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How (And Why) To Ride a Give and Retake of the Reins

dressage give and retake of the reins


When competing, some dressage tests will ask you to briefly release your contact via a “give and retake of the reins.” 

The name of this movement is commonly shorted to “give and retake” and abbreviated as “G&R.” 

It is an exercise often ridden incorrectly during dressage tests, leading to many needless lost marks. 

So, in the article, we’re going to clarify what a give and retake is, why the dressage judge wants to see you perform this exercise, how to ride a give and retake, and some faults you need to avoid. 

What is a give and retake?

During a give and retake, you release your contact for two or three strides by pushing your hands toward your horse’s bit and showing a visible loop in your reins. 

You can ride it by yielding forward both reins together or just the inside rein in isolation. 

In training, you can ride this exercise in all the paces, but during dressage tests, you mainly ride it in the trot and canter. 

What should change when you “give” away your contact?

Nothing!

Nothing about your horse’s way of going should change when you relinquish your rein contact for those two or three strides. 

There should be:

No change to your horse’s outline

Your horse should not lift or lower his head, and his frame should not get longer or shorter. 

No change to your horse’s rhythm and tempo

Your horse should stay in the same pace, maintaining the same regular rhythm with a suitable tempo; he should not speed up or slow down, break out of canter into trot, etc. 

No change to your horse’s stride

Your horse’s strides should not get longer or shorter, flatter or taller. 

No change to your horse’s bend and straightness

Your horse’s body should remain aligned on the straight or curved track you are following; he should not become crooked, swing his quarters inward or outward, etc. 

No change to your horse’s balance and engagement

Your horse’s self-carriage should be maintained; he should not fall onto his forehand, lose his balance, or begin to trail his hindlegs. 

Essentially, your horse’s way of going should remain the same before, during, and after the give and retake. 

Why does the dressage judge want to see you briefly release your contact?

As explained above, during a give a retake, everything about your horse’s way of going should remain unchanged. In which case, why does the dressage judge want to see you ride one? 

Well, the give and retake is a test that allows the judge to evaluate your horse’s contact, self-carriage, and relaxation. 

Only a horse that has been trained correctly along the lines of the dressage scales of training can maintain its own self-carriage and balance during a give and retake, relative to its level of training. 

Why should you ride give and retakes during training? 

Many riders only execute a give and retake during competition and may only practice them for this purpose. However, this exercise has many benefits, and you should ride it regularly during training. 

Here are three reasons why. 

Reason 1 – To check your horse’s contact

If you want to be sure that your horse is working into a correct contact with a genuine outline, then riding a give and retake is an easy way to test this. 

As mentioned above, if the contact is correct, your horse’s way of going will remain unchanged. 

Reason 2 – To encourage your horse to maintain his self-carriage.

If you provide your horse with a contact he can lean into, and you’re forever holding up his head and shoulders, your horse will never learn how to develop his own self-carriage. 

Riding mini versions of the give and retake throughout your schooling sessions will help to prevent your horse from relying on your hand for balance. 

Related Read: How to Develop Self-Carriage

Reason 3 – As a reward.

Horses learn through the removal of pressure: you apply your aid, your horse responds, and you remove the aid. 

The removal of an aid acts as a reward for your horse, letting your horse know that he has responded correctly. 

Therefore, you can use the give and retake to reward your horse during a series of dressage movements. The release of the rein can also include a light pat on your horse’s neck, promoting relaxation. (Don’t include a pat when riding the give and retake as a specified movement in a dressage test.) 

In fact, you will often see international dressage riders execute a slight give and retake with the inside rein during a Grand Prix test to reward their horse after a particularly challenging or complex movement. 

Related Read: How to Reward Your Horse During Dressage Training

Where can you ride a give and retake?

During a dressage test, the give and retake is usually asked for on a circle. However, during training, you can ride a give and retake at any place in the arena, including;

  • on the outside track,
  • on a circle or bend,
  • and on unsupported straight lines (such as the centerline, quarter lines, and diagonal lines).

How is the “give and retake” different from “allowing the horse to stretch”? 

The give and retake is often confused with another dressage movement: “allowing the horse to stretch a long rein.” 

When your horse is “allowed to stretch on a long rein,” he is encouraged to chew the reins out of your hands and take the contact forward and down, stretching his neck as he does so. 

There are several differences between these two exercises. 

Difference 1 – The technique. 

During the give and retake, you need to release the contact by pushing your hands forward towards your horse’s bit, but your reins remain the same length. (More on that technique below.) 

During the ‘allow the horse to stretch,’ your hands stay where they are, and you allow the reins to slide through your fingers and lengthen. 

Difference 2 – The contact 

During the give and retake, you fully release your contact to show a clear and visible loop of the reins. 

During the ‘allow the horse to stretch,’ your contact with the bit is maintained, albeit on a longer rein. 

Difference 3 – Duration  

The give and retake exercise lasts only two or three strides. 

The ‘allow the horse to stretch’ exercise lasts for a minimum of half of a circle, giving your horse time to seek your contact by lowering and stretching his neck.

Riding a give and retake during a dressage competition

Have you received judges’ comments like, “G&R needs to be more clearly shown” or “no obvious G&R” when you thought you’d done it?

For the dressage judge to award top marks for this movement, you must show a clear visible slack loop of the rein(s) for two to three strides. 

If you do not show a clear release of the contact, the judge has to award you a score below 5.0. 

During training, your contact releases can be more subtle as they are only for your benefit and information, but the release must be obvious if specified during a test. 

How to ride a give and retake of the reins

During a dressage test

Here are three steps to riding a correct and clear give and retake for the purpose of a dressage competition. 

Step 1 – Prepare your horse

As with everything in dressage, preparation is critical.

Before you arrive at the place/marker where you are required to perform the give and retake, check that your horse is straight and moving in the correct rhythm at a suitable tempo. 

Ride a half-halt and ensure your horse is as balanced as possible. 

Related Read: How to Ride a Half-Halt

You may also want to make several mini-gives, i.e., minute contact releases so small that no one can see them but big enough that your horse notices.

Essentially, before you release the rein(s), you must ensure that your horse is working correctly and in a degree of self-carriage. 

Step 2 – Ride the give and retake

Push your hands smoothly forward in the direction of your horse’s bit until your elbows are straight and you have no weight in your hands – this should be enough to allow the reins to visibly loop.

During the give, the rest of your position and aids should stay the same. Your body should remain upright in the correct ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment, and your seat should continue to follow your horse’s movement, whether in rising trot, sitting trot, or canter. 

Any changes in your position and/or seat could cause your horse to change in rhythm, balance, carriage, etc. 

Remember: The important criterion is that the reins must show a visible loop for a couple of strides with no changes to your horse’s way of going for the judge to be able to give you a decent mark.

Side Note:

It is a challenging fact that not every rider or horse has the ideal conformation. For example, if you have short arms or your horse has a tricky neck conformation, you may follow the above instructions but still struggle to show a noticeable release of the contact. 

In this case, you may need to incline your upper body forward slightly (from your hips, not your waist) to achieve a visible loss of contact.

Changing your upper body positioning is not ideal, as you will shift your weight more onto your horse’s shoulders, potentially causing a loss of balance/increase in speed. If this occurs, keep your seat firmly in the saddle and close your upper legs more snugly around your horse’s ribcage to discourage him from speeding up.

Step 3 – Restore the contact

After a couple of strides (no more than three), gradually and smoothly bring your hands back into their normal position to retake your regular contact and continue with your test. 

If you established your contact correctly in the beginning, then your horse will happily accept your retake of the reins without any loss of submission. 

During training

During training, you do not have to release the contact over so many strides or make the give obvious since it is only for your purpose. 

Instead, simply move one or both hands slightly forward to test and encourage your horse’s self-carriage. Think of softening the contact as opposed to creating a visible loop. 

TIP: A good time to practice the give and retake is after a half-halt when you feel your horse’s balance shift more to his hindquarters. Your horse will be in his best moment of self-carriage, and it rewards your horse for responding correctly to your half-halt. 

What not to do when riding a give and retake

Here are four things you must refrain from doing when riding a give and retake of the reins. 

1. Do not throw your weight forward suddenly.

Doing so will only cause your horse to lose balance, fall onto his forehand, and/or speed up. 

Where possible, ensure that your body stays upright. However, if you have to lean forwards slightly to show a clear loop in the reins, do it smoothly.  

2. Do not straighten your arms forward at shoulder height.

Lifting your hands up to shoulder height keeps the reins taught and maintains the contact, albeit in a different place.

You must push your hands toward your horse’s bit for a visible loop. 

3. Do not snatch the rein back after the release.

Ensure you retake the contact smoothly and softly; this will prevent your horse from coming against the contact and resisting. 

4. Do not continue the contact release for too many strides.

It is not a competition for who can release the rein for the longest. Doing so will only leave your horse wondering where you’ve gone. It will invite your horse to interpret the movement as a stretch, and he may search for the contact. 

What if your horse’s way of going changes?

If you have followed our instructions in this article but still encounter faults such as;

  • your horse losing balance,
  • your horse speeding up,
  • your horse slowing down,
  • your horse tossing his head,
  • your horse losing the bend,
  • your horse falling in/out,
  • or your horse resisting the contact as you reestablish it,

you need to go back to basics and revisit the dressage scales of training, particularly the first three scales of rhythm, suppleness, and contact. 

Related Reads:

The above faults indicate that you are controlling your horse too much from the reins; for example, you are using only the reins to dictate your horse’s speed, outline, bend, etc. Therefore, when you release the contact, the wheels fall off. 

Here are some examples of things that can go wrong and what they indicate.  

Example 1

If you give with the rein(s) and your horse lifts his head and stretches out his nose, and when you retake the contact he comes against the bit, this is a sign that you were holding your horse’s head in position with the reins. 

Your original contact was not genuine and had not been established correctly. 

Example 2

If you give with the rein(s) and your horse loses balance, falling onto his forehand as though he just fell off a cliff, this is a sign that your horse was relying on your reins for balance. 

As an analogy, imagine leaning against a wall that suddenly disappears; this is what it would be like for your horse during the release.  

Related Reads:

Example 3

If you give with your inside rein while on a circle and your horse looks to the outside, this is a sign that you have been turning your horse using your inside rein in isolation instead of bending your horse through his body with your inside leg; your inside rein was holding the bend. 

Related Read: How to Turn Your Horse Without Pulling on the Inside Rein

Example 4

If you give with your reins and your horse rushes off, this is a sign that you have been controlling your horse’s tempo by using only the reins. As you release this contact, this is akin to releasing your horse’s handbrake. 

Related Read: How to Ride a Horse That is Sensitive to the Leg and Rushes

As you can see, the simple action of yielding your contact forward, whether for a dressage test or during training, can reveal a great deal of information. 

Many riders are unaware they are holding their horses with the reins or relying too much on them. 

Only once your horse works rhythmically forward over a supple and relaxed back into a genuine elastic contact will a correct give a retake be possible. 

If you need more help achieving this, check out the below articles. 

Related Reads:

In conclusion

A give and retake of the reins is a movement that is required in many dressage tests, although rarely ridden correctly. 

During this exercise, you must push your hands toward your horse’s bit to show a visible loop of the rein(s) and a clear release of the contact for a couple of strides. Your goal is that your horse does not change his way of going before, during, or after the movement.

The give and retake tests your horse’s contact, self-carriage, and balance. If your horse is too reliant on your reins for balance, or if force has been used to get him on the bit, you will not be able to execute this exercise correctly.  

Related Reads:




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