One of my favorite places to ride is the Butterfield Stagecoach trail near Maricopa, Arizona. The huge stretch of BLM land is presently closed to motor vehicles and it is seldom that you ever run into anyone else. The history of that area is very rich, and the terrain is exquisite. There are an endless number of washes, trails and ranch roads to follow. There are also range cattle that roam freely through the desert.
Occasionally you will encounter cattle round up areas. Ranchers round up cattle (on horseback) and drive them to corrals where they are loaded into trailers and transported to market.
A few days ago, we were enjoying a ride along one of the ranch roads in that area. As we rode along the road, we noticed a fresh set of hoof prints traveling in the same direction we were riding. When we first noticed the prints, we were approximately 5 or 6 miles down the road and truly in the middle of nowhere. As we followed the prints, we noticed what seemed to be a pattern. The stride in the prints would be walking for a while, then slowly stretch out to a trot and then to a gallop. Then they would stop abruptly and there was a pattern of prints moving in seemingly every direction in a 5 foot by 5-foot space. After what looked like all the commotion had stopped the prints would continue in the same pattern.
After seeing four or five of these patterns in a row over about a mile stretch a picture started to develop in my mind, and it is not one I appreciate. My mind flashed back to almost the same picture from several months prior where I watched several ropers working their horses. The one cowboy in particular would walk his horse a few steps, then push him into a gallop and almost immediately slam on the brakes, to the point where he would nearly pull the bit through the horse’s mouth. He would drive the horse into endless tight circles, never releasing the pressure from the mouth. Sometimes, the horse would attempt to rear almost falling in an effort to escape the pressure. The horse had a look on his face as if to say, “HELP!!!”
The person I was riding with this day asked what I thought of the hoof print pattern. I related the story of what I had watched in the roping arena, and we both decided that was exactly the message these prints were telling us. Walk, run and then “OH NO”, one reined stop, circle, circle, circle.
There are times where a strong hand may be called for, but as a student of natural horsemanship I always consider the long-term consequences of a heavy hand. Do you want a partner or a slave? Are the short-term results of bullying for compliance going to help my horse decide I should be in charge of direction and speed, or possibly force resentment?
Riders who subscribe to the philosophy of natural horsemanship are looking to create a partnership with their horse. They are working with the horse not forcing or dominating the horse into doing a maneuver. Unfortunately, though I see many of these same riders failing to understand how to correctly apply the techniques that develop willingness in the horse.
The one rein stop is a technique that is often misused as a correction. Many riders use the one rein stop for everything. If the horse does shy suddenly, a one rein stop. If the horse goes faster than they want, a one rein stop. If the horse doesn’t give on the first request or is not light enough for its rider, a one rein stop. If the horse crow hops, a one rein stop. If the horse bolts, a one rein stop. If the horse kicks out, a one rein stop. The solution to everything for some riders seems to be a one-rein stop. Although a tool that should be kept in your toolbox of actions, it is not the answer for every situation.
First, let’s review the technique. When you want to practice this maneuver, you should have a snaffle bit in your horse’s mouth to assure that pressure is being applied in the correct manner. Your horse should be moving forward, it is best to practice at the walk to begin with and develop speed as your comfort level increases. You will slide your hand down one rein towards the horse’s mouth. As you bring that hand back toward the horse’s wither, apply pressure with your leg on the same side. You are looking for the shoulder on that side of the horse to plant and the hips to swing away from your leg. When this happens, you should release the pressure on the horse’s mouth.
Some horses seem to perform this technique as if on autopilot while others become confused and fearful. I have watched people drive their horse into endless circles and accomplish nothing but hoof prints and resentment. The horse becomes hopelessly confused. There seems to be no understanding on either part as to what is really being asked. The point of a correction is to show the horse how to confidently listen to the rider not to fear being bullied. If there is a lack understanding on the rider’s part, the horse will not develop confidence in the rider, and you can almost predict the outcome.
It is not the quantity of the movement that you want to focus on, but the quality. Driving the horse hard and fast into tight circles does not create a softer horse, just a dizzy one.
If a one rein stop is used it is important to remember the horse’s shoulder must completely stop and planted before the hips swing away. It is also VERY important that the horse’s head never goes behind his shoulder. Focusing on better quality of movement, gives more control and consistency to the horse. Stopping the shoulder completely, allows the horse to understand how to move onto the bit and then give to it. The horse is making the decision to be soft to the bit by accepting it first, then finding their own release of pressure. Keeping the horse’s head in front of the shoulder also creates better quality of movement. The horse cannot duck under or away from the pressure of the bit.
Another aspect of quality in executing this maneuver is the straightness of the horse’s head. The horse should not twist his head at all during the movement. The ears should stay level at all times. Again, focusing on the quality of how the horse performs the maneuver allows the horse to find the bit and then look for the release.
Confidence is developed with understanding of what is required. In the one rein stop, the rider wants the horse to accept the bit then find a soft way to carry it. Driving the horse into countless circles without looking for a quality of movement lacks purpose. It is very difficult to guess the correct answer when you don’t understand the question. It is the rider’s responsibility to explain in a way that takes the guessing out for the horse.
My friend gave me a good analogy for the hoof print scenario where the horse was circling frantically. He said, “schooling a horse like that would be like yelling at a deaf person from behind. They can’t hear you and no amount of shouting is going to make them understand.” Even if you physically force them to do something, the lack of understanding would make them resistant. You may dominate and overpower but you would certainly not be creating a partnership.