Your rein contact is crucial to the way your horse goes so it should be the first place you look when anything goes wrong. As rider habits go long reins have to be one of the most common. Do you need to get a grip?
Think back to when you were taught to ride. You’d have heard “Sit up” and “Heels down” more often than not. You’d have also heard “Thumbs on top.” This is one of the first things to fall by the wayside with many riders. Next time you get on your horse take a look at the way you hold your reins. The chances are you’ll have a fairly relaxed open hand. Your thumb may well be on top of your fist but is it on top of your rein?
It’s an easy habit to solve. In theory. All you have to do is clamp your thumb down on the rein and hold it in place. This doesn’t mean you have to tighten your fingers around your reins. They can stay as floppy as you like. The only thing that matters is your thumbs stay clamped on your reins so they can’t get longer.
When you were taught to ride your instructor no doubt told you to shorten your reins before an upward transition. As you improve there should be no need to do this unless you’ve been riding on a loose or long rein. Think of all the top riders you’ve ever watched. How many times do you see their fingers shuffling up their reins?
If this is a problem for you use a pair of continental reins. Hate them? Push some plaiting bands down your reins or stick a bit of bandage tape around them at the point you should be holding them. Your hands should be carried above your horse’s withers and your reins should be short enough for him to feel you at all times. Once you have a marker all you have to do is keep hold of it.
Constant lengthening and shortening of your reins is not only irritating to your horse it’s also completely unnecessary. It’s just another distraction. If your contact is consistent you can contain his energy and keep his weight off his shoulders and he can relax. An inconsistent contact won’t help your paces or your transitions.
In walk your arms have to be relaxed to follow your horse’s head and neck. If you’re stiff your reins will slip longer to compensate for your lack of movement. Your horse may be unaffected until you trot. In trot his head stays still and your reins will be too long. His weight will fall forward onto his shoulders and his trot will lose energy.
You may carry on trotting with long reins until it’s time for a canter. Then, before you ask, you shorten your reins. If only they were short enough in the first place! Your trot would be better for it as would your transition and your canter.
Having got into canter your horse will need to move his head and neck so if your reins slip longer the canter will get flatter. A lazy horse will trot, a sharper one will rush. When you do ask for trot he’ll fall onto his shoulders and the trot will be hurried and tense. OK if your sit up and shorten your reins it’s easy to get him back up again but wouldn’t it be easier if they were short in the first place?
The one thing most riders do when their reins are too long is round their wrists in an attempt to find a contact. If that doesn’t work their elbows come out and their hands drop and draw back to their body. This will cause tension in your body and spine. You may think you’re relaxed but to your horse you’ll feel crooked and tight.
The shortening of your reins before an upward transition can also become an unintentional aid. Your horse will start to anticipate the second you take up the contact. What happens when he jogs or canters before he’s supposed to? He gets told off. This is tension which wouldn’t happen if you kept your reins short!
It takes time and determination to crack this habit. It’s easier to ignore than it is to solve. Use markers on your reins every time you ride, stick your thumbs on them and keep them there! Get into the habit of checking the length of your reins every time you pass A, E, C and B. Eventually you’ll find you won’t have to.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.