Rein Effects

I immediately felt a slight resistance.
I then thought of changing the use of my aids,
and of pressing the leg on the side opposite
to the direction of wheeling.
in place of bearing the hand immediately to the right,
to determine the shoulders in that direction,
I first, by the aid of this hand,
made the opposition necessary
to render the haunches motionless,
and to dispose the forces in such a way
as to maintain the equilibrium
during the execution of the movement.
This proceeding was completely successful;
and in explaining what ought to be the function

of the different extremities,
I recognize this as the only rational way of using them in wheeling…

This innovation is so natural a one,
that I cannot conceive why someone never applied it before me.

Baucher, F. (2011-12-06)
New Method of Horsemanship
Including the Breaking and Training of Horses,
with Instructions for Obtaining a Good Seat.
(Kindle Location 752). . Kindle Edition.

Most of what is written about the use of the reins focuses on how the reins should affect the horse without ever mentioning how the rider should use their shoulders, arms, and hands, which is rather like talking about how an arrow should affect a target with ever mentioning the bow or the archer. In an effort to address that lack, here is a look at what the rider can do with their hands and arms, always keeping in mind that the primary focus of the arms is to absorb jolts and compensate for the movements of the horse’s head and the rider’s body so the hands can maintain a steady soft connection with the horse’s mouth. This is paramount because essentially all cues in educated riding consist of:

• A brief and purposeful interruption of

the harmonious movement between partners

First, in order for the hands to maintain a light and consistent connection with the horse’s mouth, the rider’s shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints must be in their most effortless and relaxed position. For most people this means:

• The back is straight and the shoulders are relaxed
• The upper arms hangs straight down along their sides
• and the elbow is bent at a 90 degree angle,
• while the wrists are slightly curved inward
• That leaves the thumbs on top of a loose fist with the littlest finger on the bottom.
• If you ride with the reins coming up through the little finger and out under the thumb, a soft fist with the fingers curled just enough to keep the reins in position is the natural default position.

Hunching the shoulders, or moving the upper arm away from the body, regardless of whether the move is to the front, behind, or out to the side requires muscular tension and changes the rider’s balance, as does straightening the elbow or cocking the wrist. So, in another paradox of horsemanship, the most versatile, responsive, and useful upper arm position is the one that changes the least. All the rein effects are then made in three ways:

  1. By fixing or relaxing the wrists, elbows, and shoulders
  2. By closing and opening the fingers
  3. By rotating the forearm from to one side or the other

Direct Rein cues are result of changing the degrees of tension in and the orientation of the body. They are the flower of a secure and supple seat. Regardless of the direction and speed desired Direct Rein cues depend on:

• Keeping the upper arm quiet and the forearm in its usual place, horizontal and parallel to the horse’s spine
• The hand maintaining a soft steady connection to the horse’s mouth by following its movements

Just changing the tension in the fingers is then enough to communicate with the horse:

  1. Sliding Reins are stabilized by the thumb while the fingers relax, opening the soft fist and allowing the horse several more inches of rein without losing contact, letting even more rein slide through and picking up the slack as needed
  2. Fixed reins are the result of closing the fingers into a fist, taking up the extra length in the reins

The Fixed and Sliding Reins can vary:

• They can be abrupt, a sudden gripping or releasing of all the fingers at once, or
• They can be gradual, closing or opening of one finger at a time, a kneading of the reins.
The Fixed and Sliding Reins depend on and amplify the tension in and orientation of the rest of the rider’s body, so:

• They can follow a change in the rider’s seat
• They can initiate a change the rider’s seat

Either way, they moderate and refine the rider’s directions. When we want more possibilities in our conversation with the horse, simply rotating just the forearm to either side gives more of the subtle cues we seek. The fine muscles, the ab and ad- ductors, that fine tune the movements of our arms are the ones that control this movement from side to side. Raising or lowering the forearm requires the big muscles in the arms and shoulders to contract, tensing the entire upper torso, so unless communication has broken down to the point that the horse is jamming its head down between its knees to buck or throwing its head up to bolt, these are counterproductive movements.

  1. Opening rein cues are the result of rotating one forearm out and away from the horse and the rider’s body.
  2. Indirect rein cues are the result of rotating one forearm in towards the rider’s belly

Exactly how the horse responds to the movements of the forearms depends on the rider’s seat ,what the fingers do, and what the other hand is up too. Unfortunately, most instructors focus on the gross and visible movement of the arm, leaving the student to underestimate the influence of both the seat and the fixed and sliding reins. The difference in how the horse responds to the movement of the forearm can be radical. For example:

• Rotating one forearm towards your belly with a sliding rein functions as a ‘neck-rein’, asking the horse to turn in the direction of movement without changing their balance or stride.
• Rotating one forearm towards your belly with a fixed rein asks the horse to shift their weight to rear, sitting back onto the hind leg opposite the fixed hand, shortening or slowing their gait, and shrinking the size of the turn.

How you use your one hand can result in either a large sweeping circle or a turn on the haunches. Take your time experimenting on your own so as not to confuse your horse. You will need:

• A bridle with a plain snaffle bit
• One small indoor exercise trampoline
• A solid fence post

  1. Hang the bridle so the bit is at least waist high, but lower than your shoulders
  2. Hold the reins out horizontal and put the trampoline at their end
  3. Stand on the trampoline
  4. Take one rein in each hand
  5. Make a soft fist with the rein coming in under the little finger below and the excess out over the thumb on top
  6. Slowly take the slack out of the reins until bridle hangs freely but you can move the bit with a twitch of your little finger
  7. Practice with one hand at a time until you can move just one side of the snaffle with either hand
  8. Now practice any and all combinations of
    • rotating the forearms side to side
    • closing and opening the fingers
    • fixing or relaxing the wrists, elbows, and shoulders
  9. until they are easy and comfortable

Entraining your body to know that stability and safety are found in relaxation before you ever get on the horse is one of the great benefits of these exercises, making it much easier to persuade the horse of the same. Keep in mind:

• That your shoulders, elbows and wrists need to be relaxed and in their right place
• That the snaffle should hang loosely, each side able to move independently of the other

If you lose your balance on the trampoline, chances are you are tensing up. If the snaffle bit becomes stiff and ‘V’-shaped, you are pulling with both hands. That the combination of pressure and pain upsets the horse, destroying all you have gained with finesse. Keep practicing until your balance is secure and you handle the reins with delicacy. One test of horsemanship was to ride with reins made out of paper and thread. Trying this can open your eyes to just how sensitive a horse’s mouth can be, but for the most part just remember that:

• Your bit should be mild
• Your hands should be bare
• Your reins should be thin plain supple leather

Heavy, thick, textured, braided, rubbery, and/or stiff reins make subtle movements near impossible. Gloves are also an unnecessary hindrance, dulling your fine touch. If you need gloves to protect your hands while you ride, you are not only pulling on the reins hard enough to damage your own skin, you are pulling hard enough to damage the horse. You are also causing yourself unnecessary difficulties for as Baucher cautions:

It is, then, in vain
that we attach to the reins,
and place in the horse’s mouth
a more or less murderous instrument;
he will remain insensible to our efforts
as long as we do not communicate suppleness to him,
which alone can enable him to yield.

Baucher, F. (2011-12-06).
New Method of Horsemanship
Including the Breaking and Training of Horses,
with Instructions for Obtaining a Good Seat.
(Kindle Location 570-572). . Kindle Edition.

Coordinating the use of both hands with the aids of the legs and seat opens the doors to the many moves of High School dressage, but you will never get there if you do not lighten up and listen to the horse.


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