Long reining is usually a tool used during the backing and starting process but is often dispensed with once the horse is working under saddle. This is a shame because long reining can be extremely beneficial as an ongoing training exercise especially for horses which have issues with the contact. Long reining can add interest and variety to the usual work program for both horse and rider and is helpful when bringing a horse back from injury.
When working in long reins, the horse does not have to cope with the weight of a rider on his back and only has to concentrate on balancing himself and moving forwards. Long reining is essential for teaching the horse to accept a good contact and to work confidently forward into the bridle. It is important that you develop good hands yourself though and remember that your hands must always be forward and not restrictive, just as they should be when you are riding.
What tack to use
Your horse should wear his usual bridle (with the reins either removed or secured out of the way). You will need a roller with metal rings. I prefer to put a short loop of bale string through each metal ring and thread the long reins through this. This is helpful when working with baby horses as the extra play in the string enables the handler to open the rein away from the horse's neck if required to emphasise the turning aid. You will of course need two long reins. Always wear gloves to prevent the reins from slipping through your hands in the event of any unexpected excitement and likewise a hard hat is advisable as you will be walking behind your horse while you are long reining him.
If you're not sure whether your horse has been long reined before, grab a willing volunteer to hold him while you get organised and then to walk along with him until he gets the gist of what he's expected to do. It's a good idea to begin long reining in the school (or other enclosed area) until you are more experienced. Never venture out of the safe confines of your yard or field without an extra pair of hands to help you, just in case anything untoward happens.
Position yourself behind the horse; not too close but not miles away either or you'll end up with the reins too long. Using voice commands (which your horse will be familiar with from lunging) ask him to walk forward, keeping an even contact in both reins and making sure he stays straight. When you want to make a change of direction, step slightly to the inside so that the horse can see you with his inside eye and open your inside hand while asking him to turn with gentle pressure on the rein. Keep the outside rein contact to prevent him drifting away through his shoulder.
Practice making turns across the school and large figures of eight. As you both become more adept at these exercises, have a go at 10m loops, half circles and serpentines. A good exercise for developing suppleness and co-ordination is to set out an evenly spaced line of buckets, cones or similar and long rein in and out of them. As you both improve, make the exercise more challenging by reducing the spacing.
Remember to watch your horse's reactions to his surroundings carefully. If he is feeling a little lazy or naughty, be ready to drive him forwards into the contact. If he's frightened or unsure about something, be ready to allow him time to work things out. When your horse tries to drift in from the fence or to shy away from something, use the inside rein to place pressure on his side and add a gentle flick to emphasis the aid. As soon as he settles and walks past the offending object, be sure to take the pressure off. When a horse spooks, there is a natural tendency for the rider to tense up and stiffen putting him even more on alert and reinforcing his concerns. Working a horse in long reins removes this problem as he only feels your hands as a connection and you can release the contact straight away if you need to.
Long reining is a brilliant exercise for introducing spooky or green horses to unfamiliar and potentially scary objects in a controlled environment. In an enclosed area you can set out all manner of hazards from tarpaulin sheets on the ground (secured by poles so that they don't blow or get tangled around the horse's legs); poles to walk over, flags standing in buckets of sand or cones, banners attached to the fence, balloons etc. You can then long rein your horse quietly around the obstacle course with both feet safely on the ground. Again, if your horse is particularly wimpy, find a willing volunteer to walk with him at first until he's brave enough to step out unaccompanied.
Another exercise you can teach your horse in long reins is to rein back. This is a very useful skill for any horse to have whether you are into dressage or just a happy hacker. Just apply a little pressure on the reins and have your assistant place a hand on the horse's chest to encourage him to step back. Don't forget to use your voice aid too. As soon as he obliges, take the pressure off and praise him. You may find it takes a little practice until he understands.
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