short reins

The other day, I saw a post on someone's Facebook timeline. She had posted a video of a horse and rider combination from years past, riding two-tempis. The  overall performance of both horse and rider was beautiful! They came across the screen in a seemingly effortless fashion. The horse seemed to float, hardly landing before he was into the next stride. The rider flowed along, balanced, composed and equally effortless. 

I was left with the inspiration to try to achieve the same with my horses - even if I I'm not yet ready for two-tempis myself. The overall harmony, connectedness and resultant beauty was something I wanted to aspire toward in any movement.

Then I saw the comments below the video.



Among various threads that were acknowledging the amount of work it takes to develop that level of communication and skill, there was one that harshly criticized the use of reins. According to the commenter, the reins were too short and therefore, too restrictive. A series of replies below continued to scorn at the rider's rein length.

I went back to the video, trying in vain to see for myself what the commenters were seeing. Where was that evil rein that cramped the horse and shortened his stride and threw him off balance?

Try as I might, I could find nothing but huge movement, effortless ease, a height of stride that demonstrated the amount of energy that was flowing through the horse and rider, and an incredible expression of contentment in the horse's eyes and floppy ears. His head and neck moved as needed, his balance was light and uphill and his rhythm was like clockwork.

Then I got to thinking about rein length.

Many people think that pulling a rein is a prerequisite to keeping it short. Many people have explained to me over the years that the reason they are reluctant to keeping a rein "short enough" is that they do not want to hurt the horse in the mouth or do him any harm otherwise.

A short rein does not have to be bad or painful.

I'll tell you why.

Just like all of our other aids, including whips, spurs or even our own voices, a rein can be pleasant or harsh. It isn't the length of the rein that is in question; it is what is at the end of the rein that matters most. Long, loopy reins can be just as harsh as short, pulling reins.

How you use the rein is the essential component of allowing you to judge the "value" (good or bad) of that rein.

The person at the end of that short rein is the one who adds the value to the rein length.

The secret to a kind short rein...

... is the release that occurs in rhythm with the horse's strides and efforts. There is no pulling back, no harsh sudden movements and no intentional jerks in the mouth. The rider has enough of an independent seat that the hands do not have to support the rider's weight with the reins.

The hands (and seat and torso) move with the horse and make small adjustments within the horse's movement, so there is little need for abrupt changes in pressure.

Try this

Next time you are at the barn, get your friend to help you find the feel of a "kind" straight rein.

Take the reins in your hands and let them be the horse. You are the rider. Let her (the horse) take up the other end of the reins, and you can go ahead and shorten the reins until they are straight. Then ask her to put some pressure on the reins - as if, the horse is pulling - left, up, down and generally moving.

You can now do three things.

First, you can brace against the movement of the "horse". You can pull, fight and restrict.

Second, you can let the reins go entirely. Feel the the drop of connection and what it does in the horse's "mouth" (your friend's hands).

Third, you can follow. Keep the reins straight, do not let any length out, but move in tandem with the horse's movements. Release this way through your wrists, elbows, shoulders, lower back, knees, etc. You can imagine how these "releases" happen in a split second when you are on top of the horse's back. In this manner, you can provide the horse as much room and space that he needs to work to his full expression of movement without lengthening or dropping the reins.

The advantage of the short rein is that there is little to take up when you want to communicate with the horse. The short rein allows you to be quick in your requests and responses - from half-halt to flexion.

I am not trying to convince you that riding with short reins is the only way to ride. Far from it. In fact, I think there is a similar art to riding with long, loopy reins à la the western performance style. In both types of riding, the independent seat and rider's ability to stay in tandem with the horse are similarly essential.

So... back to the video. I did see the short reins of the rider, but I also saw an active, confident, forward horse that showed no hesitation or disruption of movement. The horse demonstrated an incredible freedom of movement that simply could not have happened if the reins were interfering in some way.

And if there is one thing you can count on, is that if you can listen to the horse, you will know the answers to all your questions!

What do you think about rein length? Write your comments below.

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Related articles:

5 Steps to Effective Short Reins: 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.

Find the Space Between the Give and Take in Horse Riding: As with so many other things in life, we need to find the happy medium.

How to Halt Without Pulling on the Reins: There is a way to get your horse to stop without pulling on the reins.

Demystifying “Contact” in Horseback Riding: Does “contact” have other-wordly connotations? Here is why effective contact is within reach of the average rider.

In Praise of the (Horse Riding) Hand: How to develop hands that sing poetry in your horse’s mind!

21 Comments

  1. I’ve been on forums (i.e. Chronicle of the Horse) where, no matter what you say, someone out there takes it upon herself to tell you that you are wrong. Not only does she tell you you’re wrong, but she does so in such a spiteful, sneering tone of voice (sic) that she makes you feel as if you’re not only wrong but stupid. Then her friends pile on…and it stops being a discussion and becomes a bullying. Worse, it strays from the question at hand and becomes merely a bunch of rich, spiteful women shrieking at you in evil joy. These women never grew out of being ten year old nyah nyahs.
    One stops learning when one becomes the target of evil and nasty trolls.
    I’m glad you made a point of reins, as I’ve always had problems deciding how short is short? When I take a lesson, I drop the rein for precisely the reason you say..I don’t want to hit my horse in the mouth.
    But different trainers see ‘short’ and ‘taking up’ the reins in opposing lights and leave me confused. I’ve been told by various people to NOT follow, TO follow, and if there’s a between, probably do that, as well.

    recently I rode a friend’s western horse. I was astonished that the horse not only required no contact, but didn’t want it. It felt so odd to ride with the reins merely THERE, and yet the mare responded so nicely to my seat and legs that I began to wonder, seriously, if I weren’t in the wrong saddle. I don’t want to give up riding dressage, but I can now understand why so many folks like western.

    1. Was reading post yesterday about dressage scribes, things that judges say about riders. Some of them are so smug, hateful and rude. No one will ever know everything or be prefect every time. We all have to start somewhere. Should give credit to someone trying their best and making an effort to preform as best they know how. Not all riders came out of the womb riding. Maybe some forget the hours put in to be an accomplished rider. Have no use for the know it alls.

  2. Reins help you have a conversation with your horse. You can communicate 98 percent of what you want with your body language, seat, energy, relaxation and focus. However, whether I ride bridle-less, in my horse’s halter with the lead line tied off or in a snaffle bit, my hands help reinforce my body language. I personally find short reins, with a giving hand, most effective if I need to use the reins at all. The key to getting along with your horse is to do less sooner, rather than more later. If your reins are short, it is easy to flex your fingers or point them and suggest a desired transition to your horse at the exact moment needed and have it be invisible to anyone but your horse. If your reins are long, you will have to shorten them to an effective length and will be late in your communication and probably using too much force for harmony. I am assuming, of course, that you have an independent seat and are not balancing yourself with your reins. I want my reins (and other aids) to be a soft feel so again, less is better than more. However, if the horse blows off my feel, I want to be in a position that the horse will run into a fence post of a hand that closes into a fist and will hold until the horse gives to my hand, then I release into a soft following hand once more. Pulling on a horse teaches the horse to pull on you. Letting the horse run into a fence post teaches the horse to follow the soft feel that preceded it.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head. It is the release, ever so slight that makes and keeps a horse light. I primarily ride western, but there is the connection that you gain by shortening those reins and feeling of and for the horse. I believe one person called it “riding with finesse.
    It may not be something that you do all the time and it takes a while for a horse to accept it but with it you and that horse can do some pretty amazing things.

  4. Only a ‘good and experienced’ rider is capable of short rein. As a rider, you must learn how to ride with a short rein, which means being able to give at each stride just the right amount. I say- “You have to earn it’ first. The release is not 3 times around the arena, it is always ongoing with each stride. Some trainers use the phrase ‘Active’ or ‘Active Hands’ which can easily confuse a rider. Following is a must on a short rein, yet you must be able to adjust quickly curb, snaffle, and at just the right time.
    The reason people get discourage in dressage and they often see a beautiful rider at the FEI levels and some one has ‘convinced them’ they can get them to that level simply by spending a ton of money on a horse. Not so. Each rider is individual and each horse is individual, thus paring up with the right horse who is at the right level for a particular rider is key. But, then there is a dedicated effort that must go into this venture. It is not weekend riding. Most people are weekend riders and are discouraged when they don’t progress.

    Last but not least, Western riders who compete at the upper levels without any reins are active in other ways. They are very committed and dedicated to constant learning.

    People who want to rider dressage at the upper level should have fun- and few make it so.

  5. I know exactly what you are talking about with the comments on videos and forums, they can have quite a negative atmosphere! I agree with your explanation of rein length, it is not the length of the reins that makes the difference, it is the education of the hands holding the reins. When I was learning to ride, my instructor would not allow me to hold any contact until my riding became good enough that I could keep my hands still and use the sublties needed to maintain a consistent connection with the reins. As Jackie and Jan said, it is the release and the timing of the release that creates and maintains lightness.

  6. Wow. I have had instructors(huntseat) tell me to keep my reins shorter, but I never really understood it until I read your article. Having a background in western riding, I am used the ‘long, loopy rein’ riding, and therefore have always heard that short reins are bad. Not being a dressage rider or in regular lessons, I doubt that I will ever be able to achieve the level of riding that you talk about on her, but at least I understand the short rein theory now and it definitely gives me something to work towards in future riding. 🙂

  7. Jackie, you hit it. I WAS beginning to balance on the reins, and I’m glad I caught it as soon as I did. In fact, I went right back to bareback, and a bitless bridle, to re-establish my independent seat. Today I felt comfortable enough to go back to a bit (but still bareback) and with the above post firmly in mind, DID feel a difference. Now I understand what they mean by a horse being heavy on the forehand…my horse is, and I tried to make the “fence post”. I am not that good enough, yet, but at least I am able to now, understand the feel.
    Rebecca, I know what you mean. I will never, ever be the high level of dressage riders I’ve watched and known. But I’m trying. And my horse is ever more patient with me…

  8. We see more and more people who have little knowledge of horses or riding voicing strong comments. Often it involves equipment, safety, and issues they do not understand. You are correct any device or piece of equipment that is not properly used can be uncomfortable and unpleasant for the horse. The length of the rein is only one aspect of a headstall, not to mention the bit. A short rein on a grazing bit may not be nearly as rough on the horse as a dangling rein on a harsher bit with an inexperienced rider. We all need to do our best to politely educate those who can be. The correct length of a rein is no more a mathematical measurement than safety is putting a helmet on someone’s head. Unfortunately, we have a generation we call the “cartoon generation”. Most of what they know about horses came from watching cartoons and movies instead of real life experience. A large number of the cartoon generation are “experts” having repeatedly watched The Black Stallion and My Little Pony. Thanks for taking time to write your post and address the issue. Just for the record, we like a loose rein and expect the horse to listen to us without pulling or much movement.

  9. Your article is thoughtful and worth considering. A short rein isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The issue many of us who have ridden and/or trained both western and dressage is that the horse is conditioned, taught, and balanced with a compressed neck and throat as a result of finding release consistently at that point. Why can’t the point of release be at a spot where the horse is allowed to have a more natural head and neck position?

    Videos pop us regularly on the Web showing a dressage horse in the bridle and then performing without the bridle or at liberty. The horse always changes his head and neck position when released from the bridle yet continues to do the requested maneuvers. The support of the reins may be necessary to get MORE out of each maneuver and that is where the debate begins.

    Why must we always ask for more?

    The question may be more philosophical and emotional than about training methods.

  10. I’m still a beginner and I was having so much trouble with my reins. then one day, I can’t even remember why, the rein on my bridal was a single braided rein. This changed everything for me! No longer did I have to wrestle with “shorter” or “longer” rein. It is what it is and now I am free to focus on riding itself and starting to run the barrel pattern.
    This rein REALLY works for me and my trainer has remarked on how much better I look and am doing. She also said this rein is right for barrel racing, so it has been a win-win for me. I only wish I had encountered this rein earlier. I know this isn’t exactly the right comment for this article, but for me, I just had to say, hey, you can always try this!

  11. Thank you for your timely blog. I read it just before leaving for the barn and while riding my horse and being told to shorten the rein, I thought about what you had written. I had a lovely ride and a lovely canter.

  12. It takes a long time to develop “good hands”. Some people never achieve it! Horses like it when you have a long rein that stays long OR they like a light, constant contact. I have previously Western trained horses (we ride English here) that are happy with a new student’s long rein but they are perfectly happy when I ride with that constant contact. What they don’t like is long, short, long, short etc. One or the other, not both!

  13. Coming from a Western riding background to English riding, I really struggled with the concept of contact through the reins. It just didn’t feel natural to me. After years of instructors getting on me about shortening my reins, I finally got the right explanation from a dressage instructor in Spain. She showed me that a shorter rein was actually kinder to the horse who is used to the support. If you have long loopy reins and suddenly pick them up or shorten them, it is much harsher than constant contact with small, slight aids. My goal is to ride a happy horse so this explanation made me feel more comfortable with the shorter rein, and I finally got over the resistance I had to using it.

  14. In our disipline, which is ranch horse riding, which is a pattern of transitions, we are required to have light contact. Not tight or drape.

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