Giving and Retaking Reins

I did this lesson a few weeks ago. Time flies as I wanted to blog about it almost immediately but I haven’t gotten around to it until now.

I feel that giving and retaking of reins is often overlooked, yet it appeased in most dresssage test. But it can be a really useful tool if a rider has tight arms or carries tension in the shoulders. Likewise, if they tend to over ride and focus too much on what’s going on in front of them then it can be a good “resetting “exercise to rebalance the rider’s mind and balance of their aids. For a horse who relies heavily on the hand, giving and retaking the reins teaches them some independence, and can encourage self-carriage. It can also prevent them getting too tight and resistant in the neck, and thus improve the overall gait because the back softens to connect the hindquarters to the forehand.

Once the riders had warmed up I ran through the plan for the lesson. Initially in the trot they would give the inside rein on the long side of the arena. There should be no change in the horse’s trot; the rhythm and balance shouldn’t change. The outside fence supports the horse so they shouldn’t wobble off the track. We worked on the rider’s giving the rein away slowly and then retaking it carefully so that no tension was created in the horse’s neck or change in the horse’s way of going. It took a couple of attempts, but soon the horses were staying consistent in their frame. Then we progressed to giving away the inside rein for a few strides on circles: this proves how much the rider relies on the inside rein on circles, and it emphasises the importance of the leg and seat aids. It’s amazing how distorted the circle becomes when you take away the inside rein! Again, we developed this from giving the rein away for only two strides until the rider’s could give that rein for the majority of the circle. When giving away the inside rein on circles you can also check that the outside rein isn’t working too hard; if it is, the horse will go into counter flexion and the rider needs to soften the feel down the outside rein and use their leg and seat to encourage inside bend.

It took a few repetitions of this exercise on both reins until the trot stayed perfectly balanced with or without the inside rein. The next obvious step was to give away both reins. We started giving the reins away for three strides on the long side, and I soon noticed that my riders had more relaxed arms and a softer rein contact, which had a positive effect on the horses; they were less tight in the neck and and more accepting of the rein contact. 

Giving the reins away on a circle put more focus on the leg aids, and after doing it in both directions a rider should be able to identify their stronger side, and the horse’s easier rein. 

By now the horses were tracking up nicely, working over their backs and in self carriage. The rider’s were also less reliant on their hands and more focused on their horse’s way of going as a whole, and not just the front end. I also found that because the emphasis was on giving and retaking the reins without altering the horses’ way of going, my riders had more sensitive hands, making smaller, more subtle aids.

Towards the end of the lesson we tried giving the inside rein away in canter. Again, initially just down the long side but progressing to giving it away on circles. The first couple of attempts caused the horses to run onto the forehand and lose their balance, so the riders had to establish the canter and then half halt prior to very slowly giving away the inside rein. Initially they only needed to give an inch or so, so as to not upset the horses’ balance, but with practice the giving can become more pronounced. This movement first appears at elementary level, so is definitely one to work on over the next few months.

I was really pleased with how the horses became more rhythmical in their work; they were less reliant on the rider for balance so their internal rhythm took over. They were also more relaxed, their necks softer and so the back was relaxed and the hindquarters started to connect to the forehand. Then of course, I could see them swinging over their backs. The riders on the other hand, had softer arms, kept the hands stiller and were more subtle with the rein aids, as well as using their legs and seat aids more effectively. Altogether, a much more harmonious picture which I think any dressage judge would appreciate and subsequently reward.

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