Using The Reins For Subtle Communication


(This Post is an Excerpt from the Horse Balance Under Saddle Workbook)

“Patience and tenacity of purpose are worth more than twice their weight of cleverness”
– T.H. Huxley

Using the Reins for Subtle Communication

  • As we begin to work with more subtle speed adjustments while also having to maintain internal straightness, our reins start to become a much more useful tool of communication. It is important that we are able to understand and maintain the two different uses of the reins called rein contact and rein aids. If we confuse them, then we also confuse our horse and can inhibit spinal flexion. 
  • When we use the reins to gather information, we are using a rein contact. When we use the reins to resist forces, we are using a rein aid. A contact receives changes in force or listens to our horse, while an aid transmits resistant forces from our body or talks to our horse. Having a rein contact or using a rein aid has nothing to do with how long or short our reins are at any given time. 


Defining a Rein Contact

  • A rein contact is possible on any length of the rein, long or short. A contact is defined as a consistent amount of pressure or a touch that allows us to feel changes in our horse’s balance quickly through our hands. A rein contact never resists, controls or manipulates, but instead just makes us aware of subtle changes. If we are maintaining only a rein contact, then we have to constantly adjust the rein length in order to maintain the exact same feel on the reins at all times. As our horse alters the use of the head and neck, we have to rapidly lengthen or shorten the reins in order to maintain a precise amount of pressure on the reins, no more and no less. 
  • The primary purpose of a rein contact is to feel when our horse changes balance before we can see our horse change posture. A rein contact alerts us to the smallest, most subtle imbalances before we can see them and before they have time to gain momentum. Increased pressure on one rein more than the other, tells us that our horse just lost alignment or internal straightness. If our horse increases pressure on both reins equally, then we know our horse’s body weight is shifting forward, about to fall into long and low. If our horse shortens or over curls the neck, then we lose rein contact but also realize that our horse’s back may be pushing down in extension. 


Defining a Rein Aid

  • A rein aid is possible on any length of rein, long or short. When we actively increase pressure on one or both reins, we are giving a rein aid. If our horse increases pressure on one or both reins, and we don’t lengthen the reins, then we are also giving a rein aid. Any increase of pressure on one or both reins is a rein aid, even if subtle.  
  • The purpose of increased pressure on one rein is to resist lateral bending of the neck in order to help our horse maintain internal straightness. The purpose of increased pressure on two reins at the same time is to resist weight shifting forward as part of our braking aid. Our rein aids are the backup plan that reinforce our seat and torso resistance. 
  • Whether the reins are long or short, internal straightens makes the reins feel equal left and right. When the left and right reins feel unequal, then we know our horse has too much lateral bend, even if we can’t see it yet. It is important that our rein length is always equal left and right, whether they are long or short. Using reins that have clear segments, so that we can easily see equal length, is very helpful. 
  • Lifting the back in spinal flexion always elevates the neck, head and entire front end of the horse, decreasing pressure on both reins, even short reins. When our horse shifts weight forward, we feel the horizontal imbalance first as increased pressure on both reins. We increase rein resistance as part of our braking aid by not lengthening or shortening the reins but instead by closing our hands on the reins and increasing muscle use through our torso and core. We can also close our hands on the reins to maintain the same length while we try a pushing aid to restore spinal flexion. Once the balance between pushing and braking is restored, our horse will lighten the pressure on both reins while maintaining a lengthened neck, even if the rein length is short. 


Adjusting Between a Rein Contact and Rein Aids

  • Developing accurate use of the reins is tricky for all riders. As humans we love to overuse our hands! Once we have a consistent rein length, especially short reins, we tend to lose awareness of whether we actually have a rein contact or are constantly using rein aids because changes in rein pressure can be subtle. It can be helpful to work on just maintaining a rein contact with our horse before using subtle rein aids. 
  • Whether we are just maintaining a rein contact or using subtle rein aids, our balance in the saddle needs to remain the source of our stability. We can think of our torso like a strong vertical fence post anchored into the ground. Our arms and the reins combined become long bungee cords that are attached to the fence post on one end and connected to our horse’s head on the other. While our torso remains stable in the saddle like a fence post, our bungee cords can stretch forward or restore back to neutral as needed. If the bungee cords become too slack, then it is better to shorten the reins rather than shortening our arms in order to maintain an elastic connection.
  • Developing a rein contact means that the amount of pressure or feel of the reins never changes. We change rein length rather than allowing the pressure to increase or decrease. Assigning a number to the precise feel of our reins is extremely helpful for developing a consistent and nonrestrictive rein contact. We choose a number between 1-10, with 1 as almost no connection and 10 as heavy. A feel between 3 to 6 is where we find a contact that allows us to clearly feel our horse and receive information in our hands, but is not heavy. 
  • Once we decide on our exact number, then we maintain that exact number during the entire ride. We will need to adjust the length of reins frequently, as our horse alters the head and neck position, in order to maintain the exact number. For example, if we choose a 4, then in order to maintain the precise 4 feel we have to shorten the reins as our horse elevates the head and lengthen the reins when our horse lowers the head. The goal is to always maintain the exact 4 feel on a variety of rein lengths. The changes in rein length can be required rapidly, so this exercise in rein contact also teaches us to have soft, elastic arms and loose fingers. 
  • Maintaining a consistent rein contact can help restore trust for horses that have a negative reaction to the bit and reins. It is also helpful for us as riders to follow movement with our hands and arms rather than controlling. Once we can maintain a consistent rein contact, then our rein aids will be more useful and accurate. 
  • As soon as the feel on the reins increases, from our 4 contact to a 5, 6 or 7 feel, then we are giving a rein aid. Any increase of resistant force on the reins is an aid, whether we increased the pressure or our horse did. If we do not lengthen the reins as our horse increases pressure on the reins, then we are shifting from a rein contact into a rein aid without making a single gesture. This is how our rein aids become invisible. 
  • If we keep the reins the same length left to right, and shorten them until we can feel our horse through our hands, then we can rapidly shift between a rein contact and rein aids with subtle resistance. The rein contact is the neutral feel we receive in our hands, like the 4. Without changing the rein length, we will feel if one rein or both reins increases pressure as the very first sign that our horse is losing balance. The reins allow us to feel subtle changes in balance much faster than we can see them. 
  • An increase of force on one rein coupled with a decrease of force on the opposite rein tells us that our horse is losing spinal alignment or internal straightness. We simply resist on the heavier rein, without lengthening either rein, until our horse regains internal straightness and restores an equal feel left and right. 
  • If our horse increases force on both reins simultaneously, then we know our horse is shifting too much body weight forward. As we close our hands on the reins we can first try a braking aid to help our horse regain control and then try a pushing aid without lengthening the reins at all. Only if our horse drops the poll do we need to lengthen the reins because curling the neck only gives us a “false lightness” on the reins. 
  • Heaviness on the reins always indicates imbalance. Though rein aids we can make imbalances more uncomfortable, but our horse might need time to figure out how to make the changes needed in order to lighten the reins, restoring a neutral contact. 
  • In order to flex the spine upward, a portion of the forward, pushing forces are converted into vertical force as they are equalized with braking forces. Flexing the spine elevates our horse’s entire torso in forward motion because internal body weight is self-controlled. The result is lightness on the reins, with a long neck and the poll at the highest point of the neck, which is really the entire axial skeleton, not just the head and neck. True lightness is not just felt in the reins, true lightness is felt in the motion. Even very short reins feel lighter because our horse’s entire body feels lighter.   


(This Post is an Excerpt from the Horse Balance Under Saddle Workbook)

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