Question: I bought a 5 year old paint mare and all she is is green broke and I’m just not sure how to start trying to teach her how to start learning to neck rein. Please help me.
Answer from April Reeves: True neck reining is the result of a long training regime. You will often see two styles: one where the horse turns his head in the direction of the turn on a ‘soft’ rein, and the other is where the horse turns his head the opposite direction of the turn with the reins reasonably tight. The latter is not the style I hope you are working towards.
In their natural existence, the movement of a horse at speed (canter, gallop) is to lean their shoulders into the turn, but keep their heads in the opposite direction. The instinctual purpose of this is to keep their heads away from predators that may be chasing them. It’s important to know this, as it allows you to understand just how much training is required to reverse such a powerful instinct in a horse to neck rein into the turn, and the amount of time to do that.
To describe the entire process in detail here would take a lot of space, but I will attempt to move through it quickly. First, the mare needs to have flexibility laterally and longitudinally (great video on this; Horseman’s U.com, Videos). Every day my western horses are asked to bend left and right softly, following a ‘feel’ of the bit (lateral flexion). Then I work on softening the poll (longitudinal). I start these exercises first at a halt, then move up to the walk, trot, and finally canter (about 4-6 months of work). The horse learns to stay in the middle of the bridle, rate his speed (change the speed under my direction), stop and move forward.
There are 2 sets of aids: bending and steering. Bending aids are ‘inside’ aids of hands, legs and seat. Steering aids are ‘outside’ aids of same. ‘Inside’ referring to a circle or direction of travel. I first teach lateral flexion with bending aids, using circles and serpentines, asking the horse to move ‘off’ my leg (away from pressure). Then I introduce ‘steering’ aids, to move the shoulder away from my leg (key to neck reining). What I am trying to obtain is a horse that is responsive, steady, only changes his speed and gait when I ask, stops softly and listens intently for my next cue.
Once that is firmly established (4-8 months, 5 days/week) I begin to ‘polish’ the steering aids. These are the aids that will finish off a proper neck reining horse. Once your horse moves his shoulder off your outside leg, I now begin the one method that takes time and patience: adding this aid in the same timing as two others. Your torso moves slightly in the direction of the turn, keeping your body straight and centered over the horse: no leaning! This may sound subtle but the horse can feel the movement of your hips and will learn to respond to it (it’s also the basis of bridle-less riding). I continue to use direct reining (where you take up the rein on the side of the direction you want to move in: like English) keeping the direct rein off the horse’s neck, and make sure the outside rein is the only rein on the horse’s neck (do not pull on the outside rein; keep it soft and slack). Again, subtle but the horse will pick up on this if you are consistent. Perfect practice makes perfect. I slowly begin to soften each technique, over and over again in the arena. In my personal experience I have found that most horses respond well and consistently in about 30 days. If it takes longer, it’s usually rider inconsistency. What I am trying to obtain is a soft horse that looks where he is going, and I can keep my reins slightly slack (no pressure on the mouth) and guide him easily and willingly.
This is a simplified version of a lengthy process, but if true neck reining is your goal this should give you a start in the right direction and help you decide if you want to take the time to do it this way. I have seen and learned other faster methods, but having tried them, I have found that they only leave room for error. There is no fast fix for training horses.
A suggestion for really good material that goes in-depth on this is Clinton Anderson’s series. I have seen clips of the series and they seem to be similar to what I teach. I have students who rave about his work.