Teaching A Horse to Neck Rein: Step-By-Step Guide

Train Your Horse to Neck Rein

Many people know neck reining as the way cowboys steer their horses. Neck reining is a way to steer your horse by laying the rein against the side of your horse’s neck. If you want to turn your horse left, you would lay the right rein against the horse’s neck. This way of steering your horse will free up one hand to swing a polo mallet, open a gate, or throw a lasso.

So, how do you teach a horse to neck rein? Here are the steps I take to teach my horses to neck rein:

  1. First, understand the mechanics of neck reining and how to horse should respond
  2. Teach Your Horse the Correct Response to Neck Reining 
  3. Incorporate neck reining cues into your riding 
  4. Repetition is key to helping your horse master neck reining
  5. Gradually start relying more on neck reining cues 
  6. Try fun challenges to test your horse’s ability to neck rein


When you’re horse is neck reining, they’re responding to the pressure of the rein on their neck rather than pressure on the bit. Neck reining is easy on your horse’s mouth and allows the rider to communicate with the horse without having to pull the horse’s head left or right. The rider can hold the reins in one hand and still effectively communicate with the horse.

Step #1: Understand the Mechanics of Neck Reining

Before you go to teach your horse to neck rein, it’s important to understand the mechanics of neck reining and what is required out of you as the rider to properly communicate with your horse. Luckily, neck reining is pretty straight forward and easy to get a hang of.

When it comes to neck reining, you will primarily be communicating with your horse by laying the rein on their neck and leg pressure.

Communicating With the Reins

The way you use your reins can make all the difference when neck reining. When you neck rein, you’re not applying pressure to the horse’s mouth by pulling one way or another. Instead, you’re simply going to lay your rein on the side of the horse’s neck that you want them to turn away from.

If you want your horse to turn right, you’ll lightly lay the left rein on the horse’s neck. If you look down at your hands, the hand holding the left rein will cross over the horse’s neck to apply the pressure. If you’re holding your reins in one hand, you’ll see your hand go in the direction you want your horse to turn.

It’s important to remember when neck reining, you’re not pulling your horse in the opposite direction. Many times, if the horse isn’t responding correctly, the rider will want to pull the rein harder across the horse’s neck and try and pull them in the right direction.

This isn’t neck reining. Neck reining requires a light pressure from the rein on the horse’s neck.

Communicating By Leg Pressure

Another cue you’ll want to use while neck reining is leg pressure. Your leg pressure will help signal to your horse to step on the correct direction. You’ll squeeze your lower leg opposite of the way you want your horse to turn.

If you want your horse to turn left, you’ll squeeze with your right leg. Your leg and rein will create a sort of boundary to encourage your horse to step the other way. These two cues used in conjunction with each other will make your communication clear and effective.

Step #2: Teach Your Horse The Correct Response To Neck Reining

The next thing you’ll need to do when teaching your horse to neck rein is you will need to teach them the correct response to your cues. Horses learn what is the right and wrong response by pressure and release. The release of pressure is considered a reward for a horse, and this is how they learn that they’ve responded correctly.

The easiest way to help your horse understand what you’re asking out of them from neck reining is to start at a standstill, signal your horse that you’re going to be turning a specific way, then ask the horse to walk forward. When the horse steps forward, based off of your cues, they should step off in the direction you’re asking them to go.

This is low stress and an easy-to-understand exercise for your horse. When teaching a horse something new, it’s always best to start at a standstill or a walk, as it’s easier for the horse to think through the exercise at a slower gait. If your horse responds correctly by stepping off in the correct direction, release the pressure and pat them.

If your horse doesn’t turn the way you’re asking and they just walk off, turn the horse in a tight circle, halt, and cue them again. The tight circle is considered continued pressure, so the horse will understand that simply walking off is not the right thing to do.

Step #3: Incorporate Neck Reining into Your Normal Riding Routine

Even if your horse can step off in the correct direction from a standstill while neck reining, it doesn’t mean that the horse fully grasps the concept yet. It can take horses months to master a certain technique, and neck reining is no different.

To help your horse understand the concept of neck reining even further, stand to incorporate it into your everyday riding. You can start using neck reining cues even while you’re still steering with two hands. When you open your horse to signal your horse to turn a specific way, lay the opposite rein against their neck as you would neck reining.

Be aware of your leg pressure and using your lower leg to help communicate to your horse when to turn, even if you’re still riding as normal.

Step #4: Repetition is Key to Teaching Your Horse to Neck Rein

If you want your horse to learn to neck rein, the most effective way to teach them is simply by repetition. This means making sure you incorporate it into your daily riding routine, even if you’re not doing anything relating to neck reining.

If you’re having a jumping lesson, try neck reining in your warm-up and cool-down so you get some practice in. If you’re practicing your dressage course, incorporate the idea of neck reining into your serpentines and change of directions.

The more a horse does something, the more they’ll be able to grasp the exercise. Even if it doesn’t seem like they’re getting it right away, just keep at it. I’ve had horses where something randomly clicks in their brain to where they can suddenly understand what they’re supposed to be doing. If it wasn’t for repetition in training, they probably would’ve never gotten to that point.

Step #5: Gradually Start Relying More on Neck Reining Cues

As you continue to ride your horse, gradually transition to where you’re using your neck reining cues more and more compared to your normal cues. It’s important to do this gradually to make sure that the horse fully understands as you advance.

Sometimes, we can rush a horse before it fully grasps the concept of something. This can lead to both horse and rider getting frustrated when the horse doesn’t respond correctly. To help avoid this, only advance when your horse shows comfort and effectiveness at your current level.

This will allow you to correct any mistakes in training as you go compared to facing it all in one blow-up if the training is rushed.

Soon, you’ll realize that you can now ride your horse and neck rein effectively! It’s great when you can watch you and your horse’s progress into learning something new!

Step #6: Try Fun Challenges to Test Your Horse’s Ability to Neck Rein

Another way to help your horse master neck reining is by providing them a fun way to learn! Horses are more likely to learn something faster if they have fun while learning…just like humans!

I’ve found that my horses particularly enjoy obstacle courses and patterns that get their minds thinking. Here are a few of my go-to training challenges for neck reining:

Pole Bending

Take some poles, jump standards, or cones to create a pattern to zigzag through. Steer your horse through the poles by neck reining. Start by setting the poles farther apart so the horse has more time to think through the steering.

As you improve, make the space between the poles closer so the horse has to be very responsive to your neck reining cues.

Obstacle Course

Horses love obstacle courses! Each obstacle creates a new challenge for the horse to think through. You can set up obstacles that test the specific cues you’re working on. Here’s a list of some obstacles you can include in your neck reining obstacle course:

  • Use ground poles to create a zigzag pattern to ride your horse through
  • Put two barrels next to each other to create a narrow passage 
  • Put a tarp on the ground to create a “water feature.”
  • Include a pole bending section
  • Make opening and shutting a gate from horseback part of your course

Trail Riding

Trail riding is a great way to test how your horse will respond to your cues in a new and different environment. Trail riding can offer many distractions for your horse that may cause them to not be as responsive to your neck reining cues.

Trail riding can set up situations where you can see how well your horse will respond to cues in a different situation. If they don’t respond well, then go back to the beginning and make sure you can keep their focus in the arena.

I hope this article was helpful! If your horse can already neck rein, now it’s time to teach them to ride without a bridle altogether! Check out our article Horseback Riding Without a Bridle: Step-By-Step Guide.


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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.

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