Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Have you ever been told to use a rein aid but didn't know what it was or how to use it? 

When you're riding (especially in a lesson), there might be little time to explain all the nuances of a particular skill in movement. By the time the instructor explains the details, the horse has already moved from one end of the arena to the other, and likely, a completely different skill is needed by that time!

It can be very helpful to know the different rein aids and how to apply them so that you can respond as quickly as possible in the given situation. Also, it helps to know how to apply the rein aids while riding on your own, so that you use the most useful aid at the best time.

So which rein is which, and why should you use which, when? 🙂

1. Open Rein

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This rein is generally the first rein a rider learns to use. It's fairly simple to do and the result is instant, so it's easy to teach and gives the rider a sense of control. It is also the first rein aid to teach a young horse, for basically the same reasons. However, it is a rein aid that can be used right through to the highest levels of riding, exactly because it is a basic rein aid that can help pretty much every movement, no matter how complicated or athletic.

It's simple. Just open the rein by taking it away from the neck. I like to think that it creates a small space between the rein and the neck - say about 1"-3" off the neck. Your elbow stays on the body while the forearm opens to the side.

The open rein is usually used to the inside of the movement (so, if you're tracking right, you use the inside rein) but it can also occasionally be used on the outside to help the outside shoulder move more toward the outside.


The open rein is useful for two purposes.

The first is that it turns the horse's head (flexion) and neck in the direction of opening, and thus, the horse generally follows the rein and turns in that direction.

The second, which is more complex, is used with a leg aid. This open rein helps to shift the horse's weight to the outside by encouraging the horse's shoulder to step away from the inside leg pressure. This type of open rein is often used in a leg yield.

2. Direct Rein

The direct rein is exactly as it sounds: direct. With your elbows on your body, hold the rein so that it creates a straight line to the mouth. Then, apply pressure toward your hip on the same side as the hand.

Be sure to NOT pull your elbow back off your body. You don't really want to actually pull the rein back. You just want to create the feeling of the backward pressure, often done in conjunction with the upper body.


This rein is often used to stop the horse. When you apply even pressure on both reins, the horse should respond by slowing or stopping the legs, depending on how you use the rest of your aids (legs, weight, back).

It is also used for the infamous half-halt. So while you are using the "resist" action in the lower back for the half-halt, the reins are used with a direct action (toward the hips) to support the half-halt.

A single direct rein on the inside can also be the creator of "flexion", which is when the horse turns his head just enough that you can see the corner of the eye looking in the direction of the movement.

3. Neck Rein (or Indirect Rein)

The neck rein can be confusing until you have a really good understanding of what it does and how to apply it.

It helps to think of it as the indirect rein, because it works in an indirect manner.

This rein is placed on the outside of the neck. The horse feels the rein, and steps away from it. So for example, the left rein placed literally on the left side of the neck causes the horse to move right. Indirect.

This rein is always used on the outside of the neck, on the opposite side of the movement.


The neck rein is a very powerful rein. 

It acts as the initiator of the turn: left rein on the neck means turn right.

It can also stop the outside shoulder from drifting out. This can be especially useful when a horse "bulges" the outside shoulder and drifts out or steps away from the intended direction. 

In a similar manner, it can also straighten the horse's body by encouraging the outside shoulder to stay "in the body" rather than bulging outward.


There are, of course, other rein aids that are taught for different purposes. But it helps a lot to know these three basic rein aids because you can build on these as you become more experienced and subtle in your skills. 

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If you like this article, read more here:

What’s The Difference Between The Inside Rein and The Outside Rein?

“Inside Leg To Outside Rein” – The Cheat Sheet

The Essential Open Rein

Long Reins – And How To Stay In Balance

Try This Exercise to Improve Your Rein Contact


  1. I once made a list of all the words I’d heard associated with reins. Squeeze, massage, twinkle, bright, alive, check, make a fist, play, key turn…come to mind and sometime apply to inside or outside rein. Some instructors say weight your elbow. Your description seems simple. Where does all the rest come in? I’m trying to be clear with my mare who doesn’t like to halt, but if I’m chattering away with my reins, how can she sort that out? Thank you!!!

    1. What a great idea to list all the “rein” words! I agree with weighing the elbows. They should be “one” with the torso, so you’re sending one message through your body. As for more details… there are layers and layers and layers of details for pretty much everything in riding, but especially about use of the reins. I’ve written a lot about reins and contact over the years. You can use the search bar and just put in “rein” or “contact” and you’ll see everything I’ve already written. But I created my Practice Sessions for those who really do want more detail. You can find the page right on the menu bar of this site. Thanks for reading!

  2. The neck rein and the indirect rein are not the same thing. The indirect rein is the direct rein that, instead of coming straight back, comes toward (or even across) the withers and moves the horse toward the outside shoulder. It is an advanced aid and is often referred as the “indirect rein of opposition.”

    1. Right. I’ve always known that rein as a “rein of opposition” but I’ve already corrected the article to reflect what I’m really talking about. Thanks for your comment!