Scene 1

The rider holds the reins tightly, pulling backward, providing little give and take through the arms, elbows and shoulders. The tension radiates through the rider's body to create a tight back, an unmoving seat, and clinging legs.

The horse may or may not have a tightness to the neck, but because of the pull on the reins, there is little opportunity for him to balance using his head and neck. His strides are short, his back may be hollow and he is likely on the forehand.

Scene 2

The rider lets the reins out to the point of creating a "loop". There is no contact with the mouth, other than at points of time when the rider needs to communicate something: stop, turn or downward transition.

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The horse's neck and body is l-o-n-g and strung out. Hind legs are stepping out behind the horse's croup. This horse is also probably on the forehand and hollow in the back but for completely the opposite reasons.

So whether it is a perpetually pulling hand or an occasionally rough, abrupt hand, you must know that every time you use your hands improperly, you are assuring your horse shortened usefulness and an unhappy life. - Charles de Kunffy, The Ethics and Passions of Dressage, p. 60

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There is no doubt that there is more to riding than just what the hands are doing. We already know that the seat, legs and hands together are actors in the same performance and must work in combination. But for the purposes of explanation, let's do an in-depth analysis of the role of the hands.

The scenes above demonstrate the extremes of what can be done with the reins: too much contact versus not enough contact. You've probably watched both types of riders at different times, or maybe you've explored or experienced both ends of the pendulum yourself.

Eventually, with enough experience, we learn that neither technique represents an exclusive path to effective riding. As with so many other things in life, we need to find the happy medium.

Try This

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

1. Find the correct placement of your hands and arms. Your elbows should have a nice soft almost "L" bend in them and hang in line with your body. Your hands should be in front of the pommel, no more than four inches higher, forward, sideways or backward (we call this the four-inch box).

2. Your hands cannot move backward from the box. In other words, you won't pull back and your elbows won't go back past your body line.

3. Your hands cannot move past the front of the box. In other words, you won't push the reins ahead or open your elbows so that your arms straighten.

4. Your hands can give and take within the four-inch parameters of the box - but the catch is that the give and take comes from your elbows, not your fingers! The rein length should not change during the give or take (although you may need to readjust your rein length from time to time if the reins slip through your fingers or you intentionally want to lengthen or shorten them).

Keep your reins short enough to allow you to provide support instantly, but also long enough to allow for the horse's level of training and muscle development.

And that's it! From here, you can ride as usual from the seat and legs, and reinforce your aids with the hands.

If the horse pulls, you resist with a bracing from your elbows and seat. But you don't pull back.

If you want to give a release, only slightly open your elbows to create a little space forward in the horse's mouth so he feels a supported freedom (i.e. not thrown away) to move into that space. Do not lengthen the reins out or straighten your elbows.

The give and take should be so invisible that only you and the horse know it happened. Anything bigger and the horse's balance will be affected. Ideally, you should alternate between a give and take as needed depending on the horse's balance and the movement being performed.

Do you have any other tips for finding the space between the give and take? Comment below.

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If you enjoyed the above article, you might also like to read:

The #1 Rider Problem: The Outside ReiHorse Listening The Bookn! The outside rein is the most underused and poorly understood of all the aids, and here’s why.

From a Whisper to a Scream: How Loud Should Our Aids Really Be? Should we be “loud” in our aids, or should we be working as softly as we can in hopes that our horse can respond to lighter and more refined aids?

Interpreting the Half-Halt: This topic is a tricky one but here is a shot at it.

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

Stepping “Forward” in Horse Riding: The term ‘forward’ is used liberally in horse riding but is often misunderstood.


    1. Hmm. Really good point. I just tried it myself – you can slide your elbows forward and back 4 inches or so without affecting the shoulders. If the shoulders move forward, doesn’t that make you tilt your upper body forward?

      I don’t think the shoulders should move forward to release the reins. They WILL move back and forth to counter the movement of the horse (just a little) so they can appear to be still, but that should be it.

      Thanks for reading and for making me think about it.

  1. When you say “open your elbows”, do you mean bring them away (horizontally) from your body/waist? Like a more gentle action similar to the chicken wing arms (but not to the same extreme, of course)? Or do you mean open them forwards?

    1. Aak! No chicken wing elbows (or anything else)!! ;-p

      I do mean forwards, so that there is a 1 or 2 inch release forward in the horse’s mouth. Does that help?

  2. This has given me a new way to think about this. It’s really useful to have a concrete “zone” for my hands to stay in. This is a really positive way of explaining it. You’re very good at giving me a solid idea of what I’m supposed to be doing! I can’t always manage to do it, but at least I know what I’m aiming for and why!

  3. What is the difference between open your elbows, which you say to do, and straighten your elbows, which you say not to do?

    1. Thanks for the question.

      The best way I can describe it is that the “straight” elbows (which I say I do not do) are flat and without angle. The arms are basically straight and tense to hold this position – there is a lot of muscle effort required to hold the arms off the body. The result is that they bounce up and down with the movement of the horse.

      The “opening” elbows I refer to are elbows that are bent initially, but then change in angle (only slightly) as a softening gesture. The arms never become straight and the elbows are generally on the body. There is very little muscle effort to hold the arms – they fall naturally down the side of the trunk. The opening action allows the elbows to be loose and supple *within* the horse’s movement as needed.

      Does this help?

      1. The way I try to explain the feeling of the elbows moving forward (or allowing) is to imagine that you are pushing a shopping trolley at a supermarket.

        Push too far forward and the trolley hurtles away with limited control (sometimes none!!!)

        Hold tightly so as to prevent following movement and you end up stopping entirely, achieving no progress at all.

        Succesfully pushing your ‘trolley’ helps you find the balanced feeling of freedom and containment, giving an elastic feel of pliable connection.

        Seriously, go and push a trolley and you will see how it feels. Experiment…
        Grip it too tightly
        Push it too far away from you

  4. I really wish folks would stop thinking the rein contact and just feel it. It is about the physical dance between horse and rider. Therefore, soft, supple fingers, hands and arms are the secret to ounces of rein connection rather than pounds. The fingers do the talking, not the elbows through the three positions of the finger aids. The reins should clearly show suppleness not a steady line.

    1. I am just learning this, so all these responses are helpful. It was just weeks ago that I was still riding with so much tension that my fingers and wrists hurt. Blamed it on my horse being heavy and stiff. Once I started concentrating on his bend instead of where his head was and trying to improve my rising trot, he started offering ME softness and I discovered what “connection” is ( I think! ) I really enjoy these articles.

  5. I ride in a western reining barn and me learning cowboy dressage is constantly being corrected by western reining riders. I get feed back to push my horses’ body into the bit (which I agree) and get the head lowered and stay off the mouth. I have lessons every week from a top cowboy dressage instructor which teaches me to feel the mouth without pulling back and she tells me I’m doing really well. My instructor tells me how I’m doing some high level dressage movements and how happy my horse is, she makes me feel I’m really getting it, and I feel it too. BUT< when she is gone and my reining friends watch me ride they try to get me to ride so differently. I love my friends but I don't know what to say when they offer their advice. I love your articles and I read them daily. My instructor and I discuss them regularly and I can see her saying the same thing you say.I feel so grateful for your articles, I feel so grateful for my wonderful instructor! I don't want to hurt peoples feelings, just wish I knew how to quiet the judgements!

  6. The problem with dictating a “4 inch box” is that not every body has the conformation to stay within those limits. If you are blessed with very long or very short upper and/or lower arm bones you will not physically be able to accomplish this and maintain a correct elbow/upper arm position.

  7. Frankly, I don’t worry much about the 4″ box until my student has mastered what my own teacher called the “following hand”. I ask the student to pick up a light, steady contact that is even on both reins, then to simply maintain this same contact constantly, by “following” the movement of the horse’s head with their hands/elbows. They need to allow the horse to pull/guide their hands back and forth. They must not try to push their hands back and forth hoping to be in sync with the horse. Let the horse move and you follow. Most of the rider’s movement is done via the elbow, so it’s really the “following elbow”.

    Now, once you can follow well, to go one step beyond that, to get ideal “contact”, try, via very slight giving and taking with the reins (done with your elbows or fingers), to get the horse to “push” lightly into your hands. If your contact is too light, the horse is said to be “behind the bit”. If it is too heavy, your horse is said to be “leaning on the bit” , but if is just right, it will feel as if he is pushing lightly into the bit, and any adjustment you make (such as a half-halt) will be felt the entire length of his body from head to tail. That’s good contact.

  8. I think Fingers need to talk,,,but not give the space like the elbow. I think the horse also has a responsibility…many riders take back if neck gets short so they can maintain contact,,,they need to think to encourage and push the neck (yes of course w the hind leg, lifted back etc etc) forward to maintain connection,,,at this point the horse is doing this