The Five Rein Aids: Introduction

Few standard treatises on riding include more than a rudimentary treatment of snaffle* rein aids, and those that do attempt to explain them do so either incompletely or incorrectly. Most tend to break the rein aids down into two types - direct and indirect – and leave it at that. However, this is incomplete; there are, in fact, five distinct rein effects possible with a snaffle, and each has variations and combinations, making the possibilities of their use and the precision of their guidance endless, but also increasing the occurrence of misunderstanding and inadvertent misuse.

In addition, these rein effects are not used in isolation, and no one rein aid, when used properly, accomplishes a complete movement of the horse, but must be combined with other rein, seat and/or leg aids. Then, for more advanced work, the curb is sometimes added, which has its own unique effect to be used alone or in conjunction with these snaffle (bradoon) aids. As if that were not complicated enough, the hands are always auxiliary and subordinate to the seat and leg aids, serving only to clarify, direct, contain and/or focus the energies created by the action of the leg and seat.

However, seat and leg aids will be considered another time. For the moment, we will focus on the use of the hands alone. As mentioned above, there are five classical rein effects for use with a snaffle (or any other bit or portion of a bit that does not have curb action.) These rein aids differ markedly from the overly simplistic five proposed by the likes of modern American horsemen Gordon Wright, George Morris and their followers, whose equestrian notions have inexplicably dominated the American hunter/jumper culture in recent years. No doubt there will be those who feel neither of these well-known horsemen may be challenged on any matter of equitation, but I intend to do just that, and hope to demonstrate convincingly why the classical aids are superior to the currently fashionable but misguided misinterpretations of Morris and his followers.


The five classical rein aids are as follows:

  • Direct Rein – also known as the “opening” or “leading” rein
  • Indirect Rein – also known as a “neck” or “bearing” rein
  • Indirect Rein Behind the Withers –also, the “indirect rein of opposition behind the withers”
  • Indirect Rein in Front of the Withers –also, the “indirect rein of opposition in front of the withers”
  • Direct Rein of Opposition – the rein commonly, but incorrectly, thought of as the ordinary “direct rein”

Compare with the Wright /Morris five:

  • Direct Rein (this refers to the “direct rein of opposition,” which is quite different than a simple direct rein and not a substitute for it)

o Vibrating Hand (pulling the bit side to side)

o Lifting Hand (a series of jerks upward)

  • Indirect Rein (here Wright/Morris lump both fore and aft reins into one, when in practice they have two completely dissimilar effects and are therefore separate, unrelated aids)
  • Leading or Opening Rein (here, the direct rein is treated as two separate aids, the “leading” for green horses and the “opening” for trained horses)
  • Neck Rein (again, an indirect rein with no opposition, given a new, less precise name)
  • Pulley Rein (a drastic form of direct rein of opposition, and not, in fact, a rein aid at all, but an emergency brake or means of abusing a horse that has not been properly trained or is out of control.)


The upcoming series of posts on the rein aids will take each aid in turn and explain the technique, its effects and its application in riding, as well as compare and contrast them with the variations proposed by Wright/Morris so that hunt seat riders, in the US at least, will have a better understanding of the classical basis for these aids and where they are lacking in our current system of riding.

Because this is a series in progress, I welcome the input of reader, whether it is in the form of questions, criticisms, additional information or personal experiences. The next post will be “Holding the Reins.”


*Note: while the rein aids above are typically applied with a snaffle or bradoon, they are equally effective with cavessons, hackamores and other bitless bridles, with the exception of the mechanical hackamore, which works like a curb. These rein aids work by influencing the positioning and balance of the horse, and are not dependent upon any particular action on the mouth. However, the snaffle does offer a greater degree of subtlety in that it can affect several different parts of the mouth depending upon bit choice and position of the hand.


Other posts in this series:

Holding the Reins

The Turning Seat

Inside vs. Outside: The Weight Debate


The Direct Rein

The Indirect Rein

The Indirect Rein of Opposition in Front of the Wither

The Direct Rein of Opposition

The Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Wither


Going Bitless


  1. I'm looking forward to this series - thanks for the note re: bitless bridles as that would have been my first question! :)

  2. I too am looking forward to this series. It is always good to learn the classical way of doing it right and not blindly follow the trends of the time or the people touting them.

  3. Great post. Look forward to reading more.

  4. thanks! i'll have the next installment soon :-)

  5. I really like this info and you are only the second person that I have ever seen mention these exact rein aids. My problem is search the old masters I really dont find them breaking it down in the 5. I'm not saying that they are not the proper aids and when I encourage any one to watch an advanced rider I tell them to watch the hands. What I'm looking for is verifiable documentation. For I'm in the middle of a rather interesting conversation Classical v modern horemenship. Thanks in advance

    1. hi david, it's true that information on the classical rein aids is scarce, even in classical manuals. i think there has not been a real effort over the years to define what for most sensitive, intuitive riders has been the product of trial and error and feel. after a while, we all start to use each of these rein aids instinctively without giving them much thought--until something goes wrong or we want to progress to the next stage. but knowing how and why they work, and when best to apply them is like giving riders a horse-human dictionary. it becomes less about training and more about communicating in a way the horse naturally understands, and can open new doors in everyone's riding. i hope this helps. good luck!


Post a Comment

I enjoy reading all your comments and welcome discussion and debate. I do my best to post and/or 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.