Pulling on the reins is a human instinct in the same way as assuming the fetal position when in danger is, and it is hard to recondition. Also, many riders end up as lawn darts for going fetal when they are scared – so why do they do it? They “simply can’t help it” a sudden explosive sound will have you instinctively drop into a fetal position.
Similarly, when you are scared you will grab a hold of something that seems to provide you with some stability. The white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel as you drive along an icy roadway is akin to the death grip and pull on the reins of a horse that is not dutifully obeying your commands. We have all done it!
Pulling is a steady and constant pressure as opposed to holding which is a locked in position. There are times you might take hold of you reins and set your rein hand in place – as Nuno would say “like concrete“, which is a good metaphor because concrete is firm but still. The horse can, and usually will, find a release without your help, you need do nothing more – but pulling is not something the horse can get away from without pulling back, stronger.
Pulling on the reins teaches a horse to pull back, sure signs of a rider pulling too much include head tossing and bracing against the bit. When you stop pulling and provide the horse with some slack in the rein the horse will stop pulling too. After all there is nothing to pull against – how could he possibly pull?
Helping a rider out with a horse that would constantly pull her forward in the saddle (as it thrust its nose up and ahead to help find relief from the pain on the bars of its mouth from constantly pulling) I suggested that she put some slack into the reins. At first the horse reacted with disbelief, the pressure was no longer there but it instinctively tested the slack by pushing its nose forward and up. After a few minutes the horse stopped testing, relaxed its head, neck and body and had an enjoyable ride. Next ride, the rider returned to the conditioned state of pulling on the reins, as had been done for the last twenty years or so.
Ray Hunt said “it’s east to change the horse, but it’s hard to change the human” – he was quite correct. Humans are creatures of habit, our habits are mostly mundane and we don’t even realize we have them. When we think of the word “habit” we usually do with a negative connotation – yet each morning we have the same bathroom ritual – if we brush out teeth before we shower, we do it the same every single day, rarely deviating from the routine. Once a habit is engrained in us we tend to stick quite rigidly with it. Pulling is a habit as well as an instinct, and unfortunately it is a habit that is taught.
It is amazing how much our communication with horses will change after we stop pulling and using pain to satiate our emotional reactions.