Does this happen to you? You are working on a stretch over the back at the trot, but the moment you let your reins out, your horse goes faster and faster until he feels like he's going to go head first in the sand. Or you let your reins out and your horse throws his head up, hollowing his back and breaking stride.
Keeping balance on a long rein can be harder than it looks. The longer your horse gets, the more difficult it is for him to keep his legs underneath him.
Yet you know it can be done. You might have seen people doing it nonchalantly without any apparent effort. But the half-halt was there, even though the horse was stretching long and low and the reins were let out.
That's because the horse didn't just speed up. He stayed in balance, kept up his energy, showed a beautiful swing through the back and just kept going. He looked great!
But when you tried it yourself, the result wasn't exactly the same. When you lengthened the reins, your horse stuck his neck out and even higher. He sped up, taking the longer rein as a signal to go faster. Or he got longer and longer in the body until he eventually had to break from a trot to a walk.
If something like this has happened to you, you're not alone! We've all been there.
The key is in knowing what to do when, with good timing and a nice feel on the reins.
When To Use A Long Rein
In dressage, we ride with long reins when we want the horse to stretch over the top line. He takes the bit forward and downward, allowing his back to be the highest point. You will often feel an increase swing in the movement, especially in the trot, if the stretch is done correctly.
Alternatively, you may use a long rein for your particular riding style. The hunter under saddle horses move with a long neck and so need a long rein even as they move with good activity and impulsion. Many of the western disciplines also go in a longer rein with little pressure on the bit. In any case, the horse's balance must be maintained, preferably in a non-intrusive, invisible manner.
How to Half-Halt On A Long Rein
This is where the half-halt can be handy. All good riders use some version of the half-halt (in western riding, it might be called a "check"). Whether you use your whole body, seat, back or fingers, you need to do something to help your horse stay in balance.
Here is something you can try.
Shorten the reins (even though they are long) until you have a soft contact with the mouth. You can play with the strength of the half-halt. Many times, you won't need more than a finger squeeze on the reins to keep the horse from falling to the forehand. Other times, you can use your seat. In trot, post slowly to encourage a slow tempo (but keep up the energy). Give your horse time to bring each leg through to the next step.
Keep your rein length and make sure you start with energy coming from the hind end and over the back. If you want your horse to stretch more, see if your horse will take the rein out from your fingers. If your horse is not used to stretching over the back, he might not be willing to take the bit forward. You might need to try this a few times.
Once you are riding on the length of rein you want (it can be given out all the way or some of the way), the trick is to keep the horse balanced, with the same impulsion and the same leg speed. Keep the rein tight enough that you can still feel the horse. Then go ahead and work on the half-halt all over again.
Many riders tend to stop riding once they let the reins out. You have to continue riding with all your aids regardless of the length of the rein. In fact, if you imagine that you can ride pretty much the same way regardless of rein length, you'll be on the right track. Long or short, keep a light contact, keep your horse moving over the back, and use half-halts to maintain your horse's balance.
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