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Nerve-busting, Part 1: In Praise of Neck Straps.

With winter coming and icy winds likely to make sharp, athletic horses sharper, my brain has turned to Ways To Stay Aboard In Extremis. If riding is “the art of keeping the horse between you and the ground” then this is the most essential skill of all. The rest is all just spangly icing on top.

I am well past thinking that being able to stay on a horse who is Throwing Shapes like a professional breakdancer makes me look like a good rider. I prefer predictable, trainable mounts, but if there’s a high jinks display then I just want to stay on and be able to keep us both in one piece, please. Having a twice-operated-on right knee which is pretty likely to disassemble itself in an excruciating fashion if I land on it again (particularly if I land on my feet… it really really doesn’t cope with that) makes me even more eager to only dismount voluntarily if I possibly can.

I never used to bother with neck straps. To be honest, even when the horse had one on, it was never close enough for me to grab fast enough in moments of drama, so I honestly couldn’t see the point.

Then someone suggested making one from the longest old stirrup leathers I had, and punching extra holes in the end, leaving a loop which is long enough to be in my hand when it’s in the usual place above the withers, rather than a short neck strap that I have to lean forward to grab. I hold it as pictured, so it doesn’t affect my rein fingers at all.

So, I can ride normally (only ‘opening the rein’ is slightly impeded) and if there’s a Big Moment, my hand stays with the horse, there’s no risk of a severe backwards yank if the horse explodes forwards or upwards, say… it keeps my hand in place and I just need to instantly lock my shoulder and arm muscles so my body will go with it. I hold the neck strap in my dominant hand, all the time (I’m stronger on that side, and this is one time when strength might be needed!) until I feel that the horse is trustworthy again.

If you have small hands, a purpose made neck strap might be better than a stirrup leather, which at 1″ wide might be too bulky for some. I find that old straps off martingales aren’t long enough, though, so it might be something to ask your local saddler to make.

Having the neck strap in my hand makes me ride in a more relaxed way, knowing that I am far less likely to be unseated by a drama, which in turn relaxes the horses (mostly). The horses generally desist faster because I go with them and they aren’t ramping it up, objecting to being socked in the teeth (so far, anyway).

The only caveat is that if you have a horse that grabs at its tack, be very careful that it doesn’t grab the neckstrap off its chest. I have seen this happen once and luckily I was right there on foot and managed to intervene fast enough to release the horse, before it went up, but it was a very anxious few moments and I’d hate it to happen to anyone else.

My standard reply to any mockery or criticism of using a neck strap is that William Fox-Pitt has always used one for warm-ups, and if he (with his endless legs, perfect seat, plus skills and experience immensely superior to mine) thinks it’s worthwhile, then it’s good enough for me.

In this recent Horse and Hound article Beanie Sturgis’ number 10 tip is the perfect final word: “My secret weapon is a neck strap. I ride everything with one, even when I’m judging show horses. I’m sure everyone thinks I’m terribly windy, but if they want to follow me around Badminton, they can.”


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