How NOT to pull on the reins – active vs passive resistance


The “how can I stop pulling on my horse’s mouth in transitions” question comes up very often when I am out and about teaching so today’s post will form a little chat on exactly that 🙂 

First, let’s look at an important muscle we all have but not all use when it comes to “using the reins”: the lattisumus dorsi (shown below in red), otherwise known as “lats” :

Latissimus dorsi.PNG
Latissimus dorsi” by User:Mikael Häggström – Image:Gray409.png. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Why NOT to pull?

Before we come back to the muscle shown above, let’s look beyond some obvious answers here. Yes, first of all we want to stop pulling as it’s simply painful on the horse’s mouth but there are other aspects too. If you use the reins to pull (act directly backwards on the reins with prolonged pulley pressure) you are very likely creating a dysfunctional posture in your horse (via defensive and strenuous use of his/her muscles in the neck, back and legs). Dysfunctional posture leads to dysfunctional movement which in time can easily lead to a plethora of unexplained soundness issues.

Pulling reins will also never let the rider achieve real throughness in transitions, they act like hand breaks on horse’s hind legs, create tension in the neck muscles and generally produce variety of micro-evasions that the horse employs in order to find some acceptable comfort.

The “Long” answer

To be able to be independent of the reins and apply their action without stress/tension or pulley action, the rider needs good basic balance throughout their seat. In other words they need to be in control of own frame and not be dependent in it on how the horse moves. It might seem obvious to say this but it’s important to mention that the seat balance is the pre-requisite to what you will read in ‘short answer’ below – if you struggle with some aspects of seat stability AND tend to pull on the reins in transitions, then the short answer below might not be for you yet…

The “Short” Answer

If your seat skills are decent and you can easily go from full seat to half seat (two point/ light seat) and back to full seat without altering horse’s rhythm and feeling out of balance yet you struggle with correct rein action, this short answer might be for you. Otherwise, seat developing/improving exercises might be the ones to go to first. However, even when your seat skills are yet not up to scratch, you can still practice the below “short” answer exercise in walk to halt transitions.

To stop or to ride a transition without pulling action on the reins it’s important to develop feel for passive resistance. The difference lies in which muscles you use and how you use them. Cue: check out the photo of muscles shown in red…) To test yourself, you will need someone on the ground holding the rein whilst you are in the saddle (as shown on picture below):


The person on the ground will need to pull on both reins as if trying to pull you forwards. A moment later, they can release the pressure without warning you. If you were pulling back you are likely to lose your balance as the ground person lets go. Now, experiment with engaging your lats muscles together with correct posture (neutral spine and “standing with knees bent” feeling through your thighs instead of “sitting in a chair” feeling) in order to withstand the momentary pull. You should notice that as the ground person releases the pressure, you stay unmovable and balanced thanks to passive resistance you created.

This stability producing passive resistance let’s you regulate the horse’s speed and weight distribution with your body/seat rather than backwards traction on the reins. The reins themselves transmit this resistance to the horse’s mouth or nose (if riding with bitless bridle) but very often, no rein pressure is necessary as the horse will react to the seat/lats resistance alone.

This passive resistance can be used in half-halts, transitions within paces, direct transitions – always with forward “thinking” hands i.e. with no backward traction and no negative tension in rider’s joints (elbows, wrists, fingers).

The key with this exercise is to introduce it slowly and develop feel for resisting in the rhythm of the horse’s movement. At the beginning you might find yourself tensing up too much, holding the resistance out of sync with horse’s movement, clenching your buttocks, tensing your arms or fingers etc etc These are all “normal” mistakes to make so do make them, read your horse’s reactions and keep trying until you can isolate the right muscles and until your timing and feel improves.

Please feel free to comment with any questions, thoughts or experiences if you do try/have already tried this exercise!


6 thoughts on “How NOT to pull on the reins – active vs passive resistance”

  1. another very helpful and easy to understand article and something I can achieve some times on some horses and other times not so successful. So many things to get the hang of, you don’t realise just how challenging riding in a horsey friendly way is. Loving the journey of learning though 🙂

  2. The article doesn’t describe the movement for accessing the l. dorsi. so how can one be sure you’ve found it? perhaps. it would be good to know what gym exercise is often used to get at the muscle, so one can find the muscle and relate to the feeling on the horse.

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