Being able to offer your horse the correct rein length is essential if you are to be successful as a dressage rider.
If the contact that you offer is steady, elastic, and sympathetic, your horse will happily work into the rein contact without tension or tightness through his back or neck. This will enable you to ride his hocks more underneath him to develop engagement and true collection.
To offer your horse this pleasant contact, your hands must be carried correctly and it, therefore, follows that your reins must be the correct length.
So, in this article, we’re going to cover what makes a correct contact, what happens when your reins are too long or too short, how to establish the correct rein length, and when to change your rein length.
What is a correct contact?
Before we delve into the topic of rein length, it first makes sense that we discuss what it is that we are trying to achieve when establishing a contact with the horse.
A correct contact is soft, yet steady, with no visible looping in the reins (unless you deliberately yield your hand forward for movements such as a give and retake).
Importantly, the contact is not created by the rider taking a tight hold of the reins. Instead, the contact should be created by the transmission of energy from the horse’s active hindquarters, over a relaxed and swinging back, resulting in the horse seeking a contact with the rider’s hand.
This makes the rein length important because the reins need to be long enough to allow the horse to work without having a fixed or harsh contact imposed upon him, but not so long that the horse can’t reach or stretch into the contact.
Factors that can influence the length of your reins
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to rein length.
Although it would be much easier for us to say that your reins should be X-centimeters in length, that’s just not possible.
Instead, the rein length will vary based on the following four factors:
- Your horse’s size and conformation.
- Your size and arm length. (Your conformation.)
- Your horse’s level of training. (Novice horses that are being worked in a longer, lower frame will require a longer rein than more advanced horses whose frame will be shorter and more compact.)
- The movement you are riding. (Some movements require a longer rein length than others.)
This means that the rein length can be different on;
- the same horse with two different riders,
- two different horses with the same rider,
- the same horse and rider at different levels within their dressage career,
- and the same horse and rider at different moments within a dressage test.
The length of your reins can be too long, too short, or just right. So, let’s talk about how the length of your reins can affect your horse’s overall way of going.
What happens when your reins are too long?
If your reins are too long, you’ll find that your hands will end up in your stomach with your wrists ‘broken’. This breaks the straight line that you should have from the horse’s bit through to your elbows, and it can present a rather ‘blocking’ contact to the horse, making it very difficult for you to give him clear signals.
Your horse will find it difficult to work into the contact because no contact will be offered to him. This will also make it more likely that your horse will run along on his forehand and that transitions will be messy and unbalanced.
In addition, continually having to shorten your reins will create an unsteady contact, presenting your horse with a lot of ‘background noise’ that will blur the messages you are sending down the reins.
What happens when your reins are too short?
When you have very short reins, there’s a temptation to continually fiddle or see-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 a swinging head carriage.
Short reins will also encourage your horse to lean on your hands for balance, rather than promote self-carriage.
Also, your horse is likely to come too short in the neck, closing the gap under the horse’s throat latch area. He may also come behind the vertical, open his mouth, duck behind the contact, and/or drop his poll too low in an attempt to escape your tight rein contact.
This also has a knock-on effect of your horse becoming tense, tight, and hollow through his back and disengaging his hind legs, and a horse that works in this way will never be able to show true collection.
- How to Stop Your Horse From Coming Too Short in the Neck
- How to Stop Your Horse Coming Behind the Vertical
- How to Stop Your Horse From Opening His Mouth (Without Using a Flash)
What happens when your reins are the right length?
When your reins are the correct length, your horse can swing comfortably through his back, powered by his hindquarters, and connect to the bit.
Your horse will carry his nose slightly in front of the vertical, or on the vertical in higher degrees of collection, and his throat latch area will be open.
A contact will be made with your hand because your horse will be filling up the reins as he stretches through the base of his neck and reaches for the bit.
Once this connection has been made, you then have the ability to ride effective half-halts, to help balance your horse, to ride smooth and fluent transitions, and to position your horse correctly for school movements and lateral exercises.
Your horse is also more likely to remain soft and supple throughout his entire body, remaining relaxed both mentally and physically.
How to establish the correct rein length
Step 1 – Hold the reins correctly
At all times, you should be able to draw a straight line from your horse’s bit, up the reins, through your hand, wrist, and forearm to your elbow, as shown in the diagram below.
Your thumbs should lie flat on top of your hands, following this straight line, and your wrists should be upright. Your fingers should be closed around the reins with your hands carried as a pair and kept still.
Your hands should be carried at roughly the same width as your horse’s withers and a little above them, and they should always feel as though they are ‘pushing’ your horse to the bit, rather than pulling backward.
Importantly, your elbow must remain supple and your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders should all ‘breathe’ with your horse’s movement, rather than remaining fixed and rigid.
If your arms become stiff or tight, then this will not create a soft and elastic contact for your horse to work into. This will make it very difficult to connect your horse’s hindquarters to the bridle because a horse will only seek a contact with his rider’s hands if that contact is elastic and comfortable, and he can trust that his mouth won’t be bruised.
Step 2 – Ride the horse freely forwards
Begin on a long rein and use your legs to encourage your horse to move forwards without restriction.
You are aiming for a regular and consistent rhythm at a suitable (brisk but not quick) tempo.
NOTE: Although your horse must be working actively forwards, be careful not to push him beyond the speed and energy where he can still comfortably find a reasonable balance; a decent contact may still be established without a great degree of impulsion, provided that your horse is responsive to your leg aids.
Step 3 – Begin to pick up the reins
Keep your elbows and wrists soft, your legs on, and gradually begin to shorten your reins, stopping when you can feel that your horse is comfortably reaching into his bridle.
Do not try to force your horse on the bit, pull his head in, or fiddle with the reins. Instead, allow your horse to fill up the reins by stretching into the contact and connecting with the bit.
If you feel you are creating backward pressure on the bit, or that your horse is drawing back from your hand, then you have shortened your reins too far. Allow a little more with the rein, ride forwards, and start again.
Step 4 – Ride the horse UP to the contact
After steps one, two, and three, more than likely, your horse is going to be in a long, low frame, and your reins will probably be quite long. There is nothing wrong with this, and if you want to keep working your horse in this stretched frame, which you may want to do during a warm-up, or if your horse is still quite young, then this is absolutely fine.
However, if you want to shorten your horse’s frame and ask him to lift his shoulders and head carriage, you need to ride exercises that encourage his hind legs to step more underneath his center of gravity. These include transitions, circles, and lateral movements, combined with the half-halt.
- How to Progress With Transitions
- How to Use Circles in Dressage Training
- How to Introduce Lateral Work (And in What Order)
- How to Ride a Half-Halt
As your horse begins to engage, more of his weight will shift to his hindlegs, creating a taller and shorter frame (suitable for his current level of training) and you will need to then gradually shorten your rein contact to accommodate this adjustment.
NOTE: You must ride the hind legs under first. Do not try to shorten the frame or lift your horse’s head artificially by first shortening the reins or taking a tighter contact. Always ride from the back to the front.
Related Read: How to Ride Your Horse From “Back to Front”
Remember to still keep your horse working in front of your leg, remaining supple through his back, and stretching into the bit; it is the horse that should be connecting to the hands, not the other way around.
TIP: Focus on the feel!
One of the best tips that we can give you is to not focus on the measured length of your reins. Instead, focus on the feeling that you have in your hands.
As we’ve discussed, there is no one-set rein length, but if you can feel a steady, even weight in your hands with an elastic connection to the bit with your horse’s nose slightly in front of the vertical (or on the vertical in higher levels of collection) then, more than likely, your reins will be the correct length.
How (and when) to change your rein length
Once you have established the correct rein length, your job is not done. There are exercises where you are required to either move your hands or lengthen and shorten the reins.
Here are a few of the most common dressage test movements that require a rein adjustment, and how you go about doing it.
When asking your horse to lengthen his strides for either a medium or extended pace, it’s important that you also allow with the reins so that your horse can lengthen his whole frame and place his nose in front of the vertical.
To do this, keep your hands on the reins in the same place and just push your hands slightly forward towards your horse’s bit. This will give your horse the extra rein length needed for him to extend his outline and strides.
Then, as you bring your horse back, simply move your hands gently back into their original position as your horse takes more weight onto his hind legs during the transition back into a working or collected pace.
Related Read: How to Teach Your Horse to Lengthen
The give and retake
During a give and retake the dressage judge wants to see a clear visible looping of the reins. This demonstrates that your horse has achieved a degree of self-carriage and you are not holding the horse’s head in position with the reins.
To ride this correctly, straighten your arms and push your hands towards your horse’s bit for two or three strides before moving them smoothly back again into their original position.
During this movement, your reins should visibly loop so that you have no contact for those two or three strides, but your horse should remain in the same balance, rhythm, and outline.
Related Read: How to Ride a Give and Retake of the Reins
Stretching on a long rein
During movements where your horse is required to stretch on a long rein (this also includes the free walk on a long rein) your horse is required to take the contact forward and down until his nose is somewhat in line with his shoulder.
To allow your horse to do this, you’re going to slowly let the reins slip through your fingers so your horse can “chew the reins” out of your hands.
Importantly, even though your reins will get considerably longer, the contact must still be maintained and your horse must still be working over his topline to seek a connection with the bit.
To bring your horse out of the stretch, you’re going to use your legs and seat to ride your horse back UP into the contact (see step 4 and the diagram above), carefully shortening and adjusting your rein length to accommodate your horse’s now shorter and taller frame.
When it comes to establishing the correct rein length, two main problems can cause riders to have reins that are too long or too short.
Problem #1 – Your horse is too heavy in the contact
A horse that leans on the contact does so because he is using his head, neck, and reins for balance.
This can cause riders to have long “washing-line” reins, abandoning the contact altogether, or to have reins that are too short, resulting in them carrying their horse’s head.
This fault is common in young and/or unschooled horses because they haven’t yet been taught how to transfer their weight back onto their hindquarters.
To help correct this problem, you need to follow the steps above and work on a combination of correctly ridden transitions, circles, and lateral exercises, all whilst making use of the half-halt.
These will help to encourage your horse’s hind legs to step further forward underneath his body and for him to carry more weight on his hindquarters rather than on his shoulders, relative to his level of training.
As your horse’s strength and balance gradually develop, he will no longer need to lean on your hands for support.
Related Read: How to Stop Your Horse From Leaning on the Bit
Problem #2 – Your horse is too light in the contact
Although you want to have a light contact, you don’t want to have an ’empty’ contact, which can happen when the horse fails to connect to the bit and instead ducks behind the contact, often bringing his nose into his chest and coming behind the vertical.
Although it is tempting in these instances to keep shortening your reins, you must avoid doing this at all costs because the more you shorten your reins, the more your horse will continue to evade the contact, curling up his neck even more.
Instead, to help correct this issue, encourage your horse to work forwards in a good rhythm without restriction, and focus on having him respond promptly to light leg aids. Eventually, he should begin to seek the contact and uncurl his neck.
If, at any point, your horse begins to draw back from the contact, then just allow with the reins again and ride forward.
If this problem is a longstanding one, you must prepare to be patient as this is not a quick one to fix.
Related Read: How to Stop Your Horse From Dropping Behind the Contact
The correct rein length is one that allows your horse to comfortably connect to the bit, with his nose slightly in front of the vertical and an open throat latch area.
Reins that are too short can cause tightness through the horse’s back and resistance to the bit, whereas reins that are too long offer the horse no contact to connect to.
When riding to establish the correct rein length, you should always be riding your horse forwards into the contact, and to create a shorter and taller outline you ride your horse’s hind legs under and then adjust your rein length as necessary; you do not shorten the reins first as this only serves to artificially change the outline.
And lastly, remember that your rein length should not be static. It will change based on the exercise you are riding and your horse’s current level of training. So, instead of focusing on the measured length of the rein, focus on the feeling you have in your hands.