hand. It's something that I bear in mind every time that I ride. I was shown how, using stout Western split reins on a curb, the weight of the reins themselves could control the horse. Neck reining is of course useful, and I need to work on this some more with D. I find that simply using an open rein is a valuable technique that is very comprehensible to the horse, though not one that I was taught in Britain (where the hands have to be placed in front "as if one is holding a plate of food").

    It is interesting to note that D will canter more energetically with a light contact, and I suppose that this is simply encouraging more impulsion from his hindquarters. One he has engaged himself, the contact can be relaxed to nothing.

    I absolutely agree with your remark about rider security and contact. I used to find, when allocating horses to riders, that confidence rather than skill level was the main criteria. (I didn't have any difficult horses, however some had stronger personalities than others.) So many riders seemed insecure and "needed" a contact to hang on with and balance themselves by.

    In the end, one needs a lot of hours in the saddle as well as good training, mentoring and intuition. For me, the most influential rider in my two decades of riding came from the American West. The most important lessons were relaxing, riding on a loose rein, and treating trail rides as training exercises. (There is very little pure pleasure riding.) By now I've ridden somewhere around 20,000miles in total on various trails. Just in the last couple of years I've started to feel like an OK rider!

    It's curious how many arena riders out here say that their horses "cannot be hacked". It's stated like an indisputable fact. It would do them good if they did get out, however their horses might have a shock seeing the big wide world outside. Some of them are never turned out and only ever see their box and the arena.

    Out of interest, what do you think is the best trail riding bit for an average rider or indeed a riding holiday centre? Your previous post seems to suggest a French Link, for reasons that make good sense.

    I'm also curious about jointed curb bits, whether their action (with the shanks coming back) twists the bit in such a way that the middle of the snaffle part doesn't hit the roof of the mouth. What do you think? (I need to look at a bit alongside a horse now!)

  3. GHM - so many attempts have been made to offer training and qualifications for instructors, but none of them have caught on in the US. in a way, i almost wonder if that's for the best, since the prevailing theory in this country is a little lacking. but i've heard good things about the german system, and the british horse society has it's heart in the right place - it just fails in the execution, so maybe it's possible.

    there must be a way to promote and reward good horsemanship, and i think it has to start with the judges. when riders stop being rewarded for doing it wrong, they'll have no choice but to get it right if they want to be successful in competition. this is why i loved Gerd Heuschmann's "Tug of War" book and your review of it. it gets right to the heart of the problem.

  4. Very interesting part 2 - I enjoyed both the post and the comments.

    It reminded me of the image I've seen used of creating a circle of energy between the hindquarters and the bit - no logjams or explosions when it can keep going in circles. But sometimes (many times, for me, still very much learning) this ends up being more of an eggbeater kind of thing where there is a circular motion but it keeps getting hung up between legs and hands/hindquarters and bit.

    For awhile I was stuck, because whatever I managed to create in terms of impulsion/forward motion I couldn't necessarily ride well, and then blocked that with my hands. It took awhile to trust that Keil Bay wasn't going to run galloping off if I sent him forward, and for a while I did have to almost throw the reins away to keep that front door open.

    Now that my seat is more stable, and my legs are quiet, that part of my body can ride through while I focus on the front door and how I'm handling it.

    And I confess - I'm one of those students who likes to talk every little thing out - not so much before I do it, but after, and if the trainer can call things out to me so I can keep going instead of falling apart in the middle, even better. :)

    All that to say that this discussion is fascinating and I'm walking around from laptop to barn/arena with little wheels turning, if you can imagine that!


  5. WHP - oh, i know exactly who you mean when you talk about riders who swear their horses can't leave the ring - we've got them here too :-o i was lucky enough to spend most of my early riding career with a trainer who believed in riding in the field, hunter-pacing, trail riding, etc. along with arena work. but they are rare in the showing world.

    i had a very difficult showjumper who hated to jump in the arena and would refuse every chance he got. but one day i dragged him out to a hunter pace, fully expecting to get killed, and he dug in and attacked every jump in that course - even the jumps the more experienced horses refused - and after that day he was a new horse in the arena - full of confidence and enthusiastic about jumping. there are some experiences you just can't get in the arena!

    i can't even comprehend riding 20,000 miles! wow!

    i've never understood the whole 'dinner plate hands' theory, either. an opening rein is one of the most useful and best tolerated forms of direct rein a rider can employ because it is gentle and doesn't 'trap' the horse, but gives him an opportunity to respond into the aid...

    as for trail riding bits, i am a big fan of the french link, but as i said in the previous post, there is potential to abuse it if the rider is unbalanced, insecure or rough with the hands. i think if i ran a riding school or a hoilday centre i might do something like a bitless bridle (crossunder) or some configuration of the micklem multibridle, which is incredibly versatile in a trail or training situation, so that I didn’t have to worry about ruining the horses' mouths.

    you’re right, I think, about the jointed curb being less likely to break into the roof of the mouth. it is true that the jointed curb will rotate as the shanks are drawn back, angling the joint toward the front of the mouth, but this only works if the curb strap is fitted properly and both reins are used evenly.

    i try to avoid jointed curbs/pelhams for the simple reason that the curb effect is designed, theoretically, to work evenly on both sides of the mouth at the same time - so much so that, with a solid mouthpiece, it can almost be operated with one rein. The curb, when properly fitted and used, is designed to GENTLY squeeze the lower jaw between the bit and the curb strap, causing, among other things, the tongue to lift briefly and, as pressure is released, relax, which in turn releases the jaw and poll, making positioning and collection possible. but placing a joint in the middle of the bit makes each side operate independently, which unbalances the bit and distorts the curb effect. this can confuse the horse and over time will deaden the mouth.

    this is why, traditionally, full bridles consist of a curb and snaffle - to keep the curb effect pure while maintaining the snaffle’s ability to work either side of the mouth independently (or the snaffle can be replaced by a cavesson.)

    a pelham with a sold mouthpiece and short upper arms will have a similar effect to the full bridle, with the snaffle rein operating the mouthpiece like a a mullen mouth snaffle or baucher. so, i see no need for jointed pelhams or curbs. but then, some horses detest a solid mouthpiece, and the break in the bit may act like a port for the tongue, so a lot of people like them, and if they work well and the horses don't mind them, there is no reason not to use one... in the end, it all depends on the individual horse and the way the rider uses the bit.

    sorry, that was a kind of a tangent and probably a lot more information than you were looking for... :-)

  6. billie - i know what you mean about that 'circle' getting disrupted. my current horse has an enormous trot, and it seems like whenever i get that amazing flow going, his trot get so full of suspension that i inevitably miss a beat and either loose my balance or mess up with my hands and ruin the whole thing!

    and i rode a horse once who was so strong in the bridle that i thought i could never let go or he's run away with me, but the moment i did let go, he stopped fighting me and i had to actually ride him forward! that horse convinced me to try a softer approach with my hand!

    i'm also one of those people who likes to talk things out, which tends to drive trainers nuts ;-) but, unless i understand why i'm supposed to be doing something, how it's supposed to work, and what the desired effect is, i have a hard time accepting it...

  7. It's curious how one can ride a lot of miles but still be asking questions, some of them perhaps even basic questions.

    The issue of the joint of a snaffle bit rising up and striking the top of the mouth seems to explain a lot. For instance, my stallion arguing with me (he wanted to speed up on the way home), then raising his nose when a contact was applied. Perhaps the joint was causing him discomfort? So a good answer would be a French Link, a less good answer would be a curb, and a martingale just masks the problem without solving it.

    Certainly I can see that a jointed curb is sending several messages to the horse, hence it could be confusing and therefore rather crude when used on its own. I prefer something simple and unambiguous wherever possible. At least a snaffle can be used clearly to give several messages without confusion. I agree that an open rein is very helpful too, and gives the rider a wider repertoire of rein aids.

    The issue of rough-handed riders caused me problems when I owned a trail riding centre. Perhaps I had less than some outfitters because I took more pleasure riders who were open (usually) to suggestion and advice. Having horses that didn't try to run off helped, of course, though some riders thought that horses like that were "boring". Friends who took more "eventers" and "foxhunters" (some of them faux, I suspect, as one has to go by what these people claim to be) on riding holidays reported a lot of problems with harsh contacts and actually less respect for their horses than the norm with pleasure riders. Sometimes a lot less respect. I recall the story of one "eventer" who referred repeatedly to a perfectly good trail horse as "dogfood" because of course he wasn't a big warmblood.

    I recall one riding centre owner who was never happy unless galloping, who had a client die in a pointless riding accident and had others seriously injured. Yet that centre was always busy with the "eventing set". There are riding centres in Europe where the horses (used intensively for fast work) are lucky to survive more than a couple of seasons (after which they go for slaughter). These places (which of course don't advertise what happens to ther mounts) find plenty of clients, and most specialist equestrian agents sell their holidays knowing full well what goes on.

    In a lot of ways, I am glad to now keep two leisure horses for pleasure and no longer have to deal with hordes of equestrian holidaymakers. Riding holidays are one area where "the customer is NOT always right"!

    I guess that I too have gone off on a tangent, however these are issues that I care about.

  8. I’ve ridden and trained for many years, but I’m still not nearly as competent a rider and trainer as I hope to be. I ask and re-ask myself the same questions every day to see if I’m missing something, or there is something I could do better or differently. for me, that’s part of what keeps riding interesting…

    There are so many reasons why a horse may become resistant in the bridle, but I tend to agree that sometimes they are just trying to position the bit in their mouth so it is more comfortable by getting above or behind the bit, for example. Of course, the unfortunate truth is that bits are designed to cause some discomfort, or they wouldn’t be effective, as the horse really only responds to the aids in order to avoid or relieve that discomfort. So, I guess you have to always balance control with sympathy when choosing and using a bit.

    I like the french link a lot, and it’s what I usually start a horse in. I’m also a fan of a mullen mouth and a waterford as two opposite ends of the spectrum on number of joints, as both are mild and well tolerated. And I have a rugby pelham with a half-moon (mullen) mouth that horses seem very happy with if I’d like to add curb action. My favorite bit of all time (which I can’t find a replacement for) was just two rings with a piece of flexible leather (like the cheek of a good triple stitched halter) for the mouth. I had a student with a very strong and difficult to ride TB showjumper, and she was able to ride a speed course with ease in that bit because the horse gave up all her resistances to the hand.
    Stop me, because I could go on about bits all day!

    I know what you mean about holiday clientele. When I was at the centre in Scotland, we had clients come out for cross-country rides and trails, and it was always a nightmare. They generally overestimated their abilities and overrode the horses. Inevitably, whenever a ride went out, there’d be a message over the walkie-talkie to come out and scrape a rider up off the cross-country course. And the horses would come back in terrible state. But I guess the mentality is that borrowed horses are like rental cars – the rider has no stake in the animal, so it can be used hard and handed back at the end of the day for someone else to deal with. It used to turn my stomach.

    One of the old schoolies had been a very successful show horse and breeding stallion in his day; as an older horse and a valuable schoolmaster, they should have taken more care with him. Instead the centre, in their callousness or greed (or both) allowed him to be overused for these holiday adventures and galloped all over the countryside. I was horrified the day they just dragged him out behind the barn and shot him after he had gone on one ride too many. It was disgraceful.

    I knew a woman who was killed on one of these foxhunting holidays as well. She was a very sweet lady and we were all sorry to hear of her death. but she was quite old and frail, and we had seen her struggle to ride her own very quiet horses in the arena, and couldn’t imagine her foxhunting in Ireland on one of these tours. I suppose she should have known better and been realistic about her own abilities; her trainer might have discouraged her; and the centre offering the ride should probably have never let her out on a horse. it was just a bad situation all around… so yeah, the customer isn’t always right. And sometimes you need to save people from themselves while looking out for yourself and your horses.
    I’ve never run a riding holiday outfit, but these issues are important to me too. Thanks so much for your comment.

  9. I've just got hold of a French Link bit and tried it on Doru. He seems comfortable with it, and understands it, so this is a step forward. Perhaps it provides pressure without getting too far into the realm of discomfort? I think that there can be pressure without discomfort, provided that the pressure is intermittent. Your explanation of bits has been a real help to me though highlighting the solution to a problem.

    You should be able to get a saddler to make a leather strap bit such as you describe, certainly if you can supply a couple of old rings. Maybe a piece of thick old harness leather would be ideal?

    Usually the BHS riding centres are relatively safe. However some people do think that, so long as they have their helmet and body protector, they are invincible. It seems too that protection for the rider now far exceeds that for the horse. The British do have a bizarre "safety fetish", yet they seem to get hurt all the time! I wonder how long it will be until the inflatable riding vests appear, or insurers demand them?

    I used to find that alcohol was a real menace in the riding holiday trade. A fair proportion of clients (almost all British) were functioning alcoholics, who could not get past lunchtime without drinking (in some cases, they couldn't get past breakfast), and rode terribly as a result. It was often a pleasure to receive American guests simply because they were usually reasonably sober. Plus, if they came from the West Coast, they were invariably experienced trail riders. And, in the absence of a class system, rarely were they snobs.

  10. My gosh - the shooting of the horse behind the barn completely freaks me out. I can't even imagine such a thing.

  11. Hi,
    Pop on over and pick up your new award!

  12. WHP – you’re right – ‘discomfort’ was probably a bad choice of wording. There shouldn’t be any real discomfort for the horse if done properly! I will follow your advice and see if my saddler can make me a new leather bit. I too am baffled by the safety craze; I wear a (normal) helmet when I ride, and proper footwear, but my main concern is keeping the horses out of trouble. But I think you are right – all of the safety equipment riders have now gives them a false sense of security, and maybe unconsciously they don’t think they have to work harder at learning to ride correctly or staying on, when good (and sensible) riding is the best safety precaution! Here in the US, we certainly have our share of alcoholics and snobs in the horse world (I once had a trainer who COULDN’T ride unless he was drunk,) but as you say, there are many good people too, particularly the ones who don’t make showing their whole lives :-)

    billie – shooting the horse was especially horrible because there wasn’t anything wrong with him. Sure he was getting older and it was getting harder to keep weight on him (wonder why…) and he was beginning to slow down a bit. But with some maintenance he still had many good years left. Or at least he might have been adopted out if the centre had no more use for him. This horse had put in his time, been a national champion, a breeding stallion and a schoolmaster, and he deserved better than that. He deserved some dignity and respect.

    GHM – another award? Thanks!

  13. I agree with almost eveything you have said, but I think that it s also a probem that people have an ideal of a feather-light contact and never learn to properly ride a horse on a conact. I have taught a few lessons to people who refuse to take a contact, thinking that it is cruel to the horse. People think that they can get their horses into a correct outline without touching the horse's mouth, but the energy from the hindquarters needs to be channeled. Once the horse is working correctly, then the contact can become very light. I find this one of the bggest misconceptions when teaching people who want to ride their horses 'on the bit.'

    I am obviously one of the 'English' riders that is referred to! However I was trained by an Israeli who was trained in Germany by Klimke, so I don't think I am totally steeotypical... I know you meant in comparison to Western riding. Although I have never ridden Western, I think probably I would rather be able to feel my horse on the end of the rein in a snaffle than have no contact in a curb. I suppose it is whatever works for the horse and rider.

  14. Echo – you said: “it s also a problem that people have an ideal of a feather-light contact and never learn to properly ride a horse on a contact.”

    I have always had a difficult time explaining this feeling to riders who have never had the opportunity to ride a truly light horse, so it can be difficult to appreciate just how much can be done on this feather light contact. I’ve had jumpers, equitation horses and upper level dressage horses who would all extend, collect and jump on this kind of contact, and all of them were ‘on the bit’ and in the appropriate ‘outline.’ So I know it is possible, and I would not consider it an improper contact simply because it was light… but then there are some horses that feel more confident when the rider has a stronger contact, and there are certainly moments when it becomes necessary (like in a jump-off or following the field when hunting, etc..) but I agree some people don’t understand that contact is necessary and that abandoning the horse’s mouth to be ‘nice’ does neither horse nor rider any favors…

    I agree that the energy from the hindquarters needs to be channeled, but the difference between (to use a convenient, if imprecise, shorthand) the ‘german’ school and the ‘french’ is that the latter would channel that impulsion with positioning, where the former would channel it by driving the horse forward into the hand, catching the impulsion and holding it there, which to me is like riding the horse into a brick wall… But having said that, I know it can be done with finesse; one would be hard-pressed to find a modern trainer as knowledgeable and productive on a horse as klimke, so clearly there are positives to both methods, and I’d be reluctant to claim either one more correct – I think it is just a matter of choosing the style that works best and makes the most sense for one’s self…

    When I speak of ‘english’ riders, I’m referring to discipline, not nationality :-) but having said that, I did spend a lot of time in the UK studying with the BHS, and I did find a preference for a very strong contact combined with a driving leg and seat, which was much more forceful and heavy than the kind of riding I was accustomed to. I had one of my own horses with me and, though young, he was at the time a consistent 4’6 showjumper with 3rd level dressage. a hefty 17.3 and 1600lbs DWB, he is an incredibly light horse who rides off the seat and leg (has since the day I backed him) and can collect and go ‘on the bit’ in a halter and lead rope – he’ll even canter a pirouette that way. But when we were instructed in this BHS method I found him getting heavier and more evasive, eventually learning to go behind the bit to cope with the strong contact and driving aids. So I guess I’m saying I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong, but just that I haven’t had positive results with my own horses. But there may be horses and riders who do well with the technique…

  15. There's some amazing stuff here. I haven't done much in the way of jumping (unless you count poles on the ground, low cavilettis and the occassional tree trunk on the trail) but after looking at the pictures you posted, it makes perfect sense in that the riders are putting weight on the fore-end.

    The way it was explained to me is that your seat basically needs to be such that it doesn't impede the horse's jump or interfere with the horse keeping his balance when landing. OK, a gross over-simplification there.

    The big thing that sticks out is what my trainer told me- "don't mess with his mouth" going over the obstacle and that includes moving the bit about (quiet hands).

    As for bits, I use a snaffle and that seems to work the best. I used a curb twice and each time my horse threw me off. Of course my rough hands might have had something to with that...

    I find for my horse, a loose rein works the best with minimal contact- keeping that "minimal contact" can be a challenge because you're dealing with a living creature that is always shifting (assuming he's not being bad). When I've gone over obstacles, I've loosened up to the point where there's little or no contact. After landing I put more contact and "gather him up." Hard to describe but it seems to work.


I enjoy reading all your comments and welcome discussion and debate. I do my best to answer most comments in a timely manner, but this may not always be possible. I will publish all comments providing they are relevant to the subject.

Thank you for reading. We look forward to hearing from you.

Copyright © J.M. Elliott 2008-2018. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.