Riders' Perception of Rein Tension Studied

Riders' Perception of Rein Tension Studied

Study results suggest riders of all levels tend to overestimate the amount of tension they apply to their reins.

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Do you think you know how tight you hold your reins? Think again. According to study results from a team of British equitation scientists, riders of all levels tend to misjudge the amount of tension they apply to their reins.

“There is a significant different between actual and perceived rein tension,” said Hayley Randle, PhD, researcher in the equitation science department at Duchy College in Cornwall, U.K. “And this is the most important message: If you’re the rider and someone’s telling you to do something, how do you know what you’re actually doing? And more importantly, as the trainer on the ground, how do you know that the riders actually comprehend what you’re telling them?

“This could give some insight into why there may be some difficulties in training,” she said during her presentation at the 9th International Society for Equitation Science Conference, held July 17-19 at the University of Delaware in Newark.

In their study, Randle and colleagues fitted a dummy horse head with a bit, bridle, reins, and a rein tension gauge at two different national equestrian events in the U.K. There, they asked 261 volunteers (all riders of various levels of experience) to estimate their usual rein tension level on a scale of one to eight (with one being the least amount of tension), for each hand, three times. They then took up the reins to create their “usual contact” with the bit, and the researchers measured the actual rein tension on the same one-to-eight scale.

The vast majority of participants (89%) were amateur riders. Nearly three-fourths of participants rode at least three times a week, and more than a third were leisure riders. Show jumpers accounted for 18% of the participants and dressage riders 16%. Riders consistently overestimated their rein tension, Randle said. In fact, on average, actual rein tension (one on the eight-point scale) was remarkably lower than the riders' perceived rein tension (four on the eight-point scale). Male riders, who estimated an average tension level of two, had slightly more accurate estimations than female riders, who estimated an average tension level of 3. Additionally, professional riders and those aged 18-30 guessed, on average, a tension level of 2, Randle said. And dressage riders guessed their rein tensions more accurately than jumping and leisure riders.

Across the board, riders demonstrated greater actual rein tension in the right hand than the left, although the riders had, in fact, anticipated this, Randle said. Average perceived rein tension was higher in the right hand than the left.

“(Coaches) give instructions to ‘take up contact.’ But what is contact?” Randle said. “It’s a specific, equitation-related term that means different things to different people. For some of us it’s easy. For others, it can seem a bit mystical. And that can be complicated by words used by trainers: ‘feel,’ ‘give and take,’ and ‘elastic.’ But these are subjective terms.”

Subjective terms used for a very complex concept, she added. An Internet search or a look through equitation books will yield a wide variety of definitions for “contact.” In a nutshell, it’s hard to describe, hard to teach, and hard to agree about what it is, exactly, Randle said. And this might be the source of problems related to contact—a lack of shared understanding about this somewhat fundamental part of equitation. “The big question is,” she said, “do riders really understand what we’re going on about?”

The study results suggest they might not.

Even so, Randle said the riders’ responses and actions during the experiment might have been biased by the fear of being judged as being “too hard” on their horses.

The way forward will not only include better training and communication between trainers and riders about what rein tension and contact should mean (perhaps using a rein tension gauge), but also an acceptance that we are not always right, Randle said.

“Sometimes we like to hold on to our perceptions” she said. “If we do want to improve our riding, sometimes we have to learn to let go in terms of changing our behavior.”

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at a competition stable east of Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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