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Horse Reins- Types and How They Work

Last updated: June 29, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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I asked my neighbor’s son to grab me a set of reins from our tack room, and he came back with the wrong thing. I let him know it was okay but then gave him an impromptu lesson on everything he needs to know about reins.

Reins are a device used by riders to guide and signal their horses. They attach to the horses’ bit or headstall on one end with the other end held by the rider. Common types are split, closed, and draw reins.

Using reins to communicate with a horse is essential for riding; they help you control your horse’s speed and direction and aid in ‘starting’ and stopping horses.

Picture of reins attached to a bit of a grey horse.

In this guide, I cover the following:

  • How do horse reins work?
  • How long should reins be?
  • What is Draw Reins? How do you use them? Can you jump in Draw Reins? Can you use Draw Reins with a Shank bit?
  • What are Split Reins- What is their purpose? Can you use Split Reins with a Bosal? How do you hold a Split Rein?
  • What type of reins do you use for Dressage, English, Western, and Jumping?

How Do Horse Reins Work?

Reins are the straps attached to a bit or headstall worn by a horse and held by riders; they are used to guide and communicate with the animal. The way you hold the reins can do wonders for animal control.

New riders often think they need to use brute force, but a light touch is all it takes to communicate effectively with a horse. Reins in Western riding are slightly different from those in English riding. English reins are two-part reins joined in the center with a buckle. 

On the other hand, Western split reins are two separate, unconnected reins. Whether you will use one hand or both, Western reins can be knotted or connected with a slider (a small tie or band that keeps the reins together).

We will discuss split reins and draw reins in the subsequent sections.

To summarize, here is how reins work:

  • Reins are used to tell your horse which direction to turn.
  • They also signal your horse to stop and even back up.
  • Advanced riders use reins to give subtle cues to their horse.

How Long Should Reins Be?

  • Standard English reins tend to be about 9 feet long. You also have longer and shorter options in them.
  • Reins can also vary in length for adults and kids. Kids’ reins or pony reins are about 48 inches.
  • Shorter riders can also choose the size of reins to fit their needs.
  • Use a set rein that lets you ride on a loose rein with relaxed hands.
  • The length of reins can also depend on the horse breed. For horses with long necks, you can use 10-feet long reins.
  • Standard western reins are in the range of 9 to 10 feet. Split reins are generally eight feet long.

What are Draw reins?

Draw reins are a powerful tool that can help a horse use its body correctly by keeping its head down and back rounded. The main thing to note about draw reins is that they are used to aid the hand and reins and not as reins themselves. Remember: only use the draw reins when necessary.

How to use Draw reins.

Many people make the mistake of removing the regular reins and only running the draw reins through the bit. This isn’t the right way of using draw reins. Instead, use traditional reins like usual and draw reins under the little finger and the palm of your hands in combination with regular reins.

  • As you’re riding, your horse will raise its head. When it does this, use the draw reins to ask them to put their head back down so that they can continue trotting smoothly and comfortably.
  • Once your horse puts its head down and rounds its back, slacken the draw reins and use the regular reins.
  • Yield the draw reins as soon as you achieve the desired effect.
  • Give with your hands and adjust the length of both sets of reins as you ride.

Can You Jump in Draw Reins?

You can jump in draw reins, but only if you are an exceptionally talented professional rider. In the hands of an untrained rider, draw reins could compound problems rather than correct them. Of course, draw reins can aid in flatwork, but you shouldn’t use them for jumping unless you are under the supervision of an exceptional trainer.

Can You Use Draw Reins with Shank Bit?

A shanked bit (curb bit) uses leverage to apply pressure on the horse’s mouth, making them more painful than regular bits. In my opinion, you shouldn’t use draw reins with a shanked bit. This could, as mentioned earlier, only compound the problems rather than correct them.

Picture of our two year old running

What are Split reins?

Split reins are two straps attached to either side of the headstall or bit and cross each other in the center with their tails hanging down over each shoulder. Split reins are ideal for one-hand riding, and when your horse drops its head, you can easily hold the reins. They are also easy to use to lead your horse, and the long ends can be used as a whip.

How do you hold Split reins?

  • You can hold each rein independently.
  • To hold them in your right hand, pick up the reins at the crossover point with your other hand.  Always grasp the reins loosely – fingers underneath and thumb over them.
  • Using your left hand, draw the reins through the right hand until most (but not all) of the slack is out.
  • The tail of the reins should drape down the shoulders on the same side as the rein hand.
  • To hold the reins in your left hand, perform the above steps in the opposite manner.

What is the purpose of Split reins?

  • To break young/inexperienced horses – you can adjust them to any range desired, which makes it easier to help control a young horse’s head.
  • To ride older horses that know how to neck rein – 8-ft long split reins allow you to adjust the length to a comfortable width.
  • For Western disciplines and shows like cutting, split reins are mandatory. The current trend shows them being used for Western pleasure riding too.
  • You don’t have to worry about your horse stepping inside the loop of the reins when you’re dismounted.
  • In split reins, your horse can drop its head for a drink without you having to bend over to hold on to standard reins.
Picture of a horse rider holding reins.

Can you use Split Reins with a Bosal?

Bosals are rawhide nosebands that work on the horse’s nose and jaw. They are a part of the classic hackamore. Split reins are typically only used with snaffle bits.


Reins are an essential piece of tack to train, control, and direct a horse. Like Ray Hart once said: reins should feel like silk in your hands. After all, you cannot expect a troubled horse to be corrected by simply pulling on reins. In fact, the more you use the reins, the less your horse will use its brains.

So, use your reins cautiously and without much strength. There are different types of reins – the main ones being Draw reins and Split reins. Each riding discipline has its unique reins style with varying methods of holding and use.

Below is a helpful YouTube video showing how to use reins.

YouTube video


What type of reins do you use for Dressage?

The best reins for dressage are half leather and half rubber. This style of reins gives a good grip in all-weather.

What type of reins do you use for Jumping?

Reins for competitive jumping are made with leather, rubber, plastic, vinyl, or combinations thereof. You don’t need separate bridles for jumping, but you certainly need a different pair of reins for various jumping phases in International events.
Choose form over fashion for these reins. Ensure that the leather is thick, soft, and supple. Avoid narrow leather as that can stretch and weaken.

How much do reins cost?

English and western reins start around $20, and the higher-quality ones can even cost about $300.

Can you ride a horse without reins?

You can ride a well-trained horse without reins if you’re an advanced rider. The ultimate goal of riding should be that the horse understands your needs without the use of reins and rely primarily on leg cues and weight distribution.


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