English or Western, pt II

Originally posted on Academie Duello’s blog in January 2012

Last week we looked at the relative merits English and Western saddles.  This week we’re looking at the much thornier issue of reining style.  It’s one of the hardest adjustments to make when switching from one type of riding to the other, and proponents of each will often argue fiercely against the other.

In dressage, hunt seat, and basic English riding the horse rides into contact, which I discussed in this previous post.  There is never slack in the reins, and the rider has a constant connection to the bit, and therefore the horse’s mouth.  Contact is quite a delicate balancing act, and requires the rider to have soft hands that gently follow the motion of the horse’s head.  Unfortunately, a rider who is not secure in her seat may lean on the horse’s mouth, using the reins for balance, which in turn creates a horse that is ‘hard’ in the mouth, meaning dull to the commands from the bit.  Riders who are too controlling or busy with their hands can also create a hard-mouthed horse who learns to tune-out the constant nagging.


This picture, taken mid-air over a jump, shows how a sensitive, following hand maintains gentle contact throughout the motion of the jump.  The rein forms a straight line to the elbow, and yet the bit (a full-cheek snaffle) is not pulling at the mouth or impeding the pony in anyway.

The goal of western riding, however, is to have a horse that is ridden on a loose rein.  A well trained western horse should respond to the slightest backward rein pressure with a slow or halt, should turn with a touch of the rein on the neck, and is a true pleasure to ride.  However it is much harder to teach a horse to collect properly without contact — not imposible, but much more difficult.  And just as bad riding can create a hard mouth in an English bridle, insensitive hands on western reins are equally detrimental, and even damaging if the horse is wearing a high ported or long-shanked curb.  Hackamores, which control the horse with a noseband rather than a bit, can be just as harsh on the sensitive face of a horse.

Watch this video to see how western reining horses perform sliding stops with minimal rein contact:

What I love about a good western horse is his lightness of mouth:  the way I can ask him to change what he is doing with a twitch of the reins (and of course the appropriate seat and leg cues as well).  But the reason I ride with an English bridle is for the two-way communication I get from the bit.  With two hands on the reins, and a soft give and take feel, I simply have more cues at my disposal, and more feedback from my horse. 

When riding and training one of my goals is to have the best of both worlds:  a horse that is soft and light in the mouth, and yet trusts me enough to reach for contact, and knows the many subtle cues she will receive through it.  It’s precise work that requires mindfulness throughout every ride; but even if my horse and I only achieve that beautiful balance for a few moments, it’s worth every ounce of effort along the way.

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