Tack & Gear / Training

Rein Change

Marilyn Peters demonstrating how to hold romal reins

While some competitors may select their bridle reins based on what’s trendy or what looks cool, reins should be viewed primarily as a means to guide a horse. Experienced trainer and accredited judge Marilyn Peters advises riders to learn how romal reins or split reins work before making a rein change.

Harkening back to when cowboys rode horses more than they sat in automobiles, the style of bridle reins used reflected the area where you rode. In California and northwestern states, braided rawhide romal reins ruled because of the vaquero influence on training. In the Southwest and farther east, cowboys preferred leather split reins to do their work.

In competitive horse shows nowadays, either rein style can be and is used by a wide variety of competitors. Yet in June in Guthrie, Oklahoma, during the American Quarter Horse Association Versatility Ranch Horse World Championships and National Ranch and Stock Horse Alliance National Championship Show, accredited judge and experienced horsewoman Marilyn Peters noticed riders incorrectly using both rein styles.

She saw riders receiving penalties for errors such as putting a finger between the romal reins, or not putting the necessary finger between split reins. Other problems stemmed from not utilizing the reins properly. The lack of proper rein use led to miscommunication with the horse, and that adversely affected the rider’s score.

“In ranch horse versatility, it isn’t like a horse show class where you have the same look or mode as everyone else. The nice thing is you can have your own look,” Peters says. “If your horse operates the way it’s supposed to and you operate your reins properly, it makes no difference to me as a judge [which kind of reins are used]. It’s when someone doesn’t know how to use their equipment that it becomes a problem that can be reflected on the score card.”

Marilyn Peters riding horse in arena
Marilyn Peters opts to show in the cow horse with romal reins. Here, she holds her rein hand like holding a cup of coffee, with the thumb up. In cow work, it is legal to hold the horn, and to hold the romal tail with the hand against the horn.

Peters says there are pitfalls and benefits to riding in rawhide romal reins or leather split reins. For Peters, it comes down to the rider’s experience and comfort with a certain rein style.

“The good thing about versatility is there is a choice,” she says. “Riders need to not try to look like another rider but to use clean tack that works for them.”

Before making a change in rein style based on what other riders are using, take into account how a different rein style will change the communication with your horse. Then, understand how to properly use the reins. Here, Peters outlines common issues seen with both romal reins and split reins.


If customers have a problem keeping their riding reins even, Peters says she puts them in romal reins. The one rein loop, connected to a long romal with a popper, is easier to manage and less apt to become uneven unless the rider pulls the reins incorrectly.

She emphasizes comfort with the proper way to use the tack. For a romal rein, that means holding the rein in a closed fist, with the thumb up. Peters likens it to holding a cup of coffee.

“You want to keep your hand up like you’re holding a coffee cup and not ‘spill the coffee,’ ” she says. “You can’t flatten your hand out, which I saw a lot of at the versatility show. They had their hand open rather than their fingers curled around the rein. That is a zero score in regular horse show classes, as is sticking a finger between the [romal] reins. In the ranch horse versatility, it is a five-point penalty per maneuver.”

The romal rein creates an upward pull on a horse, meaning that cues are most effective when the rider lifts up, not pulls back. The same goes for turning side to side. One major issue Peters sees is riders turning their hand sideways instead of keeping the wrist upright. There was a lot of coffee spilled at the versatility show, she says.

“When you pull [with your wrist sideways], it really accentuates that you’re pulling across the horse’s neck and makes your reins uneven,” she explains. “The other thing is seeing people pull back toward the belly instead of up with their hand. It doesn’t work to pull back. The romal gives you lift; it comes from the underside of your hand. When you pull into your belly, you lose that advantage to that romal.”

Peters emphasizes understanding how to use the romal reins and knowing what constitutes a penalty in a competitive association. The AQHA, the National Reined Cow Horse Association and the National Reining Horse Association all have different rules governing rein use. Those rules may or may not apply to a regional versatility stock or ranch horse association.

“I don’t think a judge has an opinion either way if you ride in split reins or romal reins,” she says. “Just ride in what is comfortable.”


For years, Peters showed exclusively in leather split reins. It was the custom in her home state of Oklahoma. When she began showing reined cow horses, she began using romal reins, which are required in many bridle horse classes. When home, though, she often opts for split reins. She also prefers to ride with split reins during a trail class at a versatility show. For her, it is comfort using the reins as well as convenience in the show pen.

“I think it is easier to do trail in split reins because it is easier to ground tie than it is with the romal. I believe a lot of associations will [soon institute a rule to] make you use a get-down rope [when you are riding] with a romal in the ground tie,” she says. “I also use split reins when I have a younger horse that needs a little more guidance. I can ‘cheat’ the split rein and shorten one side or the other as needed. Somebody that shows in split reins can cheat a little bit and not get a penalty. If you try to shorten an inside rein on a romal, you’ll have a bubble and may incur a penalty for slipping the rein in the cow work event.”

Riders who use split reins can have the same issues as riders using romal reins— pulling across the neck and creating a situation where the horse’s head is turned away from the direction the rider is headed. That often relates to uneven reins.

Although a rider might shorten the inside rein, failing to readjust it after changing direction can impede a horse’s movement in a spin or a circle.

“To me, seeing someone with a big rein length difference [shows] a lack of knowledge or awareness,” Peters says. “The horse will tell on you, just like pulling across the neck in the romal. A horse can’t turn against a rein too short. Typically, a rein too short on one side doesn’t affect the score, but it does
affect how the horse responds to the rider, and that can affect the score.”

Riders must keep one finger between the split reins, and that is typically the index finger. That finger maintains evenness between the reins, and it can also help to shorten or lengthen the rein.

“If you stick more fingers between them, that is a penalty,” she says. “You can shorten your inside rein a little to cock the nose to the inside to run a circle or turn. But you have to remember to even those reins up or shorten the new inside rein [after changing direction]. Riders forget to release it, and then when they go the other direction, the horse’s head is pulled to the outside. As a judge, I will notice.”

While judging, Peters is looking for a horse-and-rider team that works well together to complete the class and has a neat appearance, whether riding in split or romal reins.

“I think it really takes time to ride well in a romal, and also split reins. It goes back to what you’re most comfortable with,” Peters says. “I think that both work, as long as the rider is comfortable adjusting reins while riding and knows how to ride correctly with that rein.”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Ranch Horse News.

2 thoughts on “Rein Change”

  1. Fantastic article about the proper use of reins and area customs. Marilyn Peters knows her stuff. Dr. David Glover introduced me the the Peters family back in tbe 80’s. They have bred, raised, trained and shown many great horses.


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