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Rein Management

May 5, 2011
Richard Winters
Incorrect - reins are too long
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When riding, our reins are a direct communication link between horse and rider. Understanding how to handle our reins effectively will better equip us to cue our horse in a positive manner. Below is a list of principles and techniques that every horseman (or woman) needs to remember when handling their reins.

Common Novice Mistake
Riders often times ride with their reins too long. Is your hand extended behind your leg when you attempt to turn? Can you scratch your stomach while stopping or backing? If so, then your reins are too long! Riding with a loose rein is a positive thing and should be easily accomplished. However, when it’s time to direct your horse, it’s important to shorten the appropriate rein. Practice sliding your left hand down your left rein and then doing the same thing on the right. This needs to become second nature. Trying to cure your horse with excessively long reins is awkward and less effective. If you have the ability to shorten either or both reins in an instant you’ll be better prepared to handle any situation that arises.

Don’t Ride With Handcuffs
This happens most often when riding with split reins. Handling split reins two-handed takes some practice. Learning how to allow the reins to slide through your hands while shortening or loosening them can be awkward to the novice rider. It’s important to open up the distance between your hands so that you can communicate with one rein without inadvertently pulling on the other. With only six or seven inches of rein between your hands you have “handcuffed” yourself and limited your freedom of movement from side-to-side. It’s not unusual for a horseman to have one to two feet of rein between their hands when turning, stopping or backing.

Don’t Ever Jerk On a Rein
You can hold, bump, or even pull on a rein but jerking is never appropriate. What’s the difference between a firm bump, pull, and a jerk? Crudely jerking on a slack rein only confuses your horse and creates more stiffness and braciness. If you take up the slack before you bump or pull on the rein, your horse has a pre-signal and you are less likely to scare him and cause a negative reaction.

Be Purposeful
Pick up your reins with purpose and a plan. Otherwise, leave them alone. If I pick up on a rein, I expect something to happen. My horse must feel the direction I’m giving him and yield to the pressure. My horse should not have to guess whether I am asking for a movement or just mindlessly pulling on the reins without a definite goal. If I don’t bring clarity to rein management, my horse will very quickly tune me out and become dull and unresponsive. Riding with contact is certainly acceptable when done correctly. However, contact must be more than unclear pressure applied to the corners of your horse’s mouth. When riding with contact you must be feeling for your horse and your horse feeling back to you. This contact should solicit a yielding and softening from your horse. If he leans into the contact and does not learn to yield, you’ll create a hard mouth horse that requires more and more hardware in his mouth to gain control.

Don’t Hang On With the Reins
Many riders are actually depending on their reins to help them maintain their balance. If we hope to advance in our horsemanship, then it’s important to develop an independent seat. That simply means that we don’t grip below our knees to stay on and we don’t attempt to keep our balance by holding onto the reins. None of us are perfect riders with absolute independent seats. Yet we should all be aware of our reins and hands, making sure we are using them for communication and not for hanging on.

When Taking a Break Loosen Your Reins
I frequently see riders sitting still on their horse expecting them to stand quietly, yet have their reins in something other than a neutral, loose position. While standing still, I don’t want my horse to run into the reins just because he moved his head a few inches side to side or up and down. Horses will begin to toss their heads or pull the reins through our hands when we create this subtle “tug of war” scenario with them. As I mentioned earlier, either take a hold of them or let them go. Everything in between just creates resentment and sets up a “tug of war” mentality.

I’ve mentioned these things only because these are the things I constantly point out to unaware riders. Next month we’ll talk more about rein management and how different rein positions control different parts of our horse’s body.