A Lesson in Shortening Your Reins

After 40 years of active riding and training, sometimes it surprises when I learn something new, something that I should have learned decades ago. I was proofing a written test for Lendon Gray’s Youth Dressage Festival, held in early August in Saugerties NY, where I am on the committee and help out with the judging. The test was based on Janet Foy’s book “Dressage For the Not-So-Perfect Horse.” I stopped at this question: 

If you pick up both reins at the same time during the transition from free walk to working walk, what is a common reaction of the horse?

a. The horse stretches over the back.

b. The horse may step sideways. 

c. The horse may stiffen. 

I knew the answer (c) without double-checking it in the book. But then, I realized I’d never thought about it much, how I go about shortening my reins. I just do it. Could that be the source of a problem that’s always plagued me with my mare Windy? One of the hardest things for me to do with her is to go from a walk on long reins to a walk on contact, and what can be more basic than that? She’s always stiffened until we get into the walk-on-contact, no matter how hard I try to keep my hands soft and my elbows and hips following the motion of the walk stride. She often jigs. Of course, this can be a problem in a dressage test, and it has been for me all the way from Training I to the FEI levels. At least now, I sort of put that inclination to work for me by turning the jigging into half steps of trot, in preparation for piaffe. 

So, the next time I rode, I made a special point of shortening the reins in my usual polite increments but one at a time rather than both together. I softly accessed a corner of her mouth with a vibration that was so subtle that she and I knew about it but an observer wouldn’t. It worked for me better than usual at the walk. Next, I tried it any time I shortened my reins at the trot and canter. Again, Windy stayed loose through her topline. Wow! 

This new regime isn’t habit yet. I still have to keep reminding myself about one rein at a time, not both. Sometimes, Windy still anticipates and stiffens or jigs. But the transition from longer reins to shorter reins is definitely more successful for both of us than it has been in the past.

I guess this is sort of the point of the written test at the Youth Dressage Festival, which has three phases that all competitors must do: dressage test, equitation class, written test based on required reading that changes each year. Lendon is huge on education and equitation, and her competition is a way of enforcing these for young dressage riders in a fun way. I’ve often heard from former YDF competitors who say they put their reading info from the Festival into use. I just didn’t expect I’d be doing the same thing but, of course, I realize now I should have. 

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