My other half (who is currently learning to ride) and I were watching some novice horses working-in at a local dressage show recently. “What’s that for?” asked OH, referring to a neckstrap worn by one of the horses. I explained that neckstraps are allowed under dressage rules for horses working at preliminary level and below.
Sometimes, if a rider is taking an inexperienced horse to its first competition, safety dictates that a neckstrap is a good idea; it can be used for balance if required, rather than using the reins and in the event of a complete disaster, can make a very useful safety belt! If a horse is tense and running on against the bridle, the worst thing you can do is pull on the reins. This response will probably only make him begin to pull back and go faster or possibly even panic; then you have a potential calamity on your hands – literally!
Neckstraps are often overlooked as a training aid for young horses. If a horse becomes a little onward bound and strong, you will obviously need an effective aid to slow the rhythm and help put him back onto his hocks. Those who ride Western will be familiar with the technique, but I think many English-style riders may not be. ‘Neckstrap transitions’, I believe, are actually adapted from the Western way of teaching a horse to stop.
I’ve used this method myself many times with a young horse I had who was inclined to come against the bridle and refuse to halt or make downward transitions; pulling back on the reins just made him panic and even bolt on occasions so I quickly learned that this was the best way to proceed. You hold the reins as you would do normally but loop two fingers of each hand under the neckstrap. To ride a downward transition or a half-halt, drop your weight down to your heel through your thigh, grow tall and take in the neckstrap. The horse will feel some pressure at the base of his neck and a steady restraining feel on his mouth. As soon as the desired result is achieved, drop your hands to allow the neckstrap to become loose again and to release the pressure on his mouth. This instantly rewards the horse for slowing down or making that transition to a slower pace. Because some of the pressure is on the horse’s neck, rather than his mouth, he learns to give with his jaw instead of resisting your hand. Once he has got the gist of these new aids, add some positive leg as you ride the transition down to encourage him to step underneath more.
You can buy purpose-specific neckstraps or just use an old stirrup leather with an elastic band around it near the end to tuck in the excess length.