Training ~ Reins ("Printer Friendly" version of this page)
What to do with the reins… The use of the reins is taught differently by so many people and there are a lot of misconceptions about what they really are used for.
A lot of people think that the reins are for balance (for themselves), to pull back on when the want to stop, and to manually steer the horse in a different direction. Heck, that’s how we started out, we even had a trainer who taught us how to ride this way - we’ll bet that many of you learned this way too.
Well, it's not that easy -- but it's not too hard to get going in the right direction either! The best work that I have ever read on the use of the reins is from "The Complete Training of the Horse and Rider in the Principles of Classical Horsemanship" by Alois Podhajsky. This "very correct" book can be difficult to read but is packed with information on horsemanship. It's even more surprising to find that it was written in 1972 by the former director of the Spanish Riding School who was responsible for the care and training of the Lippizan stallions at this facility.
You should NEVER get into the habit of using the reins with a steady pull or by using a loose rein to jerk the horse's head through the bit. The reins are a tool that when used correctly with leg and seat aids will help you with collection and give you the ability to control the speed your horse. If you expect to use the reins exclusively for directional control and to collect your horse, all you will do is teach your horse to "head set", lean on the bit, and be out of control.
Your posture and the reins
While in the saddle, you should be “loose” and relaxed through your lower back and hips. This allows your hands and shoulders to move with the horse. When the horse steps forward your body should flex at the hip and through your lower back -- with the horse. You may have to consciously think about this in order for it to happen for you. When you are relaxed and flowing with the horse; your body, shoulders, and arms will move with the horse and you won’t pop the horse in the mouth or pull on the bit every time they take a step. A side benefit to this is that you’ll also “stick” into the saddle much better if you are not tense. An easy exercise to test this is with the sitting trot. Ask your horse to trot, then brace your back and hips. Notice how you bounce out of the saddle -- if you aren’t careful you may actually bounce off your horse. Now relax your lower back and hips and ask for the horse to trot. You’ll notice that you move with the horse and tend to sit deeper (“stick”) into the saddle. The more relaxed you ride the better rider you’ll be. This is like just about everything in life – the better you get the less you have to do! If you are “stiff” or braced, you’ll inadvertently pull on the rein when the horse steps out. This is true of any gait that the horse is in, but is more pronounced at the trot. This telegraphs through your body directly to the horses mouth. It’s your responsibility to relax and let the horse feel the lack of resistance in your body. Then when you need to ask for changes in speed or tempo you'll use your body (back and hips) to control the speed.
How to hold the reins
There are different ways to hold the reins when you are on your horse. The two we are going to discuss are training and riding or working positions. This relates to how and where you hold your hands in relation to the horse while riding. You are going to have to understand that some people may look at you when you are training and think that you’ve got the worst hands in the world. Don’t worry about them – people in the show world start out with their hands in the wrong place for the most part and never figure this stuff out. Forget about what others think about you and do what’s right for the horse. You should always have the reins and your hands in front of your body. There is an area in front of your body which is the “working zone”. If you were sitting on your horse, this would be the 90 degree area directly in front of your body – right between your legs. Your hands should never go behind your legs because this would put your center of gravity behind you (not a good thing). You may move your hands (and the reins) anywhere in this area in order to get a job done. You may have to compensate for slack in the rein by moving your hands up and down the reins. A good skill to learn is how to jump your hands up and down the reins. Practice while holding the reins in your hands and flicking the rein between your fingers – alternating between holding tightly and loosely. Good riders do this instinctively, you should learn this skill too.
Training Reins: When working with a horse to train for specific tasks, sometimes you need to do things a little bit different. Using the reins for training is one of these things! It may look a little unorthodox, but hold the reins about shoulder length apart (18-24 inches) with a 90 degree bend in your elbow. Your hands should be approximately above the wither and you should have enough contact with the horse that you can release the pressure to either the bit or rope halter by bringing your hands in together. This training rein position is helpful for a couple of reasons:
Riding/Working Reins: This is the position you would ride in for a “finished” horse. It depends on the discipline that you ride. For English, dressage or eventing this would be with your hands close together at or near the wither. For Western pleasure, this would with one hand on the reins about 4-6 inches above the wither to neck rein. This is where most trainers start their students. Bad habits are hard to break, so the theory is if you start with your hands in the right place off the top you're in a better place. Recognize that it's OK to be unorthodox for training purposes as long as you understand the proper position for your discipline.
Never give away the reins completely to the horse. This is a bad habit to get into. If the horse were to startle or bolt you’ll have absolutely no way to disengage the hindquarters and do a single rein stop.
Steering the horse
We are so used to the automobile that we think we have to steer everything that we get on. This has been reinforced by so many western movies on TV that a lot of people think that you kick to go, pull to stop and yank to turn. The reins are a secondary aid for direction with the horse. By this we mean that your body, seat, and leg are the first thing that should come on for directional control. If the horse doesn't respond then you add direction with the rein. Always ask with your seat first and then use the rein for direction if necessary -- don't start there. If you ever wondered how the top level riders control their horses, it's mostly through their seat. You hardly see them move their bodies or arms, but they are definitely communicating to the horse. You’ll see this with good reining and dressage horses.There are a few concepts that you need to understand in order to utilize the reins correctly. You have an inside and outside rein depending on which direction you are turning. These are referred to as the direct and indirect rein. They should be used together
Direct Rein: This is probably the most common "problem" thing that people do with their horses -- using the rein is used to pull the horse's head to the direction they want to go. The direct rein should be used sparingly for direction, and to bend the horse. When combined with another aid, the direct rein is a valuable tool. When used as the primary means of steering the horse -- it's a big mistake. The use of the direct rein should be as short as possible, once the horse responds to the direction you are asking for give a release. The inside or direct rein supports the inside leg and prevents the horse's hindquarters from falling in.
Indirect Rein: Opposite of direct rein. The indirect rein controls and stabilizes the outside shoulder and hind leg. This is very important because the outside rein is the rein which should determine the degree of bend in the horse, the size of the turn, and the position of the horse's head. The outside or indirect rein supports the outside rear leg and prevents the horse from falling out at the hindquarters. If you only use the direct rein, the horse will not really turn -- he'll follow his nose and just bend at the neck. There are some simple things that you can do to get your horse to steer or turn without using the direct rein all the time. First; look at where you want to go -- don't look down at the ground or at the horse's head all the time. Second; think of your legs as a pair of scissors. Offset your legs and use your inside leg for support to follow your body and your outside leg to help support the outside shoulder through the turn. Use the inside rein to set up direction and the outside rein to support the bend of the horse. Here's a simple exercise: While standing still, give the horse a relatively loose rein. Turn your head and shoulders to the left about 45 degrees. Notice how your whole body twists into the direction that your shoulders are turned? Support your horse with your inside leg, and ask the horse to walk off. Did your horse turn to the left? It sure should have. Try this exercise to the right and see if you can get your horse to listen to your seat. Remember to reward the horse for appropriate behavior. This may takes time. Practice making loops and serpentines around a set of cones or other obstacles; changing direction two, three, four times in a row, each time using the direct rein less. If at any time the horse acts confused or refuses to turn, use the direct rein again -- but don't pull him around with the rein. The horse should be bent in the direction he is going, something he can't do if you pull him around with the direct rein. Rely more on your legs than the reins for the turns, and soon your horse will be turning without any visible use of the reins.I have a goal of being able to steer my horse anywhere I want without using the reins. It's actually pretty easy to do. Don't do this unless you are in a controlled environment and have some help in case something goes wrong. Start by looking at where you want to go, turn your shoulders and pivot/twist your hips into the direction you're headed. Ask the horse to walk out and turn your shoulders the other direction. You may have to use the direct rein to get the horse to understand what you are asking, but you can get this real quick if you are consistent and reward the horse.
The concept of neck reining is very easy for a horse to pick up. You want the horse to move away from pressure. In this case, pressure is the rein against the horse's neck. If you have a horse hair mecate, you can get the horse to move away from the pressure of the horse hair against his neck pretty easily. The small hairs on the mecate "tickle" the horse's neck and he'll quickly move away from this pressure. This tool is the easiest way we know of to assist in neck reining a horse.
Training a horse to neck rein is overrated. It's actually quite easy if you approach it in steps. A lot of people think that it's something that you would only teach a "western" horse. But, this is an extremely valuable tool to have in your horsemanship bag of tricks. Believe it or not, we occasionally use our Warmbloods to work cattle. Reining comes in very handy when you need both hands to do different jobs.
Like everything that you do with the horse, you'll eventually get the horse to understand what you want without having to use the direct rein. Consistent application of the neck rein with your leg and seat will allow you to eventually remove the direct rein when you ask for direction with the neck rein. You should keep riding with both hands on the reins until the horse is neck reining easily, then switch to riding with one hand.Practice serpentines, circles and frequent changes of direction around your cones in the ordinary walk and eventually at a faster flat walk. These will help your horse develop better balance and maneuverability for trail work. Young and inexperienced horses need to be able to capably bend to varying degrees so the use of a direct reining device such as a snaffle is very important. When your horse "graduates" to a bridle and can work in a curb bit, you'll be ready to go work those cows...
Loose Rein vs. Contact
Contact with the rein is completely different than pulling the horse’s head into a “head set” or false collection. A lot of people think that if the horse's head is on the vertical that it is collected. If it were that easy all we would need to do is tie the horse's head down -- wait a minute, that's what a lot of people think they should do! A horse that merely sets it's head is usually braced or hollow through it's back and short strides his steps. In contrast, a horse that is collected is supple through their body, has a "lofty" gait, and tends to reach or stretch out their stride. It doesn't take any magic to collect your horse, it takes patience and a good understanding of what you are after to collect your horse. It's actually pretty simple if you let the horse do the work -- let the horse find the "spot" where his posture allows the horse to collect himself; stride out, arch his neck and back, and get some "spring" in his step! Remember, horses learn from the RELEASE of pressure. Constant pulling on the rein reinforces the wrong thing. In the case of trying to get the horse "on the bit" by pulling on the rein, all you do is teach the horse to lean on the bit and hollow it's back -- two things which work against everything you want your horse to do in any discipline.We start out by getting our horse into a "riding posture" before we walk out by taking up contact with the rein, when the horse responds with the correct posture we ride off. This reinforces the idea that the horse be in the right frame or collected when we are working. Unfortunately, you don't get to start off here. Your horse most be soft, willing, and bend through the neck and body before you should start collecting your horse into a frame.When we are just out trail riding or "hacking" we ride on a loose rein. Dressage tests require that you have the ability to ride your horse in a straight line on a loose rein. The horse occasionally deserves a break from the contact that we normally ride in. But, you should get the horse used to the concept of contact.
Reins and Feet
As part of our groundwork training, we train the horse to move any foot that we ask for, you have to teach your horse that the reins are connected to each foot. We want each foot to move independently. This sounds like a daunting task, but it’s relatively easy if you have patience. This is really useful when you are out on the trail and need to maneuver in tight spaces. We have been out in the forest where logs and branches are down so thick it looks like a pile of rubble. Since we can move the feet anywhere we want, we have the ability to pick our way through the debris. Whether you’re doing dressage or trail riding, you can use this skill. The horse needs to understand that the reins are connected to the feet. And you need to know how to teach the horse what the relationship between the rein and the feet are. In order to do this you need to think in a different way than you are used to. This may be difficult to understand, but when you are sitting in the saddle – imagine that you are sitting in the center of the letter X. At the ends of the letter are each foot. Follow the line of the X from the front foot through your body to the the rear foot. You’ll quickly see how the reins should work with each foot. The left front and right rear foot are controlled with the left rein and the right front and left rear foot are controlled with the right rein.
You are going to teach the horse that the rein is connected to each foot depending on how you ask. We start by asking for a rear foot (it doesn’t matter which one) to step over -- you only want that foot to move. Hold the rein out to the side like you would ask for a bend, but higher with a little pressure. Remember that the right rein is connected to the left rear foot and the left rein is connected to the right rear foot. The horse will search for what you are asking and eventually move the foot over. When searching for what you want, the horse will probably move all over the place, try to bend, step the hind feet under, etc. You need to remember that this may take some time, and you must have the patience to follow through. This is where reward is so important with the horse, make sure you reward this behavior when the horse moves the foot over. I have spent hours with a horse that was “learning” how to do this, your ability to read the horse’s posture and anticipate movement will help you tremendously. You need to cue into any movement that resembles what you are asking for. Remember, sometimes you have to take small steps towards the ultimate goal. If you started with the right rear foot, you have to get the left rear foot moving off the rein too. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get this working for you real easily – this is a hard thing to teach the horse, and even harder for you the first time you try.
Once you get both rear feet moving off the rein, move on to the front feet. Ask for the horse to move the front foot over by holding up the rein similar to what you did above to move the rear foot over but move the rein out away from the horse’s body. Hold the rein out to the side like you would ask for a bend, but higher with a little pressure then move the rein out while still holding with a little pressure. This helps the horse to understand what you are asking because you are asking him to follow a feel from the pressure of the rein. Remember that the right rein is connected to the right front foot and the left rein is connected to the left front foot (look at the X above if you get confused). The horse will search for what you are asking and eventually move the foot over. Again, patience is necessary with this exercise. Your goal is to get the horse to move the foot that you asked for over without moving any other feet.