Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Shortening your reins, how do you?

While I'm working on slowly building up Pig's strength, I've been doing a lot of thinking about more advanced movements. Of course, I can't really ride many of them right now, which is kind of depressing. So instead, let's talk about something so simple every single rider has had to do it at least once a ride: shortening the reins! (Bonus! Summer photos!)
Shortening reins one-handed in a double bridle? Level = Expert.
When you were first learning to ride, shortening your reins probably took a lot of effort. You had to think about not letting go. (Especially if you learned to ride on a western horse with split reins! Omg. Anyone else always dropping those suckers?) You also were probably concerned that shortening your reins would change how much or how little control you had over your horse's steering. 

Has your rein shortening technique changed since those early days? Have you even thought about it?
Remember when figuring out how many fingers should be over the rein was the hardest thing? Or, maybe it still is. No judgement here!
In dressage, how a rider shortens the reins can be very important. The connection between the horse's mouth and the rider's hand is of the utmost importance, so obviously any alteration in the contact effects the connection and how much the rider has their elbows flexed to absorb and hold the contact. But rarely can we just pick a length of rein and have it work for an entire ride. Many times the our reins end up getting long, and our elbows end up super engaged and often behind our back in an attempt to hold the contact. That's not a great place to be, since you've restricted your elbow's range of motion. We know we need to shorten our reins fast to maintain good contact.
Reins too long. Cannot touch mouth consistently without engaging elbows way too much. Additionally, this is the least flattering photo of both of us in history. You're welcome.
However, abruptly shortening the reins can also negatively effect the contact. Most of the time, I think of this when picking up my reins after a free walk or a stretchy trot. Being abrupt can cause the horse to retract his neck, get tense, drop the contact, or slow down. These aren't correct responses, but are understandable when the horse suddenly comes up against a much shorter rein.  
"No, lady! Please be nicer with the rein shortening!"
Luckily, the issue with shortening the reins can be helped by the rider shortening the reins "appropriately". Namely, without dropping or changing the contact. A better way to shorten the reins was something I hadn't considered until riding Glory, the Grand Prix mare in Florida. She was extremely heavy when I didn't have her together.
So fuzzy. So heavy.
Her heaviness pulled the reins out of my hands, making them seem to grow in length every second. With each attempt to shorten the reins, I felt that Glory became even heavier. It was at that moment my trainer offered a brilliant bit of advice.

"Shorten your reins without letting go."

See, what I had been doing was kind of shuffling my hands down the reins. I would pinch the rein between my thumb and fingers, and scoot my hand down the rein inch by inch. This sort of shortening caused my hands to move a lot, creating an inconsistent contact that would back off my own horse and cause a heavy horse like Glory to take advantage of the slack by bearing down.
Such wishy-washy rein shortening is impossible in a double... Obviously I had to get my act together!
So what I was supposed to do instead?

My trainer proposed I shorten my reins one at a time. I was to bring my hands together and reach over with my left hand, gripping the excess rein just behind my right hand. Without changing the contact, I was then to slide my right hand forward the full length I needed to shorten. I repeated with the left rein. While the movement was more drastic, it actually created less movement in the contact and fewer weak spots for a heavy horse to take advantage. It also made keeping my reins even much easier.

With my contact more steady when shortening my reins, I was able to work to keep Glory working in the contact and get Pig more confident in the bridle and working more through when I got home!
Good rein length, and a happy and forward Pig.
Of course, shortening the reins unobtrusively isn't all there is to the concept. Follow through is important to help a horse work in new shorter rein space. 

To begin, the rider has to quietly shorten the reins, as well as continue to add leg. Sometimes a highly sensitive horse may need a light wiggle of the ring finger while each rein is individually shortened. In this way, the horse is reminded to stay active in the contact while also made aware that something is changing. The active leg aid reminds him to engage and step into the newly smaller rein space.
Pig often takes quite a bit of light finger wiggling!
Additionally when the reins are shortened, the rider must make sure to allow their elbows to relax. It's imperative to allow the horse a relaxed contact to work with, instead of a restrictive death hold on his face. That sort of thing isn't nice, plus it's nearly impossible to hold the horse in that sort of a constricted space with just super short reins and biceps of steel.  
Relax those elbows! Otherwise, you can also have a horse with a constricted neck and hilarious expression!
Now, tell me all about how you shorten your reins. Have you put this much thought into the process? Does your horse react negatively to what you're currently doing? Have you worked through something similar? Or do you just ride tend to ride around with your reins super long and your elbows behind you like me?
Whee! Elbows behind me!! At least my heel is down?

30 comments:

  1. Fiction actually reacts negatively to the method you describe - one at a time. He is best when I wiggle my fingers down the reins to shorten them :) I've never really put much thought into it though!

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    1. Interesting! Pig objected to the one-at-a-time method at first, too. But I think I've gotten even smoother with it, and now it doesn't seem to effect contact at all. He starts bopping off my rein when I do the wiggle now!

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  2. I've always shortened my reins correctly and then I started riding Indy. She can be such a drama queen about contact that I started the shuffle. I didn't even realize I was doing it until I got called on it in a clinic a couple of months ago.

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    1. Haha! It's lovely when you get called on a habit you didn't know you'd developed, right? Gah! I am the WORST shuffler. I'd like to think I'm reformed, but it's more of a "day at a time" sort of thing.

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  3. I'm guilty of the elbows way far back and reins too long... I do tend to bring my hands together and shorten them that way. Stinker objects to everything so I haven't really worried about his opinion on how I shorten my reins.

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    1. Been there with the constantly objecting horse!

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  4. I was taught from the beginning to shorten my reins one at a time the way you describe, so its never taken a second thought for me! However, with Dino I have learned to make rein shortening more of a whole-body, active sort of thing. If I'm not also lifting with my seat, using at least a little leg, and doing a bit of a finger-squeeze to encourage his nose to come in instead of up and out, the whole thing just gets ugly!

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    1. Pretty much this! Shortening is just part of the equation, and everything else has to be there to support it 100%. That said, I'm always surprised by how much better things go when my reins are shorter...

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  5. Really interesting! I want to try this method and see how Nibbles reacts. Right now I basically do it the way you were doing it before. Nibbles really thrives on a steady, consistent contact. I have a bad habit of not having my elbow back far enough - they aren't hanging quietly and elastically (is that a word?) at my sides like they should. Any tips for elbows? :)
    Rebecca (backinthetack.wordpress.com)

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    1. Ooooh! I do actually... check out some of these: http://guineaforaguinness.blogspot.com/search?q=elbows

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    2. Awesome - thank you! Goodbye work productivity...

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  6. I shorten one at a time as you described. I didn't think about it much until a few years ago, when I began teaching beginner "up-down" lessons. I'd been shortening my reins for years without thought and now had to explain it to dead beginners! It wasn't until then that I really broke it down and thought about how I shortened up.

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    1. Teaching beginners really helps you think about things from a basic structural level, I think!

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  7. I'm a confirmed shuffler. Every time I do it in a lesson, my trainer is like YOU WERE AN EVENTER DON'T YOU KNOW HOW TO SHORTEN THE REINS DAMMIT STOP THAT.

    So uh. We're moving to the other method you described.

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    1. Lol. That reminds me of a story. I should blog about it...

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  8. it kinda depends on what we're doing, honestly, and how much shorter the reins need to be. if we're talking an inch or half inch, yea i'm gonna just scootch my hands up bc i'm not as confirmed in maintaining the contact in the one-at-a-time method (even tho that was the first method ever taught me, but we never had true contact with that trainer so i never learned the finer points there). it's a work in progress lol. as is keeping my elbows soft - probably one of the biggest things holding me back from better contact and movements at this point...

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    1. Elbows. Oh man. Elbows took me forever. I think they are still something I have to think about daily, but it's more as a pre-flight check than a constant maintenance thing. You'll get there!

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  9. I am not even sure how I shorten mine... I'll have to shorten my reins next time
    I ride and think about it!

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  10. I started out as a good rein-shortener, then devolved into a shuffler because I somehow thought it was helping?? Now that you've made me think about it, I realize it is NOT helping and that both of my horses would probably be much happier in a steadier, more consistent contact!

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    1. Oooh! Interesting! I find myself falling back into shuffling, too. Must. Resist. The shuffle.

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  11. In the last few months I started riding with double reins and man, oh man, has shortening my reins gotten 10x more complicated. Le sigh

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  12. I've always done the 2nd method: both reins into one hand and shorten each rein one at a time. I do often find myself with much too long of reins though. I think it might be a holdover from years of h/j riding. Now I get a lot of comments from my dressage trainer about my reins being too long.

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    1. I'm pretty sure that's where my issue came from. Once I got it through my head that long reins are not "softer" and are actually kind of annoying to the horse (and muddy up your communication!), life got much easier.

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  13. I try to keep the contact without dropping it (Irish hates that and flings his head up) or by pulling. Mostly I try to do it without over thinking because that makes me so.much.worse.

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  14. yeah I shorten my reins like a total noob and crawl my fingers down them versus adjusting them the proper way because I R Lazy

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  15. One at a time. I don't know how you would do it otherwise. I actually was trying to teach my Mum how to shorten her reins whilst holding the whip the other day (carriage driving). That was interesting.

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  16. *brain explode* I've never thought about this. I do the worm crawl or obnoxiously grab short reins. I need to work on this.

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  17. Great post! I've used both techniques but never paid attention to the differences in reaction from my horse. I need to be more mindful!

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