Let’s Fix Your Too-Tight Reins

In this excerpt from his new book The Horse Is My Teacher, horseman Van Hargis explains how we must be present and accountable for the contact we take on our horses’ mouths.

Let your horse go. Most of the time when I’m encouraging someone to let her horse go, I am referring to the fact that her reins are too tight and the bit is too engaged in the horse’s mouth. However, I can appreciate a rider’s concerns when I have to repeat, Let your horse go. To the novice and the rider that has had a bad experience on horseback—such as a horse that bolted, spooked, or bucked…or even bucked them off—their concerns about letting their horses go are fear-based.

Again, I appreciate that.

Another time I might encourage someone to let the horse go is when a person is quick to correct the horse or corrects him too frequently. I compare this kind of riding to a driver of a vehicle that makes passengers car sick from oversteering or steering abruptly. This driver often has difficulty controlling speed too, speeding up or slowing down, but rarely maintaining a consistent pace. (Have you ever noticed the driver in these situations never gets car sick?) I find this particular scenario is common with the inexperienced or the “Type-A” personality. As you may know, Type-A personalities may be more anxious, impatient, and concerned about time management. These can be great traits and are common in high-achievers. But as my grandmother would say, “Everything in moderation.”

Part of being a good horseman is being keenly aware of one’s horse at all times. Although having a tight hold on the reins might help you feel more secure in the saddle, the question is, how does it affect the horse? Let’s consider for a moment the things that make a horse feel secure. I’d wager the list would include freedom, comfort, confidence, and leadership, perhaps. There are more, but let’s consider these four for a moment. A rider that has her reins held too tightly may feel more secure, but how are her actions with her own personal security in mind impacting the security of the horse? The reins being too tightly held is surely uncomfortable for the horse. It restricts his freedom and perhaps diminishes his confidence in his leader (the rider). We know from our basic understanding of horses that their first instinct when they are threatened, insecure, or uncomfortable is flight. They want to escape from where they are to find safety in a more comfortable place. Who could blame them? However, when being ridden by a rider that is the source of their anxiety, what are they to do? They try to communicate their need for relief from the bit or bridle by perhaps dancing or jigging, or tossing their heads and extending their noses. This behavior concerns or frustrates the rider, so the rider might apply more pressure to the reins, thinking it will restrict the horse from being able to jig or toss his head. This only makes the discomfort, and cause of the behavior, worse.

I wonder sometimes if folks fully understand what is going on when a horse tosses his head, for example. What’s taking place is the horse is seeking relief from the pressure of the bit or bridle, if only for a fraction of a moment. When a rider has the reins tight and the horse tosses his head, the rider’s arms are extended by the pull from the horse for a second. During the brief time the rider’s arms move from the extended position back to the bent and braced position, the reins are slack. The horse achieved his own release.

I like to demonstrate this situation at horsemanship clinics. I do so by asking a clinic participant to hold one end of a lead rope while I hold the other. I’ll gradually ease the slack out of the rope, then ask the participant to keep the rope tight and not allow slack in the rope nor allow me to pull the participant toward me. If I begin to slowly pull more on my end of the rope, inevitably, I will feel my partner in the exercise increase the pull on the opposite end of the rope. However, if I instead pull quickly and abruptly without prior notice, the participant is temporarily caught off guard, and her arm is temporarily extended, or the rope may even slide through her hand a bit. In either scenario, from that moment until she regains her grip on the rope or bends her arm, the rope is slack. During that slack moment, there is no tension in the rope.

In the defense of some riders, they simply do not realize they are pulling on the reins. I’d wager that most people’s hands, although extremely sensitive, are not as sensitive as a horse’s mouth or nose.

When my wife and I travel together, we frequently hold hands. I’m a horseman. I work with my hands on the ranch in one way or another just about every day—handling ropes, saddles, gates, feed buckets, hay, manure forks, post drivers, pipes, tractor implements, and so much more. My hands are strong, calloused, and rough. My wife, also a very hard worker, does a completely different type of work with her hands. She handles the phone, computer, contracts, folders, cameras, and other elements of our business. Her hands are strong, smooth, and soft. Yet we love to hold each other’s hands. Occasionally, while we are holding hands, my wife will readjust her hand in mine. Because my hand is strong, rough, and calloused I often don’t realize the grip I have on her strong, smooth, and soft hand. I very much enjoy holding her hand, so I must be keenly aware that her hand in comparison to mine is more sensitive. I must be present in my awareness. When I am not, my grip gets tighter and eventually uncomfortable for my wife. That’s when she reminds me with an adjustment.

To earn the privilege and satisfaction of holding my wife’s hand, I must remain present and accountable. For a rider to earn the privilege and satisfaction of riding a horse, the rider must remain present and accountable. Those who choose not to be accountable for the discomfort they may be causing a horse might address head-tossing by applying another device, such as a tie-down or a martingale. Both of these can be useful tools for their intended purposes but certainly not for this case. The tie-down or martingale may prevent the horse from tossing his head, but the cause of the behavior still remains. Address the cause; find the cure.

Photo courtesy of Van Hargis

This excerpt from The Horse Is My Teacher by Van Hargis is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can purchase it here