Everybody has heard the instruction “Shorten the reins!” countless times. And many riders get in trouble when they try to execute it because they take it literally, and their teacher doesn’t elaborate on the how and why. So they shorten the reins from front to back, and many horses resist more or less vigorously against their hand.
This is one of those cases where the instruction maybe perfectly correct, but too incomplete to makes sense to many students. "Shorten the reins" is one of those instructions that need to be translated into practical action steps because it has to start from behind. Otherwise, you can get into an ugly fight with your horse.
Essentially, you have to
- activate the hind legs and bring them under the body,
- then sit on them (literally), flex them,
- and then you can shorten the reins, because the distance between the hind legs and the bit has decreased.
Before you start with this process you should adjust the rein length so that you can feel the hind legs in your hands, in other words the reins should not be slack.
In some cases you can shorten the reins by driving the inside hind leg with your calf a couple of strides, slowing down the outside hind leg with a half halt, sitting a little deeper for a moment, and then shortening the reins.
Sometimes you need more powerful tools. You can "amplify" your normal driving calf aid by asking one hind leg to engage through sidestepping. You can "amplify" the half halt by halting into one of the hind legs. If you want to flex and load the inside hind leg, you can also achieve this by turning (corner, turn on the haunches).
You can combine these basic action steps into all kinds of exercises. I will give you a small selection to try out.
- Ride a 20m circle or a volte. Enlarge the circle by 1 horse’s width in 2 strides of the inside hind leg (1st test of the inside hind leg): Apply your inside leg aid when the inside hind leg is in the air.
- Slow down the outside hind leg for 2 strides: 2 half halts on the outside rein when the outside hind leg is on the ground (1st test of the outside hind leg).
- Try to shorten the reins
Enlarging the circle brings the inside hind leg more under the body and shifts the weight towards the outside pair of legs. It also brings the horse from the inside aids into the outside leg and rein, and it “shortens the horse’s wheel base”. It gradually reduces the distance between the hind legs and the front legs. The two half halts flex the joints of the outside hind leg, so that the horse’s balance improves, and you can shorten the reins. You may have to repeat these action steps several times, until your horse has reached the balance and the rein length you want.
This exercise works especially well on the horse’s stiffer side, where the horse tends to lean onto his inside shoulder and counterbend. Enlarging the circle transfers the excess weight from the inside shoulder to the outside pair of legs, and the half halts transfer it specifically onto the outside hind leg. That’s why the exercise has a straightening effect on the horse.
- Shoulder-fore on a circle (or straight line) (2nd test of the inside hind leg): Apply your inside leg aid when the inside hind leg is in the air.
- Slow down the outside hind leg for 2 strides (1st test of the outside hind leg): 2 half halts on the outside rein when the outside hind leg is on the ground.
- Try to shorten the reins
This exercise works especially well on the horse’s hollow side where the horse tends to drift to the outside with his shoulders and to the inside with his haunches. It has a straightening effect as well.
- Counter shoulder-fore on a circle (3rd test of the outside hind leg): Apply your inside (in relation to the bend) leg aid when the inside hind leg is in the air.
- Bring the haunches back to the 1st track, bend to the inside, and halt into the outside hind leg: 3 half halts on the outside rein when the outside hind leg is on the ground.
- Try to shorten the reins.
This exercise brings the hind leg more under the body that is moving on the larger circle and transfers the weight to the hind leg that is moving on the smaller circle. When you return to a single track you can sit on the outside hind leg and flex it with your weight and the half halts. You can either stop into the outside hind leg with 3 half halts, as I have described it above, or you can slow the tempo down with 2 half halts, and keep moving forward in the same gait.
This exercise is highly useful on the hollow, as well as on the stiffer side of the horse.
Alternate every 3-6 strides between shoulder-fore and counter shoulder-fore on a circle. This enables you to bring both hind legs under the body. There are 3 different possibilities of riding this exercise. You can either keep the front legs on their circle line, and move only the haunches in and out, which mobilizes especially the hind legs and the spine. Or you keep the hind legs on their circle line, while moving only the shoulders in and out, which mobilizes mostly the shoulders and spine. The third possibility is that you keep your seat on the circle line and move the shoulders in and the haunches out, and vice versa. This mobilizes the entire body and doesn’t require as much collection as the second option.
This exercise improves the horse’s body awareness, as well as his awareness for your aids, and it straightens and balances the horse between your aids.
This is a great tool to help the horse and rider find the correct alignment on the circle line on a single track. As you rotate the horse from one lateral movement to the other, he has to cross the “neutral” position, which will seem easier to him than the lateral movements because he doesn’t have to sidestep. The more you leave this single track alignment, the more laborious the exercise feels to the horse, which is why he will be glad to return to the neutral position. This is where he will probably feel the roundest, lightest, and most through. Once you have observed this, you can stay there and continue on a single track without sidestepping for a while.
This exercise therefore has a great straightening effect.
These exercises all include elements of engaging a hind leg and then flexing it. They will all help you to put your horse on the aids, to balance and straighten him, and to close him from back to front so that you can shorten the reins without resistance from the horse.