Everyone talks about the outside rein, but what does it really mean, and why do we need to use it?

Shaun explains why your outside rein is fundamental to riding the basics correctly, up through the levels. Shaun is riding two horses for this feature, his former Grand Prix horse Inky and Ben, who was competing at Medium level at the time of the photo shoot.

Questions, Questions, Questions

As a trainer, when we start talking about the outside rein, riders will typically ask these questions:

How much weight should I have in it? 

What should it feel like? 

How do I use it? 

To answer these questions, we first need to understand what the outside rein aid is for: The outside rein helps the horse’s balance, support and speed control. Even for more established riders, it can be one of those ‘eureka’ moments, when they suddenly feel that they have their horse truly into the outside rein! 

Often, a rider may find it much easier to have a good consistent outside rein on one particular rein, but it suddenly all falls apart when changing direction. So how can you improve your contact through the outside rein?

Work It

Working on becoming more symmetrical as a rider by doing yoga and Pilates can really help your position. This will influence how you sit in the saddle, your balance, and your equal body strength. All of us are born asymmetrical, and so are our horses, so it’s our job to train both our horse’s bodies and our own to become more supple and symmetrical in strength.  

Ride It

To use the outside rein effectively, the horse needs to understand that it should move forward from your inside leg, into the outside rein. Only then will the horse understand what is being asked.

Think of the hind legs as the energy and the outside rein as an elastic band containing that energy. 

Keeping the dressage horse straight is imperative
Focus On Keeping The Dressage Horse Straight

When I’m training a rider to develop a feel for the outside rein, I will ask them to ride a straight line down the long side of the arena in trot. I will ask them to focus on keeping the horse straight. I will then ask them to give the inside hand slowly forward. The horse should remain consistent in its frame and remain straight if it is truly working from the inside leg to the outside hand and the rider is balanced and sitting straight. Move from the outside track onto the three-quarter line and try riding this exercise again. 

Again, your horse should remain straight, forward and soft in his contact.

The Good Turn

When you have developed the feel, you can progress to working on a circle and test the effectiveness of your outside rein.

British Dressage Coach & Trainer Shaun Mandy demonstrating a good turn on circle with bay dressage horse
Ben Making A Lovely Turn On The Circle

In this image of Ben, he is making a lovely turn on the circle. He is up through the poll with a slight bend into the neck, but I can only see his eyelashes as a rider. He is coming through with the inside shoulder without dropping onto it. I have a good outside rein connection which is supporting, balancing and helping with speed control.

British Dressage Coach Shaun Mandy Demonstrating A Balanced Horse
Shaun Mandy Demonstrating A Balanced Horse On A Turn

Riding Inky, you can see how balanced he looks with the support of my outside rein, taking even strides with my inside hand soft and a matching pair with my outside hand. As I ride my circle, I am conscious of maintaining contact with both reins whilst encouraging Inky to remain up into my outside rein. I do this with a combination of half halts and squeezing the rein while giving a slight upward flexion on my inside rein to remind Inky to lift his shoulder and not to fall onto his inside shoulder as we turn on our circle (as below). 

Dressage Trainer Shaun Mandy Riding A Good Turn
Demonstrating Riding A Good Turn

Remember, all of this is only possible because of the legs, seat and body doing their jobs!

As you can see from this image, Inky is working well into my outside rein. 

I have a steady contact on both reins but am careful not to block with the inside hand. You need to allow with the hand to enable the horse to travel and develop self-carriage but not give away the outside rein, as the horse will simply fall out of the outside shoulder. Think of your hands being like a corridor for the horse to travel along; your outside hand is the wall, but it’s a wall of elastic with flexibility, not the hard rigid feel of a brick wall. 

For every rider and horse combination, the feel is different in the rider’s hand. Just as some horses are lighter or heavier in the contact, so will the feel differ when we talk about the outside rein contact. However, you will certainly feel the difference when you get it right, through your horse’s self-carriage and cadence in his stride. 

How Not To Do It

British Dressage Rider Shaun Mandy Shows How Not To Ride A Turn!
How Not To Ride A Turn!

In this image of Ben, I am riding the circle from my inside rein. You can see that Ben is over bent to the inside, and he is now falling out through his outside shoulder. I have no outside rein to support him, and that lovely uphill frame we saw in the previous photo has gone. This might be a slightly exaggerated version of pulling the horse around with the inside hand and lack of outside rein, but you see the domino effect through his body as a consequence.

How Not To Ride A Turn As Demonstrated By British Dressage Rider & Coach Shaun Mandy On Dressage Horse
British Dressage Rider Showing How Not To Ride A Turn Using Hand!
Shaun Showing A Common Mistake Of Riding A Turn On Advanced Dressage Horse
Just Don’t Do It!

In these images, I do not have Inky in my outside rein, and you can see that again, I am trying to turn my circle using my inside rein. This is a common mistake when riding circles. As soon as you turn by pulling back on the inside rein, you invite the horse to fall out through his outside shoulder and just make the turn with the neck, not their body.

To avoid this, it is essential to turn the horse with your outside leg and rein. Once you develop that “wall” from your outside aids, you can start developing bend through the horse’s body with your inside leg. This is important to remember; the bend from poll to the dock is formed from your inside leg, applying pressure to the girth area. This is not your heel but your calf. The outside rein is crucial in this process and will help regulate the bend you are asking for.

Practice Your Outside Rein Contact

Even if you ride every day, practicing your outside rein contact is so important. As you develop your feel and your horse becomes more responsive, you can soften your inside rein, apply more inside leg, and develop your half halts incorporating your outside rein. I can often be heard saying to my riders, who may get a bit overactive with their inside rein, ‘imagine that you don’t have an inside rein, just carry that hand forward and keep it there!’.

Exercise Time

 A valuable exercise to ride, if you feel that your horse is leaning on your inside rein and you have nothing in your outside rein, is to ride with a bit of outside flexion while riding the horse forward from your outside leg and releasing your inside rein forward. It immediately encourages you to take up your outside rein and soften your inside rein. As you start to feel the horse take the contact on the outside rein, you can begin to think of straightening the horse up by using your inside leg but not giving up on the feel you are developing with your outside rein. 

This can often feel a bit strange, but remember, if you are used to going around pulling your horse’s neck to the inside and losing their outside shoulder when you then let go of the inside and develop them more through the outside aids, it will feel very different. Go with it! In these situations, I always say to my rider, ‘if it feels wrong, it is right!’.

When you have that energy flow from the leg, seat, upper body and outside rein, you can begin to ride with more expression too. The half-halt, which the outside rein is a big part of, is used from the beginning with the young horse through to your highest form of collection, the piaffe at Grand Prix level, which is, essentially, a combination of forward driving aids and half halts.

Well In Advance

Dressage Rider Shaun Showing Shoulder-In On Bay Dressage Horse

As we start to incorporate more advanced movements such as shoulder-in and travers, the importance of the outside rein becomes even more evident. In both these movements, my outside rein is there to regulate how much bend my Grand Prix horse Inky has and assists in maintaining the balance in these exercises.  

Shaun Mandy Demonstrating Travers On Bay Dressage Horse

Stretch & Flex

British Dressage Coach Shaun Showing A Good Stretch With Grand Prix Horse
A Consistent Outside Rein Contact Is Key To Correct Stretch Work

Your outside rein contact even comes into play with your stretching work, as you can see in these images with Inky. I still maintain the outside rein contact, which is beneficial in your stretching and suppling exercise and will mean that even as he stretches, Inky is working in self-carriage.

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This Article First Appeared In The UK’s Leading Equestrian Monthly, Horse & Rider Magazine.