Good hands are essential if you are to be successful as a dressage rider.
If your hands are sympathetic and ‘soft’, your horse will happily work into the rein contact without tension or tightness through his back or neck, enabling you to ride his hocks more underneath him in order to develop engagement and true connection.
In order to offer the horse a pleasant contact, it’s important that your hands are carried correctly, and it, therefore, follows that your reins must be the correct length in order to do so.
There seems to be a degree of variance of rein length amongst competitors; some carry their hands low with long reins, whereas others hold their hands very high with short reins.
But how long should your reins be?
How should you carry your hands?
Before examining the correct rein length, it’s important that you know how to carry your hands correctly.
The reins should form a straight, unbroken line from your elbow, along your forearm, through a soft wrist to the horse’s mouth.
Your thumb should lie flat on top of your hand, following this straight line, and your wrist should be upright. Your fingers should be closed around the reins with your hands carried as a pair and kept still.
How long should your reins be?
To some extent, the length of your reins will depend on the level of schooling your horse has achieved.
Younger horses that are being worked into a longer, lower frame will require a slightly longer rein than more advanced horses whose frame will be shorter and more compact.
However, whatever the level of your horse’s schooling, the position of your hands should remain consistent.
Your hands should be carried at roughly the same width as your horse’s withers and a little above them.
You can carry your hands closer together if your horse is working at a more advanced level and is reactive to your seat and leg aids, rather than relying on your hands for directional aids.
As fashions come and go you might see dressage riders riding with over-short reins and carrying their hands very high. This exaggerated position just encourages tension in your upper body and may lead to you leaning backward. This, in turn, will cause tension through the horse’s back and may also result in an incorrect, artificially high head carriage.
Common problems caused by unsuitable rein length
If your reins are too long, you’ll find that your hands will end up in your stomach with your wrists ‘broken’.
This can present a rather ‘blocking’ contact to the horse and makes it very difficult for you to give him clear signals.
In addition, continually having to shorten your reins will offer the horse an unsteady contact, presenting him with a lot of ‘background noise’ that will blur the messages you are sending down the reins.
When you have very short reins, there’s a temptation to continually fiddle or saw at the horse’s mouth in an attempt to encourage him into an outline.
This usually results in resistance to the contact, which manifests itself in head tilting or in a swinging head carriage.
The correct contact ‘feel’
A correct contact is one that is soft, yet steady, with no visible looping in the reins unless you deliberately yield your hand forward (as in a give and retake).
To gauge the amount of ‘grip’ you should have, imagine you are holding a bird in your hand – strong enough that you are not going to let it escape, but not so strong that you will crush it.
The ‘feel’ you have in your hands is different at different training levels even with the same horse, it will change during different movements, such as transitions and half-halts (when it may be momentarily firmer).
It’s important to understand that it’s the horse that seeks the rider’s hand, and the rider who, in turn, grants it.
How you carry your hands and the length of your reins will have a big influence over the way your horse goes.
A soft, elastic contact provided by a still hand will encourage the horse to work forward over his back to seek the bit.
- How to Keep a Consistent Rein Contact
- The Scales of Training: Scale 3 – Contact
- How to Stop Your Horse Coming Behind the Contact
- How To Use Your Seat