People seem to think that if you pull back on the reins, your horse will stop. There are a number of different ways to get your horse to stop, or slow down without pulling on the reins. Not all horses will stop when the rider pulls back on the reins. When I was a young child I was taught that I should kick to go and pull back to stop. As an adult, I learned a much kinder way to get a horse to go and to get a horse to stop and I’m glad I did.
I try to never use the word pull with my students. I’ve had a couple of moms worry when I’m teaching the kids how to stop their horse or pony in a better way. So, I thought I’d explain why I do not feel it is good for anyone to learn to pull back on the reins when they are riding a horse.
First, it does not keep the rider safe. Once a rider develops the habit of pulling back on the reins, it then is a habit that is often hard to change or break when the rider learns that pulling back on the reins is not good for the horse or pony.
I have learned the damage that pulling back on reins can do to a horse. The horse’s shoulders are connected to the leg bones, but not connected to any bones at the top. Tendons, ligaments and muscle hold them in place. At the bottom of their neck and down into their chest there is something called the thoracic sling. When a rider pulls back to slow the horse down, or to stop the horse, the muscles in the neck are pulled back into the thoracic sling. Eventually the horse ends up with tight, sore muscles in that area. Some horse may get crabby about that, refuse to take any type of contact on the reins, and lose their willingness to turn correctly.
When a rider pulls back on the reins and the horse lifts it’s head to avoid the pain that may be caused, the horse inverts it’s back under where the rider is sitting. For a horse to carry the rider properly, they should be lifting their back up under the rider. If you want to see what this feels like, get down on all fours. Hands under your shoulder and knees under your hips, nice and straight. Lift your head like the horse in the picture above is doing. Have someone put a little bit of weight with their hand in the middle of your back just below your shoulder blades. Now crawl a few steps forward. Then put you head down, at least even with your shoulders, and lift your back. Have your friend add the weight again and crawl forward a few steps again. Feel the difference? Which do you prefer?
Some horses will put their heads down when the reins are pulled back. Some will go behind the vertical to try to avoid the pressure. This can make breathing and swallowing harder. Some will put their noses out and lean on the bridle practically pulling the reins out of your hands. A horse is always going to be stronger than it’s rider, so getting into a pulling contest will definitely end with the horse being the winner. If the horse puts it’s head too far down, then all of their weight shifts to the forehand. Being ridden on the forehand too much often causes lameness.
Let me tell you a story. I had a boarder come in from a trail ride one evening and he said to me:
“Good thing I didn’t have one of those bitless bridles on tonight.”
Boarder: “Because my horse took off. I pulled back and she did not slow down at all, so I stood up in the stirrups and leaned back as far as I could pulling back on the reins and she still did not stop.”
Me: “Then how did having a bit help?”
The boarder did not give me any answer to that question.
A horse looks for comfort. Riding any horse should be up to 90% seat; up to 20% legs and up to 10% hands. It should ALWAYS be seat first, then legs, then hands. A rider that has learned to use their seat first usually has a much nicer ride.
One of my goals for my students is to teach them to ride in a way that is as much fun for the horse or pony as it is for them. So, you will not see me teaching any student to pull back on the reins.