Reset Your Riding: Achieving a Forward Connection with Matt Brown

Reset Your Riding: Achieving a Forward Connection with Matt Brown

Reset Your Riding is a new series on that aims to provide riders who may be returning to the barn after a break (or stay-at-home orders) with safe, productive exercises to perform with their horses. These are designed to require minimal equipment and be adaptable to a variety of levels. If your horse is green or out of shape, or you're a bit nervous, try these exercises in their simplest form, or at a walk or trot - and it's perfectly fine to stay there! Some of these can even be done in hand if you're not back in the saddle just yet. Have fun, and stay safe! 

All of us have been told from the beginning of our riding careers that riding is 90% seat and leg and 10% hand, but I don’t think many of us ride like that. The point of this exercise is to get riders steering more with their body position and less with their hands. I use a variation of this nearly every day with my horses. I'm constantly working on how I’m using my hands and having elbows that are forward toward the bit. It’s all about rethinking how we’re using our reins.

This is a two-part exercise with the first part on the flat and the second over fences. To start, map out a figure eight consisting of two 15-meter circles. Set out markers on all four “sides” of the circle, leaving the middle markers, where the circle overlaps, three feet apart. The goal here is to control your speed and direction with your seat and legs primarily.   

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Step 1: Travel around the figure eight with your reins bridged (cross your reins over the horse’s neck and hold the end of that rein in the opposite hand). Try this at the walk, trot and canter. Do it at your speed. You can have a flying or simple change at the middle of the figure eight.

Step 2: Now, cross your reins so that the right rein goes into your left hand and your left rein goes into your right hand. Your hands cannot cross over the neck – no cheating! The tricky part about this is that when you take back on one or both reins, you'll lose your steering very quickly. You’ve got to be able to push both hands forward and steer with your body.

Step 3 (optional): This step is for those riders who are very comfortable with the previous two steps and is not necessary to get something out of the exercise. For this step, I take the reins over the horse’s head and hand them back so that both reins are on the same side of the neck. I have my students hold the reins as they normally would, one in each hand. When you do this, one circle, the reins are on the inside and on the other, the reins are on the outside. Then swap the side you are holding the reins and change direction. The more you pull back on the reins, the more the horse’s head gets turned one direction and the harder it is to steer the other way.

In each part, the rider gets automatic feedback that taking back on the reins isn’t going to work. It clicks better for me to have direct physical feedback like this instead of someone just telling me to stop pulling back on the reins. When I have my reins bridged, I feel when I try to move one hand father back. When my reins are crossed, If I try to pull on the inside rein, I’m actually pulling the outside, so immediately my action is met with the reverse effect. I think it’s a quick way to deal with the habit that so many of us have to overuse the rein.

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When that feels achievable, we’ll transition to jumping. I do this part with the reins held normally or bridged. The point of the jumping part of this exercise is to maintain that feel in your hands that you had on the flat – keeping them forward toward the bit. You can close your hands to maintain contact, but you aren’t allowed to take your elbows back and pull. You can have contact, but you can’t have a backwards feel to the reins.

Here I’ll set up two verticals along the quarter line of the arena. The distance between the two isn’t entirely important, but I end up placing mine at a distance of about four to five strides. At X in the center of the ring, I’ll put two to four bounce cavaletti. Here you are doing the same exact work that you were doing on the flat, but now you’re doing it over fences. The jumps can be set at any height to be effective for riders of any level.

For beginners, I like to replace the cavaletti in the center of the ring with two groundlines that are parallel to the other verticals. When you travel through the center of the ring, instead of jumping the cavaletti, you’ll go through the two rails like a funnel. Make a transition here. Whether it’s a walk or a trot change, it has to happen within those 12 feet (assuming your poles are that long).

For me, the biggest thing that I’m working on in the exercise is how to maintain a forward connection with the bit, so that the horse doesn’t feel restricted through the connection. This allows the horse to reach into the contact and allows him to use his neck and back.

This can be adopted for any level of rider. Even practicing at the walk can make you a stronger rider with more independent aids. Remember to keep thinking about being forward with your hands, and don’t forget to look where you’re going!

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Feature photo by Martin Dokoupi for