Q: My western pleasure horse used to lean on my hands. I work him in draw reins, pushing him into the bit with my legs to get him to flex and slow without leaning. Now, when I ask him to go slow, he tucks his head and goes faster. What am I doing wrong?
A: Your horse leans because he's not balanced, and the draw reins have taught him to evade the bit by rubber-necking.
First, find a mild snaffle bit that your horse will lean on a little. Ask him to lope. When he starts building speed, pull back evenly and firmly with both reins to stop him. Back him four strides, roll him back, and ask him to lope again. Allow him to go only as far as he'll remain light and slow. Repeat that whenever he builds speed.
This will shift his weight back onto his hind end, causing him to round his back and elevate his shoulder in the kind of balanced frame he'll need to lope slowly without contact. You're making him work harder whenever he speeds up, which makes loping slowly a reward.
Once he's able to lope slowly, further encourage shoulder elevation, so he maintains this slow speed and balance on his own. Extend your arms in front of you and lift up, toward his poll. As you drive him forward into your contact with your outside leg, alternate your right and left rein lifts, using your wrist in a rapid one-two tempo to vibrate the snaffle in his mouth.
You'll feel his weight shift backward as he raises his shoulders. Release the reins the instant you feel this shift. Repeat the rein pickup whenever you feel his balance shift forward. Over time, he'll rebalance himself when he feels a slight lift in your reins.
One of the National Snaffle Bit Association's top open riders, Steve Heckaman lives and trains in Aubrey, Texas.
This article first appeared in the June, 1999 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.