Lines of Communication

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.

Story by Susan Morrison
Photography 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 HandFeetLEFT: 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.

“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.


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Tags: HorsemanshipTom Curtinreins