Monday, December 19, 2011


Today I took my second ride on the new horse I’m starting – this time no buck.  We practiced starting, stopping, and neckreining, and it’s gratifying how soft and quick she is responding already.

The essence of a good cowhorse is that light touch on the reins – both held in the left hand – as the rider guides him through the dance of cutting out and roping a critter.  Most trainers spend weeks, months, even years developing that light rein, using a process that is unnecessary - and even counter-productive.  Let me explain:

The majority of horses in the world are trained using what the high-brows call a ‘direct rein’, and what we cowboys refer to as ‘plow-reining’.  This refers to pulling on one rein to swing the head in the direction you want the horse go – just like on a workhorse.  I don’t have any direct experience, but I am told that English-style riders want to maintain contact with a horse’s mouth at all times. 

Western riders, by contrast, need one hand free for their lariat or bull-whip.  Where an English rider steers her horse in the same manner as a bull-dozer, the Western rider handles his horse in the manner of a fighter-jet: by one hand on the “joystick”.  We ride most of the time with a slack rein, giving guidance to our horse only when he is unsure of our intention.  (Here I will refer you to my story that further describes the joy of riding a good cowhorse: )

As an example of the two systems of handling, try this little exercise on yourself: First, take your right index finger and push on your cheek until your head turns to the left; next, use your left index finger to pull your on your lip until your head turns to the left.  By which method would you prefer to be guided?

Nearly every trainer starts his horse using the plow-rein.  Western (and polo) trainers then spend weeks using both hands to transition the horse to a neckrein: pulling on the left rein while pushing with the right.  I did that also until a day thirty years ago when my daughter asked “Why, Daddy?”

Ever since then I have immediately begun reining every horse I’ve ridden with a nudge to the outside of the neck rather than a pull to the inside of the mouth – and ever since then I have also wondered why you would teach a horse to steer like a bull-dozer if you want him to turn like fighter jet.

It is amazing to most horse-people that neckreining can be taught in a matter of minutes.  But if you think about it, what sense does it make to teach a horse one method, then use both, and finally end up using the latter?  That’s like teaching a toddler French, then using both the French and English words together, so that you can eventually talk to him using only English.

The result of neckreining from the first ride on a green horse is an incomparably light rein.  Horses that have been started with a “direct rein” can simply never catch up.  And a whole month of training time has been lost in making the transition.

And as my daughter once asked: “Why?”

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