How to Rein a Horse – Handling Your Reins

When teaching riders how to rein a horse, we clinicians teach “handling of the reins” in a particular order and emphasize certain aspects because we repeatedly see a pattern of “universal truths” from one rider to the next.  We see this and we see opportunities to make marked improvements fast.  Students don’t realize how much pressure they’re applying, that they never release, that they’re actually rewarding poor behavior, etc.  They’re mad, the horse is mad – and they pay me to put on a black and white striped shirt and blow a whistle.  “Stop fighting; go to your respective corners.”  This stuff is simple – but there’s a pattern to it, a flow and rhythm.  If you’re having issues with your horse – or just want to improve as a rider, give this material a whirl. 

Every time you pick up your reins from now on – each and every time – I want you to first put it in your head that your horse is about to do “whatever” perfectly.  He’s the perfect horse not after he does something, but before.  This is due to a phenomena that’s really rather obvious:  If your horse has been fighting you for three days on that turn to the right – we as humans naturally assume he won’t do it on day four either.  So, what do we do?  We grit our teeth and pick up the reins with eight million pounds of pressure to force the issue or to “be ready.”  However… your horse, being no dunce… thinks to himself “Every day this guy tries to rattle the teeth outta my head.  I’ve gotta be ready.”  And so he sees you going for the reins and protects himself by clenching everything from his teeth to his butt.  Good luck with your turn.

Instead, put a smile on your face and get it in your head that he’s about to do (something) perfectly.  You do this on things you’ve practiced a million times; you do this the first time you practice something.  Whether he’s been doing sidepasses for ten years or you’ve never before introduced the concept, you’ll pick up the reins and “assume” he’s about to fly fluidly to the right or left.  If you pick up the rein to turn, assume he’s going to soften his neck, round his back and step like a champ.  If he’s never backed six inches in his life, you’ll pick up the reins and assume he’s going to scoot backwards like poop outta goose.  Why?  Because your horse can only get as light as the lightest pressure you apply.  Start with twenty pounds and you’ll always be at twenty pounds.  That’s an important concept, one you should underscore and repeat out loud.  Plus… trumpet flare please… giving your horse the benefit of the doubt puts an end to adversarial relationships.  It kills that vicious cycle of “act-react” with you and your buddy the horse so the two of you can concentrate on improving your skill set. 

If or when your horse ignores your request, THEN you can amp your pressure or back up your request with further motivation. 

This article was extracted in part from the “How to Rein a Horse” series. To read more, or to find a clinic or Certified John Lyons horse trainer near you, visit