The contact between you and your driving horse is “all about the fingers”. Contact is a complicated word when it comes to the communication between you and your horse.
Webster’s dictionary defines it as:
“union or junction of surfaces,
an establishing of communication with someone”
So in our case the union is that between the drivers hands and the reins whereby you establish communication with your horse.
Holding the reins properly is an important part of driving your horse and should not be just “holding the reins”.
The reins are the major communication between you and your horse. One also uses their voice and their whip as additional aids.
One controls the length of the reins as well as the steady connection by using your thumb, as a lock between your thumb and your forefinger at the middle knuckle. If your reins continually slip through your fingers, your horse will not have a steady even contact to his mouth.
One needs to create a even level line from their elbows, through their hands, all the way to the horses mouth. Your shoulders need to stay relaxed and at your sides, so that your elbows are at a ninety degree angle. This will enable you to create a horizontal line to your horses mouth.
Many drivers hold their reins with no “locking” of the rein in place, making it easy for the reins to slip and become uneven or too long, at which point they have lost all communication with their horse.
When you try to catch the rein when it starts to slip through your fingers, the first response is to tighten your hands into fists, which stiffens the forearms. When you then go to soften your hands you end up losing the reins and losing contact.
In driving harness most reins are smooth with no reins stops, as they are in ridden dressage reins. There are harness companies that will make reins with stops if you ask them to. Of course the reins will cost you more. I had a set of reins made by Ideal Harness, for my Friesian Sporthorse and they cost me about $240 dollars. They are the best investment I have ever made. I use them mostly with his marathon harness, to have that extra grab that can come in handy.
If you cannot afford to have reins made then you can put your own stops on your current reins. To do this follow these steps:
1) Sit in your cart with your horse harnessed any ready to drive.
2) Hold the reins at that perfect spot and mark with a felt tip pen.
3) Now un-hitch and un-harness your horse.
4) Take your reins and lay them side by side on the ground.
5) Both reins should be marked at the same place. If not choose a point half way between the two marks. (They must be even)
6) Mark two more places about three inches apart going up the rein and two going down the rein. (You will now have five places marked on both reins.)
7) Now punch a hole just large enough to get a piece of yarn through.
8) Take a piece of yarn and thread through one hole. Tie it with a double knot to one side of the rein. Then bring both end of the yarn to the other side and do the same. Repeat this two more times. ( You will have tied it 2 times on each side). On the final side give it two extra knots and then trim yarn leaving approx 1.5 inches.
This will give you five stops on each rein. Once you hitch up your horse again you will hold at the center stop. The extra stops will come in handy if a rein does slip or as your horse progresses in his dressage ability your hands will be using different stops.
I have used this method on many of my reins to remind me where the perfect spot to hold is, and also for extra security when a rein does happen to slip. You will want to use yarn the color of your reins where you hold them. This keeps it inconspicuous so a judge cannot see it.
Now that you have proper hold on your reins you can concentrate on driving your horse properly. Your thumb and your forefinger will be carrying the weight of the reins and defines the length that is needed for proper contact with your horse.
The ring finger and little finger (which are the weakest fingers) are to remain light and sensitive to the horses mouth. These fingers need to stay very quiet unless you are telling your horse to do something. When sending a message to your horses mouth all you have to do is lightly squeeze your pinky finger first and if you get the proper response you will then relax the finger again. If you keep holding it tight the horse will think he is not doing what you want. If after just squeezing the pinky finger, and you do not get the proper response, then add to it the squeeze of the ring finger. This will increase the message to the horses mouth.
For those of you who have done ridden dressage it does not take much to send that message to your horse through your 6-8′ reins but the reins for driving, being approximately 25′, it takes a constant feel of the mouth, for that squeeze of your pinky to reach your horse.
Your horse must feel that you are constantly with him, maintaining an even and soft contact with his mouth. Shoulders must be relaxed and your arms must hang freely at your sides. Hands must stay relaxed and holding the reins as if you have an egg in them, (you don’t want to break the egg). Thumb has the rein locked against your forefinger with your other fingers lightly connecting to the rein. Your thumbs are always up which keeps you from locking your wrist.
Yes this all takes practice and depending how long you have been doing it wrong it will take a while for your brain to re-learn the proper hold of the reins.