The Direct Rein of Opposition

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The Direct Rein of Opposition is by far the most misused and abused rein aid of the five. This is a rein of opposition, which means it blocks the horse’s impulsion on the side used – or, because this aid can be used simultaneously on both reins, blocks both sides – and transfers the horse’s balance backward toward the hindquarter on the side where the rein is used. As with all reins of opposition, this is an incredibly powerful aid and, used improperly, can be the cause of significant – and justified – resistance from the horse, perhaps more than any other rein effect.

This rein has a powerful stopping and/or collecting effect on the horse in that it causes the horse to re-balance himself toward one or both hindquarters while opposing forward impulsion. The effect of this rein is such that, when applied to one side, depending on the strength of the aid relative to the amount of impulsion, the horse may turn his head slightly in the direction of the rein due to the back-up of energy created by its opposition. Because this opposition blocks the thrust of the related hind leg, the horse may have a tendency to shift his hindquarters slightly to the outside; however, these are side effects, and not primary responses. When two reins are used together and the forward thrust from both hinds is opposed, the horse will halt or, if the action is sustained, rein back.

Where riders run into trouble with this rein is that many trainers, including those at the highest levels in both the H/J and Dressage worlds, inexplicably believe this rein should be used while riding the horse forward, and particularly for creating bend, turning and circling, etc., often countering its tendency to displace the hindquarters outward with a strong opposing outside leg aid. At the very least, this amounts to a severe clashing of the aids, as the rein is creating one effect while the leg must be used to counter it. Another instance of clashing the aids is when the direct rein of opposition is used in conjunction with a forward-driving leg and/or seat, as the hand(s) and legs are completely at odds with one another; the hand is telling the horse “whoa” while the legs are telling the horse “go.” With such contradictory commands, the horse naturally becomes confused and even resistant, and sooner or later the horse will give up and begin to ignore (i.e. “resist”) one or both of these aids; here, “resistance” is just another word for the unfortunate horse trying to tell the rider, “I don’t understand what you want” or “I can’t do what you’re asking.” In extreme cases, the horse will blow up and rear, buck or otherwise try to eject the rider.

Despite what some misguided trainers and manuals of equitation say, the Direct Rein of Opposition is not a turning rein.

This rein can create longitudinal flexion and collection, but should not be used for lateral flexion. For example, rather than being the inside rein of a turn, its effect is better suited for occasional light use as an outside rein, re-balancing the horse on his outside hind, shortening the frame and controlling speed. However, as with all reins of opposition, it is to be used sparingly and with awareness and sympathy.

The hand comes to a position somewhere in front of the rider’s hip and resists. The rider does not pull back on the reins, but simply closes the fingers and offers resistance.

Perhaps this would be a good place to discuss two important concepts from the famous, if controversial horseman, Fran├žois Baucher: the “fixed hand” and “hand without legs, legs without hand.” Not all of Baucher’s theories and practices have much place in modern equitation, particularly his earlier practices and those which have led to the modern exercise of “rollkur.” However, these two concepts were revolutionary in their day and have stood the test of time in that they can be adapted to everything from Dressage to H/J riding and Natural Horsemanship.

The fixed hand, as I interpret it for modern equitation, is key to the Direct Rein of Opposition. Contrary to what its name seems to imply, the fixed hand does not mean setting the hand in an unyielding contact. Rather, it is a practice of holding the hand in place momentarily while giving a rein aid, closing the fingers and allowing the horse to relieve the pressure of the rein on his own. In other words, as the horse gives to the pressure of the rein, the hand remains in place to avoid a recoil effect. If one is able to pull a horse’s head in one direction or another, it means that the horse is giving to the aid (even if perfect relaxation is absent.) If the hand (and therefore the pressure) is following the horse’s mouth backward or sideways as he gives, the horse is not being rewarded for his correct response and the rider runs the risk of inadvertently punishing the horse's correct response; the horse is only rewarded when the rider gives a more dramatic release with a forward movement of the hand, often only lessening the existing pressure, or else completely abandoning and re-establishing the contact quickly, which can unbalance the horse. A hand that pulls on a rein to give an aid has recoil; that is, it continues pulling even as the horse is giving, until such time as the rider has the presence of mind to release it, which is usually too late as far as the horse is concerned. By fixing the hand momentarily, the horse rewards himself instantly when he gives, and the rider need do nothing but keep still for that moment and let the horse respond. The rein becomes almost like a side-rein, but only for a moment, giving the horse the chance to find the response the rider wants and reward himself once there.

Another concept of note that can be applied to any discipline of modern riding is “hand without legs, legs without hand,” and nowhere is it more applicable than with the Direct Rein of Opposition when used on both sides. The concept means exactly what it says: when using the leg, lighten the hand and allow the horse to move freely forward, and when using the rein, release the legs and allow the horse to come back without resistance or clashing of the aids – then alternate between the two for the desired effect. Neither effect is sustained indefinitely, but is a series of small corrections and adjustments taken in turn, as needed, with alternate releases of pressure. It seems a simple enough, common sense approach, and yet dressage books and equitation manuals are filled with the language of “driving the horse onto the bit,” “riding the horse into the hand,” and “pounds of pressure in the hand,” etc. I imagine the balance between restraining hand and driving leg aids as being like juggling a ball back and forth – one would not hold onto it with both hands and pull it back and forth, but must release it; a light horse is the ball, always somewhere between the driving and restraining aids, never on them both at once.

  • Single Rein: when used unilaterally, this rein can be useful for collecting on the outside rein, preparing the canter departure to help horse balance on the outside hind and free the inside lead, in a turn on forehand, as a brief restraining aid like a one-handed half-halt, etc.. This rein can be used for a turn on the forehand, due to its tendency to displace the quarters outward, but this is the only turn it should be used to make.

  • Two Reins: when used bilaterally, this rein will produce a halt or rein back, and with proper timing of alternating pulses, closing the fingers and resisting momentarily, this rein effect can help shorten a horse's base of support and produce collection, provided the necessary engagement and impulsion are there.

The most common fault committed with this rein is to use it in turning, circling or bending. Other faults include pulling backward on the rein(s), exerting a steady force or pull (i.e., not using a fixed hand,) and not giving the horse a proper release. Of course, as this is the stopping rein aid, there are times when pulling may become necessary, as when a horse is running away with the rider; however, pulling should be the exception and not the norm with this, or any, rein aid.

Compatible Reins:
As already discussed above, this rein is compatible with itself, i.e., it may be used simultaneously on both sides of the horse without conflict. The other rein it may be used with is the Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Wither, which is to be the subject of the next post.


Other Posts in this Series:

Holding the Reins

The Turning Seat

Inside vs. Outside: The Weight Debate


The Five Rein Aids: Introduction

The Direct Rein

The Indirect Rein

The Indirect Rein of Opposition in Front of the Wither

The Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Wither


Going Bitless


  1. As always a post packed with great information that is easy to understand and put to use. This series is so helpful to those of us who really don't get the uses of all the different rein aids. You should put it in a book or pamphlet as a reference guide. Thanks for another great post.

  2. Okay, this one is where I need to award Keil Bay the World's Most Sainted Horse trophy.

    When he first became my riding partner I was doing that very evil thing - giving him mixed messages. Legs saying go and hands saying "oh my god that stride is huge I'm afraid you're going to run away with me please slow down now."

    But... go.

    If he were not such a saint he would have done something scary. As it is, he basically learned to tone everything down. His brilliant movement, his go button, and he let me find my comfort zone with his size and his stride.

    I am finally learning how to say go and mean it, and back it up with the ability to ride what he gives me.

    Bless him, and thank you for the eloquent reminder!

  3. GHM - thanks! i would love to put it all together in book form, but i doubt anyone would read it! (i think people only read books by 'big name' celebrity trainers) but who knows, maybe someday i'll give it a try...

  4. billie - keil bay sounds like a great horse and an amazing partner :-)

    i think we've all been there at one time or another :-\ many years ago, we had a really nice 17.3hh working hunter with a naturally HUGE stride (like 15+') and an equally big jump which made it hard for him to 'do the numbers' (a concept i find ridiculous.) when i first started riding him i rode him exactly the way i rode my eq horse: light, forward and and slightly on the bit. and i thought he went great that way - soft, adjustable, etc..

    but then a certain trainer told me i needed to 'collect' him and make his big stride fit in the lines by continually pushing him up into my hand. well, it didn't make much sense to me, but i did as instructed and the poor horse was so confused he just got heavier and stronger to his jumps while i would be hanging off his teeth trying desperately to control him.

    he was an equine saint as well, and never refused a jump or fought back. eventually, i figured out that it was my clashed aids causing the problem, (as well as the artificial idea that every horse should have a 12' stride!) and decided i needed to ride him the way that was best for him, even if it put us out of the running for ribbons. that meant trusting his natural stride and ability enough to leave out strides in the lines. so i know just how intimidating it can be to let these big talented horses use their full stride (especially with a 4' oxer in front of you ;-) but the alternative of creating a frustrated, unhappy, resistant horse is much worse. its something i try to remind myself of often.

    i attended a dressage clinic where one of the riders was a girl whose horse had put her in the hospital rearing and flipping over on her. she rode 2 horses during that clinic and it was immediately obvious (to me at least) that this was her problem. she didn't understand the effect of direct opposition and so she would grab the horses' mouths and drive them into the hand so that they'd back up behind the bit, break behind the poll and hollow in front of the wither (you could see it in their conformation and muscle development - an overdeveloped crest and undeveloped trapezius, etc..) she'd kick and yank all the way around the arena while the tension mounted until the horses finally had enough and would threaten to go up. it's the kind of thing i've seen a lot of in schooling rings at both dressage and h/j shows (where people are in love with draw reins and spurs,) with disastrous effects. and yet this is what people continue to teach! sorry, got a bit carried away with this comment, but it just blows my mind :-\

  5. jme, I've seen similar riding and horses that looked like they were getting ready to explode. That they didn't is a HUGE testament to just how much horses will endure for us.

    I am right now mulling over the idea of taking an 11-year old German Hannoverian gelding (branded by the Germans, so he is esp. NICE) who cannot be ridden because he is dangerous under saddle. He's a sweetheart on the ground, and his owner, who imported him, decided to have him put down after a couple of big name highly-regarded trainers tried to fix him and ended up telling her he should not be ridden again.

    They have no idea what happened, but even as they discovered that he couldn't be "fixed" they also fell in love with him - and had the owners sign him over so they could find him a non-riding home.

    They feel he would make a super therapy horse and I'm not sure I can do it yet, or if it's the best option for him, but the talks are happening.

    I suspect someone pushed him way too hard and since he was trained in dressage I suspect it has to do with reins and bits and pushing him into a frame.

    So very tragic.

  6. billie - he sounds exciting! it is a shame, as i suspect he was, as you say, ruined with poor training. but i've seen a lot of horses come back from the edge with time and good training. my horse mellon was once considered hopeless and too dangerous to ride, and after some remedial training, patience and time he turned out to be a great horse; he's saved my life more times than i could count! if there is nothing physically wrong with him (i've seen horses with arthritic backs or epsm become dangerous) then maybe there is hope for him. or at the very least, i'm sure he'd be grateful for a kind, loving home and good friends :-) keep us posted!


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