Coming from the dressage world, there is a misconception, I think, that riding on a loose rein must mean sloppy and innacurate riding, and that in order to execute movements with finesse and attention to detail, one must ride with a tighter rein or contact with the bit.
I am not here to argue for or against either a loose rein or a tight rein. I have found both to be necessary or more appropriate at different times on different horses, but I will point out that horses execute these more advanced movements with lightness all the time when no one is around to ask them. My 3 year old gelding does airs above ground when he by accident shakes his feedbag loose at breakfast time, and I’ve watched him capriole his way across the pasture to rid himself of the thing dangling under his chin and off one ear. My 9 year old mare with the fused hock and arthritic back can still roll-back on a dime with her ears flat back and teeth prepared to school anyone who might intrude on her share of hay. I’m sure you’ve all witnessed these graceful movements in your own horses, some more athletic naturally than others of course, but they are all born able and willing to do these things. When the human comes into the equation, however, either through poor timing, imbalance, unclear communication, or many other things, the lightness fades away and the horse stumbles through the same maneuvers. I won’t mention any reasons a horse might have difficulty executing a maneuver due to unkindness or roughness on the rider’s part because I am certain none of the readers here have any part in that.
Being able to ride accurately on a loose rein or in one hand, however, makes many things on horseback possible. From the classical Greek Era of Xenophon and on through history, horses were used for warfare. Riders spent years honing their skills with their horses to be able to ride with accuracy, not just because they were looking for lightness and communication between horse and rider, but because their lives depended on their horses being sensitive to their cues and light on their feet without the need for two hands to relay messages. Horses have also been used and still are in many places used for moving and working cattle, bulls, and other livestock, as well as many other jobs. This type of work makes accuracy on a float vital.
These days not many people plan to take their horses into battle, or move livestock around, but riding with accuracy and on a loose rein is still not only possible but still pertinent. Those practicing dressage are not using it for battle, but riding with two tight reins all the time can make for a less than useful horse. The horse who is mentally and physically relaxed, and has been taught to feel back to the rider’s body in time learns a lightness and self carriage that is not seen often, or at least I haven’t seen it often, by horses who are ridden in tight contact frequently. These are the types of horses that need to be “held up” by the riders constantly. What happens when contact is dropped? If your leg is not driving, and your hand is not holding, do you still have a horse who’s hind end is engaged, whose shoulders are lifting?
I’d much rather teach my horse to listen, to be ready, to feel back to me and prepare. That way he engages himself, and he can do so with contact or a loose rein, because it isn’t coming from the hand. He can do it out in the pasture, that much is obvious. So where do we get off thinking they need us to learn to be collected? Where do we get off thinking they need to be driven constantly, held back constantly, stuffed somewhere in between those two walls?
I think if we give the horse a chance to get with us, to understand what the job is we are asking of him, whether it’s trail riding or airs above ground or anything in between, most horses will carry themselves if we will give them the chance and teach them that is what we are looking for. Nobody wants to ride a horse down the trail who drags and stumbles or rushes and races because he isn’t balanced and needs to be held together by the rider. And what use is a horse who can’t trot from one end of the field to the next on a loose rein so you can go pick up your hat that you dropped or chat with a friend or rush back to the barn to close the gate or whatever it is you need to do, without your “contact” so he will lift his back or not rush or whatever it is you think he needs you to do so he can carry himself? Why not spend the extra time and teach him to carry himself, teach him to be accurate on a loose rein and listen to your body?
Again, my goal is not to convince anyone that bits are evil and that contact is evil and that one must never touch the horse’s mouth. Every horse and situation is different, but what I’d like is for those reading to come away thinking and considering whether what they are being taught, what has “always been done that way” (and it hasn’t always been done that way as I hope I’ve proved here), may not be totally necessary. If you are doing it, no matter what it is and who taught you to do it, ask yourself:
1) Is it working? Is my horse getting more relaxed, more understanding, and lighter?
2) Do I need MORE of it to make it work? MORE leg, MORE rein, BIGGER bit, bigger spurs, etc? Do I need to fight til I get it or wait for the horse to give in before it works?
If it is not making the horse lighter, more relaxed, and your arms are getting a workout every time you ride, it is time to reconsider. Is it necessary? What else would work better?
My opinion is that the will stay much more sound, much happier, and much more useful if we are always working toward doing more with less – less contact, less leg, less spur, and more mental connection.
Take a look at the pictures above of happy relaxed horses with beautifully centered riders, and then have a gander at these photos below: Some are more correct than others, but in my opinion, none display the same degree of grace or lightness of the horses shown above.