Holding onto your horse’s reins while horseback riding in any way you find comfortable and yelling “yee-haw” is not the way to go.
Correctly holding your reins will influence how your horse moves, ensure your safety and prevent your horse from becoming unruly.
Learning how to hold horse reins correctly, whether you ride Western or English, is something many beginners (and even riders who have been riding for years) struggle with.
So let’s learn how to do it correctly.
A Guide To Holding Your Horses Reins Properly
In English riding, you should ride with both hands on the reins at the same time. You would hold the reins in the same manner as described above, with the reins passing between the little finger and the ring finger and sliding over the index finger. Hold the rein in place with your thumb. Repeat this with the other rein and your other hand.
Riding With A Single Rein
The hardest part of riding with one set of reins is remembering that your thumbs should be at the top. This can only be achieved when you hold your hands in the classical position with your elbows at your hips, your forearms naturally lowered to form a straight line to the horse’s mouth.
Beginner riders should practice walking their hands up and down the reins without taking their hands off the reins. Initially, this means feeding the reins through your fingers to shorten or lengthen the reins, thereby giving or taking up contact with the horse’s mouth.
Riding With Two Sets Of Reins
Riding with two sets of reins is no easy feat. It involves having the horse in a double bridle, usually with a snaffle bit and a curbed bit fitted simultaneously. A double rein can also be used on a curbed or ported bit, which has two placements for the reins.
The right rein will control the right side of both the snaffle and curb bits, while the left rein will control the left side of these bits. Likewise, the left rein controls the left side of the horse and the right rein will control the right side.
Holding both reins can be challenging.
The basic method is to hold the snaffle rein so it passes between the ring and middle fingers, looping over to exit the hand over the index finger. Next, pick up the curb rein by passing it between the little and ring fingers, also exiting the hand over the index finger. Finally, lock both reins in place with the thumbs on each hand.
When riding with draw reins and snaffle reins, you would use a similar manner. Using wrist movements and opening and closing the fingers, you can then give and take contact with the horse’s mouth. This method of riding is mostly for upper-level horses or during schooling when the horse is asked for specific movements.
This riding style is mainly seen in the racing world, but it is also helpful for holding reins when your horse becomes strong in the hand as it stops them from pulling.
Holding your single reins as you would snaffle reins, loop one side of the reins from one hand to the other hand. Then, hold both reins in that hand, while still having the original hand in place.
Be sure to hold the reins in the thumbs-up position. When necessary, the rider can brace one hand onto the horse’s neck for stability. This is known as a single bridge.
A double bridge uses the same principle while horseback riding. The difference is that both right and left reins loop to either side to make a double set of reins through the rider’s hand.
We always have the image of Western riders or cowboys riding into the sunset with one hand up in the air like the Man from Snowy River. However, Western riding was born as a working or trail riding discipline. This means that one hand is usually kept free to do ranch work or use a lasso.
Riding With The Reins In One Hand
Holding the reins in one hand when doing Western riding is less complicated than English riding, but it still requires correct form. While you can grab both reins in a loose fist, this will not give you much control.
Instead, take hold of both reins with the hand you will not be riding with, holding the reins near the horse’s neck in a loose fist. Now bring your riding hand over this, inserting the ring and middle finger into the gap between the two reins.
Place your little finger on the outside and your index finger on the other outside. Loop the excess rein over the index finger, locking these in place with the thumb.
In Western riding, the thumbs are not always placed at the top. Therefore, it is often useful to turn your hand sideways to work with the reins horizontally or to use a neck rein to direct the horse when trail riding.
Riding With Split Reins
Split reins can be held in the same manner as the above description for riding one-handed. The difference is that the free hand remains placed on the reins but further down, taking up the slack.
It works like a pulley to draw the reins through the fingers of the riding hand. The supporting hand shortens the reins or releases when dropping the contact.
To engage your horse with neck reining, you would draw the reins in, raising the riding hand up and low over the horse’s neck and pulling the directing rein against and over the horse’s neck. The horse will move away from the pressure of this one rein and the rider’s hand will return to the same position.
Problems With Holding Reins
The reins are not for controlling a horse.
A horse rider communicates in four ways with their horse: their seat, legs, hands, and voice. Your reins are how your hands touch your horse while riding.
Why Is Holding Reins Correctly Important?
When you hold the reins aggressively, you are sending a negative message to your horse’s mouth. Your horse will respond in kind.
Holding the reins without confidence will create an equally fearful horse as they don’t feel supported.
Knowing where the balance lies is essential. Correctly holding your reins will ensure you ride well and that your horse understands what you desire of them.
How Much Pressure Should You Hold the Reins With?
In Western and English riding, the reins should be held as if the rider is holding a small bird in their hand. The amount of pressure should be enough to stop the bird from escaping without the bird feeling like they are being squashed.
There are several ways to hold the reins correctly. When picking up your rein, hold the rein with the leather strap running between your little finger and ring finger. Then, it should pass up on the inside of your hand to exit over your index finger. This will give you an effective distance you can increase your hold by equal to your hand width.
Hold the rein in place with the thumb of your hand locked in place over the rein on your index finger. This is commonly known as a thumb lock. It helps prevent the reins from being snatched out of your hands by your horse when they are grazing.
Ideal Rein Length
The length of a horse rein depends on what kind of rein it is. And beyond that, the ideal length depends on the size of your horse and how you hold the reins.
A set of pony reins measures in at 48 inches, while full-size reins are 54 inches long. You can also opt for 60-inch reins if your horse has a long neck.
Western split reins measure in at 8 feet each. Mecate reins are longer at 22-26 feet.
As a golden rule, your reins should be long enough for your horse to graze without you pulling on them. Or, when standing next to your horse, the reins should reach from the horse’s shoulder to the ground when you hold the rein buckle at the wither.
When holding the reins correctly, the appropriate shortness at which you hold them should allow the reins to still create the curve of an ice cream cone in English riding.
For Western riders, the distance at which you hold your reins will be similar for split reins and romal reins, and much longer in a bosal and mecate rein.