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Rein Length: Part 1 - Discussion on Long Versus Short Reins

theory tips Feb 13, 2024
zoomed in picture showing short reins while jumping a corner on cross country

A while back, I heard an Olympic level rider explain that cross country reins should be somewhat long in order for you to throw yourself back on downhill landings. 

And let me start off by saying this isn't meant to "throw shade" or anything like that (in fact, I'd like to consider myself an acquaintance of theirs). I just thought it was a good example of what I have viewed as the gap and disconnect between the Elite riders with the "ideal" riding, compared to what is possible and beneficial for the average rider.

I don't disagree with this concept in terms of the ideal, but what I do disagree with is thinking that the average rider is capable of riding well with this longer rein. Most of us, myself included, are not strong enough, not capable enough, do not have our horses trained enough, and so many other "not enoughs" that at least in my opinion, riding on a longer rein for the "normal rider" is just not going to be conducive to good riding on their part.

"Normal riders", again myself included, are better off riding with shorter reins. It helps us control the horse, maintain straightness, balance the horse, and so many other things. I can't even begin to describe to you how adjusting my rein length caused a massive leap in my riding ability, progression, and ability to improve my horse's way of going. It was honestly a lightbulb moment. I went from struggling to control my horse's quality of gait and balance to not even having to think about 75% of it. Just from shortening the reins.

(In case you're curious on a short explainer why: A shorter rein, all else being equal, will encourage the horse to lift their head up. When the head is up, as long as the back doesn't hollow, the horse is in a much better position to see the jump, is typically in a better balance, can see and anticipate the jump, balance on their hocks, and springload their hind legs.). A longer rein, all else being equal, will result in a horse who is longer in their bodies, further out front with their head/neck, therefore heavier on their forehand, not as springloaded on their hind-end, and overall not as readily adjustable or in a good enough quality canter as they could be.

Worst case, if we ride with a shorter rein, we can just let them slip through our fingers if/when we need to get in the back seat. I'd rather ride short the 99.9% of the time because of the benefits, then just be capable of slipping the reins correctly the 0.1% of the time I need to do so. 

On top of all of that, most of us "normal riders" do not jump massive fences, nor do we have massive drops on the backsides. Aside from a disastrous quality jump, you are just simply not going to find any sort of massive drop on the backside of a fence at Novice level, for example, rendering riding with long reins unnecessary. 

Long reins require the rider to be a true athlete, capable of immense feats of strength, balance, flexibility, and so much more, independently from their horse. It also requires the horse to be so well-trained that they can pick up on the most minor of cues for turning, even in the heat of battle on XC. It also requires the horse to have so much of their own sense of balance immensely trained into them so that they do not need as much help from the rider. It also requires a horse that is *extremely* honest and looks for the flags. If you have a horse who may be skeptical and can run out, you lose a great deal of control side-to-side (or even back and forth) when you ride on long reins.

I don't know about you, but while I appreciate the athleticism that riding gives me, I am by no means an Olympic caliber athlete. I only ride 2 horses on the average day. While I also work around the barn, and try to work out on the side, that doesn't always happen. I am not Olympian fit. I am not ride-12-horses-fit. It's actually been awe-inspiring to see how seriously the top Olympic Equestrians take their fitness, not just by riding so much, but also have multiple avenues of additional strength and flexibility building on top of their daily rides. You and I cannot even comprehend the amount of physical prowess they truly have. Just because they are equestrians does not mean they are any less physically-elite than other Olympic athletes.

So again, this is where I advise caution and have first-hand witnessed the much larger gap between Olympians and Adult Amateur riders than what meets the eye. I think horseback riding is such an amazing sport because we are all so connected and close to the Olympians. Heck, many of us have even taken lessons from Olympians. How many people who play other sports can say that they took lessons from an Olympian in their sport?!

But I also think we need to have a reality check as well. That closeness and accessibility that we are fortunate to have in the equestrian world can also lull us into a false sense of underestimating the much, much larger gap in our abilities compared to theirs. I delved into this in some earlier blogs as well:

So at the end of the day, I view shorter reins as more beneficial for us "normal" riders. At the very least, I always encourage everyone to experiment in their riding. You can only find something that works better if you try new things. If it doesn't work, you need to develop the ability to know if it just needs some more time and training, or if it truly doesn't work for the horse/rider/situation. 

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