Adding Contact


As you continue to develop your horse on the long lines, you need to acquire a system for verbally cuing your horse. Listen to drivers around you and adopt what they use or develop a system of your own. You can only expect accurate responses if you are consistent and accurate with your verbal commands. Be patient and consistent, becoming more exacting in your expectations as your lessons progress. DO NOT NAG. Teach your horse to respond the first time you ask. Remember the honey and vinegar analogy and give instant correction when needed and lots of praise when appropriate. School for predictability. Remember, predictability is safety.

One more thing about cuing your horse. These exercises are easier to perform accurately and you will get consistent results, faster, if you teach your horse to respond to your voice instead of the whip.

About the work

Work on a 35 meter or larger circle. The worse your horse’s current lateral balance, the bigger the circle you will need to use.  Work on the flat if at all possible.  You can work on a bit of a slope but if your horse’s balance is bad, getting him rebalanced and moving correctly is going to be twice as tough.

Before you can put your horse on the outside rein, your horse must accept the bit and go forward on demand. Now is the time to teach these basics. He must do a steady working trot (hind foot in front footprint), willingly stretch into the bit and be physically and mentally fit enough for 30 to 45 minutes’ work. If you don’t have these basics before you start, be prepared for a frustrating waste of time.

Before we can use the outside rein to engage the inside hind leg, we must accustom the horse to consistent contact on both reins. This is very much like holding hands. When you hold hands, you maintain contact but not tension. So, hold hands with your horse; take a passive part and provide consistent elastic contact on both reins. With a relaxed outside arm, your outside hand will move toward and away from the horse as the outside leg moves backward and forward. (Repeat this last sentence to yourself eighty-seven times. It is vitally important.) There is no such action against your inside hand, which remains relaxed and steady. At this point don’t worry about whether your horse is bent in or out. He just needs to stay on the circle with even and light contact on both reins. If he’s happiest going around the circle with his nose stuck out, falling in all the way around, for now, that’s just fine.

Now, when you first start long lining, you will have the following reactions/problems. The greener and/or less balanced/fit your horse the more graphic these will be.

  • It doesn’t matter how you adjust the lines or how light your contact is, the horse falls in on part of the circle and falls out on another part of the circle.
  • You can’t organize yourself or the lines enough to keep from catching your horse in the mouth at one time or another during your work.

There is one solution to both problems. Move your feet a lot. The goal is to maintain consistent contact. You can’t do that by constantly adjusting your lines. No matter what your horse does or where your horse goes, maintain the same contact. Don’t pull harder, don’t let go. If you have to back up, walk sideways, jog forward, no matter what, maintain the same light elastic contact. As your horse accepts the work, develops coordination and understands what you are asking, the ’moving feet’ requirement will not be as onerous. The first reaction/problem is an evasion that will go away on its own when your horse realizes that, no matter what he does, the contact will remain the same.

I’m not saying ’don’t adjust your lines’. I’m saying only adjust your lines if you have to. Move your feet first. There is no way you can adjust your lines as smoothly as you can move your feet. Let the reins slide if you have to, collect them if you must.

Remember that you are providing only passive contact on the outside rein. If your outside arm is not relaxed and following the movement of the rein, you will be punishing the horse at the outside mouth and the horse’s outward bend will get worse to the point that the horse is carrying his hindquarters to the inside of the circle.

When you supply your horse with consistent elastic contact you will usually get one or both of the following responses.

The horse slows. This is usually the first response you will get. Your outside rein is your speed control rein. Anything you do to the outside rein will effect your horse’s speed. With consistent contact your horse will usually slow down. Push your horse forward while maintaining even elastic contact. Use a click, cluck or kiss sound to tell your horse that you want something besides slowing. (If you get this far and haven’t taught your horse to respond to your voice the first time you ask, you will have to go back and school for it. It’s difficult to touch, with a whip, a horse that is thirty-five plus meters away. Also, with a rein in each hand, any movement with the whip sufficient to impress most horses will adversely effect your contact and may inadvertently punish your horse.) If necessary, minutely lighten the contact on both reins but keep the contact with the horse’s mouth consistent. You may need a combination of lightening and pushing the horse forward. Remember, your goal is forward on contact.

The horse briefly stretches into the bit, lowering both head and neck. This is very productive. To stretch down, the horse must lift his back, one of the vital elements of lateral engagement. This happens because, as the outside hind leg rubs against the outside rein, it pulls against the rein, minutely wiggling the nose of the horse from side to side. This releases tense muscles in the neck and shoulders. Keep your outside arm relaxed or you will lose this reaction. As the horse is made aware of the tense muscles in his neck and shoulders, he will attempt to increase his level of comfort by stretching those and other tight muscles along his topline and back. Stretch your hands forward and/or step forward to accommodate the horse’s lengthened frame. Keep your contact steady, light and elastic. If your horse does not bring his head back up on his own, do not pull on the reins. Push the horse forward and the head will come up on its own.

Be sure to check often with your horse to see if he needs to lengthen his frame. Stretch your hands forward, lightening, but not releasing, the contact, to see if your horse needs to stretch his topline. ’On the bit’ comes from behind, not from the hold you have on the front. When your hands are connected to the hind legs to the extent that any aid you give with your hands effects the hind legs, your horse is ’on the bit’. You don’t get ’on the bit’ by forcing the face to be vertical, it comes from the hindquarters.

Before we discuss the process of teaching the horse lateral balance, lets look at the mechanics of bending.

About bending

One of our goals, as drivers, is to teach our horses to bend, on demand, around corners, on circles, onto the center line, through hazards. Before our horses can/will bend, we must teach lateral balance. We must have a system in place that allows us to effect lateral balance at will. For horses to alter their lateral balance at our discretion, they must be taught how to use their inside hind leg. The best place to teach lateral balance is on long lines. There, the horse is unimpeded by the weight of rider or vehicle.

The terms ’engaging the inside hind leg’, ’bending the horse’ or ’put the horse on the outside rein’ are all, in form and function, connected. The horse cannot bend without engaging the inside hind leg. The driver cannot effectively position the inside leg of the horse without the horse on the outside rein.

The root of bend

In theory, horses are supposed to bend from nose to tail on the arc of the circle. That usually isn’t what happens. The horse keeps his body straight or bent outward, turns his head out and makes the corner by stepping sideways into the circle. The horse, in essence, falls in.

To support the body and produce the bend, the inside hind leg must step forward under the center of the horse. To accommodate the leg’s forward and lateral (sideways) movement, the back must lift and the barrel must move out on the circle (the hind leg has a stifle joint that has to go somewhere when the leg moves laterally). The outside of the horse becomes longer. The inside hind leg, setting down under the center of the horse, supports and propels the shoulders. The horse no longer feels that he will fall and gorgeous engaged bend results.

Now, if you really read the previous paragraph, you understand that the bend does not originate with the neck and head of the horse. The bend is in the shoulders, barrel and hindquarter of the horse and starts with the back lifting and swinging out to accommodate the engagement of the inside hind leg. The neck and head complete the pretty picture, balancing the bend. Anything that we do that hinders the horse’s ability to lift his back effects the horse’s ability to bend.

A final note

Make sure you allow your horse sufficient warm-up time before you ask him to do any serious work. Pushing cold stiff muscles will result in a tense, uncomfortable horse. A tense horse is not a flexible horse. An inflexible horse is the last thing we want.

The next article’s exercise connects the horse to the outside rein and lays the foundation for the use of the outside rein in riding OR driving. The concept and feel, learned here and with the next article’s exercise is crucial to both the horse’s and the rider/driver’s understanding of the application of the outside rein. If you don’t have the knowledge or ability to put your horse on the outside rein, don’t know what it feels like or looks like, the following exercise is the next step in developing both the eye and the feel. Between now and then, work on light and elastic contact and your horse’s willing and accurate response to your verbal aids. Believe me, it will be time well spent.