While we generally want the reins to act and feel the same during our rides, they do have different uses and techniques. The better we get at riding, the more subtle these aids can be. However, there are still different things each rein can do at different times to maintain the overall balance, power and straightness of the horse.
How are the inside and outside reins used? What is the difference between them?
Slightly open for flexion
When you are on a turn or circle, the horse should be looking slightly to the inside, in the direction of movement (flexion). We often see horses either stiffly pointing their noses straight out and against the reins, or even pointing to the outside and turning in the opposite direction! While there are leg, seat and torso aids involved in truly bending the horse in the direction of movement, the inside rein is also a key player in maintaining flexion.
Keep the inside rein slightly off the neck (open) to maintain better flexion.
Slightly open to create room for the inside shoulder
The slightly open inside rein also allows the inside shoulder space to move into. While you don't want the horse to fall to the inside because you opened the rein (use your inside leg to prevent this from happening), you also don't want to block the inside shoulder from being allowed to reach forward in the stride.
People often close the inside rein in attempt to stop the inside shoulder from falling in. Do the opposite. Take the rein only a few inches off the neck and allow the shoulder to move forward. Stop any lean with your inside leg instead.
The inside rein is the giver! Release as soon as you get some desired response from your horse - whether you wanted flexion or better rounding.
The release can be from your elbows or shoulders. Push the reins forward without letting the reins slide through your fingers. Ideally, the inside rein will have tiny fluttering releases as you ride along.
Avoid pulling back on it. Pulling on the inside rein creates many problems including loss of balance, crookedness, blocking of the inside hind leg, and much more.
Create contact through a "hold" on the reins rather than a "pull." And then look for opportunities to release.
Indicates a turn (neck rein)
One of the main uses of the outside rein is to initiate a turn. We often think that we need to pull on the inside rein to turn, but the outside rein is the preferred method because it helps keep the horse much better balanced.
Click here to read a detailed breakdown of how to create a neck rein that turns the horse.
The horse should understand to move away from the pressure of the neck rein.
Prevents the outside shoulder from bulging
The outside rein can also work on regulating just how much the outside shoulder can "step out". Many times, the horse will turn but drift out in the opposite direction. It is the outside rein's job to block the drift.
Prevents the neck from pointing too much to the inside
The final use of the outside rein is to keep the neck from swinging too much to the inside. This is also important for balance and control. The rider must help the horse keep a straight body even while bending around a turn.
Hold the outside rein steady when turning and make sure your inside rein isn't forcing the horse to swing his neck too far to the inside.
The outside rein is responsible for maintaining steady contact. It steadies the horse and helps to maintain the horse's overall body outline. This rein should have a "feeling" give to it but much less than the inside rein. The rein should stay fairly straight and consistent in length most of the time.
The outside rein is also usually the half-halt rein, although as mentioned before, the hands are the last component of the half-halt. In general, the half-halt is done using the outside rein to maintain balance and a steady contact.
A few parting notes
Do not cross either rein over the neck (no pull across the neck either)
We often try to prevent the horse from leaning one way or the other with our reins. Have you seen someone take their rein up and across the horse's neck in attempt to control the inside shoulder? Unfortunately, this will never work and actually causes the horse to lean even more on the shoulder.
The pull will block the inside hind leg from coming under the horse's body (thereby preventing him from being able to balance better) and will actually twist the horse's head and neck away from the body - and this will also affect his balance negatively.
Inside, try to use the slightly open rein to prevent leans, drifts and dropped shoulders.
Keep the neck between both reins
One of the oldest sayings about the reins is to "ride the horse straight between the reins and legs." It's true!
Even contact and hand positions
Strive for developing an even contact - not one rein stronger than another. Also keep your hands parallel to each other, in front of the saddle. While you may need to venture away from the front of the saddle area at times, come back to "home base" as soon as possible. In our dreams, the hands stay there just beside each other all the time.
The seat, weight and leg aids
I didn't mention the rest of the aids here because I wanted to highlight just the use of the reins. But there are many other aids involved in all of the turns, straight lines, changes of bends, and transitions that will be included in each of your rides.
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What Is Contact? The First Stage: The level you are at right now isn't where you're going to be in a couple of years' time. "Taking up contact."
What Is Contact? The Second Stage: "On the bit."
What Is Contact? The Third Stage: "On the aids or connection."
Try This Exercise To Improve Your Rein Contact: This article is about how you can "take contact" in a predictable, consistent manner.
Demystifying "Contact" In Horseback Riding: To think that correct and effective contact is something out of the reach of the average rider is simply not true.