Shorten Your Horse Reins

While horse showing, there is a correct and an incorrect way to adjust the length of your reins.

As an AQHA judge, I see a lot of English riders doing what I call “creeping up” on the reins; you also hear it called “walking your fingers up” the reins. While you can certainly shorten your reins that way, and it’s not against AQHA rules, it is traditionally not considered correct for the hunter rider.

For one thing, it’s 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, it’s 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 shortening your reins to move into a two-point or half-seat for a hand gallop or to approach a jump.

I’m not sure why we see “creeping up on the reins” in the AQHA English classes, but it might have to do with a trend of thinking it’s wrong for a rider to take one hand and adjust the rein length in the other hand – which is the case with western split reins.

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The Basics

The traditional, correct way to shorten your 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.

It 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.

Step It Up

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 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.

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In amateur hunt seat equitation at the 2011 AQHA World Championship Show, my fellow judges expressed surprise at seeing riders walking their fingers up the reins in the class. It was obvious that creeping up on the reins was too slow for riders to maneuver well and showed too much action in the riders' hands.

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 the 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.

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AQHA Video

AQHA Alliance Partner Certified Horsemanship Association explains the different riding rein holds -- romel rein hold, split rein hold, trainers hold and direct rein hold. Learn the uses of each and which ones may work best for you. Find out more about the Certified Horsemanship Association at