The Art of Natural Dressage

Learning to ride without reins
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Author:  oldhack [ Tue Apr 03, 2012 9:55 am ]
Post subject:  Learning to ride without reins

Hi. I don’t know if I’m welcome here as I do still use a bridle!

I read this forum a lot and am fascinated by the principles. I’ll bore you briefly with my history… decided at age 20 to get on a horse for the first time.. spent 6 weeks in a riding school being taught to kick and pull, then took a 4yo welsh section D on loan. After being ditched most days I eventually learned to *ride*. That is I thought I did. 6 months later I was the proud owner of bucking, napping, bolting irish cob. He taught me a lot more, but was strong and basically ignored me most of the time. We managed to do jumping and x country though and I felt like I had mastered it.

2 years ago (I’m now 30!) I went for a riding lesson at a Spanish stud yard. I got on a beautiful dressage stallion. The instructor simply asked me to walk around the school. The horse didn’t move. When he did finally move I couldn’t steer. And surprise surprise he didn’t stop when I pulled on the reins. 10 minutes into the lesson I realised I had never learned to ride. I think monty roberts called it horse wrestling! I spent a lot of time there as a working pupil and learnt a lot. Finally.

My irish cob is now retired due to COPD, but I have a 5yo trotter x cob that I bought as a foal. The first time I broke him was before I understood riding. I then rebroke him a year ago – more nicely, and now I’m on attempt number three. The nice thing is I have the most wonderful relationship with him. He tries his hardest to please me. I never need force or violence, but praise and patience.

So the question. I’m teaching him to steer and stop off my seat. I want to be able to put the reins down and not require them to stop or change gait. At the walk he understands beautifully, I can change speed or stop. At the trot its different.. he has a huge trot – dad was a racing trotter – and he is just so enthusiastic. To teach him in the walk took about 20 mins! Now been working on trot for a week of daily sessions.. am I being impatient? How can I help him to understand. He’s so willing that I think it is probably a miscommunication. I find myself resorting to reins, but I didn’t need to at the walk – so in theory I shouldn’t need to at the trot. Any tips to help him?

He’s a good boy.. can bow, Spanish walk, shoulder in at walk and trot, travers at walk, leg yields over enthusiastically any gait.

Sorry for the long question. You are all an inspiration!

Author:  Romy [ Tue Apr 03, 2012 10:08 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Learning to ride without reins

Welcome! :) Great to have you here and of course you are welcome although you use a bridle. :smile:

When you ask him to stop from walk, do you reward him? I am asking this because I had a similar problem with my Titum years ago (long before I started with positive reinforcement, actually). It always took so long and even some pulling on the reins (attached to a halter) before he finally stopped from canter when we were cantering across an open meadow. So one day I decided to let him eat a few bites of grass everytiome he stopped. Within a few trials we had immediate canter-halt transistions on a cue as small as me breathing out. :funny:

Another thing that might help is to use a certain position that you associate with stopping. You can get some ideas on that in the Point to point sticky.

Finally, what I would do is work in tiny little steps. If he stops from walk nicely, I would ask for trot and immediately stop again - and reward him big time if he does. If that works, I would wait for three trot steps until I ask him to stop, then five, then ten and then a whole circle for example.

Good luck! :)

Author:  oldhack [ Tue Apr 03, 2012 11:02 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Learning to ride without reins

Thanks for your reply... Everything we do in training includes food rewards whilst he learns the principle, then praise reward once hes got it. At the moment a really immediate responsive stop at walk still generates a goodie, in the trot he only gets a food reward if i dont have to use the reins, if i do then i simply repeat the exersize - here is the problem, i guess im not incentivising the stop because he *hasnt met my criteria*.. perhaps i should go for a phasing out of reins, rather than a complete change, so i can incentivise him again.

Just dissappointed as he got it so fast at walk. He normally gets what i want in just a few minutes, and all the exersizes we do are just a big game to him, he doesnt think we're 'schooling' he thinks we're playing the goodies/cuddles game.

I have a very specific body change for the 'stop aid' - perhaps also i'm not adopting this as well in his super extended trot. As you say if i adopt after only a couple of strides of trot - before he gets too big - i might get his attention more effectively - and control my own movement better! Ok... will try and update after next *schooling* session....

Author:  Volker [ Tue Apr 03, 2012 11:29 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Learning to ride without reins

I can't give you much riding advice, but basically the way horses learn is the same as in groundwork.
I don't know if you are familiar with clicker training. For me, clicker training has proven to be most effective - and fun ;) - to level out some communication glitches between horse and human.
The point is that you have a marker signal (click, voice) to mark the behaviour you want to reinforce. The horse is conditioned to associate the marker with the reward it gets soon after (every time!). That way, I can reward the slightest modulation of energy, like a slowing down for example in response to my cues. As soon as the horse gets the idea of what I'm aiming at, the progress from there is much easier and faster.
A golden rule in clicker training is, if an exercise doesn't work like intended, break it down into smaller steps and reward those. Then piece them together to get the bigger picture again.

As I can read from your story, you already have a wonderful communication going on with your horse. And I think you are just inches away from what you want to achieve :yes:

Author:  oldhack [ Tue Apr 03, 2012 3:48 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Learning to ride without reins

Hi - thanks for the reply. I used to use a clicker but stopped in the transition from groundwork to riding. He knows my spoken 'voila' means end of exercise and a treat, and i try to be ready and predict the 'right answer' so my timing is right, but he did love the clicker... Yes.. will add this into the next session (this evening). Lots to try... just looked out the window and he is peering into my office waiting for todays session, so think i'll knock off work early and see if we can improve!

Author:  Donald Redux [ Tue Apr 03, 2012 4:28 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Learning to ride without reins

Hi, and welcome,

May I suggest you explore clicker training further. The power in the clicker lies in minute shaping, that is the distinct marking of a tiny behavior event.

Yes, it used after a series of behaviors, an exercise, but being able to mark tiny things and chain them together is far far more powerful.

If you mark only after and exercise (a group of behaviors) the horse is quite likely, almost certainly, to think the last thing he did before the click sounds is the thing he is being rewarded for ... not the whole series.

Time and again I have had to back up and break down a behavior chain to it's smaller elements and click and reward each to build powerful and enthusiastic responses, that then generalize to the chain of events we think of as an exercise.

There are some very good resources on the Web for such information. In England the Face Book page of Helen Spence, Horse Sense and the Clicker is a true delight. Wonderful people exploring this tool. Here in the U.S. I belong to Peggy Hogan's group The Best Whisper is a Click, the Fb page, Clicker Training Horses. Both are commercial but very generous and do not push their businesses excessively, and both have a wealth of knowledge shared on their FB pages.

There are members here that have become deeply involved with operant conditioning and the positive reinforcement method (Clicker) and I think are expert.

So wherever you go you are going to find resources to support an exploration of clicker training.

I recently have run across information that suggests strongly we clicker people are on the verge of a considerable surge forward in the horse world, with people starting to shift over to it from pressure release work (traditional) in significant numbers. You may well become part of this revolution.

Again, welcome and best wishes, Donald

Author:  Donald Redux [ Tue Apr 03, 2012 6:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Learning to ride without reins

While many folks don't fully cross over to +R and continue to use strong aides there are some issues I have with it. One, rein use always creates at least some discomfort or, barring actual discomfort, the memory of it, thus a threat is imposed through the use of that cue.

My personal choice is a bit weird, but ...

For the whoa, a solid halt, I take two approaches, mounted and ground work. In ground work I make my cue dropping the lead line or lunge line on the ground. Most horses will stop. Your shaping, the build up, would be to do close in halts using whoa or the cue of your choice, each time you click and treat remember to precede it with the line drop.

I'm a fan of voice cues.

Eventually you'll graduate to trot/halt, and canter/halt, once the habit is solidly established.

The line drop, by the way, is a safety feature. Should I come off my horse, or lose the line because of shying, or just in attention the horse will tend to look for the treat. The cue, whoa, gets high response intensity by this method.

Pressure release work can confuse the horse I believe. I've certainly seen it often enough back five years ago when I was still doing it and hadn't crossover completely to clicker +R.

And your idea to work on the stop without having reins to use Good for you. That will make you shape carefully in very small increments, and build a more powerful chain of behaviors into and event.

Author:  Josepha [ Wed Apr 04, 2012 7:57 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Learning to ride without reins

It is really hard for a horse to halt from trot or be stirred if he is on his forehand. Perhaps that would be the case here.
I suggest to start trot only from shoulder in so the trot keeps balanced and he can not lean on his shoulders. Then, do many trot-walk-halt transitions. Soon he will be able to balance himself and can halt or transition down to walk easily.

If you want to turn using no reins, use the cordeo to stir the shoulders (this is also how we should turn the horse with reins, turn the shoulders, not the head). Of course it will only work if you use your body correctly within the turn.
But you know how to do it in walk, so it should be no problem in trot :)

Good luck,


Author:  Donald Redux [ Wed Apr 04, 2012 3:01 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Learning to ride without reins

As simple as this appears at first glance it is an element of riding, and for that matter, ground work, that has a profound effect on performance. "... turn the shoulders, not the head." Josepha.

If one thinks their way through the concept of turn the horse has three points of activity to choose from, the nose, the shoulder or chest, and the hindquarters.

While exercising the neck and poll should be part of gymnasium it alone does not add grace, power, or smoothness to the desirable collection in turns.

I have the frustrating task of getting this across to one of my students whose horse has been for many years turned by his nose rather than by using his whole body. Thus he never truly moves in collection. I shall share that thought with my student, Josepha: "..turn the shoulders, not the head."

I do see this student is ready to learn this but misses an element. I think you have revealed that to me. Thank you.

Author:  Josepha [ Thu Apr 05, 2012 9:46 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Learning to ride without reins

Maybe this video is helpful: ... ature=plcp

As soon as the horse can hold Stellung by himself, the inside rein is no longer need and the outside rein in the turn can be taken over by the cordeo.

And no thanks :) I learned that from Monsieur De La Gueriniere... :smile:

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