The One-Rein Stop: Not Just For Emergencies
Many equestrians can tell dramatic stories of when a one-rein stop saved their hide in a harrowing situation. However, the less captivating, mundane stories about the one-rein stop are far more common but no less important an application than the emergency situations that call for this exercise. I wanted to dedicate this blog post to this indispensable maneuver to talk about how it's done, why it's done, and how to know when to use it.
The following step-by-step explains how to perform the one rein stop:
1. Determine the direction in which you wish to turn. If you are riding outside of an arena, this may be dictated by the terrain or any obstacles you may need to avoid hitting, and if you are riding at the canter or gallop you will want to turn your horse in the direction of the lead he is in. In the arena, you may need to turn the horse to to the inside (i.e. away from the fence) to avoid hitting the wall or knocking your horse off balance by pulling him opposite the direction of his current lead or your diagonal. Otherwise, any direction will do.
2. If you're riding two handed, pass both reins into one hand. The hand now holding the reins will be the outside of the turn you make.
3. Slide your inside hand (the one that you freed by passing the reins into the opposite hand) up the rein as close to the horse's bit as you can without losing your balance or leaning excessively.
4. After getting a solid hold on the inside rein, release the reins with the first hand (the outside) and use this hand to grab onto the saddle horn or a handful of mane to help you balance, especially if you are travelling at a fast speed.
5. Make sure you are seated squarely and evenly over both seat bones--one on either side of the horse's spine--and that you securely have a handful of mane or saddle horn to prepare for a sharp turn.
6. Pull the hand holding the rein by the horse's bit smoothly, firmly, but gently towards your hip on the same side, drawing the horse's nose towards your knee.
7. Hold this position until the horse fully stops moving its feet and softens in its jaw. You will know that the horse has softened his jaw when it feels like he is no longer pulling or creating resistance against your rein. When this happens, praise the horse and instantly release his head.
It's a good idea to practice the one-rein stop a lot, so much that it becomes second nature and you feel you could do it in your sleep. Practice it first at the halt to get the hand motions right, then try from the walk, and when that becomes comfortable move on to faster gaits. This is for the horse's benefit as much as for the rider's since the horse will have a better idea of how to respond if he's practiced it many times and understands what you're after.
The first few times, your horse may circle and circle before finally coming to a stop and relaxing his pole and jaw. It's important to stick with him and hold your position through all of this circling, no matter how dizzy you may get, and only release him when he performs the desired action, which is to stop and soften in his face.
The one-rein stop is often one of the first things taught to new riders as an "e-brake" for when things go wrong. This is a valid application of the maneuver. It is not, however, the only application.
I will often apply a one-rein stop to a horse whose attention has drifted for too long and who fails to respond to more subtle attempts to get it back on me. If a horse has a far-away look in his eyes, his ear pricked towards the horizon and head elevated with a tense, giraffe-like neck, this tells me his attention is most certainly elsewhere. The problem with this scenario is that this behavior is often a precursor to a spook or a blow-up. Even at its most innocuous, a drifting attention tells me that I am not a priority at that moment, nor are the requests I may need to make.
Before resorting to the one-rein stop, I will first attempt to regain the horse's attention by asking him to execute a transition, a change of direction, or a half-halt. Asking the horse to do something different than what he is currently doing will distract him from whatever he is fixated on, but it will also serve as a diagnostic tool, telling me just how far away his attention really is. If I get no response to my request, or if he responds with an irritated tail swish or head-toss, I interpret this as the equivalent to a human flipping me the bird or ignoring me entirely when I try to interact with them--in other words, it is highly disrespectful and tells me where I stand in the hierarchy! In both instances, the one-rein stop is a highly effective tool at getting the horse to return his attention and respect to me, immediately, without allowing for a discussion about it.
Another valid use of the one rein stop is as a preventative to a spook. One of the most effective ways to avoid having a horse spook, particularly at a moving object, is to keep the horse facing that object. If he is facing the object of his fear, he can no longer feel as if it is chasing him, and if he does want to bolt, he won't bolt toward the thing he's afraid of so he will most likely keep his feet still.
If you are aware that something is likely to cause your horse a spook (for example, if there's a skateboarder coming down the street behind you, or the garbage truck is about to turn the corner), then you can preemptively begin a one-rein halt that ends with your horse facing the offensive item. The execution of the maneuver should keep your horse's attention on you at least long enough to buy you some time and prepare yourself for any potential reaction, and it also allows you set the horse up in such a way that a reaction if less likely to occur (i.e. facing the potentially scary object).
When riding horses who have the tendency to fling their head and brace against your hand, the one-rein stop is an indispensable tool that can keep you from fighting against the animal for the entirety of your ride. Of course, any medical reason for the head flinging should be addressed before treating it as a training issue, but once it has been confirmed to be behavioral and not physical, then a horse who habitually flings his head can be corrected by applying only lateral pressure (i.e. pressure through just one rein or the other) to his face. It's harder for a horse to brace against lateral rein pressure than it is for him to brace against bilateral pressure, and he can forget about head-flinging when his nose has been brought all the way around to your knee! This trick has probably kept my nose from getting broken by a rogue horse head on more than one occasion.
When retraining a horse with a head-flinging habit, it's important to realize that this is usually a behavior that a horse develops as a defense mechanism. Make sure you don't use too strong of a bit or too strong a hand aid on such as horse as it will only exacerbate the issue. That being said, there should be little tolerance for this to continue as it can be quite dangerous for the rider, and a one-rein stop can correct the behavior in a way that won't perpetuate it by making the horse more defensive the way pulling on both reins does.
Lastly, teaching the horse the one-rein stop is just good training, period. A horse who will correctly respond to the cue for a one-rein stop is one who is laterally flexible, soft through the jaw and pole, and responsive not only through the mouth and face, but through the neck and rib cage as well. Any horse you get on should possess at least this minimum of training.