If you are a recreational rider just starting to learn the hows and whys of horsemanship, you may be wondering about the necessity of neck reining. You may have even told yourself that neck reining is only important if you’re going to show your horse. Otherwise, it’s not something you and your horse really need to know.
Not so, says trainer Al Dunning of Scottsdale, Arizona. In fact, Dunning encourages riders to think of neck reining as a fundamental skill that every well-trained western horse should have.
“In its finished state, neck reining is a one-handed maneuver versus riding the horse with two hands,” Dunning explains. “Riding with two hands on the reins is basically a colt maneuver. If a horse doesn’t neck rein properly, it is hard to control him with one hand for everyday tasks such as roping a cow, opening a gate, or reaching down for your water bottle.”
And the horse that responds with a feather-like touch of the reins is the hallmark of a well-broke western horse. It’s what accomplished horsemen like Dunning strive for.
“If you want to have a lot of fun on your horse in a variety of environments, you need to have control, and that means your horse needs to know how to neck-rein,” the trainer insists.
“It is going to be a lot more fun, not to mention safer. You can have one hand free to straighten your hat or, if need be, to grab the saddle horn,” he adds.
A Cue Not a Command
Neck reining is pretty much like it sounds. It is a basic rider control used to ask your horse to go right or left. You apply, or lay, a rein against your horse’s neck to cue and direct his motion. It’s what allows you to guide your horse with just a single hand on the reins.
Neck reining is the counterpart to “direct reining,” in which you guide the horse by pulling on one rein to physically point the horse’s nose in the direction you want to go. In other words, when using a direct rein, when you want your horse to turn to the left, you pull on your left rein, and vice versa.
The neck rein is often referred to as an “indirect rein.” To neck rein your horse to the left, you actually lay your right rein (the indirect rein) against the right side of your horse’s neck. After your horse has been taught the cue, he knows then to move away from the pressure, so he turns to the left.
From left to right: In the early stages of training, Dunning applies direct rein pressure to physically show his horse which way to turn. He also applies light indirect pressure against the neck on the opposite side so she begins to make an association between the two reins. Center: After a time, the indirect rein starts to come more into play. Dunning uses the neck rein to ask his horse to move her shoulders, getting them to follow the direction established with nose and neck. Light inside rein pressure keeps her nose tipped into the turn. Right: When a neck rein is applied too low and too forcefully, it actually tips the horse’s face away from the direction of the turn, which is counterproductive.
From left to right: Applying outside leg pressure at the cinch reinforces the neck rein cue and allows the rider to keep the signal soft and effective. Right: If you want your horse to neck rein, there comes a time when you simply have to start doing it! Put both your reins in one hand and start guiding. With his reins bridged like this, Dunning can tip his horse’s nose into the turn if and when she needs an occasional reminder.
Keep in mind that neck-reining is a request rather than a physical command. If you apply a neck rein too hard, you’ll get exactly the opposite effect that you want. The excess pressure pulls on the bit and turns your horse’s face in the wrong direction, often tilting the horse’s head in the process.
Of course, horses need to be taught to recognize the neck rein as a cue. It will take a bit of time to convey the idea that when the horse feels the weight of the rein against one side of his neck, he needs to move away from it. However, if you’re consistent, most horses pick it up fairly fast.
Hailing back to the times of working cattle and other livestock from horseback, neck reining gives you a supreme advantage on the trail or in the arena.
Get the Signal
· Get your horse guiding softly first using direct rein pressure.
· Begin using an outside, or “indirect,” rein against the horse’s neck, along with direct rein pressure.
· Begin transitioning to one hand by applying a neck rein first, followed by inside rein.
· As responsiveness improves, use the inside rein only when needed to keep the horse’s nose tipped into the turn.
· Keep your reins even, with your thumb on top, and apply the neck rein cue lightly.
· Use outside leg pressure to encourage your horse to follow his nose, neck and shoulders.
Teaching the Cue
Teaching a horse to neck rein is not complicated. It just takes discipline, consistency and thoughtful repetition. Dunning says to start by making sure your horse first understands how to guide via direct reining.
“If you want to go to the right, you pull on the right rein. If you want to go to the left, you pull on the left rein,” he says. “Some people refer to this as ‘plow reining’ a horse.”
It’s important to have the horse giving softly to your direct rein requests, so be sure to time your rein release when the horse gives his nose to the degree that you want.
As things progress, you’ll start using two hands to turn the horse. However, now the goal is to use both a direct rein and an indirect rein. This lays the foundation for neck reining.
“If you are turning your horse to the left, you will take your left rein and pull the horse’s nose to the left with a direct rein. At the same time, take the outside rein (the indirect rein) and lay it against the horse’s neck,” says Dunning.
Using the inside rein gets the nose turning in the correct direction, while using the outside rein helps to turn the horse’s shoulders. The idea is to have the horse’s head, neck and shoulders moving together, Dunning explains. You want to keep the horse’s face and shoulders connected and working together.
Initially, Dunning rides his 2-year-olds in a snaffle bit with both hands, but they are already learning the premise of moving off of neck rein pressure through this simple foundation training. After consistently using direct and indirect reins together, his horses become primed for transitioning to one-handed guiding.
“By the time a horse is beginning his 3-year-old year, we are already developing a neck rein situation, because we have taken the horse through the process,” Dunning explains “We have the horse turning right and left, so that he knows when the outside rein touches his neck, he’s supposed to move away from that pressure.
“We are still using some direct rein as well, to reinforce that the nose should tip in the direction of the turn. So if you are making a turn to the left, you will have a slight hold of the nose with the left direct rein and the outside rein will be against the neck-almost like a reinforcement rein.” Dunning is quick to point out that it is important to teach your horse to follow his body in the correct progression
“We teach the horse to move in the direction he is turning with the nose first, the neck second, withers and shoulders third, and then the ribcage,” he says. “The hip basically stays stationary as the horse turns.”
About Al Dunning
Al Dunning has been a leading reining, cutting, and cowhorse trainer.
Dunning and his students have won 21 world championship titles. He has also won an NRHA open world championship and is a major event champion in NRHA, NCHA and NRCHA competition.
In 2004, Al was awarded the Monty Roberts Equitarian Award. In 2003, he received the Zane Schulte NCHA Trainer of the Year award, and in 1996, the AQHA honored him with the prestigious Professional Horseman of the Year award.
Al and his wife, Becky, have been married since 1971. The couple has two children, McKenzie and Grady. The Dunnings spend their winters at Almosta Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the summer months at Jackson Land & Cattle in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Give it Time
Like most things, teaching a horse to neck rein reliably and confidently takes time.
“Even the best horse, when he is learning to neck rein, is going to need a lot of reinforcement to fully learn the concept,” Dunning maintains.
For several months, that might mean going to one hand, applying the neck rein first to ask the horse to turn, but then adding the direct rein to reinforce the concept and make sure the horse tips his nose in the direction of the turn.
“Eventually, you want that horse to move off of the neck rein and look into the direction of the turn without the direct rein,” says Dunning.
He points out that sometimes you “just have to do it.” So after your horse has learned the foundation of neck reining, there will come a time to put your reins in one hand and rely on neck reining, rather than remain dependent on both reins to steer.
“I have seen a lot of horses that didn’t neck rein well, but the rider said, ‘Okay, I am just going to go ahead and ride my horse one-handed. I am not going to make a big deal about it. I am going to get the horse to neck rein the best I can, and then I am going to reinforce it with a direct rein only if need be,'” Dunning notes.
“The easier you apply your cues, over a longer amount of time, the better and smoother the transition to neck reining will be.”
Add a Little Leg…
When you are focusing on neck reining, it can be easy to forget about your legs, Dunning cautions. However, when neck reining, legs are an important part of the equation.
“There is a saying, ‘The horse is as light in the mouth as he is in the belly,'” Dunning observes. “Good trainers use 50% hand and 50% leg. So if a rider applies a rein cue on the horse’s neck and he doesn’t get the correct response, he will use an outside leg to urge the horse to turn off of the neck rein.”
When it Goes Wrong…
As a professional trainer and non-pro coach for more than 35 years, Dunning has seen his share of neck reining gone wrong.
“A lot of times it is misused. Someone will rein and turn his hand upside down, which causes one rein to be tighter than the other,” he says. “Other times a rider will rein too hard, which prevents the horse from tipping his head and following his nose in the direction of the turn.”
Another common mistake is when a rider tries to pull the horse in the desired direction. Remember, neck reining takes finesse, not force.
“You’ll see a rider use his reins hard and low, and use a lot of outside leg cue to try to turn the horse. This causes the horse to throw his shoulder into the turn before his nose-teaching the horse to resist rather than move away from the rein pressure applied to the neck,” says Dunning.
To prevent these common errors, think of keeping your rein hand straight, with your thumb on top of your reins. And remember that the neck rein is applied lightly, signaling the horse to move away from it. Ask your horse to move in the direction you want to go with the neck rein, instead of attempting to drag him there. And as Dunning advises, if your horse doesn’t respond as well to the neck rein as he should, resist the urge to use more neck rein. Instead, use your outside leg as a back up to your neck rein.
“Even on an older horse that has been neck reined a lot, if he is reined too hard, he will not respond correctly,” says Dunning.
Although Dunning starts all of his horses in the snaffle, the ultimate goal is to eventually transition them to a shanked bit. Neck reining is normally associated with a shanked bit and western style riding.
“I train my horses to neck rein using the snaffle bit and then the hackamore. Then I go to a shanked snaffle, then finally to more of a fixed bit,” he explains.
“It is important to mention that the only bits that are really made for neck reining are leveraged bits. A leveraged bit is a curb bit, with a chinstrap and the reins attached on the bottom rings. That is really the only bit that is made to neck rein. But you should start teaching the foundation and the concept of neck reining in the snaffle.”
Consistency and Focus
Dunning cautions that the hardest horse to teach to neck rein is an older horse that has never been taught to move off of the outside leg and outside rein. If you have a horse that fits that description, the trainer strongly suggests going back to the basics.
“That is the tip of the day: When in doubt, go back to the basics. Teach the horse to move off of your leg by doing a lot of side-passing and two-tracking. Then teach the horse to turn off the outside rein by tipping his nose to the inside with the direct rein as I explained,” he says.
Ultimately, no matter how old your horse is or what you do with him, he likely will appreciate being ridden via a slack neck rein rather than direct rein. Through consistent cues, you can teach him to willingly guide off of your one-handed cues.
“One thing I can tell you,” says Dunning, “is that things will progress smoother and faster if you put the neck rein on, and always make sure the nose is leading. After a while, depending on the sensitivity of the horse, the horse will take over and automatically guide off of your neck rein. It might be six months, it might be a year. But if you are consistent, calm, and repetitive with your cues, it will happen.”
And chances are, if you can easily guide your horse using a neck rein, your next trip down the trail will be much more enjoyable.