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Effect of shortened reins on rein tension

By Anna-Katharina Ludewig & Uta König v. Borstel*.

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It is certainly commonly thought that the length of the reins does not affect the ridden horse to a large extent, as long as their tension is light enough.

A study on seventeen dressage horses was led in Germany by two researchers of Göttingen University : here are their findings.

Horses are commonly ridden with reins severely shortened compared to the theoretical ideal, e. g. by inexperienced riders in a mistaken attempt to achieve collection, to “stretch” the horse’s muscles, or to hold back a bolting horse. Therefore, the aim of the present study was to study naïve horses’ reactions to riding with shortened reins.

Length of reins and rein tension
Length of reins and rein tension are two different things. Nevertheless, on this photograph, both are shown. © Fotolia

This study has been presented recently in the congress of the ISES (International Society for Equitation Science) held in Hooge Mierde, Netherlands.

Reins shortened by 10 cm

Seventeen dressage horses (including warmbloods and riding ponies) were each ridden by their riders in a dressage pattern (official competition patterns for German rider level A or L, depending on the skill level of the horse and rider) in balanced order twice with their normal rein length (mean ± SD: 79 ± 7 cm; corresponding to a posture with the horses’ noseline at the vertical as, according to the owner, usually used for this horse) and twice with the reins shortened by 10 cm.

Horses partly comply with the shortened reins by adapting their head posture and step-length

The dressage patterns include elements such as stops, backing-up, transitions between gaits, bouts of walk, trot and canter in different tempi, simple changes (i.e. via transition to walk) in lead of canter, turn on haunches, circles, and slaloms.

For each horse, a mark was placed on the reins to indicate the correct length for both treatments to assist the rider in maintaining the specified rein lengths throughout the observation periods.

Video recordings

Horses’ heart rates, rein tension, behaviour and length of steps were recorded and subsequently analysed with a mixed model. Behaviour patterns were observed from video recordings, and included total counts per dressage element of mouth-opening (wide opening of the mouth apparently in an attempt to evade the bit), chewing (repeated, slight opening and closing of the jaws without parting of lips), head-tossing, horizontal tail-swishing, vertical tail-swishing, bolting, bucking, involuntary (i.e. horse-induced) change in gait, and loss of rhythm.

In addition, every 5 seconds of the video-recordings, one frame was used to assess the angle of the horses’ nose-line relative to the vertical, and the head-posture was classified either into the categories “considerably in front of the vertical”, “in front of the vertical”, “at the vertical”, “behind the vertical”, or “considerably behind the vertical”.

Similarly, horses’ ear posture was assessed every 5 seconds, and classified into the categories “turned towards rider”, “flattened”, “pointed forward”, or “split” (i.e. one ear pointed forward, the other backward). The length of steps was measured after riding the horses in the respective treatment (normal and shortened reins) over raked ground and measuring the distance from the tip of one hoof print of a front hoof to the next hoof print of the same hoof.

Additional weight of about 1 kg

Shortening the reins by 10 cm resulted in an increase in rein tension by 10.2 ± 0.25 Newton (all LS-mean ± SE; P < 0.05), corresponding to an additional weight of about 1 kg in the horse’s mouth. In addition, horses shortened their steps by 15 ± 3 cm (walk) and 31 ± 3 cm (trot) when riding with the shortened rather than normal rein length.

Furthermore, with the shortened reins, horses chewed the bit less, opened the mouth more often, swished the tail vertically more often, and showed fewer bouts of moving ears and of ears pinned forward. In turn, there were more bouts of flattened ears and of ears directed backwards when compared to rides with normal rein length (all P < 0.05). Also, the horses carried their head significantly (P < 0.05) more often with the noseline slightly behind (28% vs 18.9% of the observations) or considerably behind (10% versus 1.6%) the vertical when ridden with shortened rather than normally long reins.

Horses that were regularly trained in ground-work showed lower heart rates

Horses’ height at the withers or neck lengths (mean ± SD: 99 ± 3 cm measured from the poll to the withers during the “usual” posture) did not (P > 0.05) influence these results, and heart rates did not differ between the two treatments.

Interestingly, however, horses that were regularly trained in ground-work in addition to regular riding showed overall lower heart rates (91 ± 4 bpm) during the dressage pattern compared to horses that were normally not trained using ground-work (98 ± 2 bpm), perhaps indicating that the horses familiar with ground work had more trust in their rider.

These results indicate that horses partly comply with the shortened reins by adapting their head posture, the step-length and by putting more pressure on the bit. However, the changes in behaviour such as the more frequent opening of the mouth and flattened ears indicate that the horses perceived this posture and/or the pressure on the bit as more aversive.

*University of Göttingen, Germany.

Table of rein tension

Behaviour of horses with shortened reins and regular rein length.

The rein length considered as "normal" is how the horse was usually ridden before the study.
Forces are given in newtons.

What Cheval Savoir says

Robert Stodulka
This photo shows Robert Stodulka (DVM, Austrian écuyer) with no tension in the reins. His horse shows nice and supple work and is ridden "dans la main" (Equitation de Tradition Française), which cannot induce more tension although the reins are quite short. (Remember that the study has been led on horses ridden by level A and L German riders). © Dr. Stodulka's private collection.

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5 comment(s) »

Delphine D. [guest] :
02/28/2013 at 11h27

34.8 N on normal rein length... isn't this tremendous already ?

Titi [guest] :
02/28/2013 at 23h16

I fully agree with you Delphine!

Amber [guest] :
05/10/2013 at 04h43

There are two things in this study that has not been mentioned in this article. First no mention is made of increasing tension while decreasing rein length; I could easily shorten my horses reins and keep the same tension but would have to open the angle of my arms and even tilt forward. Second the reference to horses that do ground work trusting their rider more is only an idea, it is possible the horses that do ground work are more accustomed to changes in the rein length or tension than horses that are only ridden. Otherwise a great study on something we need well defined in the dressage society.

Judy [guest] :
08/24/2016 at 23h27

I regularly do ground work with my horses in natural horsemanship. My horses have more trust, relaxation, licking and chewing on the ground and under saddle. Lot's of blowing out when the reins are not tight and the head not tucked behind the vertical. How do I know that I have more trust? My horse and I a few years ago were attacked by a viscous dog. There was absolute terror with my horse on his part and I can't say that I blame him. My horse kicked, reared and spun so fast that I finally came out of the saddle. I hadn't had him very long at this point. I started natural horsemanship and lot's of ground work with my horses which they enjoy. This past summer I was out on a trail with my horse that had been with me when we were attacked. We rode up a hill and at the top a dog came running out of the house and barking at my horse and me. My horse trusted me to keep him safe when I started rubbing his whithers and speaking softly in a positive soft voice. The result was that he walked over to the side and started eating grass rather than going crazy. He did this as the dog was barking at the other two riders that were with me. The owner of the dog, one of my riding companions, got off her horse and went over to dog and put her back in the house. I was so proud of my brave man that he stayed calm and then was able to relax. This was due to all our work on the ground which then translated to saddle work.

arilosugkez [guest] :
09/01/2017 at 20h50

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Published 17-01-2012

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