The Long and Short of Reins

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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!