What is the #1 Mistake English Horseback Riders Make?

Recently, I was having issues with my horse being anxious all the time and getting worried over random things. He hadn’t always been like that but progressively worsened over time. I took a few lessons and saw a few trainers to see if any of them could help me figure out what was going on. Most of them ended up drawing the same conclusion.

What is one of the biggest mistakes English horseback riders make? English riders often feel like they have to have contact with the horse’s mouth at all times. For sensitive horses, this can communicate tension and insecurity from the rider. It can also train the horse to run away or get faster on a looser rein.

Since I felt like I always had to have contact with my horse’s mouth or would shorten my reins every time I anticipated him spooking, I had unknowingly made him become more tense and anxious. One western trainer explained how this is a common problem he sees with English riders and sensitive horses. In this article, I will share some exercises I’ve learned and have come up with to help you feel more comfortable with not having contact on your horse’s mouth!

Leading Your Horse With a Loose Lead Rope

I like to introduce any new concept to my horse on the ground. It’s easier for horses to grasp new ideas and challenges when I can explain it to them “face-to-face” rather than from on their backs. The same applies when it comes to teaching your horse to be comfortable and move steadily when there is no contact on its face.

Does Your Horse do These Things on the Ground?

When it was first pointed out that this was the exact problem I was having, I noticed two behaviors from my horse when on the ground that correlated to the issue. One problem was that when I would lead him, he would always walk slightly in front of me, so I constantly applied tension to the lead to get him to walk beside me. The other behavior was when I was lunging him. He would go to the very boundary of the lead line to where there was a constant tension in the rope between us.

I recognized these behaviors because my horse hadn’t always done them; rather, these behaviors had developed progressively as his anxiety had. At this point, the anxiety had already been linked back to the constant contact on his face.

How to Fix This:

The first thing I had to do to fix this problem was to recognize that I was the root cause of all my issues. My body language, the way I held the reins, and my anticipation reaction had caused these problems with my horse. All that being said, the first step in correcting this issue, even on the ground, was to be constantly aware of what I was doing and communicating with my horse.

This meant I had to stay aware of my actions even in dicey situations. If I were on the ground leading my horse and saw a scary van coming fast down the road close to us, I would have to be purposeful not to change my composure or anticipate my horse spooking. If I anticipate, my horse anticipates. If I start shortening the lead rope, my horse knows they should be worried. Instead, I had to ignore it as best I could. If my horse did react, I needed to return the situation to normal as quickly as possible, acting like it was no big deal.

Secondly, we had to practice. I practiced leading my horse on a loose lead rope beside me. If he did get ahead of me and start pulling at the lead, I would stop and have him back up. Eventually, we got to the place where he could walk comfortably beside me and lunge around a circle on a loose lunge line.

Looking for more groundwork exercises to do with your horse? Check out my article 5 Best Groundwork Exercises for Your Horse.

Standing Still on Loose Rein

When I would ask my horse to stand still under saddle, he was always dancing around. He would back up, go to the side, and try to step forward. It was frustrating, and anytime he had to stand still, I could tell it made him nervous.

I eventually realized this behavior was because I always kept my reins short and kept pressure on his mouth to ask him to stand. If I were to drop the reins and let them loose, he would walk off. This made me realize that if I could get him comfortable standing on a loose rein, he would probably do it much more relaxed than when I asked him to stand still by keeping my reins short.

How to Fix This:

When fixing this issue, I relied heavily on the one-rein stop. The one-rein stop is exactly as it sounds; I use one rein to stop my horse. How I do this is I hold one rein with one hand, then use the other hand to reach down the rein towards my horse’s head. I bring that hand with the rein out and back to my hip. This will bring the horse’s nose back to my knee. This action keeps my horse from going forward. They can walk in a tight circle all they want, but they can’t go forward.

I would bring my horse to a stop and drop my reins. If the horse started to walk off, I would immediately do the one-rein stop. I would keep his head at my knee until he stopped walking on the circle and decided to stand still. At that point, I would release the pressure of the rein for the one-rein stop and go back to standing on loose reins. If the horse tried to walk off again, I would do the one-rein stop again.

In the beginning, I would only ask my horse to stand on loose reins for a few seconds at a time before asking him to walk on. The reason for this is that this was a brand-new concept to him, and I wanted to reward him quickly for even the smallest try. Eventually, as he began to understand how to stand on loose reins, I would increase the amount of time we would stand for.

Teaching Your Horse to Go Steady on Loose Rein

Before I get too far into this, I want to point out that I’m not saying ride your horse without contact at all times. Sometimes contact is necessary for control, balance, and training. Horses should be able to be ridden with contact and willingly accept the bit. However, it is necessary to practice riding on loose reins just as often as you ride in contact to keep your horse steady and relaxed and also to let them move freely.

Do you know how my horse couldn’t stand still on loose rein? Well, he couldn’t be ridden around on loose rein either. If I loosened my reins, he would speed up and not stay at a steady pace.

How to Fix This:

My ultimate goal was to teach my horse that loose reins do not mean to speed up; in fact, it means to stay steady. The first thing I had to do is review my other aids and consciously make them a big part of my communication with my horse. If I were going to ride on loose reins, I would need to communicate effectively with my seat and legs.

Secondly, I needed to introduce this concept to my horse. The easiest method I found was to start riding on a circle and loosen my reins on the circle. Being on a circle helps control the horse’s speed and keeps them from getting too much faster. 

On the circle, I worked on speeding up and slowing down my horse’s movements using just my seat. It’s easier to practice within the same gait first before transitioning between gaits. If the horse would get too forward and ignore my seat aid to slow down, I would do a one-rein stop. Once we were comfortable on the circle, I would start going around the arena using the same concept.

Want to communicate better with your horse through your seat? Check out my article 10 Tips to Improve Your Seat on a Horse: Beginner’s Guide.

What to Do With Your Reins When Your Horse is Spooking or Nervous

Perhaps the most difficult yet most important aspect I had to adopt to fix my horse’s nerves and anxiety was to pretend like nothing was ever scary…even if my horse thought it was. If my horse was anxious about something, I used to shorten my reins. If my horse was going to bolt, I wanted to be ready. Well, by doing this, I had actually made the problem worse by also communicating to my horse that I, too, was nervous.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asking my horse to walk by something scary or step over something scary, and he won’t want to go forward. At that moment, I check myself and realize…no wonder he doesn’t want to go forward; I’m pulling back on the reins! So, I want my horse to go forward, but he’s scared of the object, and I’m getting mad at him because he’s not going forward. When in reality, my body and reins are actually communicating to him that I don’t want him to go forward. No wonder these situations always escalated!

The first thing I realized in these situations is that I need to get out of my horse’s mouth. I need to put my hands forward if he’s bulking at something. Loose reins communicate confidence from the rider. If I’m communicating confidence, it will help to boost my horse’s confidence.

Another thing I had to do was stop showing my anticipation with my body. If I was anticipating my horse to spook, I would shorten my reins and lean slightly forward to prepare for the movement. My change in posture told my horse that we should run away from this object. What I need to communicate with my body, no matter what I’m really feeling, is that this object is no big deal. Leave my reins where they’re at and continue to sit up straight and look past the object. 


Once I started adopting the concepts of getting out of my horse’s mouth and being mindful of how my body reacted to certain situations, my horse made a complete turnaround. He was bad to his normal self, free from a lot of the anxiety this problem had caused. I hope this article can help someone who may be dealing with the same thing! These concepts may not be the answer for every horse, but I believe this topic is largely overlooked in the English riding world.

Need help recognizing if your horse is feeling anxious? Check out my article Signs a Hore is Anxious, Nervous, or Stressed.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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