Holding the Reins

Tips for maintaining correct contact:

  • Grip: Grip on the reins should be medium – that is, the fist should not be clenched on the reins, nor should the fingers be open Some old manuals of riding claim that the rein should cross the palm of the hand, but if the rein touches the palm at all it is being gripped too tightly; the reins are held in the fingers, with the thumb pressed gently on top to prevent them slipping. The tips of the fingers may just touch the palm, but the grip should be no tighter than this unless giving an opposing aid. Keeping the fingers loose will prevent the arms from becoming tense and enables the rider to “slip” the reins when the horse stretches, and well as making a simple closing of the fingers into a significant and noticeable aid; with the fingers loose, any change in the tension of the rein, as from squeezing the fingers closed, will be felt by the horse. Likewise, with fingers half-closed, the release can also be immediate and significant. This helps keep the horse light in the hand and responsive. Also, it becomes much more difficult to use the reins for the rider’s balance when the hands are not gripping the reins tightly, and ensures a more independent seat.

  • Hand position: Holding the hands at a 45 degree angle allows the muscles in the arms to remain relaxed and supple. The hands naturally fall at a 45 degree angle when the elbows are bent and the forearms are relaxed and held parallel to the ground. The act of turning the thumbs upward requires tensing the muscles in both the fore- and upper arm, and will cause a rigid hand-arm-shoulder connection, making it more difficult to adopt a soft, following contact with the moving horse’s mouth. There is no set rule; 45 degrees is an approximate and anything between 0 and 45 is acceptable (more than 45 degrees makes the hand too flat and will push the elbows out.) What is most important is finding the position where you are best able to relax and follow the movement without tension in your arms. With upper arms relaxed at - or slightly in front of - the sides, the hands should fall somewhere over the withers/shoulders of the horse.

  • Hand width: The correct width of the hands is partially dictated by the rider’s conformation, by the horse’s conformation, by the level of the horse’s training, etc. A good general rule is that they should be slightly wider than the horse’s neck, but no wider than the rider’s hips. However, the width will fluctuate during any ride depending on the desired effect. Wide hands can help horses differentiate between unilateral aids and can also encourage them to accept the contact, but too-wide hands can pull the bit through the mouth and muddle the more precise rein aids. Narrow hands allow for greater subtlety and economy of aids, but too-narrow hands can confuse the horse and limit the rider’s ability to give certain aids. Most importantly, never cross the wither with the hand for any reason! This not only confuses the horse and unbalances him, but done carelessly or at speed can even knock a horse over.

  • Hand height: Ideally, the hand falls into a perfect line directly from the bit, through the hand, to the elbow. This is the position we all strive for to maintain correct, fluid contact with the horse’s mouth. However, there are occasions in a horse’s training and in the maintenance of his training during daily schooling, when the hands may be allowed to break this direct line. Some misguided horsemen have advocated a low hand as a means to breaking resistance and lowering the head/frame, but a simple understanding of the horse’s anatomy and the mechanics of snaffle bitting illustrate why this is untrue; lowering the hands actually raises the horse’s head because it places the pressure of the bit on the tongue and bars (and in the case of a single jointed snaffle, into the roof of the mouth as well) – the most sensitive parts of the mouth – which the horse is already trying to avoid by raising his head! Continual low-handed riding produces mouth vices and will eventually result in a stiff, inverted and resistant horse. Conversely, raising the hand, which lifts the bit into the corners of the lips (where it causes no discomfort), will relax the horse and aid in lowering the frame. A high hand may not present a good picture in competition, but the horse still needs to be trained prior to bringing it to competition, and here the high hand can be instrumental in the education of a light, responsive horse. But, more on that later…

  • Be subtle: There is no need to pull backward on a rein if you use the rein aids properly. When a light contact is maintained, aids can become lighter and more subtle. Experiment with variations like these: try simply closing the fingers (like squeezing water from a sponge), or opening them slightly to let the rein slip a bit for a release. Try briefly turning the wrist so thumbs are up or out to give a restraining aid; or, conversely, turn the hands so the palms face downward momentarily for a slight opening aid. Try holding the upper arms firmly against the ribcage for a moment to give a stronger resisting aid. These are subtle aids, but can be felt and differentiated by the horse when a light contact is maintained, making forward and backward movements of the arms unnecessary and even excessive.

  • Thin, flexible reins: To avoid stiff or heavy hands, it sometimes helps to ride with a thinner rein, or at least a softer, flexible rein. A thick rubber rein used by showjumpers and eventers, for example, can be hard to use with sensitivity and is best reserved for situations where firm grip is more important than tactful communication. I prefer a good plaited rein, as these are the most flexible and still provide excellent grip should they become wet, but any soft web or well-oiled leather rein will also work.

  • Adjust often: Too often, riders think they must set a rein length and live with it for the duration of the ride – nothing could be further from the truth. The horse’s frame changes constantly, and so should the rein length. When the horse stretches down, the rider lets the rein slip. Then, as the rider begins to collect the horse, the reins must be shortened. Likewise, the horse may require a release to reward an obedience, and then, after the reins are released they may need to be immediately picked up again. The reins are in a constant state of flux so long as the horse is in motion, so don’t be afraid to make a lot of adjustments – in fact, practice doing them as smoothly and quickly as you can, because rein adjustments are a fact of life for a rider!

  • Use a Turning Seat: Many riders neglect - or are even unaware of - the turning seat, and while this series is not about position, seat or legs, the turning seat plays such a critical role in the use of the hands, that any discussion of the rein aids without mention of the turning seat would be incomplete. Therefore, I am including an explanation of it in the next post, The Turning Seat, before proceeding to the individual rein aids.


  1. There is so much great information in this post that I will have to read it over a few times. It all seems so simple and straightforward. There have been many times I've seen riders pulling and jerking the reins trying to control a horse, when in fact they accomplished nothing or got the opposite effect by not using correct rein cues.
    Thanks for a great post, I will be looking forward to the next installment.

  2. I LOVE your explanation of why gripping the reins with a closed, thumbs-up hand is not as effective as holding them more with the fingers in a position that is comfortable for the arms and doesn't torque them.

    The weird thing is that both my children have done this naturally but when told to grasp the reins more tightly and point the thumbs up, the connection to the horse weakens. I've never been given a suitable explanation for the gripping, thumbs-up position.

    I also really appreciate the info about low hands versus higher hands when training. I am guilty of lowering the hands in an effort to be softer but you're right - it inverts the head. I know I will sometimes brace my wrists and that does the same thing.

    Why the heck aren't you down here so we could take lessons with YOU? :)

  3. GHM - Thanks! let me know if there is anything i can explain better :-)

    billie - i've never understood the purpose of this rigid 'thumbs up' riding either, beyond it looking more formal; i wonder if it's a carry-over from the days when a double bridle would be held 4-in-1 or 3-in-1?)

    i've been told by trainers in the past to ride with my hands overly low 'like side reins' to lower the head or because it 'looks better' to hunter judges, but this only seemed to make the situation worse. and then i discovered the french masters and realized there was another way to do things! particularly, there is a method of raising the hand to bring the bit up into the corners, then taking the head gently to the side, which releases the jaw, poll and neck and lowers the head by RELAXING the muscles that raise it, which in turn allows the hand to lower back to a normal position, but with a much softer contact. it looks a bit odd, but it softens the horse and lowers the frame without all of that kicking and yanking and draw reins and tight nosebands, etc..

    and thanks! if i wasn't so far away i would be honored to be able to give you all lessons! i do miss teaching (which is probably why i'm doing posts about training ;-) but i'm sure you have a good trainer already and probably don't need me anyway :-)

  4. You know, I had totally forgotten the thing about the high hands and the connection to French riding. A very dear friend who breeds Hanoverians and rides dressage (and is more rooted in the German school) nearly went nuts when she had knee surgery and another friend of hers was working her Hano. stallion. The friend was French and over here doing vet school - but she did use a much higher hand, particular in the training rides with this horse. It was effective but apparently torture to watch for my friend!

    I don't feel I know enough to use any "devices" - incl. side reins - so if I can't get things to work with my own body and a double-jointed snaffle, it doesn't happen!

    We are lucky to have good trainers down here - but I do want to say that you have a lovely way of synthesizing a great deal of information into an explanation that both makes sense AND is easy to take to the arena and recreate. Not everyone can do that, and I think it's important, esp. when the lessons happen weekly so that one needs to retain the info from ride to ride between the lessons.

  5. thanks, billie, that means a lot :-)

  6. Nice informative post. I always need to work on my hand position. Thought about getting wrist weights to keep hands lower!

  7. callie - thanks! i had a trainer once who used to tape rulers to my wrists to keep them straight, so weights don't sound too bad to me ;-)


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