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Don't be intolerant of the short rein! Just as with any other movement and technique that is taught to horses, short reins can be very beneficial to the horse when applied correctly.

It's not that you should never ride in long reins - but many disciplines require shorter reins. 

Simply put, the bit allows us to communicate effectively with our horses, keeping us safe on the back of the horse and permitting communication between two otherwise unlikely partners.

Reasons for A Short Rein Length

You might want a shorter rein length for several reasons:

Control

Let's face it - not every horse is so well trained that you can get away with very little direction from the mouth. In fact, we might even say that maybe only 5% of all horses are trained to that level. So yes, for the average rider and horse, we need the reins to indicate direction to the horse. We also need reins to slow or stop the energy, and we can even use the reins to redirect the energy to the hind end.

Horse's balance and well-being

The reins play a significant part in how the horse travels over ground, under the weight of the rider. Although the other aids also help the horse with balance, speed control and use of the body, the reins act as the final reinforcement.

If the horse travels long-term in a stretched out, disengaged body outline that is unhealthy for his muscles, joints and tendons, then his overall health will be affected. The reins do play an integral part in encouraging a strong body, controlled balance (that doesn't fall forward or "upside down") and regulation of the energy.

Different rein lengths affect the body of the horse differently. Sometimes, when you think you are being kind by letting the reins out, the horse has to change his balance in order to compensate for the longer body and the heavier weight on the forehand.

Connection/Timeliness

Riding a horse is all about asking and answering questions. There is constant communication going back and forth between the horse and rider primarily through the rider's aids (which include the seat, legs, hands, torso, etc.).

Rein length might affect the clarity of this communication and determines how clearly and quickly you can communicate with your horse.

5 Steps to Developing Comfort With A Short Rein Length

1. Shorten the Reins in Increments

Instead of just tightening and pulling on  the reins (and effectively squishing the neck into a shorter length), shorten the whole body of the horse first. Use a series of half-halts to bring the hind end underneath, round the horse's overall body outline, and take up the rein as the horse's body gets rounder. This may take several half-halts.

2. Recognize How Short is Short Enough

The length of the reins really depends on the horse's training level and strength. It isn't easy for the younger horse to maintain a body outline that allows for a very short rein; one horse's "short" may be longer than another's. 

3. Achieve A Light Contact

In all disciplines, one of the goals of riding is to achieve lightness. A soft rein contact can only happen when the horse is truly straight and balanced. At this point, the reliance on the rein diminishes and you might discover that the pressure on the reins reduces not because you have lengthened the reins but because the horse is better able to control his balance and level of collection.

Creating space without letting the reins out is one method of developing lightness in contact.

4. Less is More

When it really comes down to it and once you have your others aids in place, you can use the reins only for intermittent, subtle use. But be forewarned: it will take time, infinite patience and practice, and determination for you to get to this level and for your horse to respond at this level. Don't be discouraged if you find yourself grappling with the physical coordination it takes to get to this point.

Your communication will occur more through your body than through your hands, and your horse will become more "in tune" with your subtle weight shifts and seat aids.

5. Better Understanding

At this point, both you and the horse have progressed through to a higher level of training and know better what to expect in your work. Thanks to this better understanding, the horse requires less guidance, especially from the front end.

So there you have it! Of course, I know this is purely my take on a sometimes controversial and complicated subject.

What are your thoughts? Have you been able to achieve a light but short rein contact? Is there anything you'd like to add in the comment section?

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Stop Kicking the Horse! Kicking your horse only stuns, disturbs, imbalances, and hurts. Once you have better balance in your seat and a more consistent contact with the bit, aim toward using your legs with more purpose.

13 Comments

  1. Just to let you know, we have more members recommending your articles be shared on our club dressage website than any other, this is indeed high praise from these riders

  2. I think riders must “learn to earn’ this gift of riding with a short rein. It takes lots of give and take and feel, before a rider is able to effectively use a very short rein. Horses too often are the mute victims of an unfeeling rider with a short rein, or a rider who inadvertently uses the rein to balance their own body, not assist the horses balance.
    Not only are less than 5% of horses trained so well, probably even less than that of riders can pull it off effectively and safely.
    A horse can be damaged by a short rein, especially if used early on in its training program by a rider who uses it to control natural and bounding energy of a young horse. Great caution must be used and only those with a great deal of ‘feel and experience’ can do this effectively.
    A good experienced trainer is the one who can teach a rider, how to do this- without harm otherwise, it can be quite damaging.

  3. just as guns don’t kill people, short reins do not automatically mean abuse of the horse’s mouth or detriment to his overall frame. As the horses’s training advances the distance from the rider’s hand to the horses mouth grows shorter, thereby creating a short rein.

  4. HA! I went to a clinic by Gary Lane. He used “dressage ” techniques with gaited horses. Told folks to buy LONGER reins! Also, siad a trained horse should go every where on a loose rein. Finally, he told folks their horse has “locked up TMJ joints” if they were ridden on contact with an arched neck. Whaa.

  5. Thank you for yet another excellent explanation of a subject that many need to hear. Especially the part about the possible damage to the horse by running around in too long of a frame and out of balance.

  6. Far too many riders use their reins to control the horse’s forward movement when their seat is the real issue- either instability or irritating to the horse’s movement. This is why dressage horses are notorious for having hock issues as that blocking hand creates physical (and mental) stress that has to come out somewhere. Even at the upper levels we see riders spending a lot of their time behind the vertical braced against thigh blocks & reins, that are pushing the withers down & compressing the neck. Saddles jammed forward too. No horse likes to be bumped by the bit either which happens with an inconsistent contact often seen with those who think they are being light (in hand) or kind. The key is to develop an elastic connection to the bit from a stable seat & core. A long rein does not harm a horse until it is hustled beyond his ability to balance when he will stay on the forehand. But without correct use of the seat, rein length & half halts the horse will not explore rebalancing the weight with a rider to the same distribution he has alone. That is what gives the rider access to the beautiful dressage movements he can do so well alone! The seat always comes first & then creating an elastic connection through a neutral arm! A correct seat is a core fundamental of riding and we cannot progress without it. So to address rein length we must first always look at the foundation attaching to the rein- the seat! The hand belongs to the horse & should follow wherever he takes it with us just carrying the weight of the hand but relaxed & neutral in elbow & shoulder so the elbow naturally wants to hang below the shoulder when the horse allows it. With correct rein length this will occur when his nose is slightly in front of the vertical at which point he experiences reduction in weight of the hand. He likes that so figures out how to sustain that by rearranging his body balance..

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