Why the one-rein stop is great

Originally published in 2014 on my other blog. 

This spring and summer I rode my burly foxhunter,  Midas, through fields performing the one-rein stop every 10 steps or so in order to, 1) learn the thing, and 2) not be bolted with. Now we have pretty well mastered the maneuver as taught by Clinton Anderson in his Down Under Horsemanship book–and the effects have been astounding.

Me on Midas, Donald on Charlie

The one-rein stop consists of reaching about halfway down one rein, and then in a smooth (not abrupt) motion, drawing your hand back to your hip.  This draws the horse’s head around to his shoulder. Your other rein hangs completely loose. The instant the horse yields–by bringing his nose closer to you than the rein requires, thereby removing the pressure of the rein–and stops his feet, you drop the rein as a reward.  Before you tackle this while moving, you master it while standing still; this way the horse already understands how to yield before you incorporate stopping.


Oddly, the one-rein stop is a very soothing exercise. It’s hard to say if it soothes the horse or rider first, but there is a calming rhythm and familiarity to it. The rider is suddenly aware that he or she can stop the horse easily and without conflict, and the horse likewise realizes that the rider won’t grab or be harsh, and it knows what to do to release the pressure. Everyone knows what to expect, and that’s very soothing.

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This is Midas’s post-hunt-so-tired-please-can-we-stay-with-the-hounds? face.

The net result is not only a horse who can be stopped (no small matter when you ride a horse who bolts) but a confident rider. Over the past several months, both of my young in-laws  have had the opportunity to stop bolts. The most recent take-off the 16 year old rode by himself out of voice-shot and handled perfectly. He then continued with the ride as if nothing had happened, both horse and rider in a good mental state.  I’m completely delighted at the prospect of bolts being non-events rather than ride-defining moments.


This has resulted in a sort of revolution for Midas and I.


Because you don’t need a short rein to stop the horse quickly, you can ride with a longer one.  This has, in turn,  enabled me to finally connect the  dots between contact with the horse’s mouth, rein length, and sitting up straight. I’ve been actively working to sit taller (fighting those years of hunt seat equitation), tuck my seat under, and when I do have to pull on the reins or half-halt, the action comes from the elbow and shoulder rather than just the hands. Although I’m riding on a longer rein, there is not, interestingly,  a loop in the rein. With all the puzzle pieces falling into place, Midas is not abusing the longer rein. Instead, he’s stepping into it and stretching his neck into it, like my High School Riding Instructor always said the horse would. We have stumbled on the secret to traveling in the fabled frame lauded by dressage instructors everywhere.


Finally  and unexpectedly, the longer rein has suddenly enabled us to canter. It’s embarrassing, but I couldn’t induce Midas to canter much in the ring; and it was hard work to hold him balanced when we did canter. As it turns out, I was holding his head too high with a too-short rein, and he was having to work his tail off to stay balanced at all. On the longer rein–with my elbows and shoulders back and my seat tucked under–he reached of his own accord into the contact of the rein, and I could use my legs and seat to keep his weight back and balanced.


The confidence of the one-rein stop unlocked a palace of riding treasures for my bolt-prone mount and I. It has lessened the frequency and severity of bolting incidents, led directly to mastering other horsemanship skills and concepts, and given us the ability to canter responsibly. The One-Rein Stop is great.


The Ham and Midas performing the same exercises I’ve been doing with Midas.

I originally thought that Midas bucking after fences was what caused his owner to fall off in the hunt field a few years ago. Now, after watching things unfold after I took a tumble at the jumper show, I think that the first fall was just because stuff happens. And I think that it freaked Midas out, and that is why he charges and bucks.

It’s like jumping becomes tearing off a band-aid–do it fast! And the buck is a precaution to stop the evil from landing on his withers.

It took a lot of schooling to be able to jump him reliably–he has athleticism in spades but expects the worst and his instincts tell him to believe he’s on his own. He’s a challenge to ride because you really do have to ride. But he’s so rewarding.

So we took all our practice at trotting combos like a pro and threw something really outside his comfort zone at him–new place, a course, and actual 2′ verticals which we really didn’t school over ever. At All. Prior to. My bad.

I’m pleased it took the verticals to cause him to revert 2 years back in training to believing the worst and that he’s on his own and he doesn’t know what to do. So he balked, rushed, and bucked. If I’d ridden better (the Great IF) and stayed on, we probably wouldn’t have this baggage about combinations.

Now he thinks “bad stuff happens when I jump, I KNEW IT” and I’m back to gently saying “No, it really doesn’t, don’t worry about it.”

First, stepping onto the grass where the jumps are got him all up and wired. Much walking onto the grass and walking of poles–under saddle, bareback, at liberty–now the grass isn’t a cue to panic.

Then we up the anti to trotting on the grass, trotting the poles and walking the half-built x rails. Also trotting the half built x-rails in hand (man, I need to wear running shoes to the barn).

I need him to sort out his own body–no rushing, take your time and do your thing. You got this. This is why I worked him in hand.

Then, in a riding lesson with my trainer, we incorporated trotting the poles, halting immediately after, then trotting the half built x-rails with a halt after.Repetition of this led to a horse willing to think about the poles, and think about the x-rails, and be ready and willing to halt immediately after.

We slowly added things: first the jump standards (one by one), then the other x-rail poles to finish it to a real x-rail. Each addition he reacted with less inclination to rush, but always he listened well. I should add that I hardly used my reins at all in this exercise–not even for halt. We’ve been working so hard on polishing up our leg and seat aids that I’m actually able to rely on them. Reins are finally relegated to their proper role as “just another aid” rather than “the aid we rely on most.”

So now we do a lot of this. A lot of “no really, you know how to use your feet, and I can ride it, you should listen to me, we’re a team.”

Then, then maybe we can add canter. Golly, what a thought. Rating the canter…we’ll get there.

Sport Horse Fan stuff

If you have a tack shop, a coffee shop, a restaurant, a house, a tack room, a spare wall anywhere, I’ve got cool stuff for you to buy.

Some of my favorite shots are now up in my Redbubble shop, paying tribute to foxhunting and the fine sport of eventing.

First Jumper Show

IMG_20160825_082947I have never done a jumper show before, and I think I understand now why people love jumpers so much. It’s a lot of fun to test your skills zipping around a course as fast and clean as you can. Or, I imagine it would be. Our goal was to not zip, just to go around the course quiet and relaxed.

And you know what: We went off farm, I got on, and Midas listened in the warm up ring. He was good, we trotted both ways, then we went and got in line for the x rails course. Just to introduce him to the course. He was excited, but he listened well and went around pretty relaxed. We got a clean round and a good time (without trying for time). I was very pleased with him.

Then we loitered around for an hour while the x rails course finished up and the 18″ verticals class went.

As the hour passed between our classes, Midas knew he’d done a good job–stellar, even, especially considering his track record–he thought he was done, and he also knew it was dinnertime. So, when I woke him up to warm him up I could sense that he was offended about working more. I hoped we could just do our class and be done. Also, we hadn’t jumped warm up jumps before the x rails, and that had gone great, so I thought perhaps it would  be the same with the 2′ fences. In hindsight, I should have stayed in the warm up ring until he got over being offended. I should have taken the x rail and vertical in the warm up ring to discover his mood.

I was trying to help him get over being in work by not dwelling too long. It didn’t work. Our second class went horribly. Though, watching it later it doesn’t look that horrible up until the point I fell off. He was a handful, but mostly we were managing with extra circles to recover.

He was wound up, and shocked and offended, and I could feel him utterly coiled beneath me. He tried several times to get out of line while we were waiting, and when it was our turn to enter he tried to leave. He bucked and bolted after the first fence but I got him back and circled. I kept him from the second fence because I strongly suspected we’d have a buck and bolt on the other side of that one too. After a couple circles I felt his energy had shifted forward rather than up, and got him over with a reasonable recovery.  The third fence got a teeny buck and dart, which I recovered, circled and got him to fence four. I was approaching each fence like it was the only one. He took four without darting out of it, so I started to think we might be OK–not great, but maybe OK. But five and six were a line and I wondered if I should quit, knowing a line would give him the jump on me–literally.

Perhaps I should have quit.

Perhaps I should have pretended six wasn’t after five and sat up with the world’s biggest half halt in our two strides between fences.

Perhaps I should have sat up and ridden the fences like they were flat.

Any of those actions might have changed the fact that he jumped big on six and dislodged me, then I could’ve sworn he bucked–but in the video it wasn’t nearly the motion I felt, but just like that I was in the dust. I wasn’t embarrassed at the time, but watching the video I definitely am now!

So I left the ring and took him back to the warm up ring, got on, and spent the next half hour or so trotting the x rail and vertical in there. It only took a few times over the x rail (and one or two one rein stops before then) to get him listening again, and then I just did the vertical over and over waiting for him to take revenge. But he didn’t.

So we went back into the show ring–not to do the course, but to recover from it. We walked and trotted around–he was immediately worked up, and I just needed him to relax. So we trotted around–ooogled at the photographers laying in the grass outside the ring every single pass. After a little while I asked him to walk, did some half halts to focus on my release, focused on relaxing my legs, and then asked for trot and we did much better at achieving a relaxed trot. So it was time to try a fence.

On the recommendation of one of the show staff, we chose the straight approach to the four fence (since the other inviting fence was on the side with the scary photographers) and he trotted in and out like a good boy. No rushing. No bucking. Just a nice trot.

That’s a win. I let him walk and showered him with pats.

I was reflecting on the event and realizing that it did actually go much better than the dressage show. He came out and his first reaction was to be quite good. He knew he had been good, and he thought he was done–when he found out he wasn’t done, and the next thing was even harder, he just got more shocked and offended and worked up and then lost three years of training.

I think that if I had jumped him in warm up I would have been able to head off our disaster. I don’t think it would have been a great round, but I think I could have stayed on. So, lesson learned. After a long break, make sure to work him hard before asking for anything really hard.