If you’re a fan of riding with the long, loose rein, that’s great. This article is written simply to give riders some educated perspective as to why the shorter rein may benefit their riding success.
First of all, we’re absolutely not advocating that anyone ride with a death-grip on the reins or grasp them so tightly that they’re interfering with the horse’s ability to move forward. Under no circumstances would we suggest that a rider inflict pain by pulling a bit uncomfortably into the horse’s mouth.
However; if we may again quote the inimitable Craig Cameron, “A short rein is NOT a tight rein.” Think about that. Seek to thoroughly understand; a short rein is not a tight rein. Rather, a short rein is a connected rein. A short rein is a controlled rein. A short rein is a feeling rein. A short rein is a communicative rein.
For the majority of horses (particularly if they are young and not thoroughly adept at carrying rider weight), that lightly connected rein helps them balance. You’re not carrying them; you shouldn’t feel like you’re hoisting a rhinoceros on the end of a fishing line. You’re simply there to help them shift their weight back, aiding them in picking up their front end, gently suggesting essential straightness as you assist with lift and direction.
In contrast, throwing the rein away dumps the horse on his forehand. He is more likely to stumble, or even fall, as he is entirely unassisted by the rider. For those that think it’s unnatural to ride with any contact, note that it’s unnatural for a horse to be ridden at all. End of that discussion.
The lightly connected rein puts control at your fingertips. If the horse spooks, if something causes him to shy, spin or bolt, you can almost instantly take control and with one rein remind the horse that you’re there to help, that there’s no reason for fear, and then very quickly go back to work.
At the other end of the spectrum, when things get out of hand and your rein is draped down by the horse’s shoulder, a lot of time, distance and drama has elapsed by the time you can finally gather up enough rein to do anything about the problem (that is, if you’re still on the back of the horse at all). We’ve all heard someone say, “Well my horse is very well behaved and trustworthy, and I’m a very good rider, so I don’t need to ride with contact.” That’s like saying “Well I drive a 1999 Buick that we’ve had serviced annually, and I’m a very good driver, so I don’t need to take hold of the steering wheel.” It makes no sense.
With the light connection of a proper rein, you have good feel; you are able to tell immediately if the horse tenses, if he throws his head, if he drops on his forehand, if he tips to the outside or inside and (of equal importance to that immediate feel and awareness) you can immediately and gently correct the horse. It’s not a big deal; you’re right there. The horse is right there. It’s a soft, momentary exchange.
A long rein does not lend itself to developing feel at all. By the time the horse gets out of hand he’s rewarded for the misbehavior by getting away with it long before you can pick up enough rein to make the necessary correction. The short, but not tight, rein allows for a constant, simple, light and easy channel of communication between horse and rider. You can essentially whisper to the horse (and she to you). The conversation is entirely pleasant.
There really is very little communication with the long, loose rein. In the cases where one has to take hold and give a correction, it will be more abrupt, akin to shouting versus the light and quiet reminder allowed via the short, connected rein. Depending on the horse’s nature, she may interpret that abrupt signal as harsh and confrontational, leading her to become angry or frightened. Thus, what could have been a simple correction now turns into a fight.
As you work to improve your own horsemanship, if you are searching for a riding instructor to assist, watch closely as they ride. Are they politely connected with their horse? Does the communication appear to be easy and pleasant? If the rein is so tight that the horse’s mouth is gaping open or its nose held down near its chest, or if the rein is so long that the horse is dumped on its forehand (it appears to be pulling itself along with the front legs rather than lifting lightly off the hindquarters), their rein handling is ineffective. Move on and find a different trainer.
Riding with a correct rein length, developing proper connection and a light, communicative feel, will do wonders for your relationship with any horse and go a long way to improving your abilities, and confidence, as a competent, balanced rider.