Some Thoughts about Reins & their use…




The lines (direction or paths) that we ride our horses on are either straight or curved. We ride these lines with the horse being in a position that is either straight, bent, moving forward and sideways simultaneously, or having one part canted one way or the other.

In order for the horse to position its body as the rider wants and to travel along the previously mentioned lines, the rider needs to communicate his requirements to the horse through what is termed ‘the accord of the aids.’ The ‘accord of the aids’ is the harmonious coordination of all the natural aids.

Together, the seat, hands, legs, and weight either act, hold, or yield to create, regulate, and facilitate the correct execution of the maneuvers desired by the rider to the horse.

The use of the reins can be crude as well as cruel or subtle and communicative, depending on the depth of knowledge the rider has on how to use them, because all the natural talent in the world is of limited value if you don’t understand technique and the use of your equipment.


The use of the reins is obviously dependent on the hands of the rider. There is an old adage that states, “No seat – no hands.” This means that until the rider’s seat is balanced and the rider is in synchronization with the movement of the horse (no falling forward or being left behind) and the rider is confident and relaxed, it is almost impossible to have ‘good hands’.

While all of the above should work in concert to be maximumly effective, we will be addressing at this time only some things to consider when using the reins.

Quiet Hands

In the beginning, it is the goal of the rider to acquire ‘quiet hands.’ Later on, finesse in the use of them will lead to having ‘educated hands.’ ‘Quiet hands’ are ones that do not bob up and down spasmodically jerking at the horse’s mouth, but, conversely, keep the reins softly taut with no jerking or variation in tension.

Finesse of the Hands

Finesse of the hands is the most difficult part of horsemanship to master. In essence, it is the ability to eventually use mostly the fingers with precision and delicacy to communicate with the horse. And it should not be forgotten that the technique of using the hands in this manner is always subject to improvement and that at no definite time are they ever completely ‘educated’ or ‘made’. You will always be ‘refining’ your technique, since progress in their skilled use is limitless.

Balance and Rebalance

The almost continuous balancing and rebalancing of the horse is the essence of riding. In order to achieve this, the rider must have knowledge of the five rein effects and their almost infinite nuanced combinations which are used both separately and in concert with each other to influence the horse to perform various movements. You must know which rein effect(s) will be most effective and appropriate for whatever the circumstances may be at the moment.

Rein Aids

The rein effects should be integrated with the rider’s use of the weight aids, such as stirrup-stepping [putting more weight into one stirrup or the other] without moving the seat and/or collapsing the hip, or through torso movement.

It will take hundreds of hours of focused riding to master the use of the rein aids and weight distribution; first moving from conscience technical competence to using the aids ‘automatically’ and then, finally, to using them ‘instinctively.’ This last level means how much, how long, and when the rein aids are applied.

The rider also must learn to ‘feel’ where each of the horse’s feet are at any given moment and know when to use the reins at the correct moment to affect the footfall of the horse, i.e., when the foot is in a non-weight bearing mode or is in a weight-bearing mode. The feet move in the same sequential pattern no matter the gaits it is moving in. The movement of the horse’s shoulders and hindquarters are always the same. Learn them! Commit them to memory!   If you do not do this, you will be always riding with mediocrity.

When you gather up the reins until you can ‘feel’ the horse’s mouth and have a slight contact, then that is all the rein the horse can have until you change it. Don’t let the horse pull the reins out of your hands, or, even worse, pull you out of the saddle.

Horses that Lean on Your Hands

However; when a horse wants to ‘take possession of your hand’ by leaning, then you need to ‘take possession of its mind’. But first you have to ‘take possession of its head and neck’ by whatever means you have at your disposal to make your point. Then you can ‘take possession of its mind’. It is the

inclination of the horse to lean that you really need to fix. The leaning is the effect. The need or desire of the horse to lean, whether through an imbalance issue or a resistance, is the cause. In short, you must change his mind.

There may even be occasions when you may have to use a ‘fixed’ hand to not let the horse ‘take possession of your hand’. This is done by first making sure that your reins are correctly stretched and adjusted in length, then you will close your half-relaxed fingers by placing the tips of your fingers into your palms and ‘fix’ them in place. This increased resistance will cease and you will relax your fingers as soon as the horse obeys. Often-times, however, you may well have to close them again almost immediately, if the horse still resists your hand. Additionally, you may also have to simultaneously ‘brace’ your elbows against your sides and ‘set’ your shoulders back as well as tightening your lower back muscles in order to make yourself a ‘steel post’, so to speak. NOTE: if you pull on the reins to correct the situation instead of establishing a ‘fixed’ hand, then you probably won’t detect the horse’s concession because your hand, instead of relaxing, will fly to the rear when the horse gives – so, with pulling hands, the horse’s mouth is never improved.


Purpose of the Reins

The purpose of the reins is to act, hold or yield through the use of your hands in order to regulate the horse’s forward motion by slowing down the speed, changing the gaits (downward}, modifying the horse’s balance, and giving direction.

Rein Contact

Generally speaking, the hands should not act longer than one-half second   before softening. This action may have to be repeated numerous times in rapid succession, but the key thing is to not hang on to the reins because it will only provoke a horse to learn to lean on your hands. The ‘taking and giving’ of the reins (a ‘pulsating’ action) will bring about a better reaction and will have a tendency of relaxing the horse

Generally speaking, your contact with the reins must be constant in order to make instant corrections, but should not be ‘fixed’ (immobile). Your fingers and wrists must be ‘alive’. Draping or flopping reins are ineffective when schooling horses because you have no instant way of making corrections when it is necessary.

The little (‘pinky) finger, which the rein passes on the outside of, usually has the principal role in whichever hand is the action hand, but you may have to use all the strength in both arms before you reach that    point of refinement.

Correct rein contact allows you to explain both physical and mental concepts   to the horse. When schooling a horse, a rein length of about 28 inches is the most efficient on most horses, because if you have a rein length of 42 inches with your hands in your lap, you will have your elbows behind your back and you will have no communication with the horse. So, if ‘something happens’.   you will, inevitability, move the reins by lifting your arms up and backward and you will quickly ‘run out of arm’ with still no communication with the horse in order to influence and control the situation.

Regardless of what type of riding discipline you are engaged in, the most sensible and advantageous thing to do when schooling a horse or at the start of the education of the rider is for the rider to hold the reins one in each hand until both the horse and the rider have become totally acquainted with the communication process. Then one can go on to holding the reins in one hand and manipulate them by a touch of the fingers or a turn or twist of the wrists. To start off riding with the reins held in one hand is to embark on a fool’s journey. The rider will learn nothing and it is unfair to the   horse.


Try to “keep the back of the hands at an angle that approximates the angle of the horse’s shoulders (about 30 degrees). In this position there will be no tension in your hands or forearms.

Helpful Hints

Holding the reins and hanging onto the reins are two different things.

Learn the difference between the horse pulling on the reins and resisting the reins.

Ride the horse between your hands and your legs.

Don’t push more horse into your hands than you can regulate. A lot of riders get accused of having ‘bad’ hands, when, in reality, they push more horse into their hands than they can regulate. It would probably be more accurate to say that they have ‘bad’ legs. ‘Bad’ legs make for ‘bad’ hands. And, generally speaking, it is due to the leg being dropped back too far. Impulsion comes from immediately behind the girth area. To move the leg further back just produces forward movement, and, in many cases, too much of it to regulate.

Don’t let your hands override your legs.

A horse will tend to salivate more on the side of its mouth that has been damaged the most; mostly through pulling or jerking on the reins

On some horses, to begin with, you may have to ride with your hands spread fairly wide apart. As soon as you can, you will want to bring them more together. A horse’s mouth, generally speaking, is five to six inches wide. That’s a pretty good width to try to work from. But bringing your hands closer together will help in bring the horse together.

Riding with your hands a little higher by keeping your wrists level with the middle of the horse’s neck can be a useful place to operate from to keep its front end ‘up’ and prevent the horse’s front legs from ‘disengaging’ too far past the vertical. A good analogy is that you want the horse’s base of the neck to ‘sit’ on top of the front legs. This will also help the horse from leaning on your hands.

Regarding the placing of a horse’s neck: you can extend the neck by lifting on the corners of the mouth and you can lower the neck by turning your palms upward while spreading your hands laterally.


Opening Remarks

The several actions that your hand may take in directing the horse have been conveniently grouped into five main effects, meaning that they will have an effect on its movement. These categories have been established for academic purposes only in order to facilitate the study of the aids. Each effect has   hundreds of shades of use. Learn them. Commit them to memory.  Make it a point to consciously use them every day until you can recognize the value of each effect and when it is most appropriate to use.  Anything else is guesswork on your part and is not helping the horse learn what you want it to do without bracing.

It is assumed that any discussion of the use or the reins has them coupled with and preceded by the use of the legs.

All rein actions are caused by an ‘action’ hand. The other hand is called a ‘supporting’ hand. When the tension is increased in the ‘action’ hand to cause an effect on the horse, a corresponding decrease in tension is needed with the ‘supporting’ hand in order to not cause a contradiction, i.e., tension on both reins at the same time, and lead to confusion on the part of the horse.

However; the ‘supporting’ hand is, in many respects, the most important hand, because it moderates and controls what the ‘action’ hand is asking the horse to do. I call the rein that it holds the ‘governor’ or the ‘regulator’ rein.


You can also use a different rein effect with the ‘supporting’ rein while you are using a principal rein effect with the ‘action’ hand, as long as the two are not contradictory. For example, when using your ‘action’ hand, in this case the left one, in an opening rein manner to turn the horse to the left, you can use your ‘supporting’ hand, the right one, to activate a neck rein action without causing confusion in the horse. Use the opening rein first, followed almost instantaneously by using the ‘supporting’ neck rein.

To momentarily shorten your rein and not pull back, simply turn your hand upward so that you are looking at your fingernails.

Think in terms of traction on the rein with a ‘fixed’ hand (holding it in one   place), but with fingers that are ‘alive’, so that there will be no recoil (pulling) of the hand toward your body.

There is no one ‘fixed’ position of your hands when riding a horse. You will always be adjusting the reins to match the situation. So, you must get used to rummaging around a bit, using one rein effect with the inside rein and quite another with the outside rein – as long as they are not in opposition to one another and are complimentary with each other as well as opening and closing your fingers on a regular basis.

The only time you stop squeezing the reins is just after you have finished squeezing them. This squeezing action has a calming effect on the horse and can help him to not lean on the reins, because it keeps the horse’s jaw relaxed. The way to do this is to subtly squeeze and release the inside rein with your fingers (akin to a rhythmical pulsating motion) AND slightly lift the hand toward the horse’s ear, while maintaining the contact, when the horse’s inside front leg is on the ground (the shoulder will be in a forward position). NO PULLING! This action is called a reprise: 1-2-3-pause, 1-2-3-pause, etc.

Additionally, squeezing the rein before transitions and departures allows the contact to stay soft.


Keeping all that in mind, here are the five rein effects.

First Rein Effect

Opening or ‘Leading’ Rein – Your ‘action’ hand will move a little forward and out toward the direction you want the horse to go. It leads the horse’s head in that desired direction. It affects the forehand. You do not PULL the horse around with it. Your ‘supporting’ hand will have less tension in it, but will be ready to limit the degree of bend you put on the horse with your ‘action’ hand. When   this is required, you must then have less tension on the ‘action’ hand momentarily. Then start again. It is termed “playing with the reins”.

Second Rein Effect

Neck or ‘Bearing’ Rein – This rein effect is the most overlooked of the five, yet, if used correctly, it is the subtlest. It also affects the forehand of the horse, but instead of ‘leading’ the forehand, its ‘pushes’ the forehand from the opposite direction. Your ‘action’ hand will apply the rein on the horse’s neck anywhere from the base of the neck to (in the beginning) just below the outside ear and ‘think’ of ‘pushing’ it in the direction of the inside ear, but NEVER have your hand cross the mane.

Third Rein Effect

Direct Rein of Opposition – This rein effect makes the front end of the horse move in one direction and causes the hind end of the horse to go on the opposite direction. Your ‘action’ hand will move out slightly toward the direction you want the horse to go and will also simultaneously be drawn on a straight line rearward toward your knee or hip. Thus, the rein will be in a parallel position to the horse. Your ‘supporting’ hand will control the amount of bend that you want the horse to have.

This is a powerful rein effect and can be used if the horse resists turning. It also causes the horse’s hind leg on the side that the ‘action’ hand is used to step forward and across the mass of its body which affects its equilibrium.

This is the rein that, unfortunately, most riders use when turning a horse.

It causes the horse to turn like a boat and throws his hind end outward from the line of the circle.

Fourth Rein Effect

Indirect Rein of Opposition in Front of the Withers – This rein effect is sometimes referred to as the ‘shoulder rein’. It can be very effective in balancing the forehand, especially if the horse is leaning to the inside by moving that shoulder in the opposite direction. It’s can also be used to move the horse’s shoulders one way and the hindquarters in the opposite direction. Your ‘action’ hand will move a little to the inside in front of the withers from where it is normally positioned alongside the horse’s shoulders and create an angle of the rein running from the horse’s mouth to somewhere between your opposite hip to your opposite shoulder. Your ‘supporting’ hand remains in contact but is softened through the use of your fingers.

Fifth Rein Effect

Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Withers – This rein effect is sometimes called the ‘intermediate rein’ because it is a cross between the third and the fourth rein effects. It is a very powerful rein effect. It effects both the shoulders and the hindquarters of the horse, depending on how it is applied, and moves them forward and laterally in the opposite direction from the action of the reins. Your ‘action’ hand will create an angle of the rein that, in general, will run from the horse’s mouth to its opposite hip. Your ‘supporting’ hand will follow in the same general direction as your ‘action’ hand.


General Remarks

The term ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ rein have nothing to do with your horse’s position relative to the confines in which you are riding. Someday you may be riding in open country – then which would be the ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ rein?

So, here is what you should remember: the terms are applicable to the bend and/or the flexion of the horse – period. For example, if you are riding a circle to the left and the bend of the horse is on its left side (that side will be concave), then the left rein will be the ‘inside’ rein and, obviously, the right one will be the ‘outside’ rein.

But if you are riding a circle to the left and you have the horse counter-bent to the right (that side will be concave) then the ‘inside’ rein will be the right rein and the left rein will be the ‘outside’ rein.

Outside Rein

This rein is used as the neck rein (second rein effect). Once it is understood by the horse and it is used correctly by the rider, it allows you to ride with one hand.

The proper use of this rein allows you to ‘ride the outside of the horse around the inside of the horse’ by using the second rein effect, (but do not cross the horse’s mane with your hand), thus eliminating the need to ‘pull’ the horse over with the inside rein. You can use your ‘supporting’ hand (the inside rein) by slightly using an ‘opening rein’ (first rein effect) or even a little ‘fourth rein effect’, after first activating the neck rein.

When using the outside rein as a neck rein (second rein effect), you may have to rummage around a bit and ‘push’ the rein anywhere from the base of the horse’s neck to up high, toward the opposite ear. You can also ‘rub’ the rein on the horse’s neck, turning the hair backward, so to speak, as you lift the rein straight up the neck.

This rein is generally parallel to the horse’s body when it is used to set him back (see below for an explanation of ‘setting the horse back.


This rein is also used to obtain elevation of the horse’s head and neck.

If you   are riding in a straight line and you have equal contact with both sides of a horse’s mouth and you want to turn the horse, say to the left, just open the fingers of your right hand (do nothing with the left hand at all – NO PULLING).  This is a foreign concept to many riders.

Use this rein against the horse’s neck for more angle when performing a ‘shoulder-in’ movement; as opposed to pulling more on the inside rein.

It is this rein that always sets the horse’s outside shoulder back by using it in an upward and sometimes backward direction. Setting back the shoulder basically means to close your fingers on the rein when the horse’s outside shoulder is in a backward position and then opening them up again for only   two strides. It is used to rebalance the horse’s forehand and lighten its   shoulder. When you set the shoulder back it will have more of a tendency to move forward immediately when you release it (it should immediately ‘spring forward’ when you open your fingers). It is more about getting the front foot on and off the ground quicker because the longer the foot stays on the ground the more the horse will tend to lean on it and get heavy in your hand.

Inside Rein

If you shorten the inside rein two inches, then you must lengthen the outside rein two inches or else they will be contradictory and cause resistance in the horse.

This rein creates the ‘hollow’ (concave) side of the horse, but it is the outside rein that turns the horse (second rein effect) and governs and regulates the amount of bend or flexion allowed.

Remember to quit pulling on the inside rein.

You can use this rein in either the fourth rein effect or the fifth rein effect position, if the horse is leaning on its inside shoulder, to transfer its weight to its outside shoulder or diagonal- hip to help re-balance it.