Long-reining. In this exclusive training series, Kate Fenner from Kandoo Equine is taking us deep into the essential foundation lessons for any horse. In the last five months of articles on this series, Romeo has learned basic handling (including haltering, grooming, picking up feet abd tying up), ‘give to the bit’ (at a standstill and at the walk in-hand). He has learned shoulder control in hand and has been habituated to the girth and saddle cloth. Now, he is ready for the long-reining lesson.
Whether your horse is un-started or already going under saddle and you feel these are areas that need a little work, you’re in the right place.
Long-reining is a wonderful and educational tool. Whether you’re starting your horse under saddle, changing riding discipline, coming back into work after a spell or you just want to improve how your horse moves under saddle, I encourage you to give long-reining a try.
Long-reining has a reputation of being difficult and something that only very experienced horse handlers should attempt, however, if you’ve been following the Romeo series and implementing each of the lesson steps, you’ll be in a good position to get the most out of long-reining.
Top Tip: This is a learning process for both you and your horse. While long-reining can look very easy, the first time you take up those reins you may feel very uncoordinated. Follow the lesson steps and keep the pace slow and steady.
Step 1: Habituation to the lines around the hindquarters
We’re going to teach long-reining with the line passing behind the horse, resting above the hocks. I teach it this way because it makes it difficult for the horse to turn and face you, should you get too in front of the horse’s movement. Also, horses that have done a lot of lunging have often developed a pattern of turning and facing the handler as it results in a release of pressure.
Once your horse is familiar with the long-reining pattern, the reins can then be attached through the ‘D’ rings at the wither but I suggest you start here to make it easier for both you and your horse.
Begin the habituation work by rubbing the lead rope over the horse (See images in the illustrated pdf version of this article). Start at the neck and work your way down to the hindquarters.
If your horse remains calm and does not move away, you can go on to throwing the rope over the horse and dragging it back again. Be sure to pay particular attention to habituating the horse to having the rope over the hindquarters.
Top Tip: In the images you will see that Romeo is unrestrained during the habituation phase. This is because I know that, if I get the emotional level wrong (let’s say he is too emotional), he will leave. If he is not emotional enough (if he’s having a wee nap), he will graze or wander off. Romeo is engaged, listening and attentive to everything that is going on but he is also relaxed enough to be learning.
By leaving him unrestrained during the habituation work I can see that Romeo is in the Engagement Zone. To learn more click here.
Step 2: Feeling the rope above the hocks
Make a large loop with the long-rein, holding the buckle in your hand and loop it around your horse’s hindquarters. Now practice ‘give to the bit’ (if you missed the article click here), in a small circle and move the looped line so that your horse can feel the line against its sides and legs.
Allow the line to fall off and over the horse’s hindquarters to be sure he/she is not afraid of that feeling.
It’s very important that your horse does not move faster when he feels the rope behind him because once you get long-reining properly the lines will be in this position. Horses that have been taught to lead in this way may take more habituating than those that have not.
Step 3: Both sides
Remember to repeat this pattern in both directions as the rope will feel different to your horse when you handle it from the other side and your horse will need to change directions when you long-rein.
Step 4: Your work area
A round pen is an ideal place to teach long-reining because you don’t have to worry too much about directional control in the beginning. If you don’t have a round pen, try to find a safe enclosed area such as an arena.
The hardest place to teach long-reining will be in an open field so, if that is your only choice, go to a corner of the field, because there you will have at least two fence sides to help your horse.
Step 5: Getting moving
Starting and stopping are often the hardest parts, however, if you’ve been following the Starting Romeo Series you’ll have noticed that Romeo stands still and relaxed until cued to move – Romeo is in the engagement zone.
Because we’ve had Romeo in the engagement zone for each and every lesson, where he is attentive and relaxed, we have also conditioned him to stand until cued to move. This is especially helpful when it comes to getting started with long-reining because it often takes us a while to ‘get organized’.
Long-reining is one of those activities that looks terribly easy when you watch someone else do it but when you try it for the first time yourself… not so much!
Run the buckle end of the long-rein from the back, through the ring on the surcingle at the side of the horse. Attach the off-side first and then place the excess line on the back of the horse while you attach the near-side. When you are ready to go, take one line in each hand and move towards the back of the horse.
Top Tip: It can be difficult to carry a whip at first but I encourage you to try as it is the best way to cue your horse to move forward (after your initial verbal cue). When changing direction, move the whip over first as this signals the horse that a change of direction is coming and sets you up ready to move off in the new direction. Your horse will learn this pattern quickly and begin to prepare for the change of direction when he/she sees the whip moving across.
Step 6: Small circle with shorter reins
Start slowly at walk with small circles and shortened reins as this will help you keep your horse in the engagement zone. As the circle size increases, the size of the bubble of communication will also need to increase.
Top Tip: Your horse will probably feel more confident when you are close to him/her so, make your circle bigger slowly and use a lot of verbal praise to keep your horse engaged and listening to you.
Step 7: Changing direction
We begin by ‘driving’ the horse. This means that we are a little behind the horse and directing movement. When you want to change direction, look at the horse’s tail because this will stop you from getting too far forward and encouraging your horse to turn and face you. Start your ‘driving’ session with lots of changes of direction and keep the horse at walk.
Step 8: Trot short distances
Once your horse is comfortable with the feel of the reins and changing direction you can put him/her on a circle around you. A 15 to 20 metre circle is ideal and if you are fortunate enough to have a round pen then this should be easy.
Practice your give to the bit work and when your horse is soft, relaxed and listening, cue him/her to trot. Only trot for half a circle to start with and practice your walk-trot transitions. Horses that have been lunged frequently may well be reluctant to come back to walk as they could be in the habit of trotting around and around for lengthy periods. We aren’t aiming to make the horse fit, just educated, so trotting in aimless circles is not for us.
Step 9: Your pattern
Soon your pattern looks like lunging but unlike with lunging, here you can feel that the horse is soft in the bridle, responsive to rein pressure, relaxed and listening to your cues.
Once your horse is responding well with walk-trot transitions and remaining calm and relaxed, you can try a canter. Again, don’t canter for too long, rather work on your trot-canter transitions.
Step 10: Your position
It’s important that, while you’re working your horse around you, you remain behind the ‘drive line’, that is, behind the girth. Your whip should be behind the horse and only raised when needed to encourage forward movement.
Stick to changing direction in walk until you are feeling more confident handling the lines.
Step 11: Can I ride this?
For those of you that are re-training a horse that is already started under saddle, long-reining is a good time to ask yourself ‘can I ride this’ or, more importantly, ‘do I want to ride this’? If your horse is calm, relaxed, soft, focused and maintaining speed and tempo, the answer is probably ‘yes, you bet!’ but if not, you may, wisely, decide a little more education is in order.
One thing we do know – if it isn’t good on the lines it won’t be better under saddle, it will definitely be worse.
Step 12: Stopping
Remember we are always building patterns with our horses and for this reason it’s important that we are mindful of what we are teaching. Ask the horse to halt on the circle, facing forward and walk to the horse, rather than asking the horse in to you. This is important because we don’t want the horse to develop the habit of turning and facing us as discussed earlier.
And remember! It’s not about getting the horse fit, it’s about getting the horse in the engagement zone. It’s not about taking the ‘edge off’ the horse it’s about getting the horse to relax and focus on your cues.
As with all things, long-reining is not perfect and it does have its drawbacks. However, I feel it is worth pursuing as an educational tool if done at particular times in the horse’s career. I use it extensively when I am starting horses under saddle and then I will come back to it if a horse has been out of work for a time. It’s an excellent exercise for building top-line muscle and teaching relaxation through transitions.
The biggest drawback with long-reining is the weight and length of the rein. When the horse is light and you ‘give’ the rein, it has a long distance to travel to reach the horse and even then the horse never gets a full release of pressure because of the weight of the rein itself. This does mean that if your horse is already light in the bridle and in self-carriage, long-reining is likely to undo some of that training.
If you feel this is a risk but would still like to give long-reining a go, then I suggest you go ahead but do five minutes of give to the bit after long-reining. This will remind your horse about self-carriage and remaining soft in the bridle. As a rule, I do five minutes of in-hand bridle work at the end of each long-reining session for this reason.
Long-reining pros and cons at a glance:
- No rider balance to contend with
- No rider cues to confuse the horse
- Builds top-line
- Encourages self-carriage
- No shoulder control (reverse arc)
- Limited directional control
- Not 100% release of pressure
- No tactile positive reinforcement (wither scratches)
Watch this lesson: Don’t forget to pop along to the blog and watch the video of Romeo learning to long-rein: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/romeo-long-reining.