Among all of our riding challenges, this problem is the one that should be on the top of the list.
The outside rein is the most underused and poorly understood of all the aids, and here's why. Human beings, as bi-peds, are hand-fixated. That is, we do EVERYTHING with our hands. Being vertically inclined, we lean forward and almost in all interactions, reach toward something with our hands. It stands to reason that we should use this same mechanism when it comes to riding. For example, steering a horse is as simple as steering a bike - just grab the rein on the turn side and pull! The horse's head turns in that direction, and the legs must follow.
One of the most incomprehensible things that we humans have to deal with when we decide to ride horses, is to reprogram our natural tendency to lean forward and pull on the rein. It is a most unfortunate undertaking, as this natural inclination is so hardwired in us that it feels wrong to stay balanced on top of a moving horse and use our leg and seat aids before our hands. And so we start on a long journey of "re-wiring"...
... and one of the most difficult concepts in riding happens to be the use of the outside rein. We become experts at riding with a tight inside rein and a loopy outside rein. We teach the horse to stiffen on the inside jaw and "pop" the outside shoulder. We ride up the rail with the shoulder "out" and the haunches "in" - almost moving diagonally without knowing it. If we only knew how simple it would be to allow the horse to move straight - using a straightening outside rein!
What to do?
The mystery to the outside rein lies in the inside leg and seat bone. You've heard it time and again: "inside leg to outside rein". Well, it's not really about your leg - it's about the horse's balance. The horse needs to "step away" from your leg in order to take his weight more to the outside. This will help him bend toward the inside and "fill" your outside rein.
Your inside seat bone encourages the weight shift. It accepts the thrust of the inside hind leg and then shifts the weight even more to the outside. In this way, you help your horse balance himself and you as you go around the ring. And somehow miraculously, you discover you have an outside rein!
Now, it is your responsibility to keep the outside rein straight. That is, use the "contact" - don't abuse it by throwing it away! Give when needed, take when needed, resist when necessary (or preferably, do all three in a split second!). But by all means, keep it straight! If you can keep the rein straight, you will also keep your horse straight - through the shoulders and neck (your legs are responsible for the horse's hips).
So on your next ride, remember the outside rein. But remember even more, that it's not just about grabbing the rein - it's about setting the horse up through its body so that he "fills" the outside rein. Then, when you have one, do something with it!
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just the "irritating" thought - the one that sparks you on to delving deeper into the subject. We all know that finding that outside rein (correctly) is no easy feat. The best path to this solution is to find a competent instructor who can give you consistent, accurate feedback.
Good luck and happy riding.
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More on similar topics:
6 Ways to Unleash the Power of Your Riding Seat: Why get into the push and pull method when you can easily influence the horse from the middle?
A Cautionary Horse Tale: Why you must be willing to dedicate the time and effort needed to learn to be a good rider.
Muscle Memory Matters in Horse Riding: Practice, practice and then practice some more! How muscle memory affects you as the rider, and also the horse as athlete.
In the Beginning (riding): Part one of two about the riding "path".
Riding (with a capital R): Part two - There is so much more to riding than walk/trot/canter. What is it that "spurs" us on to more?