Rein tension in dressage transitions explored in study

File image. © Steph Freeman

Professional dressage riders who took part in a study varied widely in the amount of rein tension they used in halts and transitions, researchers report.

The six riders involved in the Swedish study were instructed to do what they would do during normal training sessions and were not told that the focus was on transitions.

“This is reflected in the considerable variation between the horses and riders in the number of transitions and halts made, the types of transitions, and in rein tension during the transitions,” Agneta Egenvall and her colleagues reported in the journal Animals.

The riders each rode three of their own horses, all assessed as sound by a veterinarian. The horse training levels varied from basic to advanced.

Rein tension before, during and after transitions between gaits, and transitions into halts, was monitored using sensors. Vertical motion information for the horse’s head and croup movement was also collected using sensors.

Activities during the sessions were categorized into gaits, transitions between gaits and into halts.

Transitions were categorized according to whether they had intermediate steps that were not characteristic of the preceding or the following gait.

The rein tension just before the transition was strongly related to rein tension during the transitions. There was slightly lower tension during upward transitions than during the downward transitions.

There was no difference in rein tension depending on whether intermediate steps were present or not.

“The left rein tension was generally lower than the right rein tension.

“The rein tension associated with the transitions and halts varied substantially between riders and horses,” the study team reported.

File image. © Mike Bain

The authors found that the transition type did not seem to be a strong determinant of rein tension during the transitions.

They reported that rein tension gradually decreased when transitioning from a faster gait to a slower gait (a downward transition) and that rein tension gradually increased when going from a slower gait to a faster gait (an upward transition).

This suggests that the biomechanics of the gaits are influencing rein tension during the transitions.

Discussing their findings, the researchers say that, typically, horses are first taught that pressure applied in its mouth from the bit means slow down.

As training progresses, the young horse learns to respond to many other rein tension signals, which may be given in combination or in close proximity to signals applied from the legs and seat of the rider.

The tension in one or both reins can thus also mean turn, turn your head and/or bend your neck, yield at the poll or lighten the contact with the reins, depending on the context.

In dressage, it is popular to ride with a constant tension on the reins. The benefit of a baseline tension is that it allows more subtle communication between the horse and rider than would be the case if contact between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth had to be re-established each time a rein aid is given.

In a previous study, the researchers found that the magnitude of the baseline rein tension seems to be specific to each horse, rider and gait. Superimposed on the baseline tension is a gait-specific pattern of rein tension changes.

“The findings presented here suggest that rein tension before, during and after transitions is influenced by the gaits between which the transitions are made.

“If riders are using the principles of negative reinforcement correctly, rein tension should decrease after the horse has performed a transition or halt.

“Equestrian manuals suggest that a transition should be accomplished through multiple half-halts with releases in-between.

“In the current study, a release may be anticipated during the transitions and during the halts, but it was not evident in the rein tension curves.”

File image. © Mike Bain

They said their results indicate that changes in rein tension within a transition can largely be explained from differences in the head acceleration pattern between the respective gaits, with generally higher values at faster gaits.

“However, rein tension 1 second before the transition was generally higher than rein tension for the same gait during the session as a whole.

“The finding that increased head motion in the period of 1 second preceding the transition had a significant effect on rein tension may be an indication that the horse is actively resisting the action of the bit.

“This suggests that riders should be diligent in seeking compliance from the horse.

“The large differences in rein tension between the horses and riders suggests that it is possible for some riders to make the horse perform transitions with a lighter contact, and that this is a feasible goal during training.”

The full study team comprised Egenvall, Marie Eisersiö, Lars Roepstorff and Anna Byström, all with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; and Hilary Clayton, with Sport Horse Science in Mason, Missouri.

Rein Tension in Transitions and Halts during Equestrian Dressage Training
by Agneta Egenvall, Hilary M. Clayton, Marie Eisersiö Lars Roepstorff and Anna Byström
Animals 2019, 9(10), 712;

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *