Learning to let go
Probably every horseman has dreamt about galloping his horse without saddle and bridle easily across never-ending grassland. Movies like “Ostwind” (German movie) take up this longing or also “Lord of the Rings”: Who wouldn’t be fascinated when wizard Gandalf seems to just fly with his grey Shadowfax almost magically – two beings merging into one like a centaur.
But movies, magic and fantasy are the one side, in reality you need time, work and practice, to accomplish this dream of riding with as few aids as possible. And if it does seem like a miracle to some – with some time and practice it should be possible for most riders to ride their horse with a neck ring.
„"A good horseman is recognized not for the aids he uses, but for the ones he doesn’t use." (Pat Parelli)
With or without aids, riding should always be harmonious teamwork between horse and rider. Which requirements are necessary? As a rider you should have moved beyond the early stages, be somewhat experienced in the saddle, have a seat independent of reins and be able to apply fine and clear weight and leg aids. Here, the feel for balance and timing is more important than strength or athletic skills – most riders tend to do too much, believing that they have to actively get the horse to do something. Actually you only have to get your idea across to the horse and then let the horse act – and this requires remarkably little physical input. To be able to clearly express what you want, you need to know what you are doing, when you do it and especially when you should stop it. Often the human does not realise that he is sending signals and which those are. However, fine aids are only possible and realisable, if the horse is not constantly flooded with unintentional information.
Thus, as long as the horse does as desired, you leave it alone and don’t do anything. This includes that you sit relaxed and don’t tense any muscles that are not required this moment. As rider you need a certain body tension to sit upright and follow the horse’s movements. However, nothing is achieved, when you pull up your shoulders, make a hunchback or spread off your legs and block your hips – always stay relaxed and breathe deeply. Not only our muscle tension but also our breathing rhythm is information to the horse, therefore both of these have to be used consciously and purposefully.
"The secret of good riding is to do little. The more you do the less success you will have.” (Nuno Oliveira)
The more trained a horse is, the better are its preconditions for riding with neck-ring. Horses have good prerequisites that are used to receive aids with weight and legs, to keep the same speed with loose reins and to being guided by applying the outer rein to the neck, the so-called neck reining. Western riders and horses are at an advantage, but all other types of equitation are based on the principle to ride mainly with weight and legs and not with the hand. The transition to riding with neck ring is easier the fewer and finer reins are used with the regular bridle. Voice aids are also very helpful: If a horse can reliably be reined in just with weight and voice that is a very good base for riding with neck ring. Last but not least, the training should always be tuned towards disposition and temper of the horse and based on mutual trust and respect. Horses that like to lead the way instead of cooperating or overanxious and nervous animals may take longer to find a common denominator with. If rider and horse harmonise well there shouldn’t be a problem in the long run. Basically the horse has to be as comfortable under the rider as in its herd: relaxed, in physical and mental balance, awake and alert, but nevertheless calm and relaxed.
Collection without reins – does that work at all?
A horse with solid basic training should have learned to balance itself with a rider and carry itself easily and naturally. Unfortunately today many riders – and also trainers and judges – are not able anymore to recognise true collection, much less to teach it. When you take a look into indoor schools up and down the country, you often see horses tied up with martingales or are held back by force of muscle, while at the same time are forced forward by constant pricking with the spurs. This is almost comparable with a car that is accelerated at the same time as the breaks are applied; early wearout is inevitable – the only difference being that this cannot drive a car into desperation or resignation, but many a horse. Horses with lots of spirit often run hot, when receiving so much pressure from the rider, more phlegmatic ones try to ignore the conflicting aids and turn duller with time.
„Collection does not mean pulling together.“ (Dominique Barbier)
Often the correct posture of the horse is reduced to the position of the head and neck, because that is easy to detect also for layperson and the horse supposedly looks nicer with a neck rolled in then with a natural carriage. A true collection has hardly anything to do with the head-neck-position of the horse. “Correct collection requires to ride the hindquarters forward” (Anna Eichinger) – The croup of the horse is lowered, the hocks bend, the back is round and the barrel/ribcage is brought up and the whole top line is elevated. The correct head-neck position is just a result of that. As bending the hocks is very strenuous for the horse and requires lots of muscles, yearlong specific training of the respective muscles is a prerequisite.
Hence true collection on loose rein is a long term goal that you need to work on for some years. Sadly today many riders and trainers don’t have the patience and time for a proper training. Considering that a horse has to be ready for sale at the age of three and be able to win ribbons with four years, there is not time for developing true collection. Therefore the horses jammed into a model that has some similarity with a collected posture way to early. But consequently the result is just the opposite: this rolled-up tight head-neck position, you often see in dressage competition, results in the horse falling on the forehand and then it needs the support of the riders hand to keep the balance. Another artificial posture, which has nothing to do with true collection, is the high head-set that the Show-Finos in Columbia or USA are trained to present at the age of 2.5. This posture is not achieved by lifting the top-line, but by tensing the lower neck, which results in the horse dropping the chest and hollowing the back. Stepping under the body effectively is not possible any more. The horse tenses up, tightens the back, shortens the stride and the steps will be shorter and more scurried then they already are naturally. Unfortunately these tensed-up horses, more often than not, receive top placing for their spectacular impression – but that has nothing to do with correct biomechanical equitation that supports the good health of the horse. Horses that have been ridden that way for a long time often have a roof shaped back with poor muscles and the spine sticking out. As a last consequence, this type of equitation can result in a sway back or even kissing spines.
„There is something about riding on a prancing horse that makes you feel like something, even when you ain’t worth a thing” (Will Rogers)
„Contact with the bit“ (Literally the German term translates to ’leaning on’) is one step of the training tree that is often misunderstood. The horse should not lean onto the reins, but actively carry head and neck – ideally the rider only carries the weight of the reins in his hands. Therefore in classic equitation the term “contact with the bit” is preferred, as the horse which leans on the reins loses its balances and falls on the forehand. Biomechanical correct elevation is in relation to flexion of the haunches and is referred to as “relative elevation”. The horse is in balance and carries itself. The opposite is the absolute or active elevation which is achieve by influence of the hand. Then horse is ridden from the front to the back and not from the back to the front which would be correct. The rider carries a lot of weight in his hands and has to “hold” the horse. And what does all of that have to do with riding neck rein? Really simple: When riding neck rein, we neither have reins or bit, which the horse could lean onto. Those horses that during training have never learned to carry themselves and walk using their back, will initially have difficulties to keep their natural balance under the rider when ridden neck-rein. When losing the supporting hand of the rider they often lose their balance and will speed up due to falling on the forehand. Or they will not dare to leave the head-neck-position they are trained to and drop head and neck and thus reach an extension posture. Such shortcomings in training should be corrected first, as it won’t be any fun to ride neck rein with a horse that is not balance physically and mentally.
To ride true collection with neck rein requires that lessons facilitating collection such as transitions, shoulder-in, halt etc. have been achieved and can be ridden with neck-rein. There are some experts who can master that; but straining for such noble goals is not really necessary. First of all riding neck-rein should be fun and improve harmony and “fine-tuning” between horse and rider and should not result in pressure and stress. You may be satisfied with yourself and the horse when you succeed in your horse carries itself nicely or reaches a proper extension posture on neck-rein.
„Riding is not a craft but an art“ says Rudolf G. Binding, but even for achieving art we sometimes need tools – in this case a neck-rein. The common versions are plastic coated lasso-ropes and somewhat stiff, but thus even more evident in their effect. Those, who think in the long run this is too sharp, hard or awkward, can later transfer to a braided ring or a firm thick cotton rope. The standard neck-reins have two knots that can be positioned to reach the desired width. Handling the neck rein isn’t really difficult. For steering the rein is kept at the middle of the neck, when stopping somewhat higher. For turning, a twist of the wrist is enough to turn the rein towards the neck. The further up the rein is positioned, the more careful the rider has to be, as a sharp pull may result in damage of the cartilage of the windpipe. The neck rein is only used to give an impulse, constant pulling is a no-go – just as with regular reins that you take up and release. To get the horse used to the new signals, the neck rein first may be used in combination with the regular bridle. To begin with you take both and use it simultaneously, gradually you let go of the regular reins and move on to giving signals with the neck rein. By now you should continue in the arena or a fenced in riding arena. It would be ideal if you had it to yourself the first few times. On the one hand you don’t endanger others unnecessarily when something goes wrong and also it is easier for rider and horse to concentrate on one another with less distraction being around. Initially you keep the regular bridle on in the arena, as a safety back-up, in case the aids don’t reach the horse as desired. The regular reins are loosely positioned on the neck and are only used when needed.
„Demand little, repeat often, praise a lot!“ (Etienne Beudant)
At first you should not take up too much: start with a walk, come to a halt, various figures in a walk are enough, for example circle, volte, slalom around pylons and walking through a lane of poles. Using poles, cavaletti or pylons not only helps the rider to focus on an exercise, but also makes it easier for the horse to understand what you are asking for – also, by experience, the horses are more motivated and happier, if they see the sense of what you request. If everything goes well, keep praising the pony and stop after 10 minutes – even if everything goes great and you would like to continue. When riding with a neck rein you are more than usual dependent on the good will and cooperation of your horse. Therefore having fun should be most important. Keeping the motivation is easiest by praising a lot, giving breaks every now and then and not asking too much mentally. Riding neck rein is not physically strenuous, but horse and rider have to be focused and concentrate on each other much more than when strolling through the country-side. Therefore you should always stop when it is most fun and before the horse starts getting bored or loses concentration. Of course the horse is not snubbed, if it doesn’t respond as we like it to. An unwanted reaction is ignored, a desired reaction is praised.
„Open your mind – turn loose“ (Ray Hunt)
During the second training session, if you dare, you can give the next gait, either trot or toelt, a try. Many gaited horses, especially those with a disposition towards trot, find it difficult to gait at first on a neck rein. Now it is important that you don’t force anything. Therefore you take the gait that the horse offers loose and supple, be it four-beat, trot, trocha or pace-toelt. As soon as the transitions from one gait to another and the halt go smoothly, the horse can be guided via weight and leg aids and the rider feels safe enough and trusts the horse, it is time to remove the bridle and ride only with neck rein. One may do that during the third training session, another not till the thirtiest. Many riders have difficulties to mentally let go the assumed control over their horse and to trust that the horse won’t take advantage of the newly gained freedom. As long as pictures of horses storming off pass your inner eye, you shouldn’t force anything, because horses are masters of reading such pictures and react upon those (more on that later). Therefore it is important that you take as much time as you need to feel safe enough.
„“Only if the rider forms a clear thought will the horse react to that.“ (Richard Hinrichs)
When you are able to ride your pony safely with weight, leg, and voice aids and the neck rein in the arena, then you can work on refining your aids more and more. It is amazing how few aids are necessary to for example ride a perfect circle. Eventually a small turn with the body will be enough to bend and it will suffice just to think the line of the circle or to follow it with one’s eyes. The transitions from one gait to another can be achieved by visualizing the desired gait and by providing the correct rhythm. Often a small change in body tension or a deep exhalation will be a signal for the horse. The power of visualisation shouldn’t be underestimated; those who succeeded in visualizing the perfect picture of an exercise before their inner eye and then experienced how the horse picked up this picture and realized it, will have been perplexed. For riders who haven’t had this experience yet, this may sound somewhat esoteric, but it does work. Many types of equitation and many well-known trainers use visualisation successfully in their lessons, as you can learn working purposefully with mental pictures. Initially it is often most difficult to stop this constant train of thought in our brain. Those who have tried to meditate know how difficult it is to think and want nothing or to turn off undesired thoughts.
Horses are not only able to mirror us and to capture our emotional state, but in some cases they implement our thoughts – actually that moment that we think them. Horses live in the present moment, they don’t think about the past or the future, therefore they cannot understand the thought “I want to canter in the second corner of the short side”, but often start cantering right away, as they only receive the idea of transitioning into canter. We can learn a lot from our horses about living here and now; the more we are able to engage into that and let go of our own ego the more we will connect with our horse and the more we will find ourselves. This being one with the horse is the ultimate happiness for most horse people. When you are that far advanced, that you are a perfect team with your horse and riding works just through telepathy, you can take one more step and try riding completely without aids. Those who forgo neck rein and saddle may be proud of themselves and feel a little like being wizard Gandalf.
„”Perfection is not achieved when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing to omit.“ (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
Riding with a neck rein is not about show, it is a great training which both the rider and the horse can profit from, even when it is only once in a while added to the training. The rider learns to refine his aids and communicate clear signals to the horse. Riders who tend to hold onto the reins, learn to let got and with time will stop the controlling the horse consistently with the hands. The horses are sensitized to very fine aids; they learn to listen to their rider and to carry themselves. Also riding with a neck rein clearly shows any deficits of the training, because it is a good test to show whether the horse is motivated to cooperate and on the aids. Some dressage riders would wonder if the bit would be taken away. When riding with a neck rein you can’t force anything. Just the opposite, it is about cooperating with the partner horse and reaching an even finer way of understanding. The more you let go of thinking and wanting and trust your own feeling, the sooner this new dimension of riding will present itself. Especially the very sensitive Finos that often cannot cope with pressure and are very willing to please their rider are prone for this sensitive equitation.
„Feel it! A feel following a feel. There’s no pressure mentally or physically.” (Ray Hunt)
Just as when riding with a bit, you can’t expect that everything runs smoothly as desired when riding with a neck rein. There may be days when everything runs like clockwork and one communicates with the horse more or less via telepathy – and there will be other days where nothing works out. For myself, I realized, everything works just fine when I am relaxed and in a good mood, when I can wind down and have no high expectations. As soon as you are tense and want to force something usually nothing will work out. Letting go is the clue – not only of the reins abut also mentally. That by itself isn’t easy – and then there is Murphy’s law, that happens when somebody is watching or having a camera and everything should be perfect. A good example is the photo shoot with Yvi Tschischka: The first 10 minutes were great, and then I realized, that my horse was starting to lose interest. I did take notice of that but ignored it, because we wanted to have one more picture striking off at the canter from the halt. Thus I started, my horse became faster, I turned into a circle, my horse became even faster and took off running towards the stable just to come to a full stop just in front of the fence. This action gave me an unexpected kick of adrenalin and Corazon received a rebuke, although it wasn’t his fault at all – I just should have taken my horse’s signals seriously and should have stopped in time, photo or not. Fortunately Yvi had taken enough good pictures before, so that we could forgo the ones with me, panicky and leaning into the curve at a tearing pace.
„The horse is a mirror to your soul … and sometimes you might not like what you see in the mirror.” (Buck Brannaman)
One of my very first attempts to ride with a neck rein was of a similar result: About 20 years ago I visited a Mangalarga Marchador breeder in Brazil and we wanted to do an article on this horse breed with a photo with no saddle and just a neck rein to demonstrate the friendliness and pleasantness of the breed and especially the farm stallion. Back then I was young and reckless, thus I jumped on the back of Ulano do Granito, we put a lead rope around his neck and I tried to keep him from grazing. When he finally kept his head up, I probably too intense, because he took off faster than intended and ran around the breeder’s house, where the maid was just putting up laundry to dry. I could duck down just fast enough as not to get caught in the cloth line. In the end riding without saddle and bridle worked out quite well (see photo). The stallion, by the way, was later imported to Germany and had major influence here on the breeding of the Mangalarga Marchadores. But I am losing track – what I did want to say: Please never ever do something like that completely unprepared with a horse you don’t know. Safety is always first! The videos posted in social networks with riders out on the trails without anything are not a good example. Even the calmest and most obedient horse may have a bad day and get frightened so that it bolts and my even cause an accident. Some “likes” on facebook are not worth risking a human life – therefore please always practice in a fenced area, in case the horse decides to do its one business. The photos of Corazon and me were taken on a fenced field; the electric fence was removed with retouching, just because it looks better – thanks to Photoshop (and Yvi).
„ “Riding is the search for beauty, directness and truth.” (Nuno Oliveira)
For the sake of completeness: Who wants to give it a try does so at his own risk. Therefore please be careful and don’t take any unnecessary risks! Meanwhile some Fino-riders discovered riding with neck rein and it would be nice if some more would give it a try. Maybe “somewhere out there” are some riders that practice regularly and would like to “come out”. For those who would like to learn more about it I recommend the book “Riding Free: Bitless, Bridleless, Bareback” (in English) by Andrea and Markus Eschbach and soon Nathalie Penquittt will publish “Feines Halsringreiten” (no English version). In her book “Der Weg zum guten Reiten” (no translation) Silke Hembes describes how to give motivating, clear and fine aids. On the topic “mental pictures” I liked the book by Nicole Künzel “Jeder Gedanke ist eine Kraft” (no translation). Also “Riding in balance” (no translation) by Bruno and Helga Podlech gives some good advice that can be transferred to gaited horses in general – although the book is mostly on Icelandic horses it doesn’t hurt to take a look beyond one’s nose. As is well-known, those working with horses never complete learning, because “one life is not long enough to learn everything about horses.” (Alfonso Aguilar)
Article written by Birgit Bauer (translated by Barbelin van der Smissen), photos by Yvi Tschischka