The best way to develop independent aids is to take some of those aids away and see how you do without them.
That’s what dropping your stirrups is all about…or taking your stirrups off your saddle for a ride…or getting a lunge lesson. Or riding without reins.
If you ride hunt seat, there’s nothing like letting go of your reins to help you balance correctly, with the weight in your heels and your legs wrapped around your horse. Putting your arms out to the side or over your head or behind your back over a jump or grid is the best way to build a strong, independent seat over fences — and to build confidence.
Riding without reins is also great for flatwork, whether you ride in a jumping saddle or a dressage saddle. It’s a worthy exercise to see how still your hands can be at the sitting trot, and whether you can keep your body straight and supple while moving your arms and hands anywhere. (The key is in the ball and socket joint in your shoulder, but when we ride, we often lock that joint in an attempt to preserve a stable torso).
Whatever you decide to do with your arms when they’re not connected to your reins, whatever are you supposed to do with your reins? You don’t want them falling down your horse’s neck or drooping down over one side of his shoulder or neck, and you want to make sure your horse can use his neck to bascule over a jump.
If you have a bucking strap (also called a grab strap or safety strap or mounting strap), you can buckle your reins around the strap. (Make sure your reins are long enough to allow your horse to fully use his neck, if you’re going to do this over fences). I may change saddles, but wither I goest, there will go my Otto Schumacher rolled bucking strap (pictured at left).
You can also put a big, fat button braid with a rubber band in your horse’s mane and knot your reins around the braid (you’ll need nicely conditioned, supple reins for this). Or just grab a hunk of mane and tie or band it, so the reins can rest behind it. Or simply tie a big knot in your reins and let the weight of the knot help keep your reins in place.
Another good alternative is a neck rein. Then you can dispense with your reins entirely! The classic is an old stirrup leather, but I love my TTouch Balance Rein (which is also easy to fasten around your bucking strap). My friend Abby Kogler, who writes the blog Horses Don’t Cry, favors the TTouch Liberty Neck Ring, as you can see on her profile picture.
What do you do when you ride without reins? If it’s something different, or if you try any of the techniques I’ve suggested, let me know how they work for you.