Horses respond most readily to their riders through leg aids and weight shift. But the human part of the equation operates in a different manner, with the thought of a desired action usually traveling directly from brain to hands. The result is that hands become overactive, which blurs the line of communication between the horse and the rider’s leg and weight aids.
The main job of the bit is to complete the circle of aids that starts with the rider’s legs, travels back to the hocks, circles through the horse’s back and neck up to the bridle and then finally through the reins to the hands. If there’s rigidity anywhere in the rider’s body, the circle of aids is broken and those leg/weight signals have to become more emphatic. This is particularly true of any stiffness in the arms and wrists.
This combined effect of busy hands and stiff arms means some riders just can’t get the job done when it comes to the rein aids.
Because they realize they’re continually tugging on the reins, riders may try an act of kindness by letting the reins slip longer. They then compound the problem because they have to pull even harder (or resort to a more severe bit) to get a response. Unless you drop the contact completely and neck rein, you should always maintain a steady connection through the reins to the bit.
The reins are like the electrical cord on a lamp. They have to be plugged in for the light to go on. Reins have to be short enough so that the rider keeps a steady, even feel on both corners of the horse’s mouth at all times, allowing the horse to gain confidence in the connection and thus to pay attention to other aids.
This means than any action of the horse’s stride, or any action of the hands themselves, together or alone, must be adjusted for in some way so that the weight of the hands on both reins remains consistent. The rider’s arms must articulate through the elbows to follow the motion of the horse’s head in each stride, just as the rider’s hips follow the motion.
The horse’s head moves forward and back quite a bit in the walk, to a lesser degree in the canter, and is fairly still in the trot. Therefore, the rider’s arms should articulate to the same degree as the horse’s neck at the walk and also at the canter. If the rider’s elbows are motionless at the walk or canter, the horse will stop or break or become locked through the back.
The classic, correct hand/rein position is to hold the thumb on top and the insides facing each other, with the base of the hand flat, forming a straight line from the elbow, through the hand, to the bit. The wrist shouldn’t break down so that the top is flat. “Puppy paws,” where the back of the hand is on top, should be avoided. The hands should remain out in front of the pommel and not brought back toward the waist, thus causing the elbows to poke out.
Any disruption of the straight line on the bottom of the wrist causes the hand to brace against the bit. But this happens without the rider even being aware of it, and the single biggest reason is that the reins get too long. Reins slip through the fingers in a subtle fashion, and the rider subconsciously takes up the slack by breaking the wrist in some manner or by pulling the elbows back.
Holding the fingers open even slightly is what allows the reins to slip, so they should remain closed. If the rein is held firmly between the thumb and index finger at the top of the hand, this will allow the bottom fingers to “play” with the bit if desired without the reins slipping.
Even though it seems like a contradiction, it’s actually easier to maintain a softer, steadier connection by shortening the reins, because then the rider can release any rigidity in the shoulders, elbows or wrist that are compensating for the slack. Otherwise, the reins loop and tighten with the motion of the horse and the bit then tugs the horse’s mouth with each stride.
When the reins are short enough, the rider’s hands can follow the motion, the reins don’t loop, and the connection stays soft and steady. Rein aids become a simple, subtle combination of “Give” or “Not Give.” “Take” no longer has to be part of the riding vocabulary.
Occasionally riders go to the other extreme and hold the reins so short that the arms go straight out from the shoulders. This, of course, locks the arms against the bit and also makes it easy for the horse to pull the rider’s seat out of the saddle if he ducks his head down.
Another version of the same problem is when the rider attempts to lower a horse’s head down by shoving the hands down. This causes the arms to lock from shoulder to wrist, and it also creates the opposite of the desired effect, since the horse levers around the rider’s hands and raises his head even more.
To illustrate the point, try this exercise. Stand face-to-face with a friend. Hold your arm out straight from your shoulder and then ask your friend to take your hand and see if he can pull you off balance. Then, bend your elbow, hold your wrist flat on the bottom as if you were holding a rein and relax any tension in your arm. Ask your friend to take your hand again and try to pull you forward. Your arm is stronger and your balance steadier because your elbow is bent and your muscles aren’t rigid.
When you ride, try shortening the reins by regular intervals, whether you think you need to or not. At the same time, relax any tension in your shoulders, elbows and wrists. If your horse responds by softening his jaw and neck, you’ll know the shorter rein is working for your horse.