Give and Retake the Reins

In most dressage tests there will be a movement of “give and retake the inside rein” or “give and retake the reins”. You could be in trot or canter. In a straight line or on a circle. In the middle of the arena or along the fenceline. The gait and positioning of the movement dictates it`s complexity.

What is the point of giving and retaking the reins? Well it proves to the judge that the horse is carrying themselves, be it in a prelim outline or an elementary outline, and that the rider is not relying too much on their reins.

At lower levels it tends to be “give and retake the inside rein” which is slightly easier, because the horse still has the support of the outside rein contact. To check the self-carriage of the horse, you give and retake both reins. The judge is looking for there to be very little, or no change to the horse`s way of going. A horse who is green and unbalanced will rush as the rider gives away the rein, or fall onto their forehand, or wobble on their circle. As you progress through the levels you will give away the inside rein in trot, and then both reins in trot, and then the inside rein in canter, and then both in canter.

How many instructors cover giving and retaking reins? I freely admit, I often overlook it, particularly if people aren`t learning dressage tests.

It was, however a useful teaching tool last week with a client of mine.

She is predominantly a happy hacker looking to improve her skills, and her mare is a rather rude cob, who is a bit heavy on the forehand. My rider finds the mare heavy and unresponsive to the rein aid, tending to push through the bridle in every transition.

In her first lesson I worked on engaging the rider`s seat and correcting the position of her hands so that her elbow is bent and the hand is carried out in front of the withers. This lesson I wanted to teach my rider what she should expect to feel from the rein contact.

After a quick warm up I explained the principles of giving and retaking the reins, and in trot on the long sides of the arena we gave away the inside rein a few times on each rein. Then we did it on a twenty metre circle. There were two purposes of this exercise for this rider; one, to highlight how much the mare relies on the rein aids for steering (the circle drastically changed shape with the giving of the inside rein) and to reset the rider`s arms as she tends to clench her fist and send tension down the reins, which gives the mare a good excuse to bear down on the reins. We moved on to giving away both reins, in which the mare ran onto her forehand the first few times. But each time my rider retook the reins she did so with a less demanding hold, and a with a more relaxed forearm and wrist.

After a few goes at this the rider had a softer rein contact and felt that the mare was less heavy in her hand, and then there was less of a loss of rhythm and balance from the horse when she gave the reins, and then retook them. We weren`t looking at perfect, but I was trying to highlight the fact that my rider needed to make sure she wasn’t entering a stand-off when she held her reins by clenching her fists. It seemed to work and the mare relaxed in her neck and jaw a bit.

I gave my rider this tool to check the way she was holding her reins, and to “reset” the rein contact. We moved on to practising using the leg and seat aids to perfect her turns and circles. She knew what to do, but needed to learn to use the leg and seat first, before panicking and tugging the inside rein. Yes, some looked messy, but others looked far more consistent. She could feel the difference in the horse because she didn’t lose her balance, or rush as much. 

My rider was left hand dominant; using the left rein to pull round on left hand turns, and on the right rein crossing her left hand over the withers. So I addressed this issue, and made her aware of the discrepancies between her hands and got her to make her left hand less dominant. This drastically improved their right rein turns.

A combination of giving and retaking the reins, focusing on the leg and seat more, and ensuring her hands were more symmetrical, my rider began to understand what she should be feeling down the reins with the correct level of contact – constant, quiet, positive, light. 

The next step for them both is learning that they are not in a tug of war. I will explain half-halts in more detail next time, but for the last fifteen minutes of this lesson I wanted to remove the idea that to slow a horse you pull constantly until they stop.

Horses are taught to move away from pressure. A hold on the reins creates pressure in the mouth, so the horse should slow down. Then the hand should relax to remove the pressure in the mouth, which acts as a reward for the horse. However, a horse who doesn’t get rewarded for slowing down by the reduction in mouth pressure will learn to set their jaw and lean against the bit and rider’s hand, not changing their speed one iota. 

This is what the mare does.

As my rider began to half halt with squeezes down the rein rather than a continuous pull, the mare began to listen and adjust her pace accordingly. 

They actually finished with the combination looking more harmonious, with less tension yet more succinct communication and the mare started to come off her forehand slightly.

We’ve a long way to go, but I think this could be the start of a much better friendship between horse and rider. Rider will be able to provide a more positive and supportive rein contact in a lighter manner, and the horse will carry herself with less reliance on the hand and respect the rein contact because it is quieter and only used when necessary. 



3 thoughts on “Give and Retake the Reins

  1. Diane Carslake Jun 22, 2021 / 11:21 pm

    I found this really helpful ! Great read ! My mare is so hard on the hand , or my hand is so hard on my mare 🤔 She is very eager but I feel this will really work with her !
    Thank u ! Its a lesson in itself this. I look forward to schooling her tomo!

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