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.