Long-reining is an incredible type of groundwork that can advance your connection and communication with a horse in ways you might not believe—until you get in the saddle and experience the unbelievable softness and willingness in your horse that long-reining techniques tap and nurture.
But before you pick up a set of long-reins and try to master “feel”—that invisible sense of understanding between you and a horse—with a horse, Dan James of Double Dan Horsemanship recommends practicing with another person. His answer is a simple game that James first learned from fellow horseman and TSB author Jonathan Field (Field wrote THE ART OF LIBERTY TRAINING FOR HORSES). Field and James use the “Bucket Game” to demonstrate to their students how to become aware of the two-way conversation you have with your horse whenever you work with him, and how to begin to develop “feel”—the ability to read subtle nonverbal communication, innate in us all.
The Bucket Game begins with two people holding the ends of a stretched-out long rein while each standing on upside-down buckets. With this small platform as the base of stability, communication and feel become paramount—any tug of the rope from the other person is magnified. The object of the game, of course, is to either collect all the long-rein or get the other person off her bucket.
At this point, it does not become a simple tug-of-war where you just try to take rein with brute force. Why? On the ground, you can spread your feet, or lean back to brace into an all-out pull. But, on a bucket, you don’t have that luxury and must be more precise with your movements. You have to feel the rein to know when to make contact or when to release a bit of slack before you get yanked off your bucket. Like fishing, you reel in and feed out line, trying to anticipate the other person’s moves. With “feel,” you will be able to pull the other person off her bucket or tug the rein from her hands because you can read her unspoken
communication and time your responses to topple her balance.
How does this relate to your horse? In the book LONG-REINING WITH DOUBLE DAN HORSEMANSHIP, Dan James and his partner Dan Steers explain one possible scenario:
Imagine a horse that tends to march off too quickly when you ask him to go while leading or driving him. You don’t want him to charge forward with too much speed without you having learned feel or it can turn into an uncomfortable situation with you out of balance and possibly out of control. This is somewhat like one car towing another car, they say: When the car in the lead moves, it can snap the second car forward at the moment the slack goes out of the chain that connects them. This is just like getting jerked off a bucket or getting pulled off your feet when your horse moves off before you are ready. But when you can anticipate a horse’s movements, you can react better to them and eventually, modify them.
Remember, the horse is constantly communicating his intentions to you—and horses are always honest about their plans. With long-reining, you will learn to read a slight shift of weight or the tension your horse puts on the rein as a signal to what he is going to do. Gaining this skill on the ground will help you become a better, more in-tune rider in the saddle. And the Bucket Game gives you a head start—it’s an easy way to practice, and ultimately helps ensure a happier horse.
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.