Most people, even many riders, believe that the reins are used to control the horse, the way the brakes and steering wheel are used to control a car. Pull one rein to make the horse turn, pull both reins to make the horse stop. But is that really what’s happening? If you enjoy horse racing, you’ve seen countless jockeys riding at a gallop in perfect control of the strongest and fastest horses in the world. Just think about the size of the horse (and especially his neck, which is all muscle) and the size of the jockey’s arm muscles. No way can that jockey make the racehorse do anything just by the force of his arms pulling the reins.
And that’s the secret: the reins do not control the horse!
If the horse really wants to run, buck, or do something else you don’t want him to do, you can’t stop him or turn him with the reins. I’ve seen some of the best riders around get run off with, even when the horse is wearing a very severe bit. Here’s why:
In your car, the brake pedal is directly attached to the brakes, which are attached to the wheels, so if you press on the brake the wheels have to stop turning. Similarly, the steering wheel is directly connected to the wheels, so when you turn the steering wheel, the car wheels have to turn.
But the horse’s “wheels” are his feet, and the reins are not attached to his feet, so they can’t mechanically make him stop or turn. In fact, pulling the reins in the wrong way sometimes can make it almost impossible for the horse to stop even if he wants to!
So, what are the reins for? Well, let’s think about where the reins are attached. They are attached to his head, and the horse uses his head for balance. So the reins are primarily to help the horse to balance. Well, you say, what does the horse do for balance when he isn’t being ridden? The answer to that is simple. He doesn’t need any help then. But when he has a rider on his back he needs help to keep his balance as the rider’s weight shifts. Not all the time, but when he’s just learning to carry the rider, or when he’s doing something exceptionally difficult, like galloping at top speed around a racetrack in a pack of other horses.
The horse uses the reins to balance about the same way that you would use someone’s hand or arm to keep your balance on uneven footing. It’s a very light feel most of the time (unless you’re falling) but it’s enough to make the difference.
So, to get back to horse racing. Here is a young horse, running as fast as he can, with other horses around him, sometimes bumping him, and a rider on his back. He could use some help to keep his balance in all that, and a good jockey can give him help through the way he uses the reins. And that’s what the reins are about.