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Communication through the Reins, by Richard Winters



Richard home page.jpgWith more rein between my hands I am able to direct each rein independently

When riding, our reins are a direct  communication link between horse and  rider.   Understanding how to handle our reins  effectively will better equip us to cue our horse  in a positive manner.   Below is a list of principles  and techniques that every horseman (or woman)  needs to remember when handling their reins.

Common Novice Mistake  Riders often times ride with their reins too  long.   Is your hand extended behind your leg  when you attempt to turn? Can you scratch  your stomach while stopping or backing? If  so, then your reins are too long! Riding with a  loose rein is a positive thing and should be  easily accomplished.   However, when it’s time  to direct your horse, it’s important to shorten the  appropriate rein.

Practice sliding your left hand  down your left rein and then doing the same  thing on the right.   This needs to become second  nature.   Trying to cue your horse with excessively  long reins is awkward and less effective.   If you  have the ability to shorten either or both reins in  an instant you’ll be better prepared to handle any  situation that arises.

Don’t Ride With Handcuffs  This happens most often when riding with split  reins.   Handling split reins two-handed takes some  practice.   Learning how to allow the reins to slide  through your hands while shortening or loosening  them can be awkward to the novice rider.   It’s  important to open up the distance between your  hands so that you can communicate with one  rein without inadvertently pulling on the other.   With only six or seven inches of rein between  your hands you have “handcuffed” yourself and  limited your freedom of movement from side to-  side.   It’s not unusual for a horseman to have  one to two feet of rein between their hands when  turning, stopping or backing.

Don’t Ever Jerk On a Rein –  You can hold, bump, or even pull on a rein  but jerking is never appropriate.   What’s the  difference between a firm bump, pull, and a jerk?  Crudely jerking on a slack rein only confuses  your horse and creates more stiffness and  braciness.   If you take up the slack before you  bump or pull on the rein, your horse has a pre-signal  and you are less likely to scare him and  cause a negative reaction.

 Be Purposeful  – Pick up your reins with purpose and a plan.   Otherwise, leave them alone.   If I pick up on a  rein, I expect something to happen.   My horse  must feel the direction I’m giving him and yield  to the pressure.   My horse should not have to  guess whether I am asking for a movement  or just mindlessly pulling on the reins without  a definite goal.   If I don’t bring clarity to rein  management, my horse will very quickly tune  me out and become dull and unresponsive.

Riding with contact is certainly acceptable  when done correctly.   However, contact must  be more than unclear pressure applied to the  corners of your horse’s mouth.   When riding  with contact you must be feeling for your horse  and your horse feeling back to you.   This contact  should solicit a yielding and softening from your  horse.   If he leans into the contact and does not  learn to yield, you’ll create a hard mouth horse  that requires more and more hardware in his  mouth to gain control.

Don’t Hang On With the Reins  – Many riders are actually depending on their reins to help them maintain their balance.   If we  hope to advance in our horsemanship, then  it’s important to develop an independent seat.   That simply means that we don’t grip below our  knees to stay on and we don’t attempt to keep  our balance by holding onto the reins.   None of  us are perfect riders with absolute independent  seats.   Yet we should all be aware of our reins  and hands, making sure we are using them for  communication and not for hanging on.

When Taking a Break Loosen Your Reins –  I frequently see riders sitting still on their  horse expecting them to stand quietly, yet have  their reins in something other than a neutral,  loose position.   While standing still, I don’t want  my horse to run into the reins just because he  moved his head a few inches side to side or up  and down.   Horses will begin to toss their heads or  pull the reins through our hands when we create  this subtle “tug of war” scenario with them.   As I  mentioned earlier, either take a hold of them or  let them go.   Everything in between just creates  resentment and sets up a “tug of war” mentality.

I imagine that you’re getting the idea! As with any training scenario, you simply make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.    If your horse wants to go to the gate, make him work at the gate.   If he won’t leave the barnyard, make your horse work at the barnyard.   Rest where your horse thinks he should be working and work where your horse would generally rest.

Whenever I feel “magnets” drawing my horse to a certain spot ““ I begin using reverse psychology to reprogram my horse and get him mentally balanced.    A conscientious rider feels these things and begins to nip it in the bud before it becomes a serious issue.   Paying attention and taking a little extra time can turn your sour horse back into something sweet.

Richard Winters Horsemanship Biography For nearly three decades Richard has dedicated himself to honing his horsemanship skills and to passing this knowledge onto others.   His vast experience includes starting literally hundreds of horses that have gone onto almost every equine discipline imaginable.    Richard’s credentials include World Championship titles in the National Reined Cow Horse Association along with being an A rated judge.   In 2007 Richard was named champion of the West Coast Equine E x p e r i e n c e “$10,000 Colt Starting Challenge.” He was also presented with the 2007 Monty Roberts Equitarian Award for outstanding achievements in Horse/Human relationships.    Richard was also honored to be named champion in the 2009 Road to the Horse – Colt Starting Challenge in Nashville, TN.   In July of 2009 Richard won the Super Cow Horse competition in Santa Ynez, CA.  More info available at:

[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 4, Issue 5.]


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