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Direct Contact And Neck Reining The Gaited Horse

By Jeffrey Rolo

All too often when I would attend a gaited horse show I would witness a handler pulling and tugging on his split reins as if he's trying to reel in a fish, trying his hardest to collect his horse into a perfect gait and often failing miserably.

To add insult to injury, all too often when a horse doesn't respond well to such treatment the handler will blame the bit rather than the true cause: his unskilled and heavy hands!

Picture this all too common scenario:

It's time to train the young horse for saddle work, but since the inexperienced horse hasn't developed a perfect sense of balance or the right musculature yet his gait leaves a bit to be desired. The impatient or ignorant handler misdiagnoses this as a lack of respect for the snaffle bit, so he pulls out a curb bit to force the horse to cooperate better.

Initially the curb seems to sharpen the horse's reaction, but over time the horse begins to resist the curb bit too. The inexperienced handler's heavy hands get heavier and heavier yet the horse seems to get worse and worse. His answer? Once again, the bit is not severe enough… so he grabs an even harsher one! This spiral continues until either the horse "falls into line" or becomes one of those "uncontrollable" horses bad trainers often talk about.

The problem is not the gentle bit; it's the inexperienced rider!

Heavy hands are your worst enemy when guiding a gaited horse under saddle. Place yourself in the horse's position. Even when he's riding fine, the inexperienced handler keeps a strong direct contact on the bit, causing him significant discomfort. Eventually the horse is going to become desensitized, requiring harsher and harsher bits to get his attention. In addition when a handler uses too much inappropriate pressure the horse is going to do what he wants since you're clearly failing to provide suitable instructions or guidance.

When you have heavy hands you're hurting him no matter what he does for you, and this is silly because training must be a combination of positive and negative reinforcement. If your horse experiences nothing but negative reinforcement (discomfort caused by the bit) then your horse will have no way of knowing what action actually pleases you.

You do not want to start a battle of supremacy through force (i.e., harsh bits). Instead you want to take the time to work with a young horse using the lightest hands and least severe bit possible.

Many gaited horse owners will scoff at the notion of using loose reins, as if this is an impossible fairy tale. While it is true that gaited horses are almost always ridden with a split-rein, direct contact isn't always necessary.

When working with a horse I will use enough direct contact to collect the horse and maximize a horse's gait, but if he's moving as I request then I will take all pressure off his bit completely (keeping the reins in such a way that I can place direct pressure again with a simple flick of my fingers).

A common myth among Mountain Horse owners (and probably all gaited horses to one degree or another) is that neck reining is impossible since direct contact is always required for proper collection. Nonsense!

I have both witnessed and trained Mountain Horses that gaited wonderfully while being neck reined, loose reins and all. I would not recommend training a fresh Mountain Horse to neck rein as during the early stages it's best to build your horse's balance and musculature as well as perfect his gait through split reins and direct (but gentle!) contact, but once your horse does gait consistently there's absolutely no reason why you cannot move on to neck reining.

Do not let the fact that gaited horses are generally ridden with direct contact trick you into believing that such contact must always exist on the bit for your horse to gait properly. As your horse improves, the need for direct contact should become less and less until eventually you can even choose to thumb your nose in the face of popular "tradition" and neck rein him right alongside any Quarter Horse.

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