Hint: It starts with you... and it doesn't require a pull on the reins!
Riders often talk about getting their horses to "give to the bit." If you're unfamiliar with the term, here is my interpretation of what the phrase means. The rider shortens the rein to the point that the horse feels the pressure in his mouth. Then the educated horse should soften his jaw and poll and "give" in the direction of the pull. The rider then releases his pressure on the bit.
The result is that the horse feels light on the bit, and avoids pulling against the rein pressure. The head and neck do soften in response to the pressure, and the horse's movement might in fact improve when compared to the horse that is ridden in tension and tightness.
It's relatively easy to get most horses to give to the bit in this manner. A cause and effect response (the horse finds a release when he releases) is fairly simple for horses and riders to learn and respond to.
Many people ride like this over the long term, and I have done so myself - so I know of what I speak! The problem is that most horses have to develop some sort of coping mechanism to be able to hold their body in a position that allows for the bit release (also called "framing").
Here are some issues that can develop from pulling to get the horse to give:
- hollow back
- disengagement from the hind end (i.e. less energy)
- tilted head position
- overbend in the neck
- (the dreaded) "breaking at the 3rd vertebra" in the neck
- open mouth
I'm sure there's more. In any case, if the horse shows these signs, chances are that you might unknowingly be putting the horse into a stressful position, even if it feels good in your hands. No matter how you slice it and dice it, a pull causes some sort of blockage of energy somewhere in the horse's body.
There is another way, although I have to admit that it requires considerably more coordination and balance on the rider's part. It will likely take longer to learn but when done correctly, the horse's response is worth every stumbling, fumbling minute it took for you to learn.
Almost every horse responds positively if you know how to do it, even if the horse is green or less educated.
Start with contact. Taking contact doesn't mean pull - it means that your reins are short enough for you and your horse to feel each other. Think of it as holding hands. Shorten your reins just enough for you and your horse to be able to communicate comfortably (as in, you don't want to have to pull the reins shorter after he takes off, or conversely, you won't be pulled out of the saddle because the reins were too tight).
You must get a response from the hind end. Use your leg and seat aids to - Go! The horse should move ahead with confidence. Note that the horse shouldn't move faster. Instead, you should feel an energy surge that might even give you a bit of a whiplash feeling. This is good. Ride it! (Don't get left behind and inadvertently pull on the reins).
Maintain contact. Don't push your hands forward, straighten your elbows, release the reins forward, let the reins go, or anything else that will drop the horse suddenly onto his forehand. Also, avoid pulling backwards for any reason. Just be there and go with him.
Half-halt. Yes, here it is again! The half-halt will help the horse not fall to the forehand. It will help him maintain balance even while putting in more energy - from the hind.
This is the most important step.
Give a tiny 1-inch release forward. This comes after the half-halt. You can soften your elbows and/or shoulders to give that release.
You will feel like there is nothing in your hands.
You might be amazed to discover that when you release, your horse can release too. That tiny bit of space forward allows him to reach TO THE BIT (not come off the bit). This movement automatically releases the poll and jaw, without the horse having to "learn" anything. It's just a physical response.
The end result is a horse that is moving forward, "ahead of the leg," with a naturally set neck, and a soft poll/jaw to top it all off.
But the best part is how it feels. I've called it "marshmallow contact" in the past because it feels soft and loose and sweet.
Basically, your release gets the horse's release - forward. You can be on a bend or going straight. The feeling is the same.
Initially, you might be able to coordinate all your aids only once in a while. Or you might run into problems and not get a release at all for some time. The only answer is to get good, consistent feedback from your instructor. Keep trying until you "find" it. Then you will be able to find it more frequently, and then finally, one day, you'll be able to get it (almost) consistently!
Keep at it, because in the end, it's the horse who benefits. Listen to him for snorts, a swinging back, strength in movement, deep strides, and overall tension release. And enjoy how it feels!
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Read more here:
Try This Exercise To Improve Your Rein Contact: This article is about how you can “take contact” in a predictable, consistent manner.
Try This To Feel "Forward": After you can reproduce it, you won’t be able to go without it, and you’ll wonder how you ever rode without.
What To Do When Your Horse Pulls: “Pulling” is something that is absolutely under your control and something you can change if you focus on your aids and timing.
What To Do When A Half-Halt Just Won't Do: In the end, it doesn’t really matter why the half-halt did not “go through”. There could be a thousand and one reasons why! The fact is, it did not work.
"Go And No": The Connection Between Forward And Half-Halt In Horse Riding: We have to learn the coordination between “go and no” – all the while, keeping our balance to give the appropriate aids while not pulling on the reins.