Are Your Fingers on the Brake?

Posted by in about horses, Blog, consistent, contact, fingers, forwardness, free walk to medium walk, get your horse listening., getting your horse in your hand, go forward, hacking, hand position, hands, horse sets its neck, horse's hocks engaging, how can I stop my horse setting his neck, leg to hand, no school, on the bit, outline, refining the aids, rein contact, reins too long, relax, rider faults, rider's rein contact, riding forward into your hand, riding into your hand, riding your horse into your hand, riding your horse on a long rein on Apr 14, 2012



Are you confused between energy and power (impulsion)? Don’t be. Energy is the fizz you get when you shake a bottle of coke. Power is the pressure of that fizz as it pushes against the lid before you open the bottle. In riding terms your legs create the fizz and your rein contact (the lid) gives it something to push against. Trouble arises when your contact is too tight and puts a backward pressure on your horse’s mouth – it’s like driving with the hand brake on. Look at it another way –


Imagine you have to push a parked car up the road. It’s stationary so you put your weight behind it. If the brake is off the car will move forward. If you keep pushing it will keep moving until you pull back on it to stop it. You’ve created power because you have something to push against that is mobile. If the brake is on no matter how hard you push it’s going to stay solid and resistant. Eventually you’ll have to admit defeat and stop trying. If that happens every time you try to move it you’re going to stop trying before you start, aren’t you?


Now imagine what would happen if the pressure disappeared because someone drove that car away as you were pushing? You’d fall flat on your face – right? Funny it may be but it’s exactly what happens to your horse every time you lose your contact.


There’s a fine line between a steady contact and tight one. To keep it consistent and the same length you need to clamp your reins between your thumb and first finger. If your fingers grip the reins they’ll will feel solid and tense to your horse. Move your 2nd and 3rd fingers as if you were texting someone and you’ll create enough movement on the rein to create a soft but firm feeling in his mouth.


Any tension in your body will directly affect your contact. To your horse it will feel as if the brake is always on. It won’t matter how much leg you use. If he’s pushing into a dead, solid contact in the end he’ll stop trying.


Keep your arm soft by pointing your thumb towards the bit. You need a straight line from your elbow through your wrist, down the rein to the bit. Often you’ll find it’s tipping up towards your horse’s ear. In that case you create a break in the line and a backwards feeling on his mouth. Any form of backward pressure will create tension.


There’s a stage in riding when riders feel the urge to squeeze on their reins to get their horse on the bit. It’s unnecessary. When a horse is ridden forward to a steady, soft contact his back will round as his hips are pushed towards his shoulders. If you’re pulling back on one rein and throwing away the contact on the other … well you’re not exactly making it easy for him, are you?


It’s much easier to focus on your hand and thumb position in trot as your horse’s head and neck stay still. In walk and canter there is an obvious head nod. Do you move your arm forward with him or back against him? Next time you ride check that out.


Your horse may need to relearn to relax and walk forward into your contact. If he’s become used to you pulling back on the bit every time he nods forward he’ll have learnt to keep his head and neck still. Do you often moan that he sets his neck?


Many riders unwittingly squeeze back on their horse as he nods away from their hand. What they should be doing is moving their whole arm forward with him and coming back to maintain the contact. Walk large and focus on your arms. Think of your reins as two flexible poles that your horse pulls forward and pushes back.


Go large in walk on a long rein and push on. Watch your horse nod forward and back as he walks. Ride at least three circuits on each rein so he really starts to relax. Then keep up the pressure from your legs and take up your contact. Don’t dither when you do this. Lean forward and take up your outside rein, hold both reins in your outside hand and take up your inside rein to match. ‘Shimmying’ your fingers up the reins is irritating and unnecessary.


Once you’re in medium walk focus on the pressure in your hand. Move your 2nd and 3rd fingers to keep your contact soft, point your thumb towards the bit so your arm stays relaxed and concentrate on following your horse’s head and neck forward and back. Initially you may find you push forward too far or that he comes back quicker than you expected but relax your arm – shut your eyes if you need to – and stop trying so hard. Let him take your hand forward and concentrate on keeping the weight in your rein as he comes back. Practise out hacking too when you’ll be more relaxed.


Work on your canter in the same way – you may find it easier than walk. The head nod is far more obvious as your horse will be naturally more forward. Even if he feels as if he’s pulling or going to take off remember you’re not giving him the reins you’re just following his head. He’ll only pull if he’s uptight. If you pull he’ll get uptight.


It’s hard work changing things that have become a habit but in this case it will make all the difference. You expect your horse to accept your contact, right? Make sure you make it acceptable.


Good luck and enjoy your schooling.


If you have a problem, a video you’d like some advice on or you’d just like to chat about your horse join me on facebook or Twitter.

For a more detailed look at your aids check out one of my schooling guides – Get Started 2 

If you often feel that you’re the last thing on your horse’s mind you might like the new guide in the Teach Yourself series. Check out ‘Your Attention Please’ which will give you some great ideas to get him focused on you –



  1. Horse Thought Apr 14, 2012

    I hadn’t really thought about the difference between energy and impulsions until I read this article. Your analogy to the bottle of coke is brilliant. To me it also links very well with your stuff on getting a lazy horse to move forward. Its all about creating the “fizz”. I also like the analogy of the push in the bottle – if I think of it, that’s exaxctly what we want when we try and get our horses to work off their hocks.
    I actually watched an interesting lesson with a little girl today. She had to do a transition from walk to canter. As she ask for the canter she took up too much with her hand. Of course she didn’t get it. Once she softened her arm, elbow and hand, the pony was much more relaxed and moved forward happily. It was almost as though he was saying ‘thanks for giving me one thing to do’. What was also interesting – and is in line with your advice – is that when she loosened her arm, she started to use her legs better. It was as though a stiff arm pulled her forward and unbalanced her. Thanks again for a wonderful blog, Tanya

    • Lorraine Apr 15, 2012

      Thanks, Tanya – the coke bottle was always something that I used when I taught. It’s the best way I’ve found to explain contact. You’ll know doubt come across on this blog again and again but a classic is ‘shake the bottle with the lid OFF and the drink spills out and goes flat’ Isn’t that exactly what happens to a horse’s paces when a rider has no contact?!

      Thanks for your positive comments. Good to chat. Lorraine

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