If you ever thought there must be a better and easier way to train your horse, this training series by Kate Fenner is designed for you! Each article walks you through specific lessons and how to teach them. From stress-free trailer loading, to handling head-shy horses, to safe mounting. Kate’s gentle and no-fuss approach will provide you with the tools and confidence you need to educate your own horse.  Last time, Kate explained the ‘give to the bit’ lesson and, this month, she returns with a two-part series about learning to long-rein your horse.

Long-reining your horse.

Most of us do something to prepare our horses for riding, for example, some in-hand work, lungeing, circles on a long line or perhaps some round pen work.

Given we all live such busy lives and our time with our horses is almost always limited, are we really making the most of this preparation time?

The questions to ask yourself are:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What am I hoping to achieve from the five or more minutes I spend before my ride?

The first few minutes often set the scene for the rest of the ride or session, so it’s important they are useful, positive and designed to engage the horse.

If your answer to why you are doing this and what you are hoping to achieve by the pre-ride work is to ‘get the edge off’ or tire the horse a little so they are less fresh, then keep this in mind… You are, at the very best, making your horse fitter and, a fit, uneducated horse is certainly no more desirable than an unfit, uneducated horse.

Learning patterns

During your preparation time, you will also be teaching your horse habits. We all know what great pattern learner’s horses are! If you are lungeing, round penning or running your horse on a long line, he may also be travelling with a high head, hollow back and, possibly, even bucking.

If your horse is not keen to move, you may have to resort to chasing – something we never want to do.

All of these things set up habits and, when you want to change your routine – let’s say you don’t have time for a pre-ride exercise – then your horse is likely to repeat the behaviour, despite you being aboard. Naughty horse? No… Your horse is just a good learner.

It doesn’t matter to the horse whether you are riding or working on the ground, you are teaching behaviours. If bucking or running away (the flight instinct that is evoked by chasing on the lunge or in the round pen) is acceptable when you’re on the ground, then you should also expect these learned behaviours under saddle.

This corresponds with Equitation Science’s Training Principle #9: avoid and dissociate flight responses.

If instead, we make the aim of our pre-ride time to be to engage the horse, get the horse to relax and come into our ‘bubble’ of communication, then we not only utilise the time well, but we educate the horse in the process.

Long-reining is the perfect tool for this. It is a rather forgotten art, probably because people mistakenly think it’s difficult or time-consuming but, once you have taught your horse to long-rein, you will not look back.

Before you start

While your horse does not have to be started under saddle to teach them to long-rein, it’s essential they have learned ‘give to the bit’ (see the July and August 2017 issues of Horses and People for a step-by-step guide or check out the Kandoo website).

If you are starting a young horse, long-reining is the ideal place to judge whether or not your horse has the established foundation training necessary to progress to riding.

Has your horse been off work for a period? Teach them to long-rein and get them back into the swing of learning in the Engagement Zone; build up those top-line muscles they need to carry you, and generally make that transition back to work easier for you and your horse.

Okay, enough about why, let’s move on to how!

I’ve broken this down into two stages for you and, this month, we cover the most important stage: preparing your horse. The habituation work here is not only useful for long-reining, but all of your horse’s training. We will also cover the equipment you need and how to set your tack up in the safest possible way.

Getting started

Because so many horses have been taught to lunge (and, sadly, many of them have been chased on the lunge or sent around in mindless circles for extended periods), we want to make this a completely different experience for them – an engaged and relaxing exercise.

This aspect corresponds with Equitation Science’s Training Principle #10: demonstrate minimum levels of arousal sufficient for training (You can learn more on this at: http://equitationscience.com/equitation/principles-of-learning-thoery-in-equitation).

One of the problems with lunging is that it is easy for the horse to turn and face you. Once taught (i.e. the horse has been successful more than once at stopping work when turning and facing), this can be hard to un-train.

For this reason, we are going to begin our long-reining sessions with the outside line behind the horse, making it considerably more difficult for the horse to turn and face us, even when, as handlers, we’re not as fast at correcting things as we will be later, with a bit of practice behind us.

Step 1:

The first thing we need to do is to habituate the horse to having the rope behind him. Remember, the line will have some pressure on it from time to time when the horse is working on the lines, so it is important to be sure he accepts this before attaching the line to the horse.

Hold the lunge line clip in your hand, so that it doesn’t accidentally hit the horse.

Rub the horse with the line around the rump. Ideally, the horse should stand completely still and remain relaxed while you do this. If that is not the case, make the rope ‘smaller’ by bunching it up more and gently ‘groom’ the horse with it.

Once the horse is relaxed and still, open the rope up slowly, but continue with your grooming motions. Soon, the horse will be relaxed and enjoying the grooming. Work your way up to being able to throw the rope over the horse’s rump and allowing it to slide off.

If at any stage the horse moves off or appears tense, simply go back a stage and repeat until the horse relaxes again.

This step may take a little time with some horses, especially those that may have been chased with ropes in the past. It is worth spending the time, because teaching your horse to relax when introduced to new things is a vital element of foundation training.

Step 2:

Now that your horse is relaxed with the rope around his hindquarters and back legs, it’s time to let him feel some pressure on the rope. To do this, simply make a big loop with the rope in your hand and loop it around the hindquarter.

The most important thing here is to be able to drop the rope quickly, should the horse rush forward or begin kicking.

Horses that have been ‘pulled’ onto trailer using a butt-rope or been forced, rather that taught, to do other things using a rope behind them, are quite likely to kick at the rope. In order to long-rein the horse with the rope behind him, we need the horse to be 100% comfortable with this feeling.

If your horse has had a particularly bad experience, which will be obvious by lots of kicking and tucking his hindquarters underneath him to escape the rope, then you may decide that, for now, it is best just to go to the more advanced stage of having the reins both at the wither and not behind the horse.

I do, however, feel it is a good lesson for these horses to learn and habituate to the rope, as harboring a fear of that magnitude indicates a huge hole in your foundation training. Personally, I only come across about two in every 100 horses that I decide to leave this particular part of the lesson for later.

Steps 1 and 2 are there to ensure your horse is not at all afraid of the rope. Don’t move on until you are sure your horse is completely relaxed with the ropes. I know, it sounds like I’m being pedantic about this.

We are now going to attach the rope to the horse and, if the horse is not completely relaxed with and accustomed to the ropes, he is likely to panic and will not only move off at speed, but will be ‘chased’ by the ropes when he does so. Yes, very ugly, very fast!

Step 3:

It’s up to you whether you would prefer to use a surcingle or a saddle to long-rein. I personally use the saddle for several reasons:

  1. The reins fit easily through the stirrups so, should something go wrong after I have unclipped the reins from the bit, I can simply pull them away from the horse. With the surcingle, the clip at the end of the line will get caught in the rings and the reins will ‘chase’ the horse.
  2. The stirrups hold the reins lower. This is important with the taller horses because, even when set low on the surcingle, it is still quite easy to get a rein jammed under the tail when the horse turns – not a nice experience for the horse.
  3. If I am thinking I might ride the horse after long-reining, I am much more likely to jump on as the horse is tacked up and ready to go – perhaps I’m just lazy, but I wouldn’t always go back to the stables, untack and re-tack, just for a five-minute ride (shame, it might have been brilliant!).

With the surcingle, I suggest using the lower rings to start with. Again, this is so the line can go behind the horse, making it more difficult for him to turn and face you. Do be aware when the horse changes direction, especially those tall horses, the rein is still quite high and can get caught under the tail if you are not careful to monitor that.

The reins go from the back to the bit. Put the clip through the ring on the surcingle and clip it on to the bit. Gently lay the rest of the rein on the horse’s back and clip on the other side.

If you are using a saddle, you will need to attach the stirrups together under the saddle. I use a short bungie cord, but a piece of baling twine also works well.

Remember to tie it quite snuggly, because if there is too much movement, the twine may rub the horse’s elbow. Tie the stirrups so they make guides for the lines. Position them by moving the part nearest the front of the horse to the outside in the same position the stirrups would be if you were riding. Then, simply put the line through from the back and clip it on to the bit.

Check in next month…

Next month, we’ll get the horse moving on the lines but, in the meantime, take your time and enjoy the habituation part. Plus, any work you can do on the ground (and under saddle) with ‘give to the bit’ will pay dividends next month!

Check out Dr Kate Fenner’s podcast for more step-by-step, ethical and sustainable horse training courses.