To many, a horse ridden with the reins in one hand is the epitome of a well trained western horse. The horse responds to the feel of the rein against it’s neck and is guided with the minimum of cueing. This is illustrated below by Judith on her 5 year old American Paint Songs Bright Spark ('Sparky').
Why do you need it?
Neck reining allows you to ride with the reins in one hand whilst guiding your horse accurately, smoothly and safely. It is usual to train your young horse in a snaffle or bosal, riding with two hands - with the longer term objective of progressing to a curb. In competition (depending on the association or society) you may be required to ride one handed. For example, Western Equestrian Society rules state that Amateur and Open classes are to be ridden one handed in a curb unless the horse is a junior (3 to 5 yrs old). Riding one handed on a loose rein shows the level of your horse’s training. In the picture to the right we see our good friend Lindsay Doel riding her beautiful quarter horse gelding LJ Classic Luke. Luke (also known as 'L'Oreal'... because he thinks he's worth it) was 10 when this picture was taken during an AQHA class. We asked Lindsay if we could use this image here because it illustrates perfectly the 'eye-appeal' of a well-schooled western horse. Together they demonstrate excellent one handed control - working softly and willingly, and easily negotiating obstacles. Lindsay describes him as 'the horse of a lifetime' - and we can see why! Luke has achieved a Register of Merit in both Amateur and Open Halter, and has earned AQHA Points in showmanship, pleasure, hunter under saddle and horsemanship.
What do you need now?
As always, take a reality check. Your horse needs to respond well to the bit and travel forward willingly. You need to be able to ride circles and turnswithout your horse dropping his inside shoulder or falling outthrough the outside shoulder. He should be able to perform all gaits in a reasonably consistent frame. However, training your horse to neck rein starts very early on. You should be constantly aware of the action of your reins and - whenever you turn using an open rein - make sure that at the same time you are laying the outside rein against your horse’s neck.
How to teach your horse to neck rein
First, walk on a loose rein with the reins in both hands. Pick a point to go to (maybe a fence post, a school marker, a tree etc) focusing on that object and checking that you are sitting straight. As soon as your horse wandersoff that straight line and is no longer lined up with your object, you need to turn in the opposite direction. For example, if your horse 'wobbles' to the left, run your right hand down the right rein taking his head to the right. Place the left rein against his neck but make sure that there is plenty of slack in it. Don’t release the right rein until you feel his forefeet starting to follow his nose and you have turned at least 90° to the right. Immediately release the right rein and pick another point to focus on ahead of you. Again, keeping your reins loose and sitting passively (be careful not to ‘protect’ your horse by trying to help him stay straight), feel for the moment when he deviates from your choosen straight line. Therefore, if you start wandering to the right, run your left hand down the left rein and take your horse’s head to the left until you are aware of the forefeet making a left turn. Immediately turn his head loose and pick another point to walk towards, continuing with the exercise until your horse stays between your reins without wandering left or right. [Note in the picture above how Skooter is maintaining a good arc through her whole body without dropping her inside (left) shoulder. It is vital your horse stays in the correct form and doesn't fall through the turns looking to the outside.]
We'll illustrate this with Sparky. He's a year older than Skooter and has progressed to a curb. In schooling sessions he's ridden both one and two handed, depending on exactly what Judith is aiming to achieve on that particular day. Click here to watch a video of Sparky being ridden two handed in a curb. The paragraph below describes the next steps in training your horse to neck rein.
Ride on a loose rein with no contact and with the reins in one hand. You can use either hand on the reins, but it is usual for a right handed person to carry them in the left hand. When starting a turn to the right, first look to the right but be careful not to drop your own shoulder to the inside – this will always result in the horse falling onto his inside shoulder. Lay your outside rein on the neck just in front of the withers being careful not to pull the reins too far over. (That would result in the outside rein tightening and pulling the horse’s head in the opposite direction.) When turning more than a quarter turn of 90° use an on/off action of the rein against the neck to tell the horse to keep going.
Even well trained, experienced horses need reminders to respond to the neck rein every now and then so you need to be prepared to use the inside rein whenever necessary. Click here to watch a video of Sparky being ridden one-handed in a curb.
Some useful neck reining exercises
With the reins in one hand...
Walk around the arena from one point to another – this could be school markers, or fence posts - frequently changing direction.
Ride a series of circles (approximately 8m – 10m) around the arena.
In Jog, ride several reverses with the reins remaining in one hand.
Lay out a line of 4 or 5 cones and, first in walk then in jog, ride serpentines around them.
Lope onto a large circle (approximately 18m – 20m) and check if your horse is willing to stay on the circle without drifting in or out.
Do start neck reining early on in your novice/young horse’s schooling - whilst still in a snaffle/bosal.
Do practise neck reining during every schooling session.
Do use your cool down time to practise walking and turning on a loose rein.
Don’t neck rein 'harder' – if your horse hasn’t answered your request you need to use an open rein to help.
Don’t allow your rein hand to cross over the mid point of your horse’s neck.