Rein Holds for All Styles of Horseback Riding: Western and English

Rein Holds for All Styles of Horseback Riding: Western and English

Whether you ride English or western, learn how to hold reins for western or English style, how to shorten and bridge, plus the ideal rein length.

horsemanship exhibitor wearing black chaps and shirt rides a buckskin horse (Credit: Journal)

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Compiled from the Certified Horsemanship Association and The American Quarter Horse Journal

There are several different types of rein holds to use when horseback riding. They are based primarily on two things: what you’re going to be doing with the horse and the type of bridle you have in the horse’s mouth.

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Rein Hold for Riding in a Snaffle Bit

A snaffle bit works off the corners of the mouth.

When you have reins that are set up in a western format, you can hold your split reins in what is called “the bridge.”

This puts the excess of either rein on the opposing side of the horse’s neck, and the two reins are held in the middle where they overlap. Place the reins in the palm of your hands so that tops of your hands are upright. At this point, you can either place your pinky beneath the excess of the rein on either side or grasp them around in a fist.

This allows you to work the horse’s mouth on either side.

For English, the slack of the reins will be together, usually held together at the ends with a buckle.

The bight of the reins (the connected end portion) is off the right side of the horse’s neck – underneath your right rein. Each hand will hold a single rein. This is similar to how you would see a jockey hold the reins. Again, the pinkies can be on the outside of the reins or on the inside, grasping like a fist.

There is another type of rein hold called the trainer’s rein hold. This is oftentimes used when a trainer is teaching a horse to go between a snaffle to a curb.

This is the introduction into neck reining. The reins are placed similarly to the western bridge style with the slack of either rein on the opposing side of the clasp across the horse’s neck. However, only one hand holds the rein at the bridged portion with this style.

This allows for direct action when rotating the wrist or the hand can move farther up the neck to practice neck reining without direct contact on the bit.

Rein Hold for Riding in a Curb Bit

The curb bit works off of leverage versus direct pressure like the snaffle.

The reins are attached to the bottom of the shank. This creates leverage. Whenever there is direct contact with the bit, there is action.

For a western hold, the bight, or excess rein, is on the same side as the reining hand. If holding reins with the left hand, the bight needs to be on the left.

Position the hand right in front of the pommel of the saddle so that there is plenty of room to neck rein. Position the hand in a fist with the top of the hand facing upward. Your pointer finger should be between the two reins with the rest of the slack running through your palm.

With a romal, unlike split reins, are attached at the bottom either by silver, rawhide or some other decoration.

In a romal hold, the reins are held as if the rider is holding an ice cream cone. The hand should be in a fist with the thumb upward and the slack of the reins in the palm starting the pinky side and coming up through the gap on the thumb side.

The free hand either holds the tail or quirt portion of the romal or it is placed on the thigh. (Read on to learn how to ride in romal reins and how to ride in a two-rein rig, which pairs romal reins with a small hackamore.)

There are a variety of rein holds, depending upon the bit used and the discipline. 

How to Shorten Your Reins

“Creeping up” or “walking your fingers up” is one way to shorten your reins when riding two-handed, such as in English or in a western snaffle bit. While you can certainly shorten your reins that way, and it’s not against AQHA rules, but it is traditionally not considered correct for the hunter, or English, rider.

For one thing, walking your fingers up the reins is not safe. When you shorten your reins that way, you really have to let go of the rein with your fingers and thumb to creep up on it. As you walk your fingers up the reins, your fingers open up too much and it’s much easier to drop your reins. For another, creeping up is simply a slow way to shorten your reins.

Neither a chance of dropping the rein nor a slow rein adjustment are what you want when you are riding English and are shortening your reins to move into a two-point or half-seat for a hand gallop or to approach a jump.

The Basics of Bridging Reins

The traditional, correct way to shorten your English reins is to bridge them: Use your right hand to shorten the left rein and the left hand to shorten the right rein.

The rein should always come from the bit through your ring finger and pinkie, through your hand, and out over your index finger, held by your thumb on top. When you shorten your left rein, use your right index finger and thumb to reach over and hold the left rein an inch up from your left index finger, and quickly slide your left hand down the rein toward the bit. Then do the same action with your left hand to shorten the right rein.

The bridge allows you to keep holding onto both reins as you shorten. You can do it with a quick and smooth motion. You’ll be amazed at how much quicker you can adjust your reins this way vs. creeping up on the reins: You can do it in half the time.

To loosen the reins, simply allow the reins to feed out through your fingers, with your hands closed around them.

You can also maintain the bridge in your reins – when you reach over with your right hand to grab the left rein and shorten it, you continue to also hold that left rein with your right hand (for a single bridge), or you could hold both reins with both hands (for a double bridge). It gives you a firmer grip.

With bridging, you can keep your hands in the same position, the same distance apart, and you just shorten the reins an inch at a time on each side as you adjust.

The extra loop, the “bight” of the reins, can be on either side of your horse’s neck, and it should lay between the rein and the horse’s shoulder.

It’s important to remember to gradually shorten your reins about an inch at a time, one side, then the other. If you drastically shorten a rein, say 8 or 10 inches, you’ll have too much slack in the other rein before shortening it, and you could lose control.

Riding With an Active Hand

There’s an old saying that “a good rider has an active hand.” An active hand doesn’t mean you see it actively moving around, it’s active in the sense that the rider can readily adjust the reins according to what she’s doing. For example, when a rider moves to the two-point position to ride a hand gallop, she has to adjust the reins shorter because the hands must come up the horse’s neck.

Learning to adjust your reins properly is part of learning proper feel with your hands, too. You cannot effectively ride a rail class or a jumper course with your hand fixed in one spot on the rein. You must maintain a direct rein feel between your hands and the horse’s mouth, adjusted to the correct rein length for what you are doing.

It goes back to tradition and correctness of form. There’s a reason for this tradition – it creates a more effective rider.

Bridging Reins

English and western riders both use the term “bridge your reins” to mean similar ways to handle your reins.

In western tack, a bridge is used with a snaffle bit and split reins. The reins are crossed over the withers, so the tail of the left rein is on the right side of the horse’s neck and vice versa. You then ride with both hands on the reins.

Bridging is used in early training, before a horse is neck reining in a shank bit. It’s a safer way to ride two-handed in split reins, because if you drop a rein, it falls across the horse’s neck instead of on the ground.

With English reins and a snaffle bit, a bridge is a way to shorten your reins to give you a better two-handed grip (as a jockey would need in a race) or to allow you to hold them in one hand (as a polo player does). A bridge can give you a stronger grip over a jump or in a hand gallop, and with a horse that tends to pull the reins out of your hands.

Ideal Rein Length

Your reins should create a straight line from your elbow to your horse's mouth. When the reins get too long, your hands are either too low or they get up way too high. You lose your leverage, your guide and effectiveness.

Your reins are a steering wheel. A horse carries most of his weight in his front end, so most of your guide and your balance is in the front. You want light contact on the horse's mouth and drive from his hind end. Use your leg as your gas pedal to control how much drive you want. Keep an even amount of pressure on your horse and do not move your legs back and forth.

Knowing How Hard to Pull on Reins

Release the rein pressure on the bit when your horse gives, and take hold when he takes hold. 

  1. Give and take. If you take hold of a horse and feel he has not given to you, and you pull just a little bit more, that's probably enough pressure. Just be patient and keep working. 

  2. Chip away at taking a hold. If you jerk on a horse, he is going to be resentful to that much pressure all at once. 

  3. It’s not an exact science. There is no actual pound or amount of pressure that you need to pull. You just have to feel whether the horse is giving to you or not. 

  4. Find the sweet spot. When you take hold of a horse’s mouth feel him giving at the bar and in the poll, you have pulled enough. If you pull really hard and feel your horse pull back, you have over-pulled. 

Of course, horses are individuals, just like people, and some are going to take less pressure, and some are going to take more. What a rider has to learn is to find that happy compromise in between. 

Horses that have been overtrained or mistrained are sometimes a little harder because they already learned an incorrect way. Sometimes you need to go back and just use a snaffle bit. Do a lot of side to side work with direct pressure and use different pressure points. 

The most important thing to remember is to trust your horse and trust yourself.