Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Some people call it "rein lame".

Other people blame everything under the sun.

But we know that it is often caused by incorrect riding.

You know what I'm talking about - it is the kind of riding that allows the horse to move crookedly. It's about the riding that does not acknowledge (recognize?) that the horse is constantly travelling on the forehand, pounding the front legs into the sand day after day with no improvement.

It ends up being demonstrated by the horse with a shuffling or running gait, the pinned ears, the tense body - even though his legs move and the "buttons" work (sometimes), even the non-horsey onlooker can pick up on the horse's misery.

Most of all, the problems are obvious in the horse's movement. A judge might call it "losing rhythm" or "uneven". A coach might notice that the horse limps when on circles or turns. Although it is easy to overlook the inconsistencies, a careful observer might be able to see bad steps. On the horse's back, you feel the horse taking limping steps, although it is difficult to identify which leg or where the limping comes from. The vet sees the tightness and tension but further diagnosis identifies nothing wrong at all.

Often, problems caused by riding can be fixed with riding. It is just a matter of knowing what to do in order to counteract the problems.

(Click to tweet that if you agree.)

What to do?

1. Step out (weight to the outside shoulder). This "step" can be one step or several steps. For a younger or less experienced horse, you can actually allow the horse to drift out into an almost leg-yield. The step out can be done both on a circle or on a straight line. Regardless of where the horse is positioned, the step must be initiated by the inside hind leg. Use your inside seat and leg to initiate the step to the outside.

2. Create a bend. Stiffness and crookedness are the main reasons for allowing a build-up of tension. The inside seat and leg also help to develop a bend in the horse's body.  However, you can regulate the amount of bend - it can be fairly shallow especially for the stiffest horse. You can work your way up to a deeper bend as the tension falls away.

3. Use the outside leg behind the girth to capture the horse's hip and to prevent him from swinging it out. There always has to be an outside leg to create a "wall" to help the horse know just how far to step out.

4. Use the outside rein to prevent the neck from swinging to the inside. Of course you must use the outside rein! A floppy outside rein will encourage the crookedness that is probably already plaguing your horse. If there is nothing to provide an outside "wall" for the bend, there will be no bend! Let the horse curve into the outside rein. That outside rein is also going to govern just how far you want the horse to step out (#1).

5. Use the inside rein to maintain flexion to prevent stiffness all the way from the jaw to the tail. The inside rein has only one job: to maintain a soft flexion. Keep the horse looking to the inside of the bend (circle) by using a light (on/off) contact. Do not let the nose point to the outside, but also avoid pulling the horse into the bend or circle with just the inside rein. There should always be mini-releases when the inside rein is being applied, or you will block the inside hind leg from having a chance to reach under the body.

6. Finish with impulsion. Once the horse has stepped out and because of the movement, loosened up and released some tension, ask for a bit more of a step underneath from the hind legs. Remember to always finish any lateral work with an increase in stride length and energy.

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How often you use the "step out" depends on how stiff the horse is and how often the bad steps occur.

The key is to catch the bad steps early, and then work with the bend and shift of weight to the outside to get the horse to release his tightness and tension.

The Results

If you notice a wider lateral step through the shoulder (to the outside), and less of a limping feeling, then you know you are on the right track.

If the horse becomes calmer/stronger/bouncier/rounder, you know this is the way to go.

If the horse gives you a snort, a chew on the bit, and soft ears, you know you've hit the jackpot!

Essentially, you are looking for the release of tension that allows the horse to use his muscles to bear weight and produce the locomotion. You are seeking a condition that allows the horse to NOT put excess strain on the joints, tendons, ligaments and skeleton.

Ideally, you are doing your best to put the horse into his happy place, so he can enjoy his work and develop in a positive manner.

There are likely many other exercises that can address the same problem.

P.S. Can you achieve the same results with a step (or steps) to the inside? YES! All the same ideas apply - then, you can "play" to the inside AND the outside of the circle/bend on a straight line and develop both sides of the horse's body!

Have you used any exercises to help with rein lameness? Please comment below.

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If you found this post helpful, you might also want to read:

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.

Demystifying “Contact” in Horseback Riding: Does “contact” have other-wordly connotations? Here is why effective contact is within reach of the average rider.

From a Whisper to a Scream: How Loud Should Our Aids Really Be? Should we be “loud” in our aids, or should we be working as softly as we can in hopes that our horse can respond to lighter and more refined aids?

Do You Make This Timing Mistake When Riding Your Horse? Have you ever given your horse an aid and got nothing in return? There could be one other variable that you might not have considered…

7 Comments

  1. Another great article, Kathy. As well as correcting their horse’s crookedness, rider’s should pay attention to their own alignment. If the rider is crooked (and most of us are) it is very difficult (if not impossible) for the horse to not be crooked as well. Very often riders are not able to keep contact on the outside rein because their outside shoulder is forward. That is often caused by the inside hip being back. By bringing the inside hip forward (so that the rider is actually straight), the outside shoulder will automatically come back. Ta Da … contact on the outside rein.

  2. By weighting one seat bone or the other, one can encourage bend in that direction. This should always be used with the inside leg asking for the horse to bend around it, and the outside leg providing impulsion for the bend. The hands also ask the horse to bend, with a slight direct or indirect rein. A more advanced form of this set of aids is seen in the half-pass , where the outside leg asks the horse to step over, the inside opening rein encourages that movement, and the inside seatbone and leg maintain the bend in the direction of travel.

  3. Yes, another very good article. I think, though, that you need to take into consideration that the horse might actually BE lame. Bad riding can cause lameness or the perception of lameness. Very good riding can help the horse to be more balanced and comfortable and even can disguise a slight physical lameness so that the horse appears to be sound. Be sure to observe the horse on the lunge and straight ahead without rider or reins to be sure you’re not dealing with a physical problem. If he’s sound when moving on his own, then these exercises will be helpful in dealing with the irregularity under saddle.

    1. Yes, very true! Thank you for mentioning this very important point.

      I was coming from the perspective that there was nothing otherwise wrong with the horse – the very top link to the words “rein lame” point the reader back to the initial article I had written about what rein lame is – and that it is NOT a true physical issue.

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