We are always being told that we need to use our seat and leg aids and use our reins less. That our seat is an incredibly effective, rarely used tool that we all should use more and we need to stop using our reins. but why is using our reins bad? what should we use our reins for? how do we go about using more seat and leg aids instead of our reins and how do we get our horse round or ride downwards transitions or collect our horse using less rein?
When we first learn to ride we are taught: kick to go faster, pull to slow down, pull on the left rein to turn left and pull on the right rein to turn right.
The problem then comes when you try to undo this to teach about things like the inside leg to outside rein connection or a half halt which goes against everything that rider has been taught. So the rider has to undo bad habits that they were taught were good habits and the right thing to do.
Why is using our reins seen as a bad thing?
Essentially, its not. Our reins have a purpose just like our leg and seat aids have a purpose. The problem only comes when riders start using their reins instead of using their leg and seat aids. So for example, with a downward transition; the ideal situation is that the rider uses her seat to compress the horses body and transfer the weight onto the hindlegs, the leg is there to keep the hindlegs active, engaged and pushing into the contact and the rein is there to compress the neck a little and maintain the balance and straightness. What happens though when a rider just uses her reins and doesnt use her leg and seat is that the neck compresses but the body stays long resulting in tension in the neck, the hindlegs will disengage and essentially the front end will stop resulting in a sudden downward transition. The balance will be lost, the rhythm wont be there, the impulsion and contact will go and so to then will the suppleness and straightness. So, basically, we need that leg and seat aids but the rein does play a part too.
I think our natural instinct as riders is always to use the reins first, if a horse gets too fast = pull on the reins, if you want to turn = pull on the reins, if the horse is naughty or spooks = pull on the reins. And i dont think ive ever seen a rider that doesnt have this instinct to pull. But what this creates is tension, every time we pull on the reins one of two things happens; either the horse drops behind the contact and tenses in the neck or they brace and lean against the riders hand. Neither of which is what we want.
How should we be using our reins?
Our reins play a role in nearly all the aids we use. We use them for speed, flexion, direction and for controlling the height and shape of the neck. But the rein should never be used on its own. it should be used in conjunction with a leg aid or a seat aid or both!
If you are ever unsure if you are using too much rein, firstly think about what other aids youre using. If youre asking your horse to collect your seat and leg have a role for that, if youre asking for a downward transition, your seat and leg definitely need to be a part of that and if youre asking for your horse to be round your leg and your seat definitely need to be there too. You get the gist, the rein is one of the aids you use not the only aid you use.
Another thing to think about is always make sure your hands are a reflection of the contact you want. We want a soft and elastic contact so make sure your hands are soft and elastic. I see a lot of riders come in with a horse that is too strong and heavy but they are pulling back just as much as the horse is. I always say a horse can only pull as much as you pull back, and normally i make them ride their horses with their fingertips round the reins rather than their whole hand which really helps. A similar thing tends to happen with horses that are too light, a lot of the time the riders hands will be light and unsteady constantly moving the horses bit in their mouth. By steadying the hand and giving the horse a consistent contact to push into you can definitely improve this. A really good tactic if you can is to place a whip underneath your thumbs; its perfect for those of you that are visual or active learners as the whip will emphasis how much your hands are moving around everywhere. You want the stick to be parallel to your horses shoulders and not wiggling around everywhere.
How do we use more seat and leg ?
Essentially it comes down to making your seat and leg as effective as possible to help you not get into that whole of automatically going to your rein first.
Be balanced in the saddle: sitting straight and even in the saddle is incredibly important, we spend our whole lives teaching our horses to follow our aids but a lot of the time they may be following or reacting to aids we dont realise were giving. The more balanced you are, the more control you will have not only over your body but also over the aids you give. An unbalanced rider may have unsteady hands that can pull on the horses mouth unintentionally or pull constantly on the horses mouth to hold themselves up. They may also kick the horse without meaning to or tense their leg muscles to keep themselves in position. All of these will be signalling for the horse to go faster or slower or will throw them off balance.
More with the horse not against the horse: everyone is always taught to be still; still leg, still hands, sit still in the saddle. The problem is that the horse is moving. so if you try and be still on a moving horse that is going to end with a very jarring image. Instead think about having soft, elastic hands, just like we want our contact to be. They need to move with the horse not against the horse. The same is said for your body, let your hips and glutes move with the horse, staying soft to absorb the shock. We talk a lot about the core and how strong it needs to be but i think this also encourages riders to brace and hold all their muscles tight. Instead think about sitting tall and staying soft in your hips and bum so you are able to move with the horse not against the horse. Taking your stirrups away is great for this, if you tense with your glutes youll feel your bum comes off the saddle and you start bouncing everywhere. We want to be in the saddle sitting deep into our horses.
Always ask yourself 'what am i trying to achieve and am i using all the aids i should be': if it helps everytime youre asking for something give each of your rein, leg and seat aids a role so you know theyre all doing something rather than going into autopilot and just riding off feel.
Dont ride on autopilot: We talk about riding with 'feel' like its a magical concept but really riding of feel is riding on autopilot and this is where you basically ride of your habits. Everyone has bad habits so what we need to do is ride with intention and think as we ride as well as feeling and dont always assume what is your automatic reaction is the right one. The best riders are constantly assessing and analysing and thinking about their horse and their own riding.
How do you make a horse round with less rein and more seat and leg?
A big question around the reins is how to get your horse round and ive seen many a creative way. But ultimately, its easiest to think again about what youre actually telling your horse to do. If you were your horses mouth, would you soften and give to a soft pressure almost massage movement that released as soon as you softened...or would you prefer your head being pulled left and right with big quick motions. The answer is obvious when its said like this i know but its why thinking about what youre actually communicating with your aids can be really helpful.
Similarly, i have seen the quick wiggle movement be really effective where the rider does quick give and release, alternating left and right to move the bit quickly from side to side. Generally., this works most well with horses that have a tendency to lean on the bit because generally the effect this has is that the horse comes off the bit so they stop taking the bit down and out and instead they start arching their neck and almost trying to put the bit lower in their mouth. The problem here is that the rider on top sees the horse arch their neck and come lighter, they feel relived that they dont have to hold their horse up anymore but their horse isnt round. If you were on the ground you would see the neck was tense and arched but the back was fixed like a brick wall. And this is generally what happens when someone wants a round horse quickly. Instead, the more a horse engages their hindlegs, the more weight they take on their back end rather than their front end and the lighter the contact becomes.
Making a horse 'round' is a process. That horse needs to be pushing from the hindleg, working over their back with suppleness, be pushing into the contact but holding themselves up by balancing from their hindlegs. This is incredibly hard to achieve and takes time and yet every person i have ever had come to me that has said they want their horse round want them round within that lesson and it takes a long time to unwork that mindset that there are multiple things you might need to work on before your horse is able to go round and on the bit.
A big example is that one of my clients had a horse that was behind the leg and wouldnt take the contact and he went around with his head in the air and the obvious goal for the session was that she wanted her horse to be round. But actually what we spent time working on was getting the horse in front of the leg first and then moved to working on getting the horse to take the contact and be more supple. After a few weeks the horse worked in a forward rhythm, was far more supple and worked into the contact so much so that he started to naturally go round by himself.
So the ideal way to get a horse round is to firstly think about your basics. Is your horse working in a forward rhythm, do you have a soft consistent contact and is your horse supple? Then when you have this you use your reins like we spoke about before with that soft massaging motion with both reins that says come softer (not off the contact or leaning but softer). Your leg closes around the horse to keep the forward momentum pushing into the contact and your seat stays balanced to allow the horse to work over his back.
How should you ride downward transitions or ask a horse to collect with more seat and leg and less rein?
This is again about using your reins yes but your legs and seat too. Your seat is there to compress your horse and help to rebalance the weight more onto the hindlegs, you can do this by slowing your rising, sitting a little back and deeper into the saddle and squeezing with your upper thigh or knee. Your leg is there to keep the hindleg active and engaged, as our seat has transferred more weight onto the hindleg, our leg needs to be used to keep the hindlegs pushing the extra weight. It also stops the transition being too sudden or jolted. To do this squeeze with your calf through the transition. Your rein is then there as an additional aid, you may find you dont need to take too much pressure when you start using your seat and leg first, a little pull back and give into the transition should be enough, if you need it at all. Make sure you dont pull back the whole way through the transition though as this encourages your horse to lean against your hand and stay on the forehand rather than transferring their weight onto the hindlegs like they should.
So there you have it, why riding with your reins isnt a bad thing at all as long as you are not riding with just your reins! I really hope you enjoyed this episode if you did then please do share it the best way to do that is on social media and do tag us in it to let us know what you thought of this episode and what you are putting into practice in your training too.
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thank you so much for listehing everyone and i will see you next ti,e