How to Steer a Horse with Reins

Steering is one of the fundamental skills that are needed for riding a horse. This means knowing how to steer a horse with reins is a skill that every rider should learn. The only problem is that if you ask 100 training professionals what they believe is the best way to steer a horse, you’ll receive 100 different answers.

To some extent, every horse will steer a little differently. This is especially true when looking at the reins as your main steering option. Yet with a few simple strategies, you can maintain your balance, provide the horse with the cues it needs, and remain in control. All you need to do is focus on these fundamentals. 

#1. You might be using the reins, but you must also use your body.

The reins are just one part of the equation when it comes to being able to steer a horse. You must also be able to use your body to communicate to the horse what you want it to do. When you are able to maintain a proper balance and alignment, the pressure you are able to apply with your positioning combines with the communication being provided to the horse through the reins. This allows the horse to understand the steering command and head in the correct direction.

It will be helpful to angle your legs so that they are under your hips to encourage additional steering cues as you use the reins. Don’t keep a tight grip on the horse in this position, but do maintain your own balance. 

#2. Keep your shoulders stacked over your hips.

One of the most common mistakes that occurs when steering a horse is that the rider moves forward in order to move the reins back in order to steer. This puts the rider into a vulnerable position. Your back is no longer stable and your center is off-balance. At the same time, when you move forward on a horse, this adds weight to the front of the horse.

There are two concerns that happen when you place forward weight on the horse.

  1. It often causes the horse to believe that you wish to go faster.
  2. It makes it more difficult for the horse to actually follow the steering commands that you’re trying to give.

By making sure your shoulders stay stacked over your hips, you’ll be able to maintain a better overall balance. This will then give you the opportunity to communicate better through the reins so the horse will steer in the direction you wish.

#3. Look where you want to go.

Think “chin up.” Look in the direction where you wish to go. The amount of weight that is in the skull can actually offset your balance when steering the horse. Many riders tend to look down while riding and this creates a different communication cue through the reins than if the head of the rider was in a more upward position.

How you look in the direction where you wish to go also matters. If you make a quick snap of the head so you’re looking at where you wish to steer, then this “immediacy” will cause the horse to sense the emotional state and react accordingly. If you seem anxious, upset, or frustrated, then this emotion transfers to the horse and steering through the reins becomes more difficult.

Think about making small, light head movements instead. Maintain what might be called a “soft” gaze. This confidence will then give the horse extra confidence.

#4. Make sure that you’re using your hips with the reins.

As you’re steering a horse, maintaining your balance and keeping your chin up, you’ll feel the movement of the horse within the hips. By applying gentle pressure with the hip while applying gentle pressure with the rein, you’ll give the horse the communication cues it needs to understand the direction you wish to head.

At this point, you will either have a horse that willingly responds to what you’re asking or you will have a horse that begins to pull its head down. Bringing the head down is a way to throw a rider off-balance. When you are off-balance, then you do not have the same steering control through the reins.

Instead of correcting the horse if you feel a pull, remember the basics of balance and then maintain them. This will help you to be able to know how to steer a horse with reins even when the horse may have a different direction in mind.

#5. Squeeze your legs as you execute a steering command.

With your shoulders and hips stacked and balance achieved, issue the steering command through the reins as you squeeze the horse with your legs. Squeeze behind the girth of the leg which is outside of the turn you wish the horse to make. To turn right, you would be using your left leg in combination with the reins.

At the same time, use your inside leg as you rotate your hips into the turn to apply pressure to the girth of the horse. This movement should correspond with pressure on the reins on the inside of the turn as well.

Think of your position as a straight line. If you wish to turn left, then you would have left rein pressure, left inside girth pressure, and right outside girth pressure. Turning right would create the opposite need. Each cue then creates a straight line through you as the rider to encourage the turn.

#6. Remember to control the speed of the horse.

When you begin to turn, no matter how balanced you may be, you are in a more vulnerable position than if you were riding straight. This makes it necessary to control the speed of the horse as the steering command occurs. You can do this by moving your hips with the movement of the horse.

If the turn is occurring while the horse is in a trot, it will be necessary to control your “bounce” in addition to the steps described above. You do not want to be moving up and down as you communicate the need to make a turn because this may confuse the horse. Move gently with the movements of the horse instead and this will help you to be able to achieve the control you need.

Although knowing how to steer a horse with reins is an essential skill, it is one that is best achieved when you put your whole body into it. Just tugging on the reins to turn the horse’s head will not guarantee the movement you want and it may irritate the horse to an extent that refusals begin to occur. Stay in control, keep your balance, and you’ll be able to steer with regularity.