An innocent question
I was doing a Western Riding demonstration with George and, inevitably, a question came up for which I had no answer (ten year olds have that way about them, don’t they?): “Why has George got two long reins and my pony only has one short one?” And, of course, being something I’d always taken for granted and never bothered to ask, I didn’t have the answer. The best I could manage was a rather lame: “Because that’s the way a Western trained horse works”. And although that of course is correct, it still begs the question. Why do they have split reins?
So, I asked the question as soon as I got back to the Bar -S Ranch. They’re split because a working horse goes into some pretty dense country. A looped rein that snags on a passing bush can cause a situation to develop. But if you have split reins and one gets caught, you just let it go. You’ve got the other one to hold on to and then gather up the offending one after it comes clear. Which it can because it isn’t looped. Simple really.
The Ground Tie
And they have other advantages. The same working horse might not be in dense country at all. Perhaps the reverse and the rider might need to dismount and have his horse wait awhile. That’s when the “ground tie” (yes, really, that’s what it’s called) comes into effect.
A properly trained western horse will stand and wait simply on the command of “stand” with his reins taken off his neck and hung straight to the ground. Left there, usually with a gentle tug down as the command is given, it’s the horsey equivalent of telling your dog to wait. It couldn’t be done with a looped rein and a mecate (see Bosal page) has a Feodor attached to it just for this purpose. It’s so important that demonstration of an effective “ground tie” is a manoeuvre that crops up in a number of western competition classes.
Of course, alone in the middle of nowhere, it’s not a good idea to leave it at that, no matter how much you trust your horse. That’s when a hobble is handy but that will have to be the subject of another article.
Same child – different question
“And why are they so long?” (Same child – bless him – but I had the proper answer this time). Split reins come in a variety of lengths but rarely less than 6 feet and can be up to 8 feet. It’s largely a matter of the length of the horse’s neck but the minimum requirement is one of balance.
Because each rein has an unattached end, proper control requires that the rider should feel as much weight coming from the attached end (at the bit) as from the free end. In that way, you know that you’re not pulling on the horse’s mouth as you would if you had a shorter rein into your hand than out of it. And there’s no unnecessary slack in the reins. That would be when there’s a longer rein coming into your hand than going out of it. In balance, the distance from the horse’s mouth to a comfortable hand position is the same to the free end of the split reins. There’s no need to grip split reins when they’e balanced like that. To keep them in your hand: they’ll just rest there.
Reins then come in a huge variety of materials and configurations around the overall concepts described above. But the only other major differences are in the way they are held by the rider. Used with a simple snaffle bit, it is perfectly acceptable to use both hands. However, once your horse is working with a curb bit, only one hand is acceptable unless the reins are fitted with a romal and handled California Style. Strictly that’s not then a split rein. For the difference between Texas and California styles of holding the reins, have a look at Western Riding History.