Friday, April 25, 2014

Body Language & Holding the Reins

Some people feel the need for and will use a whip for ground driving and long line work as well as simple lunging. While the whip is merely an extension of your arm, or leg depending on how you use it, you can use one if you feel the need, but you may find that with your body language, you may not need it at all. It depends on your horse and what you are doing. My horses know that I may hold one in my hand when lunging, but it won't be used on them in a way that will sting. If I need to up the ante to get their attention and respect, a good flick of the wrist, snap of the whip and all is restored without the popper ever touching them.

When I first started doing long line work, back in the day... I couldn't for the life of me keep the horse on the rail. I remember the first horse I worked in the lines and even in the round pen- he was ALL. OVER. THE. PLACE. Mad skillz? I had none! ANY skillz??? None of those either! The red gelding dubbed Snooky (Long before he days of Jersey Shore) was confused as hell and had no clue what I wanted paired with me not having a clue what I wanted either.

Scratch that. I knew, wait, I had an idea what I wanted, I just didn't know what I was doing or how to get it. So for everyone starting out- it may not be pretty the first few times, but it does get better. We've all been there and none of us were born with the talent and grace of being good at it. That being said, a few years ago when I started Kat in harness... Honestly? I didn't really want to learn the art of ground driving or long line work. I knew he needed it, I knew I needed to DO it, but I wanted to get to the point of hitching him to the cart, I jump in and off we go. It wasn't until I was talking to another competitor and she admitted she does far more ground driving and long line work than she does actually driving with the cart, that the light bulb in my head came on.

Like everything else, the more you work on it, the more you learn it and improve your skills, the better you get, the easier it gets and the more you see things take shape creating perfection. As you improve your skills and your horses way of going changes in a positive way, it is so easy to get excited about it and you find yourself getting deeper into it. I have actually come to enjoy working horses in the lines and when I see a horse rocked back on their butt, showing some seriously BOLD forward movement, relaxed, reaching under themselves from behind and stretching out and down to the bit- That is some. wicked. cool. shit. Those are the moments you remember. That's what makes it all worth while and that my friends, is what you are working towards both on the ground and in the saddle.

When working my mares or any horse in the lines, when I am ground driving I am directly behind them. I give them about 4-8 feet of space in front of me, enough to be out of range should they decide to kick, buck or even bolt and come flying backwards. It's not a lot of room for the last one, but it's typically enough room to give me time to react and get out of the way without getting mowed down. When doing long line work or even lunging, if you stay more in line with the horses hip, you can push them forward, giving them somewhere to go, without getting in their way and inhibiting their movement or shutting them down altogether. If you keep your movement in time with theirs, you shouldn't be in a position where you find yourself in front of the horse, essentially cutting them off. To push them forward and into the bridle, I simply raise my outside hand (the one closest to the rail) straight out towards their butt. This is a reinforcement to move away from my hand and go forward. If you watch horses in the wild or even in pasture, they aren't 'talking' to each other constantly, whinnying, nickering or snorting to get their point across. Most of their language is body language- a flick of the ear, rolling an eye, tossing their head, swishing their tail- it is the nonverbal communication they use the most.

Some of you may be asking- How do I hold the lines? If anyone remembers back to the first Darby I took Kat to and Gary coming back to the trailer to straighten that out... It has changed for the better since then. I used to hold my lines coming up into my hand from the bottom, looped over my index finger and back down- out the bottom of my hand. This was so I could grip the lines with little effort and they wouldn't slide thru and out of my hand if the horse should pull. This also meant I couldn't as easily slide them thru my hands to shorten or lengthen them either.

Gary asked if I rode and if I held my reins that way when I did? Um, no? The difference of the width or thickness of the reins didn't matter and still doesn't to this day. The fact that leather is more 'slick' on one side and grips on the other- matters only a little. What matters is that with either the long lines or the driving reins is this- I couldn't slide my hands easily up or down the reins/lines, taking them up or letting them out as needed or was necessary. Somewhere in the mix, I was probably also at risk of losing a finger or two should things go south, like they sometimes do.

What I found to work the best for ground driving an long line work is simply bridging the reins. If anyone is unfamiliar with this, it is simply crossing them over each other as if making an X. The top two lines go to the bit and the bottom two lines are in your hands, but you hold both lines in both hands and it gives you a way to shorten or lengthen either or both with relatively little adjustment. The right rein comes up from the bottom and out thru the top of your right hand, in thru the top and out thru the bottom of the left hand. Left rein in thru the bottom and out thru the top of the left hand, in thru the top and out thru the bottom of the right hand.

To widen your hands, simply hold onto the reins and relax your grip on the excess as you slide them apart. To take up the reins, grip the excess and relax the grip on the reins, slide your hands apart and draw yourself in closer to the horse. Changing reins or direction of the horse traveling is similar and just as easy. It's a matter of taking a hold of both the rein and excess with one hand- the direction you want the horse to go, pulling gently on that rein and letting things slide thru the other hand, until the horse is in the position you want and need to use the other hand to keep them on the rail. You might want to make a few turns at the walk to begin training yourself how to do it while also letting your hands feel how it will feel later on.

Keep your hands low and wide, when you pull your horse into a turn, simply bring your hand back to your hip, just as if you were in the saddle. You might also find yourself turning your body with the horse. Their shoulders moving with your shoulders as if you were riding them. You should also be pulling gently and consistently on one rein and when the horse makes the turn, relax your hands and let them go forward again. Cluck, kiss or make whatever sounds you make to encourage them to go forward and let them. When the horse has turned and is again moving forward in whatever gait, praise them for their turn. You asked and they gave it to you. Reward them for it.


  1. very informative,funny just like when you originally wrote about Gary and how you held your reins ,I had to close my eyes and figure out how I held them driving and riding! funny that we sometimes change what need s to be left alone