Rope Reins: The Best Reins for Horse Training
by Parelli Professionals on Aug 02, 2023
“We want to develop hands that close slowly and open quickly.” Pat Parelli
By: Ralph Moses, 3 Star Instructor
Have you ever had somebody rudely push you when you weren’t expecting it? Maybe they even knocked you off balance?
It came as a surprise, didn’t it? And you probably didn’t like it!
Now, think about how a lot of people unintentionally use their reins when riding. People tend to be grabby and that “grabbiness” can come as a big, rude…maybe hurtful...surprise to their horse. Most riders don’t want to be rude or hurtful to their horse, but human nature, our muscle responses, and our innate characteristics, work against us as horsemen. (They work great for us as predators!)
Here’s a simple exercise that might help demonstrate this:
Make a fist, closing your hand quickly and notice what your body does. Your hand will probably close starting with your little finger and advancing sequentially to your index finger. Then you might notice that your wrist tended to flex down and towards you. Now, repeat this holding a set of rope reins and a friend on the other end to give you feedback. They’ll probably say it was shocking and that it didn’t feel so good. Then try the same exercise, but this time consciously closing your fingers starting with your index finger and advancing to your little finger. They’ll probably say it felt much softer and more polite.
We have a number of guiding principles here at Parelli Natural Horsemanship including the concepts of developing “hands that close slowly and open quickly” and learning that “it’s the release that teaches.” In the first exercise, where you close your hand from little finger to index finger, try to release quickly when your friend puts slack in the reins. YOU CAN’T! Now try the second exercise, closing your hand starting with your index finger and advancing to your little finger. You’ll find that it is really easy to release and open your hand on any finger, the moment your friend responds.
So, how do we go about retraining our bodies to have hands that close slowly and open quickly? Throughout the Parelli Levels Program, we learn to close our hands in the proper sequence, that is, index, middle, ring, little finger. Some common exercises that teach this are the disengage in the On Line Squeeze and Circling Games, the Yo Yo draw, asking for Neutral Lateral Flexion in FreeStyle and Finesse riding, and steps 4-7 of the Nine Step Backup.
Why do rope reins help us?
I want you to try the same two exercises from above using a smaller diameter rein like leather reins or rubber coated reins.
You’ll probably find that the smaller reins cause your hand to clench, to close tightly, and this makes it much more difficult to open your hand quickly. Then notice that there is somewhat of a brace in your arm and shoulder. All in all, you’ll feel a lot of your muscles working pretty hard!
Rope reins, the kind of reins used in our Parelli Natural Hackamore, Natural Horseman’s Bridle, and our Finesse Reins, teach us to have hands that open quickly. Rope reins also add heft—a little more weight---and the mere act of lifting the reins signals to our horse that “something is coming.” That pre-signal, lifting the rein, is like sending a message: “Please pay attention—I’m about to ask you to do something.”
Closing our hand index to little finger on the rope reins send a clear signal, through increasing steady pressure, to our horse that we are asking them to do something. (This is the Porcupine Game!). And, in the game of horsemanship, we can then release—open our hand—quickly, the moment our horse responds.
What makes rope reins best for developing horses and riders?
Besides the heft in rope reins, there’s also a feel in the reins that makes communication with our horse much clearer and easier. (Sounds like Parelli Principle #3 is coming into play here, doesn’t it?) In FreeStyle riding, we are communicating clearly when we lift the reins with one hand and slide our other hand down, closing our fingers index to little finger, that we want a response. To advance this to Finesse, we pick up step 7 of the Nine Step Back-up and ask our horse for more precision. We can then maintain connection with our horse by merely squeezing and relaxing our hand.
Try this with your friend: Give one end of a 12’ lead rope or rope reins (Parelli’s ropes and reins are made of the same yachting braid material) to your friend, take the other end in your hand and hold it with a light, but solid feel (no slack) between the two of you. Make sure you hold your lead rope in such a way that the part connected to your friend in coming out of the bottom (little finger) of your hand. Your thumb and index finger should have a steady feel to them, and the rest of your fingers should be relaxed.
Close the rest of your fingers, hold for a few seconds, then relax them again. Ask your friend what they felt. They probably will say something like they could really feel the difference when your hand went from the “relaxed” stage to the “closed” stage, then back to the “relaxed” stage.
Now, think of your horse (whose feel especially on their face and even more inside their mouth is much more sensitive) and consider how your horse might respond to your hand closing and relaxing.
Bottom line: When compared to other types of reins, rope reins are a much more effective tool for training yourself and your horse. They slow you down, allow you to offer a much more solid and clearer feel to your horse, and enable you to reward (release) your hand much quicker.
The result: Your horse learns faster. Pretty nice, huh?