The Basics of Neck Reining
Neck reining to a western horse is like a steering wheel to a car: Without it, you have no control over the direction you and your vehicle are headed. It's one of the first fundamentals a western horse learns. Without good neck reining responses, a "finished" horse won't place well in western pleasure, reining, barrel racing or most other competitive classes. The most common mistake a rider makes is when he wants to turn but the horse won't, so the rider pulls his hand farther to the inside. "But the farther your hand goes inside, the more pressure you're putting on the outside rein, which forces the horse's head to turn to the outside," Bradley notes. If the horse doesn't turn, make the correction by going to two hands and shortening the inside rein. "Put their nose slightly to the inside and move the horse's shoulder over."
What Is Neck Reining?
For the uninitiated, neck reining is the cue that tells your horse which way to turn. Neck reining uses a loose, indirect rein across the horse's neck to encourage the horse to move away from the pressure. Both reins are loosely held in one hand that is positioned above the pommel about waist level.
How Is It Done?
Championship competitor, trainer and horse show judge Clark Bradley explains how neck reining is done. "You give your cue with the pressure of the outside rein against the neck. If you want to go to the left, you pick your hand up toward your left shoulder and lay the right rein lightly against the horse's neck. On a finished horse, the true neck rein is a loose rein – there's only pressure against the neck and no pressure with the bit at all."
The neck rein cue should be very light, and the reining hand should never cross an imaginary line from the horse's neck to the rider's shoulder.
When Do You Teach It?
Bradley introduces neck reining in a horse's first mounted lesson. Because a green horse must be taught steering anyway, a trainer can incorporate neck reining into that process.
"The first day you ride a colt, ask him to neck rein," Bradley says. "He's not going to respond, but it's a teaching process and it's not complicated."
He usually starts colts in a side-pull for the first couple of months and then moves up into a D-ring or O-ring snaffle. After about six to 12 months of training, he puts them in a broken-mouth bit such as a short shank snaffle. Training sessions generally last from 30 to 45 minutes a day, five days a week.
How Do You Train Your Horse?
Bradley begins by having the horse walk forward. "Then when I want to turn slightly to the right, I'll put the left rein against their neck. Since they don't understand, they don't respond. Then I go to both hands and shorten the inside rein and actually pull their head to the right to get a type of a turn to the right. As soon as they respond, I release the pressure," he says.
Initially, turns are not large, only about 10 degrees. After obtaining some sort of turn, Bradley rewards the horse with a release and then repeats the lesson a few more times.
During the first several months of training, Bradley rides with both hands, first asking for the neck rein, then reinforcing with a direct inside rein. "Too many people forget to neck rein," Bradley warns. "They just pull the nose to the inside and hope the horse turns. They must use the neck rein cue, first."
Bradley keeps his legs on the side of the horse to maintain forward motion, bumping with his outside leg or stirrup to encourage the horse to move his outside shoulder over.
After the horse neck reins in a circle at a walk fairly well, responding to either just a neck rein or both reins, Bradley starts to neck rein at a trot. Many horses can move up to the trot stage in just two weeks. When the horse can trot a figure-8 in 30-foot circles really well with either a neck rein or with two hands, Bradley begins neck reining at the lope. If Bradley has difficulties getting a turn at a lope, he drops down to a trot or a walk, but always makes sure he get some sort of change of direction before releasing the pressure. "If you neck rein and neck rein, and then decide to forget it, the horse will forget it, too," he says.
Because neck reining is a simple command, most horses catch on fairly quickly. "After you ride them about a half dozen times, they'll start to move away from that pressure," Bradley says. "To get ready to show in a reining class, it usually takes six to eight months of training, possibly more. If you're going to the NRHA reining for 3-year-olds, then they usually have 16 to 18 months of training."
Avoiding Common Mistakes
Bradley often sees riders using just one rein to get a turn. "A lot of people just pull the rein to the right when they want to turn right. Pretty soon the horse just turns his head to the right, but his shoulder is still off to the left, the hips are swung to the left, and they lose the whole body position," Bradley says. "You've got to use both reins on the horse to keep his body lined up. You'd like for the head to be slightly to the right with his body still going straight. Use more left rein to move the horse's left shoulder over and to keep his body alignment correct. This is important in all stages, but especially in the first few months."
Another problem Bradley observes is busy hands. "A lot of people, when they're just riding along, move their hands all the time, even advanced riders in a show," he says. This constant hand movement sends conflicting signals and could eventually make the horse immune to neck reining cues.
Some riders make neck reining for the green horse unnecessarily complicated. "Some people say if you want to turn to the left, you put your left foot here and your right foot there and your hand goes over here," says Bradley. "I want to keep it very simple so the horse can understand: A neck rein means to turn. I use my legs to keep the motion or as punishment." The only exception, Bradley notes, is a slight leg cue for the finished horse when performing a spin or a fast lope.
By far the worst mistake a rider can make is inconsistency and not following through. Always insist on getting some sort of turn when you ask, and always reward by releasing. "If you continue to pull across their neck and nothing happens, they learn to ignore the pull. Every time the left rein touches the side of their neck, you must make them turn slightly to the right, then release the pressure," Bradley says.
By heeding Bradley's advice, you can make neck reining one of the easiest commands your horse learns.