I often post pictures of me riding on Instagram (@RealAndreaCao), and a pattern you’ll notice in all of my photos is that I always ride with very loose reins. I usually get one of two responses when people notice this-- either they applaud and commend me or they question why in the world I would ride like that. Nevertheless, both responses inspired me to write a detailed explanation of why I choose to ride with loose reins.
No matter how you ride, it’s important to know that you should ride however you and your horse feel comfortable. While I encourage you to keep an open mind in order to learn and better yourself as a horseman, there are no affirmative right or wrong ways to ride a horse. I’m simply explaining why I ride the way I ride, do with it what you will :)
There are 2 types of pressure* that you apply when working with a horse. The first is steady, or constant pressure. This type of pressure usually happens without us being intentional about it. Things like eye contact and facing our horses with our body are steady pressure. Any movement by our hands on the reins, intentional or not, is pressure. Likewise, taking the slack out of the reins or making constant contact with the bit is steady pressure. After this type of pressure is applied constantly over time, your horse becomes “desensitized” to it. In other words, he learns to ignore it. That’s why your horse probably doesn’t react when you look at him. Or why a dude ranch horse doesn't stop on a dime and run backwards when a tourist picks up on the reins. Horses become used to this type of pressure.
The other type of pressure is a cue. This is when you apply pressure with the expectation of a response that you already taught your horse. For example, speeding up when you squeeze with your legs, or bending his head and neck when you pull your reins to your hip.
The thing is, both of these types of pressure work together. Steady pressure establishes a “baseline” for your horse, and anything out of the norm is when your horse knows it’s a cue and he’s supposed to do something. Ideally, you want the least amount of steady pressure possible so your horse can be as soft as possible when you cue him.
If that was confusing, think about it like this: you’re in a loud restaurant, and you’re trying to listen to some music that’s playing. The people talking around you are steady pressure, and in order for the music to be heard (your cue), you need to adjust the loudness of the music based on how loud the crowd is. If the crowd is quiet, you don’t need to play the music nearly as loud. If there’s lots of background noise, you’ll need to turn up the music quite a bit to be heard.
This is exactly like riding your horse. How you hold the reins is like the loudness of the restaurant, steady pressure that your horse needs to ignore. In order for your music to be heard, or to cue your horse using the reins, you’ll need to pick up on the reins even harder than how you hold the reins normally. If you normally have a death grip on the reins, you’ll have to pull even harder in order for your horse to hear you.
But on the other hand, if you ride with no bit contact whatsoever, it’s like being in a quiet restaurant. Any cue, no matter how soft, can be heard by your horse. Guys, this is the secret to having a soft and feather light horse.
That is why I ride with loose reins. I want no background noise or steady pressure whatsoever, so my horse can hear and understand even when I ever-so-slightly pick up on my reins. I wouldn't be able to have such a soft and responsive horse if I always rode with constant contact.
So how loose is just right? You want to make sure that wherever you’re holding your reins is neutral, so that there’s no contact until you intend to ask your horse to do something. That means the slobber straps aren’t lifted, and there’s no contact on the bit whatsoever. For most horses, I aim for a 10 foot rein length and hold my non-dominant hand in the middle of my rein and keep it right on my horse’s withers. My other hand is free and ready to pick up when I need to turn, bend, or whatever. When I’m practicing collection or vertical flexion, I keep a small coil in the rein (watch Buck Brannaman and you’ll see what I’m talking about), making sure there’s still no steady pressure.
A lot of the reins you’ll find for sale are only 8 feet, and as someone who has extensively ridden with both 8 and 10 foot reins, I can say that you absolutely need 10 foot reins if you want an incredibly soft horse. After trying almost every rein on the market (I’m sadly not even exaggerating about that), I’ve found that the Andrea Equine 10 foot clinician loop reins are absolutely perfect. They’re heavy, full of feel, the perfect thickness, come in fantastic colors, and last forever. They have weighted ends that allow you to pick up even softer while still transferring your cue to the bit, creating an even lighter horse. They’re the ultimate natural horsemanship style reins. Another great option (my personal favorite) are the Andrea Equine 22 foot mecate reins, which have all of the same great features as the loop reins, but have an extra lead end that allows you to work your horse on the ground, have a quirt under saddle, and even tie your horse on the trail (when done properly!). Most “natural horsemanship” trainers ride with mecate reins, and they’re definitely a popular choice. I set all of my mecate reins to have a 10ft rein portion, but they’re fully adjustable if you find yourself riding a draft or pony :)
Riding with loose reins has changed my life, and I’m never going back. It’s better for both horse and rider in the long run, and I encourage you to give it a try!
Hope this helps, feel free to send me any questions!
*I train all of my horses using pressure and release, which teaches a horse the right answer by releasing strategically placed pressure when my horse performs the correct behavior. In simple terms, I ask a horse to do something with a cue, apply escalating pressure, and stopping the pressure when he searches for answers and is on the right track. I find that this is the most consistent way to train and yields amazing results while keeping the horse in his natural, herd-behavior-oriented mindset.