Put an End to Tug-of-War

Learn how to teach your horse to release himself by giving to the pressure of the bit.

You distinctly remember buying those reins. You’re sure of it. Yes, you pondered about the length, how they’d feel in your hands, and how they’d look with your bridle. Yet, every ride, you find yourself arguing with your horse over who owns them-him or you.

We want to reverse that situation. It’s the classic tug-of-war game, and it’s getting old.

There are two facts that are good to face up front. First, your horse may always have a tendency to lean on the bit. Horses seem born to pull. Second, training or retraining the horse won’t permanently solve the problem unless you condition yourself not to let the reins slip through your fingers.

Here’s how it works. Your horse reaches the end of the rein and he leans on the bit slightly. You open your fingers, allowing about an inch of the rein to slip through. You may have done it inadvertently, or perhaps you were concerned about hurting your horse’s mouth. Either way, the horse learned that by pulling, he can get you to ease the rein tension.giving to the pressure. It’s not a complicated lesson, but it does require a lot of concentration on the part of the rider.

A Post Doesn’t Give
There’s an exercise I use when I’m doing symposiums, and it’s quite effective in teaching about pulling and giving. I blindfold a volunteer, and give him one end of a lariat rope. Then I tie the other end around a stationary object, like a post holding up the covered arena. I tell the person that he’s the horse and his mission is to get the “rider” to release the pressure. He doesn’t know whether the “rider” is a person holding the other end of the rope or if it’s tied to something.

At first, the volunteer will go to the end of the rope and put light tension on it, just feeling it out. When it doesn’t give, he’ll lean against it, sometimes even laying his whole body weight against it. When that doesn’t work, he’ll use a series of jerks, trying to snap the rope free. Then he’ll try a combination of pulling and jerking, resting a moment, then launching his whole being into getting that post to move. The audience is always amazed.

Some volunteers give up right away. They test it, determine they can’t get the rope released, and they quit. But others work at it for a long time, sure they can move the object that the rope is attached to. In fact, when I ask them if they’re ready to quit, they often say they think it moved a little, so they want to keep at it. Eventually, when they reach the conclusion that the post won’t give, they quit pulling. When I remove the blindfold, we all have a good laugh about the post they thought they moved.

The moral of the story is that when the volunteer became convinced that pulling didn’t release the rope, they quit pulling. And that’s what will happen with your horse, too. When he learns that despite his various efforts, you’re not releasing that rein, he’ll quit pulling and try something else.

One of the options he’ll try is “giving” toward the source of the pull, and magically, the rein will release. Your job will be to convince the horse that your end of the rein is attached to an immovable post, so he’s the one who has to give.

This is the same theory that some trainers use when they tie horses to a snubbing post. The horses pull and pull, and eventually quit pulling when they can’t get free. The theory helps us, but we do not recommend that method of teaching a horse to stand tied, because many horses hurt themselves before they give up.

Two Solutions
There are two ways to end the tug-of-war, and they both involve you “being the post.” The first is sort of a quick fix. It’s just a matter of holding one rein braced against the saddle until the horse stops pulling. Then you immediately release the rein. This method is most effective with the horse who pulls hard, tosses his head, or roots his nose forward, especially when he’s standing still.

Let’s say there’s enough slack in the rein, but your horse wants more, so he jerks his head, trying to get you to let go of the rein. Simply take the slack out of one rein, and hold it braced against the saddle. If you don’t let your hand move, your horse will eventually quit pulling the rein-at least for a moment. At that instant, totally release the rein, rewarding him for being quiet with his head.

The moment he begins to toss his head again, shorten the rein slightly, brace your rein hand against your saddle, and hold it there until your horse’s head is quiet. Release the instant he stops pulling or tossing his head. After a few tries, he’ll get the idea.

It’s really important that you release the rein totally at the moment your horse’s head is quiet. Many horses are quiet for a second, then begin pulling again. If you are slow or grudging in your release, the horse will get a release as he pulls the second time. You’ll be reinforcing the behavior you don’t want the horse to repeat.

While the quick fix will teach the horse not to jerk the reins through your fingers, we want to go beyond that to teach him to obey the rein. We want him to “give” to pressure on the rein, not just refrain from pulling.

Our plan is to use the “hips over” movement to teach the horse the language of rein pressure and release of pressure, and to set him up to “give” with his nose. Just before a horse moves his hips to the right, he’ll turn his nose slightly to the left. We call that turn of his nose a “give” to the left rein or “give to the bit.”

Here’s an overview of the lesson. In an enclosed area (so you don’t have to worry about steering), ride the horse forward at the walk. Reach about 10 inches forward of the saddle with your left hand, and grasp the left rein. Pull the rein smoothly toward your body until you feel the horse take a big step to the right with his hindquarters. Immediately release the rein and keep walking. After a few steps, repeat the exercise and then teach it with the right rein moving the hips to the left.

With some practice, when you pick up the rein, instead of stiffening his neck, the horse will give to the rein before you put any tension on it. That’s our goal. Ideally, we don’t want to pull on our horse any more than we want him to pull on us.

With his eyes closed, Jeff Skyberg has a tug-of-war session with a post. He laughs when he opens his eyes and discovers he can’t win. It brings home the idea that sometimes it’s necessary to let your hands be the post. That way the horse learns to seek his own release.

We talked about training the horse first, because that’s the easy part. Training ourselves to not let our horses pull the reins through our hands is really hard. It’s not physically difficult, but it requires a lot of concentration. There are some guidelines that can help us develop good habits, though.

• Pick up the rein only when you want the horse to do something. Many people have the habit of keeping tension on the lead rope or reins. That would be like driving down the road with your foot lightly on the brakes. Because it’s aggravating, the horse learns to tune it out, or to pull on the rider’s hands in order to relieve the pressure in his mouth.

• Avoid jerky rein motions. Horses can deal with steady pressure much easier than they can sudden, sharp movements. If a rider has a tendency to be erratic in his use of the reins, the horse will develop a habit of leaning on the bit, trying to take the slack out of the rein before the rider hits the horse in the mouth with the bit. Sometimes, merely learning to make smooth rein movements helps the horse relax and quit pulling on the rein.

• Slow yourself down. Imagine a harried taxi driver, darting in and out of traffic, and the passenger getting tossed around as a result. Now imagine the smooth moves of a top racecar driver. You want to be like the second driver, planning ahead and making smooth, measured movements. The faster a horse moves, the slower your hands should move. That gives the horse a chance to respond before the bit bumps his mouth.

• Keep your hands in a good position. I’m convinced that on one level, the horse doesn’t care whether your hands are high or low. We can get into a sophisticated discussion of rein effects, bit effects, and so forth, but the reality is that once someone has taken slack out of a rein, what the horse cares most about is relieving the pressure on his mouth. By keeping your hands within a zone, you can signal the horse without making huge movements. You’ll become more aware of what you’re doing with your hands and how that’s affecting your horse, and that means you won’t be pulling as readily or erratically. Hence, your horse won’t have to protect himself by pulling the rein.

The zone is forward of your body and no higher than your chest. I tell people to pretend that they’re holding a box of tissues in their hands. When your hands get back by your hip, up at shoulder height, down by your knees, and so forth, your body is out of balance and your rein movements will have to be so big that they generally become rough.

• Close your hand around the rein when you use it. Many people think that they’re being kind to the horse by keeping their fingers open as they use a rein. However, the reality is that the horse is able to slide the rein with light pressure, which encourages him to pull. Closing your hand around the rein is not the same as being hard-handed. It just helps to keep you in control of the reins and to make your signal clear.

• Brace your hand against the saddle, if you need to. Most people don’t want to steady their hands against the saddle. They think they can keep their reins stable enough without support. But if you’re dealing with a horse who pulls hard, or who jerks on the reins, you’ll end up relinquishing your position or pulling on the reins when the horse begins to give, because that’s instinctive. Remember, in order for the horse to release himself, you have to tell yourself that your hand is the post, and your saddle can be the anchor you need to make it so.

• Check the length of your reins. If your reins are too long, your hands will tend to get out of position easily. With long reins, let the excess rein fall on one side of the horse’s neck in a droop, or make a loop in the rein to shorten it. If your reins are too short, such as if you’re trail riding using short barrel racing or roping reins, you may be putting pressure on the horse’s mouth just by holding the rein. That will encourage the horse to pull to relieve the pressure on his mouth.

• Check that the bit fits and that there are no sharp edges. A little pressure with a sharp bit is really painful, and horses will go to great lengths to hold that bit in a way that will prevent it from jabbing his mouth when you try to talk to them with the reins.

• Improve your riding balance. Learning to be a better rider-sitting in the middle of the saddle, looking and thinking ahead-will mean that it’s easier to have control of your hands. The better your seat, the less you’ll end up using your hands for balance.

• Recognize and reward your horse. Pay attention to your horse’s responses to your rein signals. Some will be subtle and others will be obvious, but recognize and reward both.

• Condition yourself to recognize when the horse is giving and reward him. Pay attention to what you feel through your reins. When your horse is in neutral, ask him to focus on you. That could mean merely walking a little more briskly for a few steps, or it could mean asking for a give. Recognize when the horse is pulling, and become the post. Recognize when you’re pulling on him, and make sure it has purpose and direction. Then release him promptly when he complies to your request so your rein signals always convey a purposeful meaning.

Pull, Neutral, or Give
There are three positions, so to speak, when it comes to rein tension. First there’s pull, when the rein seems to get heavier. It can be a light pull, where you sense the horse bracing against you, or it can be a heaviness or even a jerking of the rein. Most people can easily identify “pull.”

But neutral, which is neither pull nor give, isn’t always so easy to recognize at first. Many people make the mistake of thinking that because a horse isn’t pulling, he’s giving. In neutral, the horse isn’t giving to your rein, but he’s not adding any weight to it either. Neutral is the equivalent of him saying, “Whatever,” and doing what he wants.

Cease Fire

If you continually pull on your horse without releasing him when he gives, he’ll learn to pull on you.

Resist the temptation to scold your horse with your hands.

Learn to “be a post” when your horse pulls or roots the reins with his head.

When you take up the slack, make sure your rein conveys purpose.

Release immediately when you get the right response.

Teach the horse to give, and pull won’t be a problem.

Neutral is fine when you’re not asking anything of the horse, but we don’t want the horse to merely tolerate the rein. Before long, neutral will become pull. Instead, when you pick up the rein-when you’re talking to him-you want him to give, which is an energetic move in the direction of the rein. It’s as if the horse says, “Yup. I’m here, ready to do what you’ve asked.”

As you practice, you might say out loud what you feel. “That’s a pull. Now that’s neutral. He’s pulling again. Now that’s a give!” The better you train yourself to recognize a give, the quicker you’ll release the rein, and the more eager your horse will be to give again. Be sure to reward his honest efforts. Otherwise, your horse will become the post, and you’ll be back to tug-of-war.

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