How to Hold Horse Reins

With a proper hand position, a rider is able to maintain better control when riding a horse. This is because the communication between the horse and rider is better. That means knowing how to hold horse reins properly is an essential skill for every rider to learn.

Whether you’re a Western rider or an English rider, a common error is often taught to those who are new to riding. Instead of holding the reins as a rider, beginners are sometimes taught to hold the reins as if they were driving harnesses in a harness. Holding the reins between the index finger and thumb is not a proper way to hold the reins while riding under saddle because it weakens the cues the horse receives.

It is more effective to hold a rein in each hand. This increases the contact the rider has with the horse so that turns are made properly. In turn, this allows vocal commands to be heard more consistently because the horse is less confused over the rein commands.

Your First Step: Mount the Horse Properly

When you want to hold horse reins properly, the first step will always be to mount the horse properly. Most people tend to mount a horse on the left side, but this depends on how the horse is used to being approach. Pick up the reins with your left hand (or right hand if mounting from the other side), place your left/right foot into the stirrup closest to you, and then push up and into the saddle.

This motion should keep your foot in the stirrup. Now that you’re in the saddle, you’ll want to secure your other foot into the other stirrup. The reins should still be in the appropriate hand.

Then you’ll want to determine what type of reins are being used. Western reins tend to be split, offering riders a single rein for each hand. English reins tend to be looped, but the grip will still be the same so that control and communication remain as clear as possible.

If you’re unsure of the condition or quality of the reins that are being used, inspect them for cracks and abnormal wear before you mount the horse so that your riding experience has a lower risk of an unpleasant surprise.

Always Make Sure You Have a Strong Hand

If you’re holding horse reins, then make sure you have them held with a strong hand. If your grip is weak, the horse can sense this and pull them from you. Should this occur, you’re left at the mercy of what the horse will do unless you’re able to re-establish control. 

You’ll also want to keep these keep these key points in mind when you’re learning how to hold horse reins for the first time.

  • Insert the rein between your ring finger and pinky finger on each hand. This will give you more side control when it comes time to give the horse a navigational command. Use this hold whenever a direct rein aid is being employed. 
  • Form a fist that is strong, but somewhat loose, around each rein. The goal should be to hold the rein flat against each palm. If your hands begin to sweat or feel moist immediately, then you’re holding the reins too tightly.
  • Rotate the hand slightly so that each fist is facing with the thumb upward. Then secure the grasp on the rein by pressing the bight or the slack between the index finger and the thumb.
  • Then get comfortable with the reins in your grasp. Vary your hand positions and height as you ride so that your grip is firm, but communication with the horse is not interrupted.

If you’re uncomfortable with the multi-stage process of wrapping the reins around your fingers, there is another way to hold horse reins that is effective. Start by holding the opposite sides of the reins, with one in each hand. Wrap the rein around your first three fingers, making sure that your palm remains flat.

You should not have the reins around your thumb or your pinky when using this alternative holding method. Repeat for the other hand. Then close your hands into a loose fist, like you’re holding a water bottle. Turn your hands so that your thumbs are pointing at each other.

These methods apply to leather, nylon, or other types of reins that may be used.

Riding Position Will Also Affect Rein Communication

When holding horse reins in either riding style, your hands should be about 5 inches apart from each other. You can gauge the distance by looking at the width of the horse’s neck. Your hands should never be further apart than the width of the neck.

You will also need to make sure that you’re keeping your hands above the withers of the horse. Keep your hands relaxed, with your grip remaining firm, as you keep them above the saddle. You’ll have better results if you can position your hands somewhat in front of the saddle pad without causing your body to lean forward.

Keep your elbows close to a 90-degree angle. This will help you be more responsive should the horse need to receive an immediate command.

Rein Tension Is Also Important for a Good Ride

When holding horse reins, it is important to make sure you maintain a “tension balance” during the ride. If you have too much tension, then it may restrict the movements of the horse or you may issue an inadvertent navigation command. Holding the reins too tightly may also cause pain for the horse.

If the tension is too loose, riders may find that their horse becomes unresponsive to their commands.

The right amount of tension is enough for you as the rider to be able to maintain control, but not placing so much tension on the horse that it feels trapped. For those who are just learning how to hold horse reins, it is also a good idea to use a snaffle bit, equipped with D-rings, because this setup tends to be more forgiving in terms of tension mistakes.

Some horses have sensitive muzzles and may require less tension than would generally be recommended. Sensitive muzzles can occur when there is a harsh bit being used as well. Too much tension may cause the horse to react in pain or surprise during a hard tug, causing the fight or flight reflex to be initiated.

Over time, Western riders may be able to use one hand to control both reins using these methods. English riders should always use two hands with the loop-style rein to avoid communication errors. When you know how to hold horse reins properly, it becomes a lot easier to safely enjoy riding a horse. Follow this guide and you’ll be able to increase your chances of success.