Choose The Right Reins

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RIDE RIGHT//NOV-DEC 2015

 

Online extra! For Julie Goodnight’s tip on using color-coded reins for kids, go to TrailRider.com.

 

Choose the Right Reins

Learn how choose the right reins, and use them safely on the trail, with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

BY HEIDI MELOCCO WITH JULIE GOODNIGHT ~ PHOTOS BY HEIDI MELOCCO

 

On the trail, your reins need to be safe and functional, and help your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue.

And, your reins need to be comfortable. If your reins are too long, too much to hold, or are just uncomfortable, you’ll tend to shorten your trail rides. If they feel good to you, you’ll relax in the saddle and enjoy long rides.

Your horse is highly attuned to how you hold and cue with the reins. When you move along at a casual pace, he appreciates a long rein to give him room to move. Your reins also need to be long enough so that your horse can reach down to drink.

At the same time, when you speed up, you need to be able to easily shorten the reins to collect your horse and give a more direct cue when necessary.

Here, top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight will first cover rein quality, types, and attachments. Then she’ll tell you the best ways to attach your reins to the bit and how to rein your horse. Next, she’ll give you ground-tying safety pointers. Along the way, she’ll give you riding-glove tips for safety and control.

 

Overall Quality

“It’s all about quality,” Goodnight says. “The heavier the rein is, the easier it’ll be for your 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 from quality leather or rope, your horse will feel the rein release right away, so he’ll learn to be more responsive.”

Riding with well-weighted reins will remind you to give your horse enough slack, because you’ll feel the downward pull of gravity. He’ll feel the rein’s weight, and your cues will be amplified because of the weighted drape.

If you use reins made from inexpensive, lightweight material that flops around, your horse won’t feel the rein and may have a tough time feeling your rein aids. This means you may find yourself pulling on the reins more than should be necessary (and therefore applying undue pressure to your horse’s mouth) to get a response to your cues.

To experience what your horse feels when the reins are weighted just right, stand up, and place your arms straight out in front of you with your palms up.

Imagine you hold a penny on your right index finger and a feather on your left index finger. Now think what it would take to balance the item on each finger.

You likely imagine that you’d be able to balance the penny easily, but need to shift your finger to keep it under the feather. The same law of physics applies to how your horse feels and balances himself within the weight of your reins.

If your reins are made from lightweight leather or nylon webbing, there isn’t much weight, and it becomes difficult for him to feel the reins and stay balanced.

With high-quality leather or a thick marine-type rope, your horse will be able to feel your hand movements and balance himself more easily. He’ll know what you’re asking because the weight of the reins echoes the slightest movement from your hand.

 

Rein Types

Here’s a rundown of common Western rein types and how to use them. Find reins that feel best in your hands and as you ride on trail.

* Split reins. If you opt for split reins, choose quality leather. Split reins are long and versatile — you can make them long or short, and use them independently or ride one-handed. Split reins can be great for trail riding, because you can easily ground-tie by laying the reins down on the ground. But some find them cumbersome and they can be easily dropped.

You can hold split reins in a variety of ways. You can choose how you hold them and where you hold them to cue your horse.

The traditional pistol-grip hold is the rein hold used for competition. Hold both 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 your horse’s neck, crossing the reins over each other, and holding one rein in each hand or both in one hand. Hold your hands as though you’re holding bicycle handles, while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over your horse’s neck. This allows you to ride with two hands and work each side of the bit independently. You can also use a bridge while riding one-handed.

When riding Western, the traditional rein hand is the left hand; it’s assumed you’ll need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope, open a gate, rope, etc.

If you’re riding with split reins, make sure the bight (the tail of your reins) lies on the same side of your horse’s neck as your rein hand so his neck doesn’t interfere with your cues.

* Continuous-loop reins. If you choose to ride with continuous-loop reins, choose high-quality, heavyweight rope for trail riding. These reins fill your hand for comfort and control. They’re easy to use when you’re following a trail and don’t need to guide your horse’s every step. Rope reins are easy to hold onto, as well as to shorten and lengthen.

Hold rope reins right in the middle to ride on a loose rein. “The reins I’ve designed have a marker in the middle so you can easily check to see your reins are even,” Goodnight says.

Consider length. On the trail, your horse needs to be able to drop his head to drink and move in a relaxed frame. Most trail horses do well with a 9-foot rein. However, if your horse has a very long neck, you may prefer a 10-foot rein. Find a length that also helps you ride on a loose rein with a relaxed hand.

 

Rein Attachments

Traditional Western reins can also include a mecate or romal. Here’s what you need to know.

* Mecate. The mecate is a long lead on a continuous-loop rein that comes off of the left side of the bit. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate; off the horse, there’s built-in lead line. But others find the extra rope bulky and a lot to handle.

“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle,” Goodnight says. “I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle.

The trainer’s hold or bridge is made by laying one rein on either side of your horse’s neck, crossing the reins over each other, and holding one rein in each hand or both in one hand. Hold your hands as though you’re holding bicycle handles, while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over your horse’s neck. This allows you to ride with two hands and work each side of the bit independently. You can also use a bridge while riding one-handed.

When riding Western, the traditional rein hand is the left hand; it’s assumed you’ll need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope, open a gate, rope, etc.

If you’re riding with split reins, make sure the bight (the tail of your reins) lies on the same side of your horse’s neck as your rein hand so his neck doesn’t interfere with your cues.

* Continuous-loop reins. If you choose to ride with continuous-loop reins, choose high-quality, heavyweight rope for trail riding. These reins fill your hand for comfort and control. They’re easy to use when you’re following a trail and don’t need to guide your horse’s every step. Rope reins are easy to hold onto, as well as to shorten and lengthen.

Hold rope reins right in the middle to ride on a loose rein. “The reins I’ve designed have a marker in the middle so you can easily check to see your reins are even,” Goodnight says.

Consider length. On the trail, your horse needs to be able to drop his head to drink and move in a relaxed frame. Most trail horses do well with a 9-foot rein. However, if your horse has a very long neck, you may prefer a 10-foot rein. Find a length that also helps you ride on a loose rein with a relaxed hand.

 

Rein Attachments

Traditional Western reins can also include a mecate or romal. Here’s what you need to know.

* Mecate. The mecate is a long lead on a continuous-loop rein that comes off of the left side of the bit. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate; off the horse, there’s built-in lead line. But others find the extra rope bulky and a lot to handle.

“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle,” Goodnight says. “I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle. This means there’s less to hold. And when you tie your horse, you aren’t tempted to tie with a rope that’s connected to the bit.”

* Romal. A romal is attached to the set of closed reins; the entire assemblage is called romal reins. The romal was developed to help a rider move cattle. Romal reins are held without a finger between the reins, so you have less ability to articulate with the reins than you might with split reins. You ride with two hands — one hand cues your horse, while the other holds the romal. These reins are best used on a well-trained horse that neck reins well.

 

Bit Connections

Goodnight advises against using a metal snap to attach your reins to the bit. Although convenient, the metal-to-metal connection can annoy your horse. The metals rub and vibrate, which he feels constantly.

A rope or leather bit connection 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.

“A leather or rope connection is fine,” says Goodnight. “Although I’m not a fan of decorative slobber straps — they’re too bulky and don’t allow me to finesse the reins. Plus, they’re cumbersome to put on and take off.”

The ideal connection for a continuous-loop rein is a corded quick connect, says Goodnight. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, and also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with your horse.”

A split rein will usually have a tied-on connection — a kind of slobber strap made from the same leather as the rein. The leather piece is a breakaway and may save your horse from getting hurt if you drop a rein and he steps on it. If that piece does break, it’s easy to repair while on the trail.

 

Holding the Reins

Whether you ride with one hand or two depends on the type of bit you use, and your horse’s training level and his obedience.

Snaffle bits (bits without shanks) are designed to be ridden two-handed with a direct rein (applying pressure directly from rider’s hand to the mouthpiece of the bit). Riding in a snaffle bit with one hand causes the bit to collapse around the horse’s tongue and pinch his jaw in a nutcracker effect.

 

Curb bits (bits with shanks) are designed to be ridden one-handed However, if the bit is designed so that the shanks move independently from each other, you may also ride with two hands when your horse is in training.

 

Ground-Tying Safety

When you dismount and lay the reins on the ground, a horse trained to ground tie 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.

Split reins have no dangerous hoof-catching loop. In the worst-case scenario, your horse may break the split-reins’ leather, but he won’t get caught up or pull excessively on the bit with a material that won’t break.

Never drop loop or continuous-rope reins in front of your horse. Rather, 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 attach a lead rope to a halter beneath your bridle, and allow this lead to hang down. Or you can use the traditional neck rope for this purpose, known as a “get-down” rope.

For safety’s sake, make sure that some part of your reins, bit, and headstall is made of a breakaway material. For instance, if you have rope reins, connect them to a leather headstall. Something needs to give in case of an emergency.

[

 

Riding-Glove Tips

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Well-fitted leather gloves are handy on the trail when reaching to ride beneath branches.

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When should you wear riding gloves? You’ll need gloves if you’re riding a fast-paced trail or endurance challenge, as you’ll hold the horse with contact and you’ll feel friction on your fingers. You may also want gloves if you’re riding in heavy brush and you’ll need to reach up and break branches.

“I always want gloves on if I’m ponying a horse or doing any kind of rope-pulling work,” notes Julie Goodnight. “I always make sure there are gloves in my saddlebag in case I need to help pony a horse in an emergency.

Consider glove material. “I like a leather glove for the feel,” says Goodnight. “The new technical fabrics are great, though, too.

No matter what the material, fit is key. “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 them,” notes Goodnight.

 

On the trail, your reins need to be safe and functional, and help your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue. Here, top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight will help you choose the reins that are right for you. Shown are Goodnight (right) and Twyla Walker Collins riding with split reins.

 

[SPLIT REINS]

 

Leather split reins are long and versatile, and best for ground-tying. But some riders find them hard to use, and they can be easily dropped. (Note the leather-to-metal connection at the bit, rather than a metal snap, which would annoy your horse.)

 

[ROPE REINS]

 

If you use continuous-loop rope reins on the trail, make sure they’re long enough to allow your horse to ride in a relaxed frame, turn and bend without constant contact, and reach his head down far enough to drink.

 

 

Rope reins are easy to hold and convenient on the trail — especially if you’re worried about dropping a split rein. The reins can be held in one hand or two, depending on the bit and your horse’s training level.

 

The ideal connection for a continuous-loop rein is a corded quick connect, says Goodnight, who designed the reins shown. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, and also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with your horse.”

 

[ROMAL REINS]

 

With romal reins, you ride with two hands — one hand cues your horse, while the other holds the romal attachment. These reins are best used on a well-trained horse that knows how to neck rein.

 

Know Your Rein Aids

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Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Know Your Rein Aids

Dear Julie,
I’m a bit confused about rein aids—how they differ in English and Western riding. I’ve been hearing terms like direct and direct opposition, indirect and indirect opposition. What do these terms mean and when do you use them while riding?
Signed, Reining in the Answers

Dear Reining in the Answers,
Excellent questions—rein cues are seldom fully understood. First of all, there aren’t differences when it comes to English versus Western rein cues. The rein aids work the same and your horse will respond the same way no matter what style of saddle you ride in. Some might argue that the neck rein is strictly Western. However, I like my English horses to know the neck rein, too. It’s imperative for sports like polo (which is considered an English discipline because it’s done in an English saddle) where the competitor can only have one hand on the reins in order to play the game. Neck reining is also helpful when trail riding—if you need to have a hand free to open a gate or move a branch.

Let’s clarify some other rein-aid terms. Neck, direct, leading/opening and indirect rein aids are all used when riding English or Western. The term “rein aid” simply refers to how you move your hand and the direction of pull you create on your horse’s mouth (up, back, sideways). The term “rein of opposition” refers to your horse’s forward motion when you’re pulling back on the rein. You’re pulling in a direction that is opposite to your horse’s forward movement. A “rein of opposition” tends to slow down your horse.

For a direct rein, your hand moves from its neutral position (in front of the pommel, creating a straight line from your elbow to the corner of your horse’s mouth) directly toward your hip. There’s a backward (and slightly upward) pull on the rein and therefore it’s a rein of opposition.

An opening rein or leading rein occurs when you move your forearm to the side instead of back toward your hip. There’s no opposition and your aid doesn’t inhibit forward motion. The leading/opening rein is often used as a training rein aid—when you’re first teaching colts to turn, teaching a horse to spin or when asking for lateral movement. It’s a leading rein when it’s the inside rein (you’re moving the rein on the same side as you want your horse to turn). Use the term “opening rein” when you’re cuing with the outside rein— when your horse is tracking or bending away from the opening rein. You’ll use an opening rein when you want to move your horse’s shoulder or barrel out to make a circle larger. Tip: Remember the opening rein is on the outside—both start with “o.”

The basic neck rein is a gentle touch of the rein against the side of your horse’s neck, well in front of the withers and without opposition. In neck reining, your horse is trained to move away from the touch of the rein on his neck and he moves his nose and neck away from the neck rein. If you pull too hard or cross your hand too far past the middle of your horse’s neck, you’ll inhibit your horse’s movement and he’ll actually turn his head the wrong way. The neck rein is typically used for one-handed riding, but may be used two-handed in combination with another rein aid. For example, when you’re teaching a young horse to neck rein, you may use the neck rein as the outside rein aid and the leading rein on the inside to help control your horse’s nose. Eventually, your horse associates the neck rein with turning his neck and nose away from the rein and you no longer need the leading rein.

The neck rein with opposition (a slight backward pull with the application of the neck rein) is called the “bearing rein” and may be used to turn your horse back on his haunches, such as in a roll back or a pivot on the haunches.

There are two indirect rein aids: the “indirect rein in front of the withers” (not a rein of opposition) and the “indirect rein behind the withers” (a rein of opposition). The indirect rein in front of the withers is a lift up and in on the rein toward your horse’s neck, an upward diagonal pull on the rein; from the normal hand position, just lift your pinkie finger up toward your horse’s withers without pulling back, like you’re turning a key in a door. The indirect rein in front of the withers moves your horse’s shoulder in the opposite direction, while the nose stays bent in the direction of the turn.

The indirect rein behind the withers has some opposition or backward pull, and causes your horse to move his hip away from the rein hand while your horse stays bent toward the rein hand, such as in a turn on the forehand or disengagement of the hindquarters. The direction of pull on the rein is up and back toward the rider’s opposite shoulder, in a motion like crossing your heart (the inside rein comes across your horse’s neck behind the withers).

Some important caveats for all rein aids: it’s not the amount of pull or contact that causes a reaction in your horse, but the direction of the pressure on your horse’s mouth and the movement of the rider’s hand (when using the indirect rein aids especially—it’s only effective when there’s little or no pressure on your horse’s mouth). Also, when riding two-handed your hands should never cross your horse’s withers. If they do, the rein aid you’re using is ineffective and may be interfering with your horse’s motion (pulling his nose in the wrong direction). The rein aids are always supported by leg aids—we’ll cover that soon.

This is a lot of information! It takes a lot of time and experience before a rider is able to use the rein aids articulately and effectively. For further information, refer to Volume 5 in my Principles of Riding DVD series, Refinement and Collection. This DVD explains and demonstrates the rein aids in detail. It never ceases to amaze me how responsive a horse can be to the lightest amount of pressure and the slightest movement of your hand. One really important thing I have learned through the years about rein aids is that the slower you move your hands, the better your horse will respond.

Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com
In this series, master trainer and clinician Julie Goodnight discusses the riding terms and techniques you probably know (or should know). She’ll define rein, seat and leg cues you’ll need for the best communication with your horse. Then she’ll help riders solve problems with their own horses. Learn the proper terms and apply your aids for a better grasp of horsemanship and a better riding relationship with your horse.

Issues From The Saddle: How Do You Stop A Horse When He’s Running Backwards

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: How do you stop a horse when he’s running backwards?

I was trail riding over the weekend, and my horse took a dislike to the horse behind him. I saw the symptoms (making faces) and tried to get his attention on me, but he would have none of it! That awful equine behind him clearly needed to be taught a lesson (he must have been several feet back). So my horse (an appaloosa) RAN backwards!

I wasn’t very effective in stopping him – just tried to kick & push him with my legs into forward, and he finally did stop without a catastrophe. But how could I have handled this? Pulling back – as one instinctively does to stop – is obviously counter-productive. It seems to me that pulling his head around with one rein might cause him to fall. Does clasping the rein tightly at the neck work in this instance?
Thanks! This situation might not arise again, but I like to be prepared.

Janet

Answer: Janet,

You’re right! Pulling back on the reins when your horse is running backwards is not a good idea and will probably make the horse backup faster or rear. While forward motion is what you’d like to ask for, in this instance, because the horse is threatening to kick someone, it is more important to stop the backward movement immediately by disengaging the hindquarters.

There is a lot of information about disengagement and rein aids on my website; it is executed with the indirect rein behind the withers (a rein of opposition), by lifting the rein up and back toward your belly button or opposite shoulder. It will move the hip away from the rein aid and cause the horse to cross his hind legs and stop his impulsion. Although you might not want to use this technique if a horse were running forward and bolting, it is unlikely to make him fall or even stumble while backing.

When a horse is threatening to kick, the best solution is to turn the horse’s head toward the horse he wants to kick. When you turn toward, it makes the horse’s hip move away from whatever he is aiming at. So your solution is to disengage the horse’s hindquarter, in order to stop the horse’s impulsion, while turning the horse toward his intended target. When two horses threaten to go butt to butt, always bring their noses together.

Your horse is extremely disobedient to act that way while being ridden. Horses need to be taught, in no uncertain terms, from day one of their interactions with humans, that when they are in-hand or under-saddle, they are absolutely forbidden from displaying any herd behaviors, especially acts of aggression. Toward this end, horses should never be allowed to fraternize or even move a nose in the direction of another horse when being ridden together. They are perfectly capable of understanding this rule, when it is strictly enforced.

In punishment for such a disobedient act, once I got him under control, I would have immediately taken him away form the group and tried to work the shoes right off his feet (hissing, spitting and growling at him all the while). My goal is for my horse to associate being ostracized from the herd and having to work hard with his aggressive actions. Like all training, timing is critical to get the horse to make the right association.
My guess is that you need to work on your horse’s manners both on the ground and in the saddle. Again, there are scores of articles on my website that will help you with all of these things.

Good luck!
JG

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