By the time Shelly came into the arena for her lesson with me, her mare’s bay coat was almost black with sweat. When Shelly bought the mare, Jewel, the previous year, she hadn’t noticed anything alarming about her behavior other than the horse seemed a little more nervous than other horses Shelly had come across. In that year, Jewel had gone from nervous to an unpredictable runaway. Shelly was an older and experienced horse woman who had zero desire to come off a horse at a full gallop.
While Shelly and I talked, I ran my hands under the saddle, checking the blanket and fit. I checked the bridle and made sure the bit was the right diameter. Shelly had gone to great lengths to customize everything for Jewel, she’d had the vet out to check her over, and taken care of her teeth and feet. Jewel also received bodywork every month.
The support that Shelly had given Jewel was thorough and had, in some respects, helped. Jewel was quieter on the ground, she had gained some needed weight and muscle mass, and her runaway episodes had become infrequent. But she still began to sweat and move when Shelly saddled her, and Jewel usually had to canter in a round pen for fifteen to twenty minutes before Shelly would get on her.
Shelly felt more confident in the sandy arena, knowing that even though Jewel ran, she wasn’t ever uncontrollable. As Shelly found the mounting block and got on Jewel, I saw the mare tense her whole body and then try to shoot forward. Before Jewel could rush more than a couple of strides, Shelly had bent the mare’s head around to the stirrup and they were circling in the middle of the arena.
It was apparent to me that this was an established pattern by the way Jewel quickly gave up and braced to a stop. Shelly held the mare in this position for a few seconds more before releasing her and walking over to where I stood.
“So is that normal?” I asked.
“Sure,” Shelly said. “It doesn’t happen every time, but it does happen enough that I’m ready for her.”
I asked Shelly if Jewel had always felt the need to rush away when a rider was on her, and she said yes, but after learning the one rein stop at another clinic she’d attended, at least she and Jewel weren’t going too far.
“So when you got her, she did this? She would feel like she had to take off the moment her rider was on her?”
Shelly nodded. “I’ve had to use the one rein stop more often in the last six months because if we go from walk to trot to canter she goes faster than I’m asking. I’m not sure how to make her stop other than using one rein.”
I asked Shelly to walk down to the other end of the arena. As they turned, Jewel tightened up again but maintained a stiff walk. Shelly asked, “Do you wanna see me trot her?” I said yes, and watched as Jewel took two steps into her trot and then jumped into a lope that was more like a deer leaping in fright. Shelly grabbed one rein and pulled Jewels head around and this time it took several minutes for the mare to come to a halt.
Walking up to the pair of them, I noticed Jewel was wide eyed and her mouth was clamped shut. I suspected that there was a miscommunication between her and Shelly and mentioned that if we tried something different, maybe we could get the both of them speaking the same language.
“Oftentimes, the one rein stop is taught and used as a training tool that is supposed to solve the problem of a horse who is going too fast. Sometimes it’s used as a punishment because it’s an effective way to control movement. But,” I added, “the downside is that a one rein stop, if used often enough, can sometimes make a horse nervous about moving at all.”
Shelly asked why it was taught so much, and why other trainers swore by it. I could tell she felt confused about the fact that she may have been inadvertently adding to Jewel’s nervousness.
“Honestly? I don’t know why other trainers use it so much. When I first started training I used it a lot too. It’s an emergency brake of sorts, and it gives the rider a way to slow a horse down who’s unable to respond to any sort of pressure.”
“But here’s the thing: it’s quite often used as a bandaid. Meaning, a one rein stop is a poor substitute for taking the time to educate the horse about what stopping is. While it is good in an emergency, it’s not very good as an every day training strategy.”
I went on, explaining to Shelly that we were going to change what she was doing to help Jewel. Instead of pulling her head around to the stirrup, we would ask for a figure eight, one that was relatively small where Jewel wasn’t ever in a straight line from her nose to her tail.
“What we want to do with Jewel is give her a chance to release her energy, instead of bottling it up. A one rein stop is like boiling water in a kettle that doesn’t have a spout: you may have a tea kettle for a little bit but at some point the whole thing is going explode from too much unreleased pressure.”
I could see Shelly starting to put the pieces together so I continued.
“I’m not telling you to never use the one rein stop. What I am saying though is that there are other, more effective ways to help your horse than that. I personally haven’t used a one rein stop in over twenty years.”
As Shelly asked Jewel to walk again, I talked about thinking of the shape of her figure eight. I let her know that her timing was good, and she would now use this to catch Jewel before she got too far into speeding up.
“Once you ask her for the trot, let’s put her in a little figure eight and see what happens,” I said.
As Shelly asked for the trot and Jewel responded by a stiff leap into it, Shelly picked up her left rein and began riding Jewel into the figure eight. It was five minutes before Jewel could slow to a walk, but in that time she had started to move with her head lower and her body relaxed.
“Tell me again why that works,” Shelly smiled as she walked Jewel over to me.
“Well, it works not only because you’ve installed a spout on the kettle to let off the steam, but also because instead of saying to Jewel ‘Don’t do that!’ You’re giving her something positive to do.”
“Think of it this way: all she knows is that when she goes faster she ends up bent around and stopped. But she doesn’t know why, so this increases her nervousness which increases her need to speed up.”
“Her question to you has been, ‘Can I speed up now?’ The answer we’ve been giving doesn’t make sense to her, so she keeps repeating the question. By directing her into a figure eight, we are not only giving her something to do to help her release nervousness and energy, but we are answering her question.”
Shelly wondered what the answer was. I said, “The answer we are giving Jewel is ‘Yes, and if we need to go that fast, we will go in a figure eight.”
As Shelly and Jewel kept practicing, I could see the tightness melt from both of their bodies. Jewel was able to move into a trot without rushing and Shelly started to feel more confident about how we were answering Jewel’s question. By the end of our session, Shelly could ask Jewel for a trot and she would jog and then come back down with minimal pressure from the reins.
When it comes to horses, we often ask an ineffective question when unwanted behavior shows up. We ask, “How can I fix it?”
A more helpful question might be “Why is my horse doing this in the first place?” The first question will most often put us behind them, not only in timing but in finding an effective solution. The second question will lead us to explore our interactions and come up with ways to help and educate our horse. An educated horse is most often a calmer and more content horse.