Using the reins is one of the fundamental horseback riding skills. The reins are only used to stop and steer the horse and steering is what we teach after riders learn to whoa. Proper steering requires riders to use arms independently in a forward-back movement. It involves the shoulders, wrists, fingers, core, eyes, and head.
We encourage our riders to steer the horse because it has positive physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral effects. As I mentioned, steering engages much of the upper body and, as with all things horseback riding, requires core strength. When riders learn to steer their horse, they gain independence and leadership. Riders get to be the one in charge. It also requires decision-making. Do I turn left or right to get to a cone? Do I shorten my reins to turn or pull harder?
I usually start my riders from the very beginning when they are coming to me for the first time. I evaluate if riders can hold their reins and for how long. If they struggle with this, we work on holding rings or toys. I want riders to be able to pick up, hold, and let go when I ask. Once they accomplish that, I work on independent use of aids. I help them learn left from right and do single-side exercises to reiterate one arm or leg at a time.
After the rider is physically ready, I can work on cognitive and behavioral aspects to make sure the rider will follow directions and keep hands quiet on the reins. When a rider starts using reins, I use constant positive feedback to make it fun for the rider to steer their horse. Games, toys, follow-the-leader, and other activities give riders a lot of joy in their accomplishment.
I am breaking down my mental process here, but many of these skills can be worked on simultaneously. Oftentimes, our riders may already be able to use reins and steer, even if they have never ridden before. That is great! However, understanding why we steer and how it connects all aspects of the rider to the horse is important.
I hope this was helpful (or at least informative). If you have questions, leave a comment below!