We all know it’s a cardinal sin to cross your inside rein over the horse’s neck. Moving the rein like that is called an indirect rein. Riders sometimes do it to try and turn the horse, but it doesn’t work. It’s not done; don’t do it. Except, there are times when you can use it, but not to turn the horse.

Image by Amelia Newcomb

When Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, was here on Sunday, we used the indirect rein a lot. We’ve been using an indirect rein on Izzy for a long time, so it’s a not a new tool, but Chemaine had me using it more consistently to make a correction that Izzy is now mentally able to accept.

Warming up.

The whole lesson was really about two things. One was to use the indirect rein to take away his ability to brace his neck and swing his haunches out. The other was about using the outside rein to get Izzy to bend his hocks more once he was soft after using the indirect rein. Sounds confusing? Don’t worry, I know just how you feel. As always, Chemaine presented me with a new way of looking at things, and even though I couldn’t see it or feel it at the beginning, by the time we were through, I was able to (mostly) put all of the pieces together.

Stepping under and across in the leg yield.

We did a bunch of different movements in this lesson including leg yields, shoulder in, ten-meter circles, and the medium trot. In all of them, Chemaine worked me through the idea of using the indirect rein to get softness while applying the outside rein to get Izzy’s hocks bending and sitting. One of the ways that Chemaine explained it went something like this: Once he’s soft in the bridle, and you apply the outside rein, he can’t get softer, and he can’t go forward, so his only correct choice is to suck in his belly, lift his back and bend his hocks. When he does that, he’s like a bouncy ball.

He even looks bouncy.

So here is how we used the indirect rein. Izzy likes to lean on my right rein and and fall in on the right shoulder. When he moves like this, it feels as though we’re tipping over. Moving him over with my inside leg doesn’t fix the leaning shoulder. An indirect rein however, does move the shoulder back to where it needs to be. There are varying degrees of an indirect rein. I don’t need to cross the rein over his neck. Instead, I simply pull it close to his withers which “forces” him to bend without allowing him to brace against it. The important thing to remember though is to let go once he’s stopped bracing.

My inside (right) hand isn’t crossing the withers, but it’s close to his withers.

We started in the leg yield which requires a small amount of inside bend. When he wouldn’t give it, I moved my inside hand toward his withers creating bend, and then applied the outside rein to say less forward, more sideways. As the lesson progressed, we utilized movements that required more and more bend. In the shoulder-in for example, Chemaine had me use the indirect rein to get more bend and softness. Once Izzy quit bracing, I could then use the outside rein to tell him to bring his hocks underneath himself.

Like this.

We also applied the indirect rein to a haunches-in. This was when I could finally feel how he has been subtly leaning and bracing on my inside right rein. We’ve done haunches in on the circle plenty of times to help me achieve bend and softness. But doing it on the long side helped me feel it more clearly. As in all of the other movements, Chemaine encouraged me to use the indirect rein to get him soft, but then I used the outside rein to bring his haunches in. To help me be more effective with the outside rein, she had me think about doing a rein back with flexion while trotting. That was a lot to think about, but I felt an immediate improvement.

Haunches are in, but I am not using the indirect rein to get bend so he’s braced.

As we continued working, I slowly started to put all of the aids together:
​Indirect rein to get Izzy to stop bracing.
Outside rein to ask him to step under.
Half halt with a kick, kick when he wanted to brace and hollow his back.
​The quick kick, kick sent his hind legs under while the outside halting rein said not forward.

And then I figured it out.

A lot of this work was really done in an effort to get a better and bigger medium trot. What I finally felt during this lesson is how to keep Izzy from losing his balance near the end of the medium trot. As we come through the corner, I already know how to straighten him so that his shoulders are in front of his haunches. I already know to use a big half halt in the corner and to let his nose get longer before asking him to go. A piece that I was missing was how to keep him from scrambling and popping his head up at about the three quarter mark.

We’re a little out of balance here, but do I see some daylight under those hooves?

Chemaine helped me feel that when I can no longer sit the trot, it’s because Izzy has lost his balance and isn’t giving me anywhere to sit. To fix that, she encouraged me to do little pulses on the (right) rein to keep sending him a little half halt – stay light in my hand, and bend your hocks. Right now, if he stays in balance, I can’t quite get as much reach, but that will come.

Less reach, but better balanced.

I have a lot of homework to do over the next few weeks. The more I insist that Izzy stays off my right rein, the less indirect rein I’ll need. As he braces less and softens more, he’ll also get straighter which will create more power in the medium (and someday, extended) gaits.

Dude! 10-meter circle

Our progress is slow, but it’s progress.