Rider’s Question: What length of reins should I ride with and how to develop the right feel for it

By Wiola Grabowska

Rider Question: “[…]thanks for my videos. Can we have a chat about rein length at some point […] They just always look so much longer than they feel on Gilly and look awful to me! I feel like it’s something I have the wrong feel for and need to fix.[…]”

Mairi and Gilly blog post

A frame from the lesson the rider is referring to

Video feedback forms an important part of all the lessons I do and I try to send some footage to every rider at least a couple of times a month. Those videos are then open for discussion and I encourage the riders to send me their observations and thoughts on what they see on videos vs what they felt when the rode. I think it helps with being self-critical in a constructive way, reflect on what happened and how it happened. The “reins length” question is very common and in fact is asked often in the search function for this blog so I asked Mairi if I could use her session and her question to discuss this at more length (no pun intended here 😉 ).

She agreed so here we go. Remember that these thoughts might not apply to all riders and all horses. Just take out what you feel might be useful.

First, have a look at the frames below. They are taken at random out a 1min footage and rider’s reins do not change length significantly at any time…:

Mairi and Gilly length of reins

Notice variety of postures Gilly is offering on the same length of reins depending on his balance….

The interesting aspect of this session was that it was what you might call, a breakthrough session. There are some elements which we are training for and Mairi got a “real life” feel for them rather than only understanding them in theory.

I personally was not at all concerned  about her rein length during this session and at the stage we are at so her question made me think…

  • why the length of reins was the element she most noticed while watching the video?
  • why it looks “awful” to her and why?
  • what “feel” do we need to build up for her to make further progress

Some considerations when deciding on the “right” length of reins: 

  • do they create a neutral, supple, steady connection (not yet “contact” as that’s what the horse gives the rider not vice-versa) i.e. the rein is neither slack nor taut/pulling nor changes in between one option to the other from step to step.
  • do they allow the horse to carry his neck in a posture that matches his current level of training and conformation. In terms of Dressage training, Mairi and Gilly are working towards a quality Preliminary level (British Dressage). This level asks for minimal of engagement, forward basic paces (medium walk, working trot, working canter), progressive transitions between gaits and basic body balance and alignement that makes the Preliminary “test shapes” easy to perform.
  • do they allow the rider to act with passive resistance or encourage the rider to pull back
  • is the rider able to help the horse with balance through the connection (ask for poll flexion or a half-halt) without unnecessarily busy hands

Mairi & Gilly’s case: 

  • the rider’s reins are a little too long at times but this is more due to her allowing them to slip between her fingers
  • her feel changes from “all good” to “my reins are too long” when Gilly lifts his head above the bit. As these moments are very short in real life but can be unsightly when watched on the video, her attention is drawn to those “washing lines reins” rather than other issues (like loses of rhythm, half – halt that came too late and cost them balance, her own upper body posture that is changing and affecting balance, the seat that can be a little behind the movement or in front of the movement which again affects balance and encourages Gilly to catch it by lifting his neck)
  • rider’s adjustments are done “in front” rather than “behind” – this means that the slack or heaviness of the rein is not a “rein issue”, it’s a balance and engine issue. If the energy produced by the hind legs is misdirected or insufficient, this will show in the quality of connection the rider has between their hands and the bit.

I like to tell the riders to try to feel the horse’s hind legs in their hands and by that I mean that they ask the horse to travel forward and then catch the energy from the hind legs with the bit. Carry the hands and let the horse’s neck relax into most natural and functional (allowing athletic movement) position for the particular horse. That’s the starting point.

To answer Mairi’s question: the way to learn to feel for the right rein length is to learn to feel balance in the whole horse. Once the rider truly feels how to balance the horse with seat aids, how to energise or calm the paces in order to help with that balance, how to truly ride forward without chasing/running and how to maintain own steadiness, then there is rarely any doubt as to what rein length to have. Simply shortening the reins might help in some cases, but not this one.

Sometimes what feels good, is good for that particular moment, even if visually it’s not yet ideal 🙂 Once Gilly’s balance improves and rider’s feel for that good balance improves, he will raise his shoulders/withers and will be able to work with shorter neck and shorter rein. At the moment, short rein causes him to react defensively, block the hind legs energy at the wither and become disconnected through his body.

In summary: the reins are a little too long but perfect for this stage of learning the feel and experimenting what’s right and what’s dysfunctional for this particular horse. 

ATTENTION ACADEMY RIDERS: I WILL ADD A SHORT VIDEO FROM THE SESSION IN OUR CLOSED FB GROUP TO ILLUSTRATE THE ABOVE POINTS FURTHER SO HEAD OVER THERE IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO SEE MAIRI IN ACTION 😉

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