“Sometimes the contact can get in the way of the truth” – Andrew J Murphy
We’re taking a quick break from Andrew’s Number Six Stretch series, secondarily because transcribing is a long and painful process, no matter how much you love the subject matter, and firstly because there are some demos and talks coming up that will allow me to deliver much more up to date content, rather than working off of videos that are a few years old.
Today we’re going to have a chat about crossed reins, the most difficult, nerdy, technical and fascinating of all the Portal Techniques. The reason that it holds the top spot for me is that, like children, drunk people and legging, it always tells the truth. Crossed reins does what it says on the tin – you cross your reins over the horse’s neck (not under, we’ve seen it done and it isn’t helpful) and hold the reins in the ‘wrong’ hands.
The aim of the game is to bring the horse straighter and more through, and to expose crookedness in the rider – it makes the aids more accurate, and tells you a lot about the horse’s relationship with the rein.
I’ve had a few crossed rein lessons with Andrew, on several different horses, and the initial reaction is always the same – the horse flies off in the wrong direction, and you can’t make it go where you want it to for love nor money. Prepare to spend the next 5-10 minutes on a tiny circle or completely adrift while your horse swings its head around wondering what the hell is going on, and you receive a brutal lesson on which is your dominant hand and how ineffective your legs really are when you don’t have your reins to rely on.
My steed for this particular lesson was Otis, a 10 year old ex-racehorse from Spain, owned by my good friend and student Miranda. He’s a capable horse with a lovely temperament and nice paces, who has the challenge of being croup high with a straight hind leg. At some point he developed a dislike of the bridle, so he is often ridden bitless, although as his training progresses he is increasingly accepting of the bit. Historically his tendency was to get a bit quick, be suspicious of the lateral work, and to find rein back mildly offensive. These days he comes through very easily, but can be difficult to ‘keep’ through, and this crossed reins lesson was partly aimed at changing that.
Otis was wearing a bitted bridle for this lesson, and while you can do crossed reins with a bitless bridle we don’t particularly recommend it, because part of the point of the crossed reins is that it changes the angle of the bit in the horse’s mouth. Bitless riders can still do it as a test of straightness etc, but it is a little less effective. This is not me saying that you need a bit to train effectively, because I personally do not believe that to be true, but it’s a case of horses for courses, and there are techniques that work better for bitless riding than crossed reins.
We’d already warmed Otis up, and got him to lift the back by halt-halting with a vertically downward pressing seat, accompanied by a raised hand which then released forwards and round when he connected to the bit. The pressing of the seat encourages the horse to lift the back, and encompasses the Number Six Stretch, as the raised hand which resolves forwards and round connects the horse whilst still pressing the neck out.
This was all very well, but of course we want to achieve the next level of sophistication,
and so Andrew told me to cross my reins. I get to watch Andrew use this technique fairly often, and so I tried desperately to channel him as I swapped my reins, envisioning a world where the horse carries on travelling in the direction that it’s meant to, becomes more connected, effortless looking and gorgeous. This image was shattered when Otis pitched sharply to the left (that tricky right hand isn’t as fixed as I thought) and I was once again left to cope with the limits of my abilities. Andrew and I spent a few minutes laughing as I zig-zagged, circled and meandered randomly around the school before, like with any new technique, there was a moment when the penny dropped, and I managed to coordinate myself so that I could control the direction of travel.
Bear in mind that the horse wasn’t through yet – I’m simply talking about being able to walk forwards in a straight line.
Andrew managed to stop laughing and told me to bring Otis onto a 20m circle. Once there I was to begin swapping the bend from inside to outside, fairly quickly, using my legs and seat. So two strides inside bend, two strides outside bend, wash, rinse, repeat. Crossed reins naturally draw your hands together and forward, creating an upright but open posture, and also encourages the rider to place more weight into the elbows. I was able to change the bend very easily, and Otis became more and more through, but in a way I’d never felt before. There was no feeling of him being braced, none of his prior tentativeness regarding the contact, or over reactiveness to the leg. We changed the rein, which for once did not cause any lack of throughness/control, and continued with the exercise, after which is was time to go back to standard hand position.
What I felt was this – the horse was much more stable in the contact, and also much more open in the frame, whilst also being more upright. The stride had more suspension and was more consistently rhythmical than ever. At no point did his posture feel vulnerable or weak. We went to the canter, which had been improving but was still tricky for him, and he was more sittable, relaxed and connected than ever, with slow, even and open strides.
As Andrew says – ‘I can see clearly now the rein has gone’. By removing conventional use of the rein the rider can strip away the unnecessary and work on true connection. The way that the reins cross over the horse’s neck also creates an excellent visual aid for the rider as to how straight the horse really is, and with no reins to help you, the seat and leg truly come into play. Any fiddling or unconscious use of the rein will quickly work against you, so riders will very soon stop doing anything random with their hands. Horses get used to our little habits, and so your horse might not respond to little non-deliberate tugs and jerks when the reins are in the normal position, but with the crossed reins it’s a whole new ball game.
Try it and see.