Training Exercises: Neck Reining

Neck Reining is the use of Indirect rein pressure. Both reins are held in one hand (usually your left hand). When the reins are laid across the horse’s neck on the left side, he is supposed to turn to the right (as if the rein is pushing his head right). When laid across the neck on the right he is supposed to turn left (away from the rein pressure).

Cowboys developed the one-handed neck rein because they frequently needed one hand to control the horse and the other for the use of a lariat or to shoot their gun or to tip their hat to a lady.

When neck reining, the horse is cued off of the “outside” aids: the outside rein pushes his neck in the direction you want him to go. Your outside leg pushes his body (shoulder) in the direction you want him to go. An outside neck tap with a whip pushes his shoulder over in the direction you want him to go.

The transition from pulling (direct reining) to pushing (neck reining) can be tricky, as the horse is used to having his head pulled by the pressure on his mouth, dragging his head in the direction you want him to go. When you begin using indirect pressure, his mouth cues are confusing. The side of his face where the bit is tight is now the side he must move AWAY from instead of toward.

The instruction here is presented for the weekend rider who wants a relaxing ride. For equitation or western pleasure show riding, it may not be precise enough.

There is more than one way to teach this exercise, but they all start the same way:
Mark out a nice square pattern in the arena to make some 90 degree turns.
Your body position is important. Sit upright in the saddle when walking a straight line, allowing your shoulders to turn VERY IMPERCEPTIBLY in the direction of your turn as you make the request. Use a new cue followed by the old one if the old one has more pressure associated with it.

(The now-famous story of Pavlov’s dogs demonstrates dramatically how one stimulus (the neck pressure) can take the place of another (the direct rein) to elicit the same response (turn). Read explanations of this behavior in these pages: Pairing or Paired Cues, Reinforcement Theory, and Shaping.

Step 2: Introduction: Using two hands, simultaneously lay the rein on the outside of your horse’s neck with one hand while pulling his face in the direction of the turn with the other.
In this case, you are using two aids simultaneously: pairing the old cue (direct rein) with the new cue (indirect rein): He is feeling the firm rein on the pushing side of his neck while he is experiencing the familiar pull of the direct rein.

Step 3: Teach: Begin to lag with the pulling rein. That is, lay the outside rein across his neck BEFORE you pull the direct rein, using the direct pull as a pressure that he would like to avoid.

Step 4: At the same time that you are using the reins, use your outside leg to push his shoulder around the corner. Be sure you have taken all pressure off of your inside leg so that he can move freely in the direction of your request. (You are also teaching leg cueswhile we are teaching this exercise, by the way. The leg aid is also a new cue being paired with the old direct-rein cue)

Step 5: Release. When he has made the turn, release the aids and let him walk a straight line.

Soon, he will anticipate the turn from the outside rein and/or leg before the direct rein makes contact with his face.

Method Two: If a horse understands leg aids as well as face cues

Step 1: Hold the reins in one hand directly above the horn of the saddle. When you ask your horse to go left or right, the distance that you will move that hand is just about 6″ either way to the side of the horn.
Step 2: Lay the rein on the outside of your horse’s neck (new cue) . Lay it there with enough pressure that he is feeling it firmly, but don’t jerk or even engage his face if possible.

Step 3: Simultaneously use your outside leg to push his shoulder around the corner (old cue as a hint). Be sure you have taken all pressure off of your inside leg so that he can move freely in the direction of your request. If he seems to give you no response whatsoever, reach down to guide him with the direct rein (both a hint and a little unwanted “pressure”).

Step 4: Release: When he has made the turn, release the aids and let him walk a straight line.

Remember the dance steps and anticipation: Once he realizes that the rein against his neck is followed by your leg pressure is followed by the direct rein (each one building in pressure), he will begin to anticipate that the turn is coming when he feels the rein against his neck – skipping the previous two steps. He is also motivated to avoid the direct rein cue because it is more pressure than the very subtle neck cue.

The more you have refined your leg and face aids before you start this exercise, the faster it will progress.

Method Three: From the beginning. Using new cues paired with an old pressure cue

It is not often that we get a chance to teach a horse indirect reining from the beginning. Reign is our test case for this method. See the discussion of Reign’s saddle immersion training in which he is trained using outside leg pressure and two dressage whips to move away from the indirect rein pressure.

Step 1: On the ground, desensitize the horse to the dressage whip on both sides.

Step 2: Teach him to move away from the whip tap on his neck on the ground before you use it in the saddle. Do this by standing in front and tapping his outside neck rhythmically with your whip until he moves away from the irritating tap: (tap, tap, tap, Tap, Tap, TAP, TAP, TAP, raising the ante until he moves. He will understand that you raise the pressure until he moves a step away from the whip). Soon a tiny tap will move his front over.

Step 3: Riding with a side-pull breaking hackamore (he has not yet been ridden in a bit) and a dressage whip, simultaneously lay the outside rein across his neck (new cue) as you tap, tap, tap his outside neck with the whip (old pressure cue) and push him with your outside leg (new cue) to make the 90 degree turn. Pairing and Pressure are working simultaneously.

Step 4: After a few simultaneous applications of the rein AND the tap, put the rein against his neck FOLLOWED by the tap if he does not turn. There is more pressure in the obvious tap than in the subtle neck rein. He will begin to understand that that irritating “tap” can be avoided if he makes the turn before the tap is engaged.

Step 5: Release: When he has made the turn, release the aids and let him walk a straight line.

It is amazing that he will learn indirect reining, leg aids, AND whip cues at the same time he is trained to move under saddle.

The main drawback I see to this method is the amount of coordination a trainer needs to handle the indirect rein and the whip (in the same hand as the rein) all at the same time. A young, inexperienced rider might not be able to manage it. But then, a young inexperienced rider would rarely be riding such a green horse.

Horse training can be dangerous. Not all methods work on all horses. Instruction presented here is not meant to be prescriptive in nature, and Horse-Pros.com takes no responsibility for the welfare of any animal or person using our methods.

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