Riding on a Loose Rein

Everywhere you go in the hunter/jumper world, it seems you’ll find a majority of trainers, judges and riders advocating riding horses – and particularly show hunters – on a loose rein. I have never shown my own horses this way, and never will, despite the fact that most judges seem to require it if a horse is to pin in a class, even though the USEF Rule Book states that light contact with the horse’s mouth is required,” (HU128 Under Saddle and Hack Classes,) as opposed to no contact. Of course, there are times when a loose rein is beneficial, but knowing when and where it is appropriate is key to good horsemanship. And from what can be witnessed at any show barn or showground across the country, it is clear that good horsemanship has become unfashionable, to say the least.

When is it appropriate to ride on a loose rein?

· When first mounting and settling in (if the horse is quiet)

· When cooling out or resting

· While executing a “free walk” (though this can be done on a long rein as well)

· When “giving the rein” to a horse in true self-carriage or to test for self carriage–a temporary situation

· Over a jump (a “crest release”) but only when it is not possible to give a following “automatic” release (for example, this release may be appropriate for novices, if one is losing one’s balance, or to give confidence to a horse who has been hit in the mouth over a jump.) Notice that a crest release results in the rider having to abruptly reestablish contact after the jump which can contribute to horses becoming tense, resistant or quick to their fences, etc., and is recommended only in “emergency” circumstances when necessary for the rider’s security.

· In order to encourage the horse to stretch down and seek the contact (while riding the horse forward - obviously reins should not be too loose in this case.)

· In a remedial context, such as to rehabilitate a horse whose mouth has been ruined by improper riding or bitting and regain its trust - often horses who rush or run through the hand do so defensively because they expect to be grabbed in the mouth or have the rider hang on the reins, so trust can be regained slowly by avoiding holding the horse’s mouth.

At all other times when riding with a snaffle, there should be the lightest possible contact between the rider and the horse’s mouth, and this is only achieved through the bit. Also, the terms “loose rein” and “long rein” are not interchangeable. Riding on a long rein is an invaluable part of normal riding, but the important difference is that while on a long rein, the rider maintains contact with the horse throughout. On a loose rein, there is a loop in the rein as the rider abandons all contact with mouth for extended periods.

Why is riding on a loose rein inappropriate?

Lack of 2-way communication: without the benefit of a light contact throughout your ride, your communication via the rein becomes one-way: from rider to horse only. A rider who maintains a soft, following contact with the horse can “feel” much about the horse’s state of mind as evidenced by tension, stiffening the jaw, putting the tongue over the bit, or softly chewing the bit, etc.

Subtlety of aids: while in constant contact with the horse’s mouth, it is possible to apply the rein aids more smoothly and therefore effectively. The sudden change from the non-contact of a loose rein to contact for the purpose of steering or stopping, etc. is very jarring to the horse, particularly when riding in a single jointed or straight bar snaffle, as the former, while in a neutral position in the horse’s mouth on a slack rein, will collapse against the sensitive bars and poke into the roof of the mouth when the reins are picked up, and the latter during one-sided rein aids because a straight mouthpiece will act like a see-saw, rocking back and forth across the tongue and hitting the bar on one side or the other (though this effect is considerably less with a mullen mouth, which distributes the pressure more evenly across the tongue and bars, and is therefore generally better tolerated by horses.) It is this kind of surprise jarring of the bit with each rein aid that causes horses to become wary of the bit and seek to evade it, become resistant to it, or simply panic because it knows there will be no warning before a sharp pressure is applied to its mouth, and the horse understandably lives in constant anticipation/fear of this. Sadly, these are often the horses who end up being bitted more and more severely, when the problem was too severe a bit action in the first place.

This sudden jarring effect is considerably less with a curb or the curb portion of a pelham, simply because the rotational action of these bits causes them to increase pressure gradually, and is therefore less sudden and sharp. Curbs are often considered to be much more severe than snaffles – and it is true that their capacity for delivering exponentially increased pressure to the mouth makes them a dangerous and potentially abusive tool in the wrong hands, the well-fitted curb is also a milder bit than most snaffles because of its ability to increase pressure gradually and subtly. In other words, it gives the horse a fair warning and gives him a chance to respond before any pressure is actually applied. The same is also true of the other much maligned – but often well tolerated – bit, the gag, which also rotates slightly in the mouth before pressure is applied, and then the bit is lifted into the corners of the mouth, offering some relief to the sensitive bars.

The snaffle, so often touted as the “kindest” form of bit, when used improperly becomes a blunt instrument in the horse’s mouth, used for bludgeoning the horse into obedience. Too often, effects that might have been accomplished with the slightest precision effect of a curb are had instead by hacking and sawing on the horse’s mouth with a snaffle – and frequently with one of the serrated models such as the slow twist, corkscrew or twisted wire. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the hunter ring, or among the adherents of the “kick and yank” school of dressage. But make no mistake, a snaffle can be just as severe - if not more so - than a curb, particularly when ridden on a loose rein.

People often think they are being kind by riding on a loose rein, or they mistakenly believe that it makes their horse appear to be better trained (a mistake judges too often make themselves) when this loose rein riding very often masks the fact that an improperly trained horse or one that has been poorly ridden, cannot (due to lameness) or will not (due to resistance) accept contact or positioning for longer than is necessary to turn or adjust speed. This is seen particularly in the hunter ring where, when the rein is finally applied, horses accustomed to going on a slack rein will open their mouths, throw up their heads (those ubiquitous standing martingales come into play here,) quicken their pace, stick their tongues out, tense up, or root down against the rider’s hand, to name a few common evasions. For some inexplicable reason, this has become the preferred riding style for hunters, and judges no longer see a problem with this kind of behavior from the horses, falsely believing that a horse that goes on a loose rein is better trained and more suitable for “hunting” than the one who goes correctly: slightly round, engaged and on a light contact – i.e. “on the bit.”

Horse’s balance:

The horse was not designed to carry weight on its back. By riding the horse, we add our weight to its own, requiring it to find a way to balance itself with the addition of this new weight. Without a rider, the horse is very well balanced and capable of moving in ways that would be unthinkable once it has to carry a rider is on its back. And yet there are those who never stop to consider what their weight does to the horse’s balance, and assume the horse can go along as before, as if nothing had changed. These are the people who think it best to ride a horse on a loose, flopping rein while it inverts its posture, hollows its back and fails to track under itself properly. In other words, these are uneducated, inconsiderate riders.

Thoughtful, practical riders discovered a long time ago that, in order to help the horse balance the rider on its back, perform to the best of its ability, and avoid unnecessary injury, it needed to be trained to rebalance itself under the weight of the rider. Because the rider sits behind the wither, the horse’s front end is weighted more heavily than nature intended, and this additional strain on the front end has to be alleviated. This is done through various degrees of collection – i.e., getting the horse to bascule under the rider and shift his weight toward his hind end to redistribute the additional weight on his front end. And this can only be accomplished by a combination of aids from the rider, primarily from the seat/weight aids, and guided by the hand. I should mention that bits are not necessary to obtain this effect; one can just as easily maintain an appropriate contact with a bitless bridle or cavesson, for example. But whether one’s preference is for bits or bitless bridles, it is almost impossible for a horse to properly engage his body under a rider without this minor adjustment, and even if it is used primarily during exercise to develop the muscles needed to carry the rider, it is nonetheless necessary. Neglecting this point, in my opinion, is a major source of lameness in the horse, from front-end injuries to sore backs.

Despite the current trend in the hunter world and elsewhere, we are not doing horses any favors by abandoning their mouths and riding on slack reins. The ambiguous wording in the USEF Rule Book does not help, as many trainers seem to come to the conclusion that, if light contact is good, no contact must be better. I would love to see the wording in the USEF Rule Book changed to “contact with the horse’s mouth is required; contact should be light,” and then see it enforced by judges. But then, I’d like to see the entire process of judge certification changed as well (but that’s a subject for another post.) Of course, I’m not optimistic that this change will happen, since too many “top” trainers are certainly not going to ditch their pet theories when it keeps them in the ribbons. It is a sad case of the blind not only leading the blind, but judging them as well. When riders are encouraged to abandon classically correct equitation in favor of fads, or in order to satisfy the personal preferences of judges, we all suffer – and none more than the horses.


  1. I would love to know your opinion on the loose-ring double-jointed snaffle versus the regular eggbutt snaffle.

    I hadn't really had issues with the regular but in an effort to go "less" have shifted to the double jointed loose rings and am finding the horses have responded well thus far. I have always thought the regular snaffle was mildest, but then started doing some reading and discovered with our young QH that he was very reactive to the single-jointed snaffle angling up to the roof of his mouth when applied.

    I had been paranoid about the loose rings pinching the corners of the mouths, but thus far that hasn't happened, and they are chewing and licking much more with these bits.

    I remember with my first horse, the bit he was used to was a D-ring curb, and he went quite well in that.

  2. Billie: thanks for bringing this up! I once heard a “top” trainer telling a student that “the more joints a bit has, the more severe it is.” This is totally wrong. Good bitting is dependent on the conformation of the horse and his mouth, as well as his personality, but generally I think most horses prefer the double jointed ‘french link’ style bit (not the Dr. Bristol variety) over the single jointed snaffle for exactly the reason you mention: the single joint tends to break forward crack the horse in the roof of the mouth (if the horse’s head is on the vertical where it should be – one of the reasons so many horses get above or behind the bit – to position the joint in the mouth where it doesn’t hurt!) This is particularly true when it has fixed cheeks like the eggbutt, the dee (especially when fitted high in the mouth) or the full cheek (and don’t even get me started on using a full cheek with bit keepers, which holds the bit in such a position it has nowhere to go but straight into the roof of the mouth!) The french mouth bit also applies less force to the bars, which some horses won’t tolerate.
    Generally speaking, the more joints a bit has, the milder it is. A waterford, which looks kind of horrible, is so flexible it distributes pressure evenly across the whole mouth, which many horses prefer. Of course, it will be severe if you plan on sawing back and forth with it, but that would make any but severe! I even have a bit which has a curb chain for a mouthpiece – which would seem severe, but if used properly is incredibly light, soft and flexible, and the horses love it (and love to mouth it.) It can also be covered with latex or leather to soften it even more…
    A well made, properly fitted loose ring shouldn’t pinch, but they do wear out, so you have to replace them when gaps start to form around the ring, or you can buy rubber bit guards to keep the ‘pinchy’ part away from the lips while preserving the mobility of the loose ring.

  3. Thanks so much.

    I totally went off on the bit tangent and forgot to mention that the entire post - the loose rein - was very helpful to read, esp. as one of my focuses right now as a rider is getting my hands to be very steady and thus soft.

    I struggle with keeping a light contact, as I am so averse to "pulling" but in my intention to be soft that way, I end up with a loose rein and my not yet steady enough hands actually jostle the bit around. Sigh.

    It will come, I know, but in the meantime I have to re-train myself to keep some contact and at the same time keep my hands quiet.

    One more bit question - do you have a source for bits bigger than 6 inches?

    Keil Bay is in a 6-inch and he needs just a tad bigger, but I can't find one anywhere - most of the bigger bits are for driving the big drafts, and of course aren't what I'm looking for.

    No one in a tack shop seems to believe that my 16.2h Hanoverian has a mouth big enough to warrant even a 6-inch, but he does!

  4. billie - learning to ride with a light contact is one of the hardest things a rider has to learn. i had a horse with a hair-trigger mouth, so i only learned out of a need for survival...

    i've always recommended to students a few small fixes to help: use a thin, soft, flexible rein (like a plaited rein) that you don't have to make a fist to hold onto; ride with your fingers slightly open, so they can help absorb some of the motion and also keep the arm muscles from getting stiff; make sure your hands are at a 45 degree angle (as opposed to thumbs straight up and clamped on the rein, which will cause the muscles in your arms to tense up and restrict the following motion. also, practicing with a bitless bridle or riding off a longeing cavesson can take some of the "guilt" out of learning... and making mistakes; we all do it :-\ thankfully horses are so forgiving...

    as for buying bits, i mostly shop european stores because they have a better variety. my horse wears a 6", so i know how hard it can be to find a big bit. it might be more expensive, but try these sites to see if you can find what you need:



    good luck!

  5. whoa, those links didn't come out. try this:



  6. Your tips are very helpful - I am riding Keil Bay in these big leather/web reins that are a little stiff and hard to hold. And I have a small hand. Every trainer I've had so far has focused on the "close your hands into a fist, thumbs up" technique, and now that you've got me thinking outside *that* box, I'm realizing that when I ride Cody, whose bridle has plain leather reins that are very soft and much thinner than the webs, it is far easier for me.

    I was in a consignment tack shop last week and found a nice pair of soft thin leather reins that I almost bought. Should have and might go back and see if they're still there!

    The 45 degree angle thing is useful too.

    And those bit links - I will check them out right now.

  7. billie - i'm glad you found it helpful (most people just roll their eyes when i mention stuff like that ;-) at least it's something to experiment with...

    when i was doing equitation, my trainer constantly hammered me for the thumbs up thing too, until my horse (the one with the sensitive mouth) started getting stiff and reactive, and i put 2+2 together and realized it was my hand. then my trainer recommended those thick rubber reins for my jumper and i felt myself getting heavy handed and having trouble following the contact with so much rein in my hand because i really had to hang onto them. which is too bad because i love the way thick reins and bridles look on big warmblood-y horses... oh well.

    i can't remember where i heard it, but one trainer had a really good way to think of holding the reins - she said to imagine when you hold the reins that you have a little bird in each hand with their heads popping out between your thumb and forefinger. you want to hold your hands so the birds are at a natural angle (45 degrees) and obviously you want to try not to squish them. that's how softly you should hold the reins... anyway, i thought that was a really helpful way of explaining it, and i found it helped me remind myself when i felt the urge to make a fist or turn my thumbs up - and actually, when your hands are soft and you have a light contact, closing your fingers or turning your thumbs up momentarily are pretty strong rein aids! no pulling necessary!

  8. I've heard the little bird analogy before, and it makes a lot of sense to me. The thing that has been confusing is trainers saying hold the reins in a closed fist but then also talk about softness and sponging the reins. Well, if your fist is closed, it isn't exactly possible to sponge them!

    With hands slightly open, if you close your hand momentarily, as you describe, you get a nice subtle signal and not a pull or tug.

    I think it's Zettl who wrote that riding with dressage whips upended in one's hands will immediately show you where your error is and how much movement your hands/arms are creating.

    Jane Savoie has also talked about turning the wrist as slightly as you would turn it to turn a key in a lock, and that image has stuck with me.

    I think the rein aids are the most inconsistently taught among trainers no matter what the discipline. I have heard so many different things from different trainers - all of whom I'd consider good - and it really is hard to know which technique will take you and your horse where you want to go. My goal is always to get softer, lighter, and more subtle, so if anything seems to be taking us to heavier, need more, etc. I start to balk.

    Like you, I love the bigger reins with the big horses, but I guess it's time to experiment with something thinner to see how it works. A light bulb moment today, so thanks. Thinner reins! Enough contact so that the smaller cues are possible. It sounds so simple when you describe it. :)

  9. i know what you mean about being confused by trainers over the rein aids, and i can't tell you how many times i've gone to a clinic with a soft, light horse only to go home with a strong, resistant horse because the clinician had another idea about rein aids than i (close your fingers! drive him forward into your hand! hold him there! GGRRRHHH!) it's frustrating sometimes that there is no real consensus on just exactly how the hands should be used. i guess everyone just teaches their own interpretation...

    but, like you, i've always been uncomfortable with too much pulling or force - after all, there is a mouth at the end of those reins! ;-) so i figure it never hurts to err on the side of 'too soft' - as if there was ever such a thing :-)

  10. This is a most interesting discussion. I'm curious to hear your opinion about riding outside the arena.

    I was taught by some stereotypical (and sometimes rather fierce) English instructors to ride on a firm contact and to drive the horse forward into it, and was told to trail ride in that style too! However it was a fatiguing way to ride, and didn't seem to help the horse, though many English horses seem to need that contact to push against.

    I began to ride out on a loose rein using a curb bit after spending time with riders from the American West, and my horses (which were not English riding horses) performed well on the trail. I like them to be able to balance themeselves when out riding for hours, especially on rough terrain, without a rider having to tell them what to do. They do seem to go forward with a fairly low head carriage.

    However there are moments when they need to be collected up and given a bit of impulsion, such as when they are becoming lazy or not paying attention, and to obtain a precise canter transition. Work at close quarters, such as opening gates, requires contact too.

    When I owned a trail riding centre, a proportion of riders wanted to go 5 or 6 hours with a firm contact on their horse, to the point where horses would resist and protest. It was a continual struggle to get such people to allow their horses the freedom to balance themselves. Some people (taught in the English way) felt lost without that contact to balance on. I started out that way. Obviously that is quite different to the light contact that you refer to.

    So I am curious how much cross-over of riding style regarding contact and bitting that you see between arena riding and trail riding.

    Finally, the information that you present regarding which bits are milder and which are more severe is very helpful. There is too much incorrect "folklore" about bits and their effects and relative severity.

  11. WHP - such a great point and i neglected to cover it! i hope you don't mind, but i am answering you in an entirely new post. if you don't want me to highlight your comment, please let me know and i'll remove it :-)

  12. Great information on the bits, I wish more trainers would teach the correct way to ride in a curb or pelham, but unfortunately they probably don't even know themselves.
    The rein information is also wonderful and should be followed by everyone.
    Thanks for an informative post, I can't wait for your next post, possibly on the judging that is in so much need of a comprehensive make over of how to judge fairly and what to pin in all classes.

  13. GHM - i too am shocked by he lack of knowledge amongst the judges in our sport. but i am even more shocked by the manner in which judges are selected. i wonder how many competitors are aware that all that is required to become a judge under the USEF rules is that one has the recommendation of a certain number of their friends. that's it. not testing, no courses, no review of discipline standards, goals or rules, etc. there is a short period of 'learner judging' under a confirmed judge, but that's all. just: 'do you know 10 people who think you'd make a good judge? great! you're in!' which kind of explains the sad state of our competitive sport and the politics that drives it....

  14. I ride both english and western (Well... dressage and Western pleasure!) so my training methods are a bit unusual, to say the least!
    With my dressage horse, I ride in much the same manner you described--incredibly light, but still-there contact. It's such a nice feeling to have him curl up and the slightest twitch of my finger earn a response. :) The only time he is on a loose rein is when walking, stretching, etc.
    I ride my Paint in western and hunter classes. I do not train him 'traditionally', because yanking and seesawing on a bit doesn't help my horse stay collected. He is trained with a lot of dressage (leg yields, shoulders and haunches in, half-passes--you name it!) so that he uses his back and powers through with correct impulsion. Occasionally I train on a loose rein for Hunter classes (but I show with light contact) and of course, western classes are done completely without contact. If done slowly and correctly, I don't believe your hands will bump the bit in the mouth. If done softly, it's just like a slight attention call as the bit starts to take life in their mouth. My Paint holds the bit at all times (and often won't let go when I go to take it off! silly.), and picking up contact, be it western or english, he doesn't react negatively. (Head, open mouth, jaw resisting). Western pleasure horses (The good ones, not the majority) are trained for 'self-carriage'--so I often ride training sessions without much contact to see where I am!
    I also think there are problems on the other side, where horses learn to lean on bit and travel very heavily on the forehand! My dressage horse did this horribly, so we went back to classical dressage with a high degree of collection (or striving for it!) with very light contact.
    I believe I digress! But very informative post nonetheless. :)

  15. DIJ - you make a good point: it is possible to occasionally ride on a loose rein if done responsibly.

    what i object to in the hunter ring is the way the horses are not in self-carriage (or in rare cases they are simply in 'i was schooled in draw reins and now my head is stuck like this' carriage.) the horses that flop around the hack class or between jumps are generally inverted, counter flexed and unbalanced. if they were properly carrying themselves, the loose reins wouldn't be so offensive...

    but of course, as you say, the flip side is that if contact is done improperly, you get the opposite effect: you get heavy horses and heavy hands.

    which is why i think the most important thing a rider should strive to perfect is correct use of the hand. even if your seat isn't great, if you have a good hand you can still be a good rider. but if your hands are not educated, you can never be a good rider, no matter how well you do everything else.

  16. I wonder if the judges are reacting to the number of jumpers balancing on their horse’s mouth and continuously catching their horse’s mouth by making them ride without contact.

  17. bhm - you've got a point there... i'm kind of guilty of thinking that way too: if you can't ride with a correct contact, just don't ride with one at all. between a looped rein vs. hanging off the horse's teeth, riding with no contact is usually the lesser of two evils...


I enjoy reading all your comments and welcome discussion and debate. I do my best to answer most comments in a timely manner, but this may not always be possible. I will publish all comments providing they are relevant to the subject.

Thank you for reading. We look forward to hearing from you.

Copyright © J.M. Elliott 2008-2018. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.