Reins are one of the strongest lines of communication with a horse and directly affect performance, yet rein-handling mistakes are common. Horseman and clinician Tom Curtin explain how to become a more effective rider by using reins correctly.

Photo by Ross Hecox

Hand position and rein use can have a dramatic effect on a horse’s performance. Keeping your hands low in front of the saddle, as shown, is ideal for most situations, according to Tom Curtin.

Not many things are more frustrating than trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand you, unless perhaps you are the one who doesn’t understand. Imagine how a horse must feel when it receives mixed signals from the reins.

Tom Curtin, who presents horsemanship clinics around the United States and in Australia, sees many riders who mishandle the reins. Whether their hands are out of position, they seek balance from the reins, or they don’t use the reins to reinforce their other aids—seat, legs and feet—those riders can create a cascade of problems in their horses. The key to the correct use of reins is understanding the effect rein use and hand position have on horses, Curtin says, and learning to get the response you want.

“The lack of proper hand position creates a delay in the response you want from your horse, whether it’s lateral or vertical flexion, or stopping,” says Curtin.

Curtin explains that riders typically do one of several things: they use their hands independent of other cues; they get their hands too far behind their body; they misuse their outside rein or can’t use each rein independently; or they get their hands too low or too high.

Even if proper hand position doesn’t come naturally, it’s something every rider can develop, he says.

Hands, Legs, Feet and Seat

Many riders, particularly novices, tend to pull on the reins without coordinating the use of other aids, including their feet, legs and seat. That tactic can confuse a horse. In fact, other cues should come before any contact with the reins, Curtin says.

LOC HandFeet
LEFT: Curtin doesn’t use his reins without also using other aids, such as his seat, legs and feet. Here, he asks his horse to give its nose and step to the right, using a soft hand on the reins, adding slight pressure with his left leg and taking his right leg o the horse. RIGHT: As a horse begins to understand cues, Curtin likes to ride one-handed, even on a young horse in a snaffle bit. Photo by Ross Hecox

“There’s nothing that I do with my hands that I don’t do something with my legs, seat and feet first,” Curtin says.

For example, when Curtin asks for a horse’s nose to come around with his rein, he first prepares that horse with other signals so the horse understands what’s coming and can respond appropriately.

Although it’s possible to get a horse’s nose around without the rider moving his or her body, Curtin calls that a conditioned response, and that’s not what he seeks.

He also cautions against riders being too busy with their hands.

“I think sometimes humans have more security if their hands are busy,” he says. “If a rider can leave a horse alone and not pick on him, it would benefit both. There are two things a horse really likes: He likes to eat and drink, and to be left alone. If he does something you want him to do when you ask him with your hands, you’re not going to feed him, so what’s your other option? Leave him alone. You’ve got to learn to leave him alone.”

Hands in Front

The ideal hand position is usually just in front of the saddle, Curtin says, although a rider’s hands may move slightly up, down or to the side when cueing. A rider who gets his or her hands too far behind that spot—behind the saddle horn or farther back—is most likely to get in trouble.

LOC HandsinFront
LEFT: A rider who gets his or her hand too far behind will begin to lose control of the horse. RIGHT: As the rider’s hand gets farther back, as Curtin demonstrates, his body gets out of position and he has little control, and the horse begins to drift with its hindquarters. The situation also can scare a horse. Photo by Ross Hecox

“I don’t want to get my hands behind me,” he says. “When my hands get behind me, then I’m getting to the point of no return, where I can’t help my horse. A lot of times I will ask a student or somebody who is working with me to take the horse’s head around, and I might say, ‘Reach out and around, and get your hand to go like you were going to put it in your back pocket.’ But I would never want that hand to end up in the back pocket; it’s just going through the motions.

“I use the front of the fork of my saddle as a reference point. I don’t ever like my hand to get behind it.”

Independent Hands
LOC rightandwidth
LEFT: When Curtin asks his horse to turn right, he adds pressure with his right rein and left leg, and takes away pressure from his right leg and left hand, leaving the left rein loose. Learning to use the reins independently makes signals clearer for the horse. RIGHT: The width of the rider’s hands affects how the horse breaks in its neck, Curtin says. The wider the hands, the closer to the withers the horse will break. When the hands are close together, the horse will break at the poll. Photo by Ross Hecox

It’s a natural tendency for most people to use their hands in unison, but when riding it’s necessary to learn to use them separately so the horse clearly understands rein cues.

“When you are doing lateral work from side to side, a lot of times it’s natural that when one hand goes, the other hand goes with it, like you’re driving a bulldozer or something,” Curtin says. “You have to teach yourself to work your hands independently.”

Not High, Not Low

It’s a simple premise, and most anyone who has been around horses for any length of time knows that hand position affects a horse’s head position.

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LEFT: Curtin rides with a slightly loose rein, with the same hand position. RIGHT: Here, Curtin rides with slack in the reins and lets his horse relax. Photo by Ross Hecox

“Always remember, if your hands are low, your horse’s head will be low,” Curtin says. “If your hands go up, your horse’s head will go up.”

“What’s going on biomechanically is that when the horse flexes at the poll and the rider’s hand position is correct, and the horse is right inside—not just flexed but mentally right—you’re going to have true softness that runs all the way through that horse,” Curtin says. “This is all created by hand position.”

1 Comment

  1. I was curious what your thoughts r on riding in a rope halter and lead rope i just tie it under the chin like a bosal…I am very interested in your hand position with reins…so many different trainers and approaches can b very confusing 🤣

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