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Correct way to hold reins

From: C & K

Hi Jessica,

I was thrilled to come across Horse-Sense. I have ordered Riding for the Rest of Us and will make a financial contribution to help keep this valuable newsletter going.

I am 45 and have returned to riding in the last few months after a very long "pause". I am finding that I have forgotten much plus what I do remember no longer seems correct (my seat apparently tends to be too forward, hands too low etc.).

My previous instructor was a British ex-cavalry officer and some things were drilled into us, that I do remember! My present instructor is very patient, kind and generous with praise.

My question concerns the correct way to hold the reins (English riding using a simple single joint snaffle bit). I did not see this specifically addressed in the archives and I hope it is not a too simple or obvious question.

I was previously taught to hold the snaffle rein beneath my baby finger, not threaded through the baby finger and the fourth finger. I notice almost everyone else (okay everyone) threads the reins between fingers. I was taught you only threaded the reins when using a double bridle and then the snaffle rein was still beneath the baby finger.

Is one way much more proper than the other? Why do you suppose I was taught what seems to be incorrect?

I have tried threading the reins but I find it very distracting. My instructor is not fussy at the moment. She says to hold the reins how I was taught for now but I want to switch eventually if it is totally wrong. I have no immediate plans to show but one never knows!

Thanks again for your wonderful contribution to the horse world!


Hi Christie! Don't worry, there are several different ways to hold reins, whether you're holding a single pair or two pairs. Some ways are better suited to different types of riding - and some ways have been in and out of fashion several times over the last few hundred years.

You're riding with a simple snaffle bridle, and you have one rein in each hand. Wherever the rein enters your hand, under your baby finger or between your baby finger and your ring finger, your hold on the rein at that point is a "passive grip". The actual "active grip" of your hold is where the rein passes between your thumb and forefinger. If the rein enters your hand between the baby finger and ring finger, the passive grip is a little stronger, as is the security of your hold, because your ring finger is stronger than your baby finger. In addition to being stronger, your ring finger is also more independent and better able to give the tiny squeezes and releases that make up so much of your riding dialogue through the reins. The rein HOLD is thumb/forefinger - the rein TALK is with your ring finger. But that said, it's entirely possible, and no less correct, to have the snaffle rein on the outside of your baby finger, so don't feel that you MUST make the change.

When riders are first learning to hold the reins, and when riders anticipate doing all of their riding in a snaffle, riding instructors will typically teach that the snaffle rein should enter the hand between the baby finger and ring finger.

When more advanced riders are learning how to use a Pelham or a double bridle, or if beginner riders are just learning to use the snaffle, but the instructor fully expects them to graduate to the double bridle in time, the instructor may prefer to teach that the snaffle rein should enter the hand under the baby finger. In this case, the reason is that when the curb rein is added, it can be placed between the baby finger and ring finger. The theory behind this practice is that there is less unintentional movement of the ring finger of most riders - and thus less action on the curb rein. This may be correct in some cases. In my own experience, I've found that riders are often more gentle with their baby fingers simply because those fingers are weaker - so I find the baby finger quite suitable for the curb rein.

Your instructor may take a different view - and that's fine. Different instructors teach different methods because they teach what they were taught by THEIR instructors - who may have learned specific practices for very good reasons, and then passed on those practices (but not the reasons) to their own students. An instructor might not explain, or remember, or even know, the history or reason behind a specific practice. It's always worthwhile making a mental note to find out the "why" behind any practice - which may mean looking elsewhere for answers if you ask your instructor and get a response like "Because this is the way it's done."

To add to the confusion, you'll likely be taught one style if your instructor is (or was taught by) a civilian, and another style if your instructor is (or was taught by) a cavalry instructor. If your instructor is a civilian who was taught by a civilian who was taught by a cavalry instructor.... it can all get very complicated. In the case of the two seemingly conflicting ways of holding the reins of a double bridle, here are the reasons for the two different styles:

In the cavalry, much riding was done with the curb alone, so the curb rein was outside the snaffle rein, with the curb rein outside the baby finger. This makes sense when you remember that for the cavalry's purposes, the reins often needed to be held in one hand, freeing the rider's other hand to hold a weapon. For civilian riding, which did not involve weapons (we'll exclude highwaymen from the category of "civilians"), the snaffle rein was outside the curb rein, because the rider kept both hands on the reins, and the snaffle, not the curb, was the primary rein.

Of course, you could be taught a mixed method by a civilian instructor who was originally taught by a cavalry instructor! In this case, the reins might be adjusted cavalry-style and held with both hands - and the civilian instructor might not realize WHY he is teaching you this way, or why he was taught this way himself. Are you confused yet? ;-)

As long as you hold your reins firmly with closed fingers and relaxed arms, it doesn't really matter whether your baby fingers are on the outside or the inside of the rein - it's probably more useful to be concerned with the position of your hands in front of you!

If you look down at your own hands holding the reins, you should see your thumb joints (bent) and your thumbnails pointing at each other, with the rein coming out between your thumbs and forefingers. That bend in your thumb is all-important. Practice holding the reins with your thumb bent and then with your thumb flat - you'll quickly see why the bend matters. With the rein firmly held between the ball of your thumb and your forefinger, your hand and forearm can extend softly, not stiffly, your wrists can be relaxed, and you can tighten and relax your fingers to send quiet signals to your horse. Now, try it with thumbs flat - everything changes! Your hand, forearm, wrist, and fingers all become stiff, and you can no longer achieve quiet communication with the horse's mouth through subtle movements of your fingers.

As for "threading" the reins, I wonder whether you would find the hold suggested by your instructor as difficult if you didn't find it so awkward to "thread" the reins through your fingers? Here is an easy way of picking up the reins so that the reins and your hands will be in the correct position instantly. With practice, it will become easy and smooth, and you will be able to do it without thinking about it at all.

With the reins hanging loose on your horse's neck, reach down with both hands open, palms down, fingers pointed toward your horse's neck, and your extended thumbs just touching one another. Place your thumbs on either side of the buckle connecting the reins, and pick up the reins between your thumbs and forefingers. Now, leaving your baby fingers open and pointing, close the rest of your fingers around the reins. Now rotate your closed hands outward so that your thumbs are on top and your thumbnails are pointing toward each other. NOW, close your baby fingers - which you will find to be (surprise!) on the OUTSIDE of the reins. Congratulations! Your reins are positioned correctly in your closed hands, your hands are positioned correctly, and the reins are entering your hands between baby fingers and ring fingers, exiting betwen thumb and forefinger.

Practice this with your horse at a standstill - pick up the reins, drop them again, pick them up, drop them again. Once it becomes easy and comfortable, you can practice shortening the reins. Again, there will be no need to thread the reins. If the reins between your hands and the horse's mouth are hanging in festoons, don't worry. Just rotate your hands inwards again for a moment, so that your thumbs touch, then relax your thumb-hold slightly and separate your hands, letting them slide away from the buckle, away from each other, along the reins. When you think you've taken up enough rein, stop, bend your thumbs again and tighten your hands to confirm your grip, and rotate your hands again so that your thumbs are uppermost and your thumbnails are pointing towards one another. This will bring your upper arms back into their correct default position, hanging softly at your sides, elbows bent.

With this accomplished, look down. Your forearms will be horizontal, your hand position will be correct, your reins will be even, and you will have successfully shortened your reins. This, too, quickly becomes easy and natural - you'll soon be able to shorten your reins instantly and easily, and always evenly, without looking at your hands or at the reins.

Welcome back to riding!


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