The Long and Short of Reins

Have you ever tried to ride a long-necked horse with short reins?  I’ve been thinking about what effect this can have on riding since getting Grady. 
For those who don’t know Grady’s story, He's and 18hh Irish Sport Horse I took in last year after he had begun refusing to jump for his previous owners and was left to rot in a paddock.  He was an eventer, trained to second level in the “new” dressage method and competed regularly until something went wrong and he refused to jump anymore. So, they got rid of him.  And I took him on in hopes of rehabbing him.
He’s got an enormously long neck and, when I went to try him, I rode him in a bridle that had a standard set of reins on it.  I found this incredibly difficult to deal with because I wanted to start my ride on him in a long, loose frame which required a long rein.  But this was impossible.
When I first get on any horse, I always let them walk around on a long rein.  I like them to be able to stretch their noses down to the ground if they want, at least at halt and walk.  And on an unfamiliar, young or “re-train” horse especially, I like to do most of my early riding on a loose rein and slowly work up to contact by introducing a lateral flexion with a light Direct (Leading) Rein.  With these short reins, I was unable to give him a loose rein to walk on and, as my hands were near the buckle, I was also prevented from separating my hands to properly give wide rein aids like the Direct Rein. 
It made me wonder how this horse was ridden on a daily basis, and I realized he was probably never given his head at any point.  For many this is a deliberate training philosophy, and Grady bears all the marks of a horse trained this way.  But even if they had wanted to ride him differently it would have been impossible simply because the length of rein would not allow it!   Normal length reins would not allow anything but reins of opposition (unless he was neck-reined nearly one-handed like a western horse, which I find unlikely.)  So the options are to practically lay on the neck to reach toward the bit to release the rein, or else ride with a very short, restrictive rein at all times. 
Suddenly, a lot of things were falling into place.  For one, why he was ridden in a pelham/kimberwick.  Or why he has a slight hollow in front of his wither from an underdeveloped trapezius muscle, common in horses accustomed to bracing and “faking” being “on the bit.”  Or why his shoulders – the left in particular - are limited in their movement.  And so on... To this day this horse still holds his breath when he comes to the end of the rein because he’s waiting to be muscled into position somewhere behind the vertical. 
He’s such a big, sweet goof-ball that I don’t know how anyone could have done this him.  Of course, the sweet horses like him seem to be taken advantage of most easily because it just isn’t in their nature to fight back no matter how horribly they are treated.
So what to do?
Most of my horses are pretty big, and I’ve gone out of my way to buy extra long reins whenever I can, but even this wasn’t enough.  I knew I’d have to find some long reins if I was going to ride him properly.  Surprisingly, this was harder than it seems.  Few reins I looked at were offered in longer than standard size, which is about 54”.  Long reins, when available, generally come in 60” length.  An extra 6” is better than nothing and usually work for my big beasties, but hardly ideal in this case.  Then I found this pair of reins at Dover, and they are a whopping 72” long!!!  And being plaited, they’ll stretch too!  Despite the odd description on the site about these reins being for “stock breeds,” these are perfectly normal English reins, of good quality, and just enough length for Grady.  Now he can stretch his nose all the way to the ground if he wants without my having to lie on his neck.
Now he’s gotten to the point that he will tentatively test the rein and, when he realizes he’s no longer being held will stretch all the way to the ground, relax his entire body and let out a big sigh.  Even after a year off he’s still tense and unsure.  It just goes to show the damage improper riding can do, and the time and patience it takes to undo.  He’s slowly coming around, learning to trust the hand and use himself properly, but he sort of doesn’t know what to do if you’re not yanking and pulling on him… yet. 
I feel confident that he’s on the right track now.  And I’ll never underestimate the importance of long-enough reins again!


  1. I'm a big fan of helping horses recover their relaxation, and of the stretch-down, at all gaits. I've never had a horse that big, but you're so right about rein length. I often ride with a mix of Western and English tack, and have found split reins (not tied or connected together) really nice to use, although I don't use them if I think there's much likelihood of getting dumped because the horse is more likely to step on them than connected reins if I come off.

  2. Keil Bay has a long neck too - I have never found 72" reins so I am heading over to Dover right now!!

    It sounds like you are well on the way to solving the mystery of Grady. If I had the blue ribbon I just typed about at Gray Horse Matters, I'd send it to you right now. :)

  3. kate - that's a great idea using western reins. i'll have to remember that! though i'd probably have to tie a knot in them so i wouldn't accidentally drop an end and be up a creek! ;-)

  4. billie - thanks! i had my suspicions about the way grady was ridden before, but i've basically turned him out for the last 6 months to give some of his other physical issues time and, even after all this time off, his fears are still right under the surface. someone really did a number on him, so it will be a slow process, but we've got time and a decent start.

    i'm loving the long reins. hope they work well for you and the big bay too :-)

  5. Grady is such a sweet horse with a lovable goofy personality it's hard to believe how someone has muscles him around for years. He's the type of horse that would do whatever you asked because he would want to please you. The long reins do make a big difference for him and I'm happy to see him stretching down and letting out that big sigh.

    I'm confident that with your careful and kind treatment and re-training he will come to trust again and be the wonderful horse we all know is down deep inside. I can't wait until he gets his confidence and trust back.

  6. I know you found reins from Dover so it is a none issue, but Skylands Saddlery and Euro American Saddlery have "warm blood" sized reins. I have even seen 80s! Grady is a very lucky boy for finding you.

  7. Thanks! i will have to check out both of those places. dover can be a pain sometimes and they are really slow with shipping. would be nice to have other places to shop for oddball stuff :-)

  8. Western Roper Reins aka "split reins" can be stitched together or you can have a rein buckle sewn on at the right length for Grady and you. They are easily oiled to match almost any English bridle as they come in the same leather finishes.

    I have found the big horses to always be the most kind, gentle and tolerant and sadly the most abused by smaller humans who think they must restrict and control them with all kinds of contraptions. I bet you Grady will jump happily and confidently when you ask him to again once he is ridden in relaxed balance form and off of his restricted/constricted former forehanded way.

  9. thanks! that's a great idea for the reins.

    i hope you're right about grady. we're trying! i don't even care if he jumps again, though it would make me happy if he trusted and felt comfortable enough to try it again - kind of like coming full circle. he's such a gentle soul, i just want him to enjoy his work. i doubt he ever did before :-\

  10. If he evented he will or should be an awful lot of fun cross country whether you ever ask him to jump again or not. However most poorly managed and misunderstood horses I've had that had jumping issues all had no problems once it was not their main focus/fear/or what they got punished or scared of anymore. If you get him going out on the trails and he's relaxed and fun and you come across a log see what happens when you point him at it. If he gets tense or resistant simply have him step over it,if he jumps it without hesitation even better. Whatever he does willingly PRAISE him big time for doing it.Every positive you give him or get from him will only build him up to being better at everything he does.Once you turn that lightbulb on for him he'll keep getting brighter!! Let him shine!!

  11. that's a great approach, and one i will have to adopt! it will be a long, patient process, though. i tried to just casually let him walk over some cavaletti in the arena and he refused to do even that! it took some getting him used to the idea it wasn't going to lead to scary jumping - i had to get off and lead him first and give him lots of praise before he'd forget about them and just step over them. so i'm just trying to not make an issue of it. he'll let me know if/when he's ready. in the meantime we'll have fun hacking out and getting back to basics. i love a challenge ;-)

  12. I know what you mean.
    I do a lot of walking in between work (and all walk on trail) with long reins, and they really need to stretch out. Somtimes when you buy a bridle the rein length is not long enough, so I have had to change a couple of times.

    He sounds like such a good guy, jme - good luck with the work.

  13. horse of course - sorry, my internet has been out all day!

    i couldn't agree more about walking out and letting them have a good stretch often. thanks for your kind words. :-)

  14. As soon as I started reading this I wondered if too short reins weren't a big part of his problem. Poor Guy! He's lucky he has you to work through his problems and build up his confidence.

  15. thanks, it really seems to be making a difference for him these days. i wasn't sure how much progress we could make, but he keeps surprising me :-)

  16. Intresting- it certainly doesn't take much to mess up an otherwise good horse. Sounds like you're well on the way to rehabing him- like making good wine, time and patience are your best friends.

    From your description, it sounds like by constricting Grady with short reins that he was being constantly slammed into a wall (or more accurately, the bit was checking his head motion and no doubt it was painful)- or in this case, he's being prevented from fully stretching himslf and using his muscles.

    Also, it seems that he's now conditioned to associate "moving out" with pain, or at a minimum discomfort. To me, it's equivalent to being shut up in a box where you can neither sit nor stand.

    At least that's my take on it. Am I on the right track here?

    Sounds like the long reins are a good start. Does working him on the ground where he's free to move his head help any help?

    God luck! :-)

  17. Adam - yes, that's exactly the sense i've gotten from his movement and behavior. before this winter weather put a stop to our training, grady was making great progress.

    i have been using longe work, especially in the chambon at an easy trot, almost as a form of physical therapy. in addition to his other posture/movement issues, he had some kind of restriction in his left shoulder that almost completely inhibited adduction on that side and actually made him appear lame on the outside of the circle.

    now after some patient work, he not only uses his left shoulder freely and goes sound, but he also maintains that loose, round, relaxed frame at liberty when he's playing in the paddock! makes me think maybe we're on the right track. i can't wait to get started up again with him when the weather breaks!

    thanks for the comments :-)

  18. Let us know how it goes! :-)


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