Neck Reining 101

I apologize it has been a few weeks since I entered a blog post, everybody! I went back to North Carolina to see my family for a week, met Richard in Columbus, Ohio, for Equine Affaire and have been busy trying to get my life in order since I got back to Wyoming. To let you know how crazy things have been, I only finished unpacking my bags from Equine Affaire last night (I arrived back in Wyoming on April 11! Eek!). I did manage to do a spring-cleaning of my  over-stuffed bureau and over-filled closet before I unpacked, much to Richard’s relief. (I have slowly but surely stolen bits and pieces of his closet space over the past few years– he is now relegated to a tiny corner!) I now have several bags to drop off at the Opportunity Shop, the fantastic thrift store in Dubois that is Mel’s favorite place in town to shop. It feels good to pare down a bit.

Onto neck reining! One of the important things I do in the spring and fall, when the weather is not terrible, is work with young horses in preparation for the summer season. This spring I have been focused on teaching our younger horses to neck rein. Neck reining is our preferred method of steering at the ranch because it keeps our horses’ mouths sensitive, making them more responsive mounts to ride. When direct reining, you pull on the left rein to turn left, the right rein to turn right. This involves a lot of contact with the horse’s mouth through pulling on the bit, which can deaden a horse’s mouth over time. When neck reining, a horse feels the pressure of the right rein on his neck and turns left, eliminating the need to pull on the bit. As any of our lovely wranglers will tell you, it is virtually impossible to teach a horse to neck rein while you are leading a group of guests on a ride in the summer, so it is helpful to both horses and wranglers when I teach our horses this skill during the winter. Right, ladies?!

During the month of March, I brought Alicante, Flashy and Isabella into the corrals to teach them to neck rein. I chose these three for a couple of reasons. To start, my knee surgeon was very clear about the fact I was not yet allowed to fall off. As any equestrian knows, you can never be certain you won’t fall off, but I knew my chances were slimmer with these three than with some of the others! The only part of riding that concerned me in terms of my knee was mounting and dismounting. Since I know these three horses stand quite still as you are getting on and getting off, I thought they would be good horses to help me get back into riding. And they were!

Before you can start teaching a horse to neck rein, you must make sure the horse has a supple and flexible neck. Isabella and Flashy are quite flexible, but Alicante is a fairly stiff boy. To help him learn to give in his neck, we would start each session standing still while I asked him to bend his neck and bring his nose to my foot. It took some time for him to learn to do this while keeping his balance:

Once you have achieved suppleness in the neck, you can start teaching the horse to neck rein. It is quite a simple process– it just requires a lot of repetition and a lot of patience. The only tool I use, in addition to the reins and my body, is the lariat, which is a stiff, rawhide circle that I put around the horse’s neck. In the beginning, I ask the horse to turn right by pulling on the right rein, but I also use the lariat to exert pressure on the left side of the horse’s neck, so he starts to associate turning right with pressure on the left side of the neck. Over time, he learns that pressure on his neck is a cue to turn, and you can stop pulling on the bit entirely.

In addition to using the lariat and reins, you need to make sure your body is asking for a turn as well. If you look where you want to go, your shoulders and seat bones will move into the correct position to ask for a turn. I also use a bit of leg pressure to ask for a turn, as if I am pushing the horse around in a circle. Here I am asking Flashy to turn right by looking where I am going, using the lariat and reins, and putting pressure a bit behind the girth with my left leg:

And here she is neck reining like a super-star– no need for the lariat anymore! Flashy got to this point within a week and a half. It took Isabella two weeks, and sweet Alicante finally got the hang of it after three weeks:

Here she is, very pleased with herself, saying, “Hey Lady, I got an A+ in Neck Reining 101. Can’t I go back out to the pasture now and see my friends?”

Sure you can, Flashy, in just a few days! First you have to pass your final examination and help us herd in the cattle for Branding Day, all while neck reining…..Stay Tuned!