I have noticed over the years that a lot of riders like to maintain a fixed length of rein between their hand and the horse’s mouth. As a young aspiring dressage rider, I was lectured on the importance of this practice as a way of maintaining a consistent contact. I see the logic of this argument and I feel it has merit. But I now believe that it only has merit with some horses in some circumstances. I no longer am convinced that for most people with most horses a constant length of rein is a better way of riding.
Every horse is a work in progress, just like every rider is a work in progress. No horse or rider is ever finished, nor will they ever be. When we are training something new into our horse that is not yet established there will always be some level of confusion, anxiety, and resistance for the horse, irrespective of how well it is trained in its other work. If thus wasn’t the case, we would no longer be in training mode – everything would be as we desired and there would be no need for corrections. But this is rarely the case.
In order to maximize our effectiveness to correct a mistake or misunderstanding, we need to attain as close a level of communication as possible at the time. Part of that is presenting just the exact amount of feel of the reins required to achieve the utmost clarity for our horse. Our signal needs to be unambiguous in both the degree of pressure and the timing of its implementation and release.
The trouble is that one fixed length of rein is not going to achieve this goal every time we need the reins to motivate a change of our horse’s thoughts. The rein length will influence the effectiveness of our timing and the feel our reins offer. If our reins are longer ideal to convey our intent we may be too late to apply the perfect amount of pressure and if they are shorter than required we may be too slow to present the perfect release.
I find one of the obstacles that get in the way of being fluid in the use of rein length is their aptitude (or lack of) at being able to adjust the length of rein easily and smoothly. People are clumsy with their hands and make it harder than it really is. I find rein-handling skills are very underrated and something people neglect but learn by necessity when the time arises. However, if a rider believes that a fixed length of rein is the way to ride, the skills to make smooth and rapid changes to rein length are generally never learned. As a result, when told to constantly re-adjust their reins to the needs of the horse they resist due to a lack of skill and confidence at doing it well. They thereby let the horse down by not being as clear as possible with the reins.
I do have sympathy for people who ride with a constant fixed length of rein because they have been ingrained on its importance. And to be fair, a lot of rider/horse combinations do very well with little or no fluidity in the length of rein. But it is by far a less than ideal situation. Just because we can get away with riding with a fixed rein length, doesn’t mean it is the best approach to providing clarity to our horse – and we should always be striving to present optimum clarity.
The video below outlines a couple of different techniques I apply when adjusting the length of rein. It is important to notice the smoothness that we incorporate when changing the length of rein. Above all, smoothness is something we need to constantly be mindful of when using the reins to converse with our horse.