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What rein length should you ride on?

The length of rein you use can vary and change as you go through your session, you might lengthen your rein to stretch your horse or alter your rein length for a certain movement but when looking at the rein contact we use for the majority of our session when we ride this can change depending on:

  1. Your horses size, their confirmation (whether they have a long neck, long back and so on),

  2. Your horses level of training (novice horses are worked on a longer rein length in a longer frame than advanced horses)

  3. Your size and arm length too.

So every horse and every rider may need a slightly different rein length, so the same horse may be ridden by two different riders with different rein lengths and vice versa; equally the same horse and the same rider will see their rein length change as they progress through the levels and the horse begins to become more collected, more uphill and carrying more weight on their hindlegs in a more compressed frame.

So, that's a complicated start, were all going to need different rein lengths and even once you've found the right rein length you will still find that you will lengthen and shorten your reins through your session for different reasons. There are advantages to having your reins slightly longer and advantages to having your reins slightly shorter, equally doing this can also get you into trouble if its not done correctly.

The important of a good contact

No matter whether you are riding on a longer rein or a shorter rein, the most important thing is that your horse has a good contact which is with the horse feeling like they are taking the bit forward and down, that you feel a slight weight in your hand but its not heavy or strong its a soft, elastic feeling and that this weight in your hand is even in both of those reins. So that feeling is something we are going to be wanting to keep, and sometimes, especially at the beginning of a horses journey,. you may find that you can only achieve a good contact on a certain rein length and that is totally fine, you can work in that frame and at that rein length where the contact is good and then work on making your horse more supple and stronger so they are able to keep that good contact as you alter the rein length to a more suitable rein length for you.

But the important thing i want to get across is that the contact is the priority here.

The benefits of a longer rein length

You may have seen, or you may do it yourself, where a horse is ridden on a longer rein as a stretch and it may be used as a warm up and cool down or as an exercise in the middle of your session. It is even a movement in a few of the Prelim and Novice tests and even in the FEI Junior Individual test or Advanced Medium 96 where you have to show a half circle or full circle with a trot stretch.

Again, presuming the horse still maintains a good contact, seeking that bit down, forward and out; riding on a longer rein is going to help that horse to really stretch over their backs, stretch out those topline muscles and lengthen their frame. Its also super for helping a young horse to find their own balance and carry themselves and, especially if you are starting the collection or riding an advanced horse and spending quite a bit of time with your horse compressed and collected then stretching them at the beginning and end can help to stretch out all those muscles that may have gotten tight during all that collection work.

Riding with too long a rein

But, there are a few things to watch our for when riding your horse on a long rein length because if that good contact isn't there and your reins are loose and flappy, all this is going to do is teach your horse to brace their neck and back and not push into that contact so, if anything, it could end up making your horse's contact worse if your reins are flappy.

Benefits of riding with a shorter rein

Riding your horse with a shorter rein length can be really beneficial for your horse, it can help you as the rider learn to carry your hands more up and forward, especially if you have a tendency to draw your hands back into your lap. And riding with a forward hand is a big part of helping your horse to go in the right frame and with a good contact so that can all tie together quite nicely!. Equally, riding with a short rein can also help to create a really nice, consistent rein for your horse to take the contact out from. Especially if a horse struggles to take the contact i might start by focussing on getting a really good contact on a shorter rein first where they may find it easier and then slowly lengthening the rein little by little and teaching them to slowly stretch out that neck and back and take the bit more and more forward and out.

Riding with too short a rein?

Again, (you'll be spotting a trend here!), if the contact isn't good then riding with a short rein will not be beneficial. Two big problems can happen when you ride with a short rein; if you have a horse that tends to be light in the contact and doesn't like to take the bit out, riding with a short rein can be a good starting point for your horse to push into, but if that rein is too short it can encourage your horse to come more behind the vertical or more tight because the rein length just doesn't allow them enough space to seek that bit and work over their backs. And you can see this when you compare those little show jumping ponies that go around with their nose above their ears, you can see the distance between their poll and their whither is incredibly short, compare that to that horse working on the bit, round over his back and that distance lengthens significantly, so, we just have to be careful when we ride with a short rein that it isn't so short that the horse cant physically work in the frame we want them to.

One thing i do want to say is to watch your reason for shortening your rein, so often i see riders that are trying to teach their horse to collect and compress and they do this by shortening their reins and pulling back with their hand. This is not collection. When we do this the horse usually compresses their neck but keeps their back the same length, this creates a whole host of issues from tension and tightness to disengaging the hindlegs to ruining your contact. When we collect, we have to use our seat first and get the horse to compress their whole body, it may be you then shorten the reins to accommodate for the shortened neck and back but we have to first collect the whole body before you shorten the reins otherwise you'll just end up pulling your horse in which is definitely not what we want to do.

So we have spoken a bit about the benefits of riding on a longer and a shorter rein as well as what happens when that rein is too short or too long. Remember though what is too short for one horse or one rider could be perfect for another so don't always assume one rein length is right and another is wrong, its what works best for the horse and the rider.

How to know if you have the right rein length ?

So, how do you know if you have found that perfect rein length; or if those reins are too long or too short?

I think its probably best if we start by thinking about what we do want. We've spoken already about the contact and a good contact being that feeling that your horse is seeking that bit forward so that it creates a soft, elastic feeling in your hand. So that is what a good contact feels like; how that is created is a whole other episodes worth of information.

But what it will look like from the ground is a really quite stable rein and a quiet stable hand on that rein, you'll see a horse pushing from the hindleg and that power pushing through to the bit with the horse clearly wanting to take that bit down and out with the nose on or slightly in front of the vertical. The horse will also look like it is free to move forward, swinging through its back and using those topline muscles in a relaxed, supple way.

So that is what we are aiming for; and when we achieve it and we have this really good contact and connection we have control over the horses front end and their back end so we are able to ride effective half halts, we are able to influence and improve our horses suppleness and position our horse correctly as well as have a horse that is balanced and carrying themselves in a relaxed way (both mentally and physically)

How do you know if your reins are too long?

But if your reins are too long; you are going to feel one of two things; either your reins will be loose and flappy or your hands will be in your lap with your wrists bent. Rather than what we want to see is that straight line from your elbow through your wrist, down the rein to the bit. So what we will miss out on is that nice, consistent, elastic feeling down the rein because our horse is going to struggle to find anything to push into; and so any directions you try to give through the rein is going to be a bit like trying to be on the phone to someone with really bad signal; your horse is only going to get a little of what you're trying to say because those reins and your contact are going to be inconsistent. And ultimately this could then have worse consequences for your horses balance, way of going and your position too. And this is the same for riders who find the reins always slip out their hands and they need to keep shortening the reins all the time; this is going to create a bit of mixed messages to your horse and will probably create a bit of an unsteady contact too.

How do you know if your reins are too short?

But now lets look at the other end of the spectrum, when your reins are too short, like we have said already your horse may not be physically able to work over their backs and in the frame you want them to because you're not giving them enough space to do this with the reins; you may find your horse feels resistance, perhaps constantly coming behind the vertical and not wanting to seek the contact out and down or the other way and being really strong and heavy. Either way, the contact wont be good. You may also find your horse twists and tilts or swings their head to try and get away from the short and tight contact. The knock on effect of this is that you are going to end up with a horse who disengages their hindlegs, hollows in the back and becomes tight and resistant.

Ultimate rule: let the quality of the contact be your guide

I think the main thing to take from all of this is to focus on the quality of the contact. If you have a good contact and your horse is seeking that bit down and out, you have a consistently stable rein and hand with a soft, elastic pressure down your rein then you are onto a winner. From here you can then practice lengthening the rein or shortening the rein a little and trying to maintain that good contact remembering that you will also have to lengthening or compress your horses whole frame not just their neck to do this.

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Thanks for a great explanation; Probably not articulating my thoughts very well 🫣 but it highlights for me that I have perhaps (unconsciously) confused contact with collection which, at the level I ride at, I am definitely not ready to be stressing about. Also thinking about how much I need to improve awareness of what good contact actually feels like. Perhaps one for our next lesson (as well as all the other stuff I need to work on 🤦🏻‍♀️🤣😂) x

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