A Safe Handle on the Reins
By Heidi Nyland Melocco with Julie Goodnight
Learn how to safely use your reins on the trail with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. She’ll explain how to hold and use both rope and split reins, plus how to stop and ground-tie.
When you’re on a long trail ride, you want comfortable and functional reins to hold. It’s important that the gear you choose helps you feel comfortable, keeps you relaxed, and helps your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue. If you’re dealing with reins that are too long, too much to hold –or are just not comfortable for you– your ride time may be impacted by your tight grip. If you find the reins you can easily shorten and lengthen and that feel great to you, you’ll relax in the saddle and enjoy your ride.
While your horse may not care if you have the trendiest gear, he does care about how you hold and cue with the reins. When you’re moving along at a casual pace, he wants to know you can easily lengthen the reins to give him room to move. When you want to speed up, you’ll also want a rein that you find easy to shorten so that you can give a more direct cue when necessary. It’s important to consider what material feels best in your hands. It’s also important to make sure that your reins are long enough to allow your horse to relax and reach down to drink.
Here, top trainer and clinician, Julie Goodnight will help you understand your rein options and talk about how to hold different types of reins. She’ll help you understand how reins work to communicate clearly to your horse and she’ll also give you safety pointers to help you avoid common mistakes when bridling and when stopping for a rest during a trail ride.
A Weighty Issue
“It’s all about quality,” Goodnight says. “The heavier the rein is, the easier it will be for the horse to feel what you’re doing with your hands and the more subtle a signal you can give. Plus, when the reins are made of quality leather or rope, the horse will feel your hands’ release sooner.”
Riding with well-weighted reins will help remind you to put slack in the reins because you’ll feel the downward, gravity pull. Your horse will feel the rein’s weight and also feel any movements of your hands amplified because of the weighted drape. When reins are made of inexpensive and light-weight cording that flops loosely, the horse doesn’t feel the rein and may have a tough time feeling your slight rein aids. That means you may find yourself pulling on the reins more than should be needed (and therefore applying undue pressure to the horse’s mouth) to get a response to a turning cue.
What difference does your horse feel when the reins are weighted just right? Goodnight suggests this visualization. Stand and place your arms straight out in front of you with your palms up. Picture a penny on your right index finger and a feather on your left index finger. Now imagine. What would it take to balance the item on each finger? Which is easiest to balance?
You’d probably be able to balance the penny easily and you’d shift and move to keep your finger under the feather. Goodnight says that the same law of physics at work with the penny and feather applies to how your horse feels and balances himself within the weight of reins. If your reins are lightweight leather or nylon webbing, there isn’t much weight and it becomes difficult to feel and balance.
When there is more material (such as a high quality leather or a thick marine-type rope) the horse will be able to feel the movements you make with your hands and will balance himself more easily. He’ll know what you’re asking because the weight of the rein echoes the slightest movement from your hand. No matter what type of rein you choose, this weight and quality consideration applies.
There are many variations of each rein type, but here we’ll stick to the traditional Western rein types. Split reins are commonly used for Western riding—and what you’ve probably seen for years on old Western movies. Today, loop reins, mecate, and traditional romal reins are all fashionable for Western events and on the trail. Here’s a little bit about each….
Today’s choice in Western tack is most often to ride with split reins. Leather reins are long and versatile—you can make them long and short, use them independently or to ride one handed. They can be great for trail riding because you can easily ground tie by laying the reins down on the ground. But while these reins are a common choice, Goodnight says some riders may find them cumbersome on the trail and they can be easy to drop.
Split reins can be held in a variety of different ways—that’s what makes them versatile for training or for showing. You can switch how you hold and where you hold to cue your horse in different ways.
The traditional pistol-grip hold is the rein hold used for competitions. Hold the reins in one hand with your index finger in between the two reins. The trainer’s hold or bridge is made by laying one rein on either side of the horse’s neck crossing the reins over each other and holding both reins in both hands or one hand. You’ll hold your hands the same position as if holding bike handles while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over the horse’s neck. This allows the rider to ride with two hands and work each side of the horse’s bit independently.
The traditional rein-hand is the left hand when riding Western—that’s because it’s assumed that you may need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope or open a gate, shoot a gun, etc. If you are riding with split reins, the bight of the reins needs to lie on the same side of the horse’s neck as the hand you are using.
A romal is attached to the set of closed reins and was developed as an attached tool to help the rider move cattle with an aid. The romal is held without a finger between the reins and you have less ability to articulate with the reins than you may with split reins. You ride with two hands—but one is holding the reins to cue the horse and the tail of the reins (or the actual romal) is held in the opposite hand. These reins are best for a horse that is very well trained and knows how to neck rein without needing corrections.
Continuous Loop Reins
Holding a single loop rope rein is the easiest for most riders. This rein is easy to use and comfortable to hold when you’re following a trail and not needing to guide a horse’s every step. You can hold the rope rein right in the middle—to allow your horse to ride on a loose rein. The rope rein fills up your hands and is easy to hold onto. The rope is easy to shorten and lengthen (compared to split reins).
“The reins I designed have a marker in the middle so you know where the middle of the reins is and can easily make sure your reins are even,” Goodnight says. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, but it also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with the horse.”
There are all different lengths of continuous loop reins for different jobs. A roper or barrel racer may ride with a continuous loop rein, but they ride with a short length—maybe only five or six feet. Out on the trail, you want your horse to drop his head and move in a relaxed frame so you want to make sure you have a longer rein than may be used in fast sports. Goodnight says that most horses do well on the trail with a nine-foot rein. If your horse’s neck is long, he may like a 10-foot rein—and this isn’t about how big your horse is, it’s about his neck length. That length allows the horse to reach down and drink and inspires you to make sure to ride on a loose rein and not have constant grip on the reins.
The mecate is the long lead that comes off of the left side of the bit—and is attached to a continuous loop rein. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate—allowing them to dismount and hold onto their horse, with the built-in lead. To others, the extra rope can be bulky and a lot to handle.
“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle—I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle,” Goodnight says. “This means there’s less to hold and when you tie your horse, you aren’t tempted to tie with a rope that is connected to the bit.”
One Handed or Two?
Whether you’re riding one handed or two handed depends on the type of bit that you’re using and on the training level and the obedience of the horse. If you’re riding in a snaffle bit, you should ride two handed. Riding with one hand in a snaffle bit causes a jointed snaffle to collapse in what’s called the nutcracker effect. The bit collapses around the horse’s tongue and pinches the jaw.
A curb bit is designed to be ridden with one hand. However, if the bit is designed so that the shanks move independently form each other, you may also ride with two hands for training scenarios.
Connected to the Bit
Goodnight says she does not like a metal clip on the end of her reins. It may be convenient to the rider to be able to click the reins to the bit, but the metal-to-metal connection can be annoying to the horse. The metals rub and vibrate—a vibration your horse feels constantly. A rope or leather connection to the bit gives you a better feel and helps you know when your horse moves or makes a change. You don’t need to change the bit or reins frequently; take a few extra moments to tie on your reins or otherwise secure without a clip.
“I like a quick connect, but one that isn’t metal,” Goodnight says. “Leather or rope connections are fine. Though I’m not a fan of , decorative slobber straps—they’re too bulky for me and don’t allow me to finesse the reins. Plus, they ar cumbersome to take on and off.”
A split rein will usually have a tied-on connection—a kind of slobber strap made of the same leather as the rein. The leather piece is breakaway and will save your horse from pain if you drop a rein and he steps on it. If that piece does break, it’s pretty easy to repair while out on the trail. .
Ground Tying Safety
When you dismount and lay the reins on the ground, a well-trained horse knows that means he should stand still. Laying the reins on the ground should only be done with a split rein, not a continuous loop rein. If your horse were to step on the long leather rein, he won’t step into a loop and get caught up. The worst-case scenario is that the horse may break the leather of a split rein, but he won’t get caught up or pull excessively on the bit with a material that won’t break.
Make sure never to drop loop or continuous rope reins in front of your horse—you should always hold loop reins in your hands or over your arm to keep the loop far from your horse’s feet. If you want to ground tie with a loop rein, keep the loop over your horse’s neck or use a lead attachment to a halter beneath your bridle and allow a lead to hang down there.
For safety’s sake, make sure that some part of your reins, bit and headstall is made of a breakaway material. If you have rope reins, connect them to a leather headstall. Something needs to give in case of an emergency.
No matter what rein material and type you choose, make sure you’re making the best choice for you—what is comfortable and safe for you and your horse. Only you know where you’ll ride and what configurations, tying, and riding you’ll need to do along the way. Opt for comfort for you and your horse over any perceived notion of what must look right out on the Western trails.
Reins for Kiddos
First and foremost, make sure that any rider—no matter their age—has reins to hold. If you’re giving a pony ride to a young child, make sure reins are attached to the halter or that you lead from a nylon halter beneath the bridle. Even though you are leading the horse, having reins present will help you teach the child to cue for directions long before they are ready to take full control of the reins—and you’ll empower any rider to make sure they feel in control, even when they’re being led.
Make sure that the reins you choose for a child are slim enough to fit easily in their hands. Also make sure there’s not too much extra rope to hold onto. Keep it simple! You may opt for continuous loop reins with a narrow diameter or rainbow training reins which allow you to give clear directions and allow the rider to easily visualize how to keep their reins even. You can say, “put your hands on the yellow section to shorten your reins,” or “make sure to hold on the green with both hands to make sure your reins are even.”
In any bridle, make sure there’s some breakaway component to make sure you don’t get tangled.
When do you wear gloves? If you’re riding a fast-paced trail or endurance challenge, you’ll be holding the horse with contact and you’ll feel friction on your fingers. You’ll need gloves then. You may also want gloves if you’re riding in heavy brush—if you need to reach up and break branches.
Goodnight says “I always want gloves on if I’m ponying a horse or doing any kind of rope pulling work. I always make sure there are gloves in my saddlebags in case I need to help pony a horse in an emergency.
“I like a leather glove for the feel. The new technical fabrics are great, though, too. The fit is the key no matter what the material. If the gloves fit well without extra fingertip length, you’ll be able to feel the reins better and not lose the feel of the reins as you’re shortening and lengthening.”