Loose Reins VS Slight Contact

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Dear Julie,
I work part-time for the Forest Service at a horse campground. If often hear trail riders who come to the campground say they’ve been told to ride with very loose rein. They have their reins hanging down so low that if a horse got spooked and took off, there’s no chance that they could gather their reins fast enough–it would be like reeling in a catfish that’s 60 yards out. I keep my reins loose enough to have contact on the mouth. I know I learned that somewhere and I thought it was from you. So what do you think? Slight contact or loose as a goose?
Loosey Goosey

Dear Loosey Goosey,
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle—not too tight and not too loose. I prefer that my students ride with a loose rein, especially when I want my horse to be relaxed—such as when trail riding. However, the reins should not be so long that they put you at risk. As I say in my clinics, too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

I like to see a small drape in the reins for casual riding. I think all horses should tolerate working on contact and also on a loose rein, depending on what you are asking of the horse. In most training sessions I do with my horse, we’ll start working on a loose rein—keeping a slow and steady cadence, then we’ll work on-contact in a collected frame and we’ll also work in a collected frame but on a loose rein (the horse comes off the contact instead of on it).

As you know, most horse’s problems are caused by the rider. Too much contact is a big culprit. Most people are holding the reins with meaningless contact and every time the horse tries to relax and drop his head, he hits the bit and his head pops up. This causes irritation and tension in a horse (not to mention pain), so he tends to speed up, and the rider holds the reins tighter and the downward spiral continues. Eventually the horse cannot take it anymore and he blows up and gets labeled as a “bad” horse.

We want the horse to drop his head low so you have to have a pretty loose rein to accommodate that, by dropping your hands feeding out rein as his head lowers. But too much of a good think is a bad thing and if the horse spooked on a really loose rein, you would be off balance trying to pick the reins up in time and in the critical time you lost gathering up the reins your horse may already be in a full speed bolt—with or without you.

Personally, I’d rather see people err on the side of a loose rein, than to see the horse punished for the rider’s lack of skill or awareness. There are times when I have my reins very draped–but usually my horse’s head is down very low and I am in a stable and secure situation. While riding out on the trail, it is prudent to not drape your reins too much but be aware of your horse’s comfort and let him lower his head and relax, leaving just a small drape in the reins.

A Kickin’ and a Pullin’

I’ve been working with horses and riders for almost 30 years now– teaching people to ride better and have a greater understanding of their horses. Periodically I try to calculate the numbers of horses I’ve worked with and it’s well into the thousands– I’m shooting for more than 10,000 before I retire. I figure by then, I’ll really know something.
 In every clinic I’ve ever done, I’ve worked with riders that are pulling on the horse’s mouth at the same time they are kicking the horse forward. Some riders pull all the time no matter what the horse is doing. I don’t think that any trainers or instructors are surprised to hear this– we see it all the time from the middle of the arena– but I think that most nonpro riders would be surprised at the frequency with which this occurs. Sadly, most riders are totally unaware that they are doing it. But their horse is not.
Technically speaking, a “rein of opposition” occurs anytime the rider pulls backward on a rein because the rein aid is in direct opposition to the horse’s forward movement, like with the direct rein. It’s a very simple concept to understand but a huge challenge to many riders. There are times when you want to inhibit forward movement, like when you are stopping or turning hard. But most of the time, you want the horse to move freely forward without restriction– like when you are crossing a creek, jumping a fence, coming out of a roll back or even executing a simple canter departure.
Usually, riders have no idea they are even pulling on the reins at the same time they are asking the horse to go more forward. Sometimes it’s from a lack of coordination (every time the rider kicks, she reflexively pulls on the reins), sometimes it’s caused by fear (a white-knuckle grip on the reins and a fetal position), sometimes it’s because the rider is a control freak and over-uses her hands (micro-managing every step of the horse). I call it greedy hands versus giving hands. Greedy hands are always taking away rein. A horse loves the rider that has giving hands- always reaching for the mouth, stretching forward with every stride.
The result of greedy hands is an unhappy horse that becomes frustrated and may act out with undesirable behaviors– his temperament will dictate his response. A horse that is insensitive and lazy (those qualities often go together) will usually default to stopping, slowing down and constantly breaking gait when he gets a conflicting signal  like kicking and pulling. The rider is telling him to go and stop at the same time and since his preference is to stop, he’ll usually default to that. Usually these horses will start leaning on the reins and rooting the reins and get very stiff and bracey in their necks. This is considered a “fault” in the horse yet it is almost always caused by the faults of the rider (and often exacerbated by an inappropriate bit). Although these are annoying habits that the lazy horse develops from too much pulling, they are not too scary.
The result of greedy hands on a hotter, or more sensitive horse that is eager to move forward, can be much more of a challenge. Often the problem is worse in a hotter horse because the rider has more concerns of the horse going too fast so she tends to hold the reins even tighter than she would on a lazy horse. Because the horse is more sensitive to both the go cue and the inadvertent stop cue, the conflicting signal is much more frustrating and melt-downs can happen quickly. Since this type of horse is more eager to move forward, his default behavior when given conflicting signals is to speed up. And here’s the part that most riders cannot comprehend– that the more you pull, the faster the horse will go because horses are hard-wired to run away from things that cause them anxiety and discomfort.
Sadly, the worst mistake you can make with a horse like this is the one that many people default to– they use a stronger bit but do not change their riding habits (or ever consider that it may be something they are doing that is causing the problem). With a hot horse that is too fast, changing to a stronger bit almost always makes them worse. Usually a milder bit makes them better because going to a stronger bit increases the anxiety in the horse and anxious horses go faster—that’s the flight response. Reducing the anxiety with a  milder bit will usually calm and therefore slow down this type of horse.
If you recognize any of these problems, either in your own horse or horses and riders that you may have occasion to work with, there are a few things you can do to improve riding skills and thus help the horse out of his dilemma. First and foremost, the rider should work on exercises that improve balance on the horse without the use of the hands. One of my favorite exercises is riding in the standing or two-point position with your hands behind your back (in a confined area with reins secured) while the horse walks. Later, as your balance improves, practice at the trot and canter. Volume 3 in my DVD series on riding is called Perfect Practice and it shows this and many other balance exercises; there is also a handy pocket guide to take to the arena. http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Goodnights-Principles-of-Riding-vol-3-Perfect-Practice-GPRV3DVD.htm 
Riding with your hands behind your back not only improves balance, but also helps develop an independent hand and the confidence to know your horse will remain obedient, even wihtout the reins in your hands. There are many great exercises in the video and arena guide that help with balance, riding without the reins and cueing with your seat and legs.
Stressing the points of keeping the hands in proper position, with a straight line from the rider’s elbow to the mouth and the hands ALWAYS in front of the pommel will help the rider and the horse. Riding is a constant process of shortening and lengthening reins, depending on what your horse is doing or what you are asking. When the horse relaxes and lowers his head, the reins should be loosened; when he lifts his head or before you ask him to do something, the reins should be shortened.
The types of reins you use can make shortening and lengthening easier or harder. A closed-loop rope rein or an English rein is easier; split reins are the hardest to shorten and lengthen. The reins I designed are a heavy closed-loop rope rein, specifically designed for ease of use. http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Goodnights-Rope-Reins-JGReins.htm
For fearful riders that are tense and clenching on the reins, getting them to sit well back with shoulders over the hips; relax their back, shoulders, arms and hands; and breathe deeply are the first steps. Three important skills will help the fearful rider– keep your eyes focused and looking around taking in information in your environment; deep abdominal breathing; and using confident body language even when you don’t feel that way.
Finally, making the rider aware of when she is inadvertently pulling on the reins or micro-managing the horse and the negative effects it has on the horse, will go a long way toward helping the situation. In my clinics, I usually have riders loosen their reins then place their hands down on the neck or saddle pad in order to work on the horse’s responsiveness and obedience without the rider constantly interfering with the reins.
At first, the riders become aware of how obedient their horse actually is—some are constantly veering off the rail or changing direction or speed. With a few corrections, then going back to the hands down on the neck, the horse becomes responsible for his own actions. Next, we start working on turns and stops without picking up the hands off the neck, so the rider learns to cue the horse with her body and not with excessive use of the reins. Horses love this stuff and usually are more obedient and willing when less reins are used.

To me, the ultimate challenge for both horse and rider is to ride bridle-less. Getting your horse so obedient that he never challenges your cues for direction or speed and getting him so responsive to your seat and legs that you do not need the reins any longer is satisfying beyond words. To learn more about my training progression to attain these goals, visit http://www.juliegoodnight.com/bridleless/