The inside rein can have two functions: The first is that through the use of the riders inside hand, the rein can have a direct influence on the head of the horse, which we call direct rein. The second possibility is that by touching the horse on the neck, by moving the rein sideways, we move the horses shoulders out. This we call indirect rein and is the same as the neck reining concept in western riding.
Of course, also the outside rein can be an indirect rein by moving the shoulders of the horse in. This we use in turns and lateral work, such as in shoulder-in. In my article “What to do with that outside rein?”, I describe the concept of the indirect outside rein more. (read here) Also the outside rein can be a direct rein. It has the effect of reducing the bending of the neck when the horse brings it head and neck too much in.
In this article, I will focus on the inside hand of the rider, and the distinction between the direct inside rein and the indirect inside rein.
Of course, a rider’s hand never functions by itself. Or better said, it CAN function by itself (and often it does lead a mysterious life of its own in riders), but it SHOULD never function by itself. A hand, a rein, it is the extension from the rider’s core. Each rein aid given, should come from the rider’s body and travel through the rein to influence the horse. A hand used without seat comes in without notice. It comes in too sudden, too abrupt and disrupts the flow of energy through the horse. The hand as extension from the rider’s body, will allow a forward energy to flow through the rein towards the horse’s head. This encourages the horse to search forward down towards the hand and come over its back. This allows the hind legs to come forward in under his point of weight and actively carry the rider.
Often, when I ask people to use the direct inside rein to ask for ‘stelling’ in the horse (the bending at the poll that enables the horse to turn his head in and move its lower jaw to the outside), I see riders who ask this from the horse by bringing their inside hand closer to their belly button. They bring the inside rein closer to the horses neck or even touch the horses neck with it. The effect in the rider is, that their spiraling spine can no longer spiral in but rather spirals out. Their inside hand no longer flows energy forward towards the head of the horse, but rather becomes a pulling hand, blocking energy and blocking the horses inside hind leg to step forward in under his point of weight. The effect in the horse is that they take the rein as an indirect inside rein rather then a direct inside rein. They do bring their head in, but also (over)bend in their neck where the rein is touching the neck. They fall over the outside shoulder and push their inside hind leg backwards out instead of swinging it forward under. They bend their neck, but their body does not join in this bending and their back does not come up. The rein has lost its function of a direct rein asking for stelling, and has become an indirect rein that makes the horse collapse in his neck and fall over the shoulder.
The correct way of using the direct inside rein to ask for stelling is to have your inside arm and hand follow the spiraling of your spine. Your spine spirals in, your arms follow, your inside hand comes away from the neck. My Centered Riding teacher Karen Irland described it as holding a tea pot in the inside hand, actively pouring a cup of tea towards the inside your your horse’s head. I like to describe it as holding a watering can, pouring water on some nice flowers that grow in front of your horse’s inside shoulder. You can also think of simply allowing energy to flow from your pelvis, through your elbow and underarm towards the inside bit ring.
The direct inside rein should always be an OPENING rein. As if you are opening the door for your horse on the inside, allowing him to come in with his nose. If you need more asking, you can slightly lift the inside hand for a very short moment. You lift the hand by bending the elbow so that your inside shoulder stays down and relaxed. You lift in the spiraling in-moment of your movement. This aks the horse to bring his nose in, which gives you the needed stelling (bending at the poll) and bending in his neck. Combined with your spiraling spine and your inside leg, this allows for the entire horse to bend. This brings his inside hip and hind leg forward so your horse can engage his psoas muscle and lift his back.
When you use your inside hand to create an opening rein and your horse falls in on his inside shoulder, it is not the job of the inside rein to correct this. The failure of asking for stelling by bringing the hand closer to the rider’s belly button often arises from this difficulty. The rider opens the rein and the horse, not used to carry himself, falls into the opening. To prevent this, the rider keeps the rein close against the neck. The rein is then supposed to prevent the horse from falling in. As I mentioned before, this may bend the horses neck and create a lookalike, but it also brings the horse out of balance and shortens his stride. If the horse falls in when you open the hand and rein, it should be the inside leg that yields the horse back out and helps him to find a new balance with his inside hind leg under the point of weight. This can be a long process to teach a horse, but it is worth it because it improves his balance and shape. The wrong use of the inside hand is a quick fix, but also a dead-end. It results in riders who are riding 'with the hand brake on' with their inside rein all the time. Holding the inside hand close to their body and close to their outside hand. Not only does this do all the things I mentioned above, but also, riding with both hands so close together blocks the possibility of the horse lifting his withers. It literally blocks the energy flow over the horses upper line.
I recommend riders to practice in exercises such as making the circle bigger and by doing shoulder in. Catch yourself: when you feel the horse falling in on the inside shoulder, what do you do? Do you use the inside rein agains the neck? Or do you yield your horse out from your inside leg? If you do the latter, you will be able to maintain a much nicer flow, relaxation and balance in your horse.
Is an accomplished rider, clinician and published author who combines her extensive knowledge in classical dressage, biomechanics, ethology, human anatomy and zen principles to guide riders on their journey to self-improvement. The goal: harmony & lightness in the cooperation between human and horse.