Dressage horses opt for lower rein tensions than those used by their riders – study

The head and neck position during the unridden test. Photo: Piccolo and Kienapfel, https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9060321

Dressage riders put three times more tension on the reins than the horses themselves adopted when voluntarily allowed to set the pressure of side reins.

Lara Piccolo and Kathrin Kienapfel, writing in the journal Animals, point out that too much rein tension while riding may compromise horse welfare. But who generates the tension on the reins — the horse or the rider?

The pair, from Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, described a pilot study in which they set out to evaluate the maximum rein tension that horses voluntarily adopt when wearing side reins set up so the horses adopted a good dressage position for their head and neck.

“We assumed that horses exercised in dressage frame with side reins without a rider will self-maintain a relatively comfortable rein tension,” they said.

Rein tension was measured by sensors on 13 horses, all of whom had completed basic dressage training, at the walk, trot, and canter in both directions in a round pen.

They then compared those results with the rein tensions used by riders in an open riding arena to keep the same horses with their head and neck in a dressage posture.

Without a rider, all horses maintained a rein tension force of about 1kg in all gaits.

For the same horses with a rider, rein tension force was significantly higher, at about 3kg on each side to maintain the dressage posture.

All phases of the study were videoed. Analysis of that footage revealed that conflict behaviour was higher with a rider than without.

Discussing their findings, the researchers said their results suggest it is possible to maintain the correct dressage position, with the nasal line on or slightly in front of the vertical, with relatively low rein tension.

“Since rein tension may be an aversive stimulus that can cause discomfort or pain, it is important to keep the strength of this stimulus as low as possible.

“It might therefore be assumed as ideal that, while riding, the horse’s self-selected rein tension when equipped with side reins should not be exceeded.”

They said the number of conflict behaviours per minute when ridden was about five times greater than without a rider.

“Higher numbers of conflict behaviours can indicate discomfort and/or stress, so being ridden could be perceived as stressful by the horses in this study.

“Since the head-neck position remained the same for both states, with the noseline at or slightly in front of the vertical, and only the rider was added, it is reasonable to assume that factors related to the rider are the key difference.

The head and neck position during the ridden test. Photo: Piccolo and Kienapfel https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9060321

“It is reasonable to assume that rein tension greater than that which was adopted without a rider may be potentially painful.

“Of course, there are other aspects of carrying and interacting with a rider that could contribute to discomfort and/or stress.

“Nonetheless, an improvement of the level of rein tension while riding could lead to less discomfort and therefore fewer expressions of discomfort.”

The pair acknowledged that being a pilot study, there were limitations, including the small number of horses.

They said the study will be expanded with higher numbers and refinements in the study design to provide broader insights.

“A further goal is to make the next step into building a large database on finding the acceptable rein tension for most horses, which does not adversely affect their welfare.”

In conclusion, they said the findings indicate that higher rein tension may be primarily generated by the rider.

“The results suggest the potential to determine the amount of rein force exhibited by the horse and the rider, which provides interesting insights into the horse-rider interaction and may be a useful tool for the individual training of the rider.

“Understanding and lowering the peak forces acting on the mouth of the horse could enhance equine welfare in daily riding practice.”

Voluntary Rein Tension in Horses When Moving Unridden in a Dressage Frame Compared with Ridden Tests of the Same Horses — A Pilot Study
Lara Piccolo and Kathrin Kienapfel
Animals 2019, 9(6), 321; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9060321

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here


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13 thoughts on “Dressage horses opt for lower rein tensions than those used by their riders – study

  • June 15, 2019 at 9:23 pm

    I can prove on any horse that not one horse ‘likes’ a bit. And that in my bitless bridle I can have any horse listening to the leg and seat in minutes without having Rein Dependency Syndrome.

    • June 17, 2019 at 6:59 am

      Can you provide your scientific evidence?

  • June 16, 2019 at 4:14 am

    I think the study may have made too many assumptions. Where were the side reins attached to the surcingle? Up high by the withers where riders hands are positioned when riding? If riders had reins attached to their shins would results change? What if a rider (with no reins) was sitting on the horse during the side reins test? Maybe the weight of a rider would change the outcome. What if the riders rode in a round pen and not in an open arena? There are too many variables for this study to be conclusive.

    • June 16, 2019 at 11:17 am

      Thank you! My thought exactly. They compared apples and oranges in this study.

      There are way too many assumptions and different in testing methods for this study to be of any value.

  • June 16, 2019 at 12:02 pm

    Why is any of kind of constant rein pressure needed? Considering that horses learn from release of pressure!

  • June 17, 2019 at 9:42 am

    I am pleased with the study and results. However, the horse may choose to carry the head a little differently with weight in the saddle on a slacker rein. I hope not, as less tension is better for the comfort of the horse. Perhaps an expanded comparison with riders trying the light tension will be used next time.

  • June 17, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    The truth is simple; super light contact creating an electric energy connecting bit to hand. And never “steady” so it becomes dead. Always alive, so within the contact it there are variations of lightness. This is a “feel” it can be explained, but not taught (to riders).
    Contact can be “found” by the horse.
    With sidereins the horse will stay away from contact, so the measurement is likely determined by the weight of the reins.
    Developing “light contact” is like mastery, or art, it takes talent dedication and time.
    Horses can and will endure, they adjust to the rider; it’s self persavation.

  • June 17, 2019 at 1:26 pm

    This study was based on head and neck position, when correct dressage riding is focused on hind leg engagement and propulsion. It is easy to conclude horses without riders are more relaxed as they are not pushed to carry themselves from back to front to the same extent as a ridden horse.

  • June 18, 2019 at 9:17 pm

    I would not call the riders “dressage riders” unless they mastered the lightness while performing in the saddle . They are just superficial wannabe’s. Lightness comes from years of correct training and balance . Short cuts are the veapons of the ego driven look at me attitude that is fare away from the original aims of the art of dressage.

  • June 19, 2019 at 9:29 pm

    I’m guessing if the reins were not set at a length to achieve the ‘frame’, the horses would have chosen no rein tension (contact) at all…

  • September 10, 2019 at 11:50 pm

    I applaud the effort and the goal of getting good data to examine what issues as riders we create when dealing with horses. However I think future research the priority should be in the direction of determining what the minimum amount pressure the horse will respond to rather than what is the maximum pressure the horse can endure without pain. I have found that horses see pressure as discomfort. However for constant discomfort levels that do not result in pain or injury, the horse will quickly become non responsive to the discomfort. Good horsemanship should incorporate that into the daily training regimen.

  • September 11, 2019 at 1:52 am

    Sorry, but not a good research… it lacks things already said above and also how do we know if these riders were lighthanded themselves?! Most riders I see nowadays are very abusive with their hands!


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