Intuitively it’s pretty obvious that when you are riding toward a jump you should not pull back. It puts your horse behind your leg, it restricts their forward motion and it prevents them from using their necks effectively. If you are always restricting your horse coming into a fence, eventually it will stop wanting to jump.
When I had Kroni, it was pretty easy to not pull back. He was a horse that didn’t get quick to fences. You put your leg on and left his mouth alone. Easy peasy.
Freedom is not quite so simple a ride. Sometimes he flips his head. Sometimes he gets quick, sometimes he starts to bounce instead of going forward, and sometimes he comes into a fence as rhythmical as you could want. The trick is achieving the latter without resorting to pulling back.
I spent a lot of time this summer practicing the things that help us achieve a good approach to a fence. I’ve worked on my canter, letting him be forward but not rushed. I’ve kept my upper body back to keep from giving him any indication that he can go faster. But the most effective tool I’ve found is the neck step (thanks, Corinne!).
A neck strap gives you something to pull back on without touching your horse’s mouth. It helps you balance both yourself and your horse and can help your horse be steadier. A neck strap is different from holding onto an “oh crap” strap on your saddle, or even onto your martingale/breastplate strap as it sits further up on your horse’s neck.
How/why does it work? I think it’s a combination of steadying your hands (thereby giving your horse a safe place to go) and creating a reflex reaction by exerting pressure at the base of the neck. Linda Tellington-Jones has long advocated the use of a neck ring as a riding tool because it has calming qualities.
My neck strap is made from an old stirrup leather which I tied off with cable ties to keep at the right length. It’s become a standard piece of operating equipment and I miss it when I forget to bring it along.
And just in case you think that neck straps are for “beginners”, lots of advanced event riders (think William Fox-Pitt and Corinne Ashton, among others) use them!