When the horse snatches at the reins, this can be quite infuriating to the rider!
If it happens in a dressage test, it will not go unnoticed by the judge and will cost the rider a mark or two per movement.
Sometimes the problem can occur simply because flies are bothering the horse, or because a piece of tack (e.g. a flash) has become loose and is flapping around within reach of the horse’s teeth!
However, snatching at the contact can be a habit that the horse has formed due to incorrect or sloppy training and usually occurs during general riding and training, not just during a test.
So, how do you stop your horse from snatching at the reins?
When and why does the horse snatch at the reins?
When trying to stop your horse from snatching at the reins, the most suitable course of action firstly involves keeping calm, and secondly, analyzing exactly in what type of situation the habit manifests itself.
For example, some horses may snatch the reins in the following situations:
- at the very start of exercise
- having just been mounted at a competition
- mid-session after training an area of weakness, e.g. transitions
- end of a training session if the horse is particularly fatigued
- in an unusually tense environment, e.g. warm-up at a competition
- in a gait of a slower tempo, e.g. medium or free walk in a dressage test
- in moments of relaxation between movements in a session
- young horses that are mentally and physically tired
Snatching the reins is usually a sign of tension or anxiety.
The horse may be generally working quite well and showing daily signs of progression in the training exercises and just momentarily snatches the reins in a quiet moment. This is not unusual and certainly does not warrant a reprimand.
If the rider recognizes snatching in any of the above situations, that is a positive start!
If the snatching occurs predominantly after a strenuous part of an exercise, this is fairly easily dealt with.
Tips on how to prevent your horse from snatching at the reins
Make sure that your leg and rein aids get a prompt response.
If the horse needs lots of repetitive leg aids for one simple exercise, the repetition of ‘weak’ aids may cause anxiety.
This is the best way to sort out the problem – looking to the aids!
Read: How to Refine Your Aids for Dressage
Identify how supple the horse is.
Any stiffening that causes resistance to the bend or staying in a together, working frame, can cause unnecessary tension and/or hollowing, which is usually a precursor to snatching.
Intend to work the horse into a consistent rein and seat contact to enable the horse to build up good musculature in the hindquarters and back.
This is a principle that will help the horse to carry himself more on the hind legs.
This means that he will be less likely to ‘tip’ onto the riders’ hands, potentially a cause of snatching.
If the horse is young and only just starting to stay through onto the riders’ aids, allow the horse frequent walk breaks, even in a short session.
This will enable the musculature to build up in the recovery state and help prevent stress and fatigue.
Try not to keep the horse in the same tempo or frame for too long.
All horses, especially young horses, need frequent variations of tempo and frequent moments in which to stretch the top line muscles so that they do not become tired and inflexible.
Remember that if the horse feels ‘fixed’ or rigid, this will cause mental anxiety and predispose to snatching as a learned behavior, which is much more difficult to eradicate.
Give rewards during exercise either by patting the neck, touching the withers with the index finger mid-exercise, and/or using the voice in an appropriate and rewarding tone.
This will help keep the horse with you and prevent nervousness, anxiety and/or tension.
Snatching at the reins is a sure way to lose marks in a dressage test.
This habit does not usually manifest itself purely in the competition arena, but usually appears during training or general hacking out too.
Make sure that your horse’s bridle and bit are a correct and comfortable fit for him, and have his teeth checked by a qualified equine dentist or by your vet.
When you are sure that all is well and that the horse is comfortable in his mouth, use the tips given above to help cure the habit.