There are many ways to cue your horse when riding. One of the most popular ways, unique to the Western style of riding developed in the United States, is called neck reining. Neck reining is in some ways the “opposite” of what is called direct rein riding.
What is Neck Reining?
In direct-rein riding, the rider holds the horse’s reins with tension in the rein, so that the horse is able to feel movements of the rider’s hand through a gentle bit placed in the horse’s mouth. Some styles of riding, such as Western riding, use a different type of signal to communicate to the horse via the reins. In the Western style of riding, a harsher bit is often used in the horse’s mouth and because of this stronger bit, the rider cues their horse not by direct contact through tension in the reins but by laying the reins on the horse’s neck. Horses have very sensitive mouths, so whatever method you use to cue and direct your horse you, should be mindful of the type of bit you are using and the training that your horse has had.
How To Cue a Horse via Neck Reining
Neck reining cues are pretty simple- and for extremely well-trained and “bombproof” horses- reins laid on the neck might be the only cue needed. For most horses that are trained to neck rein, however, you’ll want to combine your rein cues with cues given by your legs and seat.
How to Cue a Horse to Turn via Neck Reining
Primary cue: With one hand holding the reins, move your hand in the direction that you would like your horse to turn. The rein on the outside of your turn should make contact with your horse’s neck. This sensation on the horse’s neck combined with how the weight of the reins changes how the bit feels in the horse’s mouth cues the horse to turn.
Secondary cue #1: While keeping your body upright and balanced, turn your head slightly and look in the direction you would like to turn. Horses are sensitive enough to feel a fly land on their skin- your horse will be able to feel your body preparing to turn! Most horses respond intuitively to this cue, but if they don’t respond immediately, keep doing it- over time they will learn to understand this as a cue.
Secondary cue #2: Without moving your leg forward or backward, press the entire inside of your outside leg gently against the horses flank. (Be aware that a common canter cue is moving the outside leg backward by 2 to 3 inches and pressing with the inner calf and heel, so avoid confusing your horse or getting an unexpected gait transition by keeping your leg under your body and signaling gently with your whole leg)
Training a Horse to Neck Rein
Neck reining is an advanced skill for horses, so when a young horse is first trained to be ridden it is typically trained to direct reining with a very gentle snaffle bit. If you’d like to train your horse to neck rein and your horse already how knows to respond to direct reining cues, start the training for neck reining by continuing to direct rein but adding in additional cues, like signaling for a turn with the outside leg and even adding neck pressure in addition to the direct rein cue. Teaching your horse to halt, transition, and turn using your body instead of your reins is an effective first step to teaching neck reining.
Teaching your horse to halt, transition, and turn using your body instead of your reins is an effective first step to teaching neck reining.
Demonstrations by reining horses in the art of neck reining turns heads and impresses, but it’s important to understand that these horses are responding largely to cues given by the rider’s body – not the reins held gently against the neck. With consistent practice, your horse can stop, turn, and transition based on body cues alone.
The last step of training your horse to respond to neck reining cues is starting to hold your reins in a loose, neck reining style. Begin laying the reins on the neck as a cue to turn. Using heavier weight reins might be helpful in this training process. Consistently matching your new neck reining cues with the now familiar body and leg cues will reinforce the horse’s understanding of the new neck reining cues. With time and refinement, your horse will respond readily to simple neck reining cues.