Reins, we almost always use them when we ride horses. In westernriding, there are many different types of reins and auxiliary reins, made from different materials and used for different purposes.
Your choice of reins depends on the discipline you ride and the type of headstall, bit or bitless, hackamore, etc., that you use. Of course, personal preference also plays a role in your choice.
There are different types of reins, and they can also vary in thickness. The heavier the rein, the easier it is for your horse to feel what you're doing with your hands, allowing for more subtle signals. To minimize unnecessary pressure on the bit for well-trained horses, thin (but not too light) reins are ideal. Reins made of cheap, lightweight material that flutters around can swing more easily, causing unnecessary pressure and discomfort in your horse's mouth or on its nose.
The width of the reins determines not only the weight but also the feel for you as a rider. This is very personal. Often, thicker reins are used with a snaffle bit when riding with two hands, compared to a bit where the reins are held in one hand. The most common widths are: 3/8" - 0.95 cm, 1/2" - 1.27 cm, and 5/8" - 1.59 cm. If your reins are of good quality and well-maintained, your horse will immediately feel when you release the rein, allowing it to learn and respond better and faster.
The most common Western reins:
Split reins are between 7 and 10 feet (213 - 305 cm) long. They are two separate, loose reins connected to the bit by water loops, Chicago screws, or quick releases such as snap closures. Split reins are almost always made of leather, but they can also be made of materials such as braided rope. These reins are suitable for many Western disciplines, including Trail, Pleasure, Reining, Cutting, and training, among others. With split reins, you can make small adjustments to one or the other rein, steer your horse with one rein, use the neck rein, and/or give other signals with one or both hands, with the ability to hold the reins in different positions. Split reins are long and versatile, but you need to learn how to work with them as they can, for example, be more prone to falling to the ground due to their separate parts.
The traditional pistol grip is the rein grip used in competitions. You hold both reins in one hand with your index finger between the two reins. If you ride with one hand, make sure that the bight (the tail of your reins) is on the same side of your horse's neck as your rein hand.
The trainer's grip or bridge is created by placing one rein on each side of your horse's neck, crossing the reins over, and holding one or both reins in your both hands. This allows you to ride with two hands and work independently on each side of the bit. You can also use a bridge when riding with one hand and don't want to risk dropping your reins quickly, although this is not allowed in competitions.
Loop reins or roping reins are continuous reins made of leather, cotton, alpaca, nylon, etc., attached to the bit at both ends. These closed reins are used for Western speed events such as Barrel Racing, rodeo events, Trail Riding, and training inexperienced horses. Loop reins are shorter than split reins. These closed reins are also ideal for trail riding as they are easy to hold, adjust in length, and do not easily fall to the ground. If you choose to ride with closed reins outdoors, opt for a heavy, high-quality rope as it fills your hand for comfort and control. They are also convenient to use when following a trail and not needing to guide your horse's every step.
Mecate reins are typically used with a bosal. The bosal and mecate are derived from the Spanish Vaquero riding style. It is a long rope, traditionally made of horsehair, approximately 20 to 25 feet long (about 7 meters) and about 3/4" - 1.9 cm in diameter. Nowadays, mecate reins are also made from other materials such as mohair, alpaca hair, and nylon, and come in different thicknesses. The mecate reins are attached to the bosal in a special way to adjust the fit around the horse's nose. It creates both a loop rein and a long free end. The long free end is often referred to as a "git down rope." When the rider is mounted, the free end is attached to the saddle. When dismounted, it is often used as a lead rope. If the horse or rider has no experience with a bosal, the mecate rein can also be attached to a bit using leather slobber straps. These reins can provide subtle signals due to their rough texture (in the case of mohair) and the weight of the rein.
Romal reins. A romal is attached to a closed rein, and the whole assembly is called romal reins. The romal was developed to assist a rider in moving cattle and is derived from traditional Vaquero methods. The romal is finished with a strip of leather at the end, known as a popper. Romal reins are often made of rawhide. These reins are also highly suitable for many Western disciplines but are commonly seen in Reined Cow Horse. You hold the closed reins in one fist and the romal in the other hand, without threading your finger through it. When held correctly, it is easier to keep your reins even and at the correct length, unlike with split reins. They are useful for keeping your horse upright and between your reins. Romal reins are also a good way to determine how well-trained your horse is in neck reining. They are only used with a shank bit.
Slit reins / Slot end reins. These reins with slotted ends provide direct pressure for clearer and faster communication with your horse and are ideal for the advanced rider. They can only be used with a shank bit. Your horse will immediately feel every hand movement, so these reins are less suitable for an unsteady hand. Slit or slot end reins are almost always made of leather. These reins do not require screws or leather laces and are firmly attached to the bit ring to prevent twisting during riding. Slit reins, therefore, hang still during riding.
Western Auxiliary Reins
Auxiliary reins are used to train horses, encouraging them to flex at the poll and use their back and hindquarters in a way that allows them to carry themselves in balance and straightness. These training aids are called aids for a reason and are intended to be temporary! Using an auxiliary rein limits the horse's choices in how it uses its body, which can lead to tension and dangerous behavior. Always use an auxiliary rein only after ruling out any physical issues. For example, a horse that keeps its head up due to mouth pain doesn't benefit from a martingale but would benefit from a visit to the dentist.
Different trainers have their preferences and even their own auxiliary reins. Below, we discuss the most commonly used ones. Always use auxiliary reins in consultation and/or under the guidance of your trainer or instructor.
Draw reins can be useful during training as long as the horse is familiar with them and you have learned how to use them. Draw reins are ideal for horses that need to learn collection and proper positioning, helping them flex at the poll and ride from the hindquarters. They can be made of rolled leather, nylon, or other sturdy materials. The timing of releasing the pressure is the most important factor in improving your horse with draw reins. The horse gives and collects, and you release the pressure and repeat if necessary. As a rider, you need to have a good sense of timing. You want to teach the horse collection and proper positioning, so at some point, you need to release the reins to allow the horse to understand what you want it to do. If you only use draw reins to get the horse's head down, it will not learn collection but will instead learn to lean on the forehand. It is best to attach draw reins to the side buckle of the saddle rather than between the horse's front legs to avoid pulling the horse onto its forehand.
Safety first! Check the buckles. If the connections to the reins or anywhere else on the equipment are rusty or appear unreliable, replace them. Pay close attention to your horse. If it has never been tied this way before, be cautious with your hands and be prepared for its reaction. The renowned trainer Al Dunning always has his horses take a few steps backward to test their reaction before riding with them. Be prepared if your horse quickly raises its head in an attempt to resist. Give it its head and slowly regain contact.
The martingale is designed to teach flexion/flexibility and establish a consistent head and neck position. A martingale prevents the horse from raising its head too high but allows enough freedom for flexion. A properly adjusted martingale has no effect when the horse is in the desired head and neck position, making it a fair auxiliary rein. The horse only experiences pressure when it is in an undesired position. Always use "martingale stops" on the reins to prevent the martingale rings from sliding too far forward.
The German martingale helps an inexperienced horse achieve better positioning or frame. In addition to teaching the correct head and neck position, it gives you more control over the nose position. The operation of this martingale is very simple and gentle when used correctly. The German martingale has an adjustable strap that runs between the horse's front legs. The nylon cord forms a Y at the end of the strap. The cord passes through the bit rings to the reins. Each rein has three rings to which the end of each nylon cord can be attached. Adjust the strap running between the horse's legs depending on the horse's size. Start by connecting the nylon cord to the first ring. As your horse becomes accustomed to the German martingale, you can attach it to the second and third rings. You can use different types of bits with this martingale.
A training fork is designed to establish a consistent head and neck position. The training fork prevents the horse from raising its head too high. It resembles a martingale but is narrower and therefore unsuitable for training flexion/flexibility. A properly adjusted training fork has no effect when the horse is in the desired head and neck position, making it a fair auxiliary rein.
Maintaining Your Reins
Properly maintaining your reins extends their lifespan and improves their effectiveness on your horse. For leather reins, it's best to oil them once a year with Neatsfoot oil (for open leather). You can do this, for example, just before going on vacation so that the oil can penetrate while you're not riding. Oiling more than once a year is not necessary with good quality leather and proper storage, as it can make the reins too loose and greasy when riding. Rope reins can be cleaned more frequently with water and horse shampoo. Rawhide reins can be cleaned and maintained with rawhide cream. Before riding, always check how the reins are attached to the bit. Snaps can break, Chicago screws and conchos can come loose, and leather can wear and break. Check and replace as needed to ensure safe riding. Proper storage means not creating too many loops in the reins. Each loop creates more weak points in the leather and causes the reins to twist during riding.
A final note
- Although it may be convenient to attach your reins with clips, it can be unpleasant for the horse as metal-on-metal vibrations occur during movement. If you want to be able to change your reins quickly, use reins with a quick-release made of leather or rope.
- For safety reasons, reins with a water loop can break at the leather lace under high pressure, which can prevent your horse from getting injured if it steps on a rein. Additionally, the leather lace is easy to replace and carry. If you prefer a beautiful pair of reins with Chicago screws or conchos, use them with a bridle that is attached to the bit with leather laces so that it can break there in case of an emergency.
- The length of the reins depends on the horse. The larger and longer the horse, the longer the reins should be. A Western rein should be long enough to ride with a loose curve. If you want to shorten your split reins, always do so at the front (where you attach them to the bit or noseband). The bottom portion is often weighted to keep the rein end still.
- When riding Western, the traditional hand for holding the reins is the left hand. It is assumed that you should use your dominant right hand for work-related tasks such as opening gates, emptying the mailbox, and so on. If you are left-handed, the opposite applies, of course. Even if you don't need your "working hand," it is wise to ride with your non-dominant hand. In case of an emergency, you will have your dominant hand free to grab the horn or the mane quickly, and it also helps you maintain better balance when this hand is free. And that is, of course, much more comfortable for your horse!