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.
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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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!