Gain your horse’s trust and lightness with this simple tool


Looking to break up the boredom this winter?  Here’s a simple trick to challenge your communication with your horse.  It’s cheap– free, basically– and can tell you how much you rely on your hands for control.

Creating the neck rope
Tie a piece of baling twine (or any thin rope) around your horse’s neck.  It should lie loosely at the base of the neck, reaching just up over the withers.  Play around with the length to find what works for your particular horse’s size and shape.

Using the neck rope
How much do you use your reins to stop and steer?  Should you be using your legs and seat more?  (Probably yes!)  In an enclosed area, try to ride your horse at a walk, on a very loose rein, perhaps on the buckle, and use the neck rope along with your legs and weight to steer.  Can you manage 20m circles and figure-8s?  It may look like a pitiful attempt at neck-reining, but keep at it.  Emphasize your leg and seat aids to get a response, especially if you feel yourself wanting to grab a rein!

You’ll notice that sitting deep will make your aids most effective.  While it is tempting to lean to the inside of a turn, you’ll probably notice that weighting your outside seatbone (and/or stirrup) will produce a more accurate turn.
To stop or slow, exhale a deep breath (saying “Whoa” if you want), sit deeply, hug with your leg and tug gently backward/upward on the neck rope.  Some horses are very sensitive and halt promptly, others seem to blow through the neck rope and ignore it.  If that’s the case you may need to use your reins in conjunction with the rope to get a nice halt.  Use less rein as the horse understands the pressure to whoa.

When you can stop and steer reliably at the walk, try trotting on a loose rein using the neck rope.  It will likely feel very wiggly, but concentrate on using your body to keep the horse straight between both legs.  Half-halt with your body, giving brief tugs on the neck rope if he gets too quick.  Again, if he doesn’t understand, use some rein contact as needed.  Half-halts with the neck rope discourage the horse from leaning on his forehand, and there’s nothing for him to pull against or lean on your hands.

As an off-season exercise, I like to use the neck rope during my daily warmup.  It allows the horse the freedom to use his head and neck as he wishes, breaking a common rider habit of taking too much contact before the horse is ready.  Such horses often resent the contact, getting fussy in the bridle or falling behind the leg.  Walking, trotting, and cantering circles each direction with minimal rein contact helps get both of you on the same page– making the horse pay attention to your leg and seat, and making the rider aware of how body position affects the horse’s way of going.  When I do pick up contact on the reins, I find I use them much less; and my horse reaches willingly into contact, because I am riding effectively from my body, not my hands.

Some horses pick up on the neck rope very quickly– these types are probably already sensitive to your leg and weight aids, and you may be surprised how effectively you can control the horse with no reins.  It is very empowering to have such close communication and trust between you and your horse.

Horses who are sensitive in the bridle tend to LOVE the neck rope.  Using this technique, I eventually taught my upper level event mare to ride bridleless.  She loved the freedom, and yet was always 100% in control and in tune with my seat.  I have another green horse who is also doing well with the neck rope; I’m not sure I trust him enough to take the bridle off, but he is very relaxed and happy to be ridden without reins.  Spending time with no rein contact has eliminated a lot of his tension and evasive tactics.

So if you find yourself bored with circles in the indoor this winter, why not give it a try?  Who knows, by the time the snow thaws, you may have developed a whole new level of trust, lightness and communication with your horse.

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