Trainer Tuesday: What are some ways to help riders learn to close their fingers on the reins?

Welcome to Trainer Tuesday! Each week we ask trainers a question and gather their answers for you. These trainers have a range of experience, backgrounds, and focus points of their programs, so the answers have as much variation as you would expect and also probably much more similarity. 

This week’s question posed is: What are some ways to help riders learn to close their fingers on the reins?

Here are their answers:

“Well I personally learned the hard way, I broke a finger and ripped a nail off riding a young horse that over jumped a HUGE fence and my fingers weren’t closed.

If you don’t want to learn the hard way, I roll up a dollar bill and place it in the palm of the riders’ hand. You have to keep your hands and fingers closed for it to not fly out! Repeat until it’s a habit.” -Melissa Collins

“We give students the soft rubber ear plugs to hold with their reins. Holding these actually encourages the kids to CLOSE their fingers, rather than open them. They like to squish them! And they really don’t interfere with the reins, so there is no safety issue.” -Daphne Thornton
Listen to Daphne on the Plaidcast here.

“Keeping the correct rein length is an issue for almost every rider starting out. The thumb needs to press down on the rein where it comes across the pointer finger. Fingers can stay soft as the thumb locks the rein in place. Try holding a piece of paper or a dollar bill between the thumb and the rein in order to keep the thumb tight until it is a habit.” -Robin Greenwood
Read about Robin here.

“1. That takes time and concentration

2. Early in lessons we did one handed exercises 

3. When the rider has a secure seat often they can close their fingers better

4. Driving reins later on

5. Eventually the rider develops their leg, base, secure upper body and independent arms & hands and the elbow oscillates while the fingers /hands sympathetically grip the reins.

Holding small rubber ear plugs is also a useful trick.” -Diane Carney
Listen to Diane on the Plaidcast here.

“To keep a rider’s fingers closed, they must learn to have a following elbow and learn to grasp the rein between the thumb and index finger so their ring finger that the rein runs through is supple and forgiving. The best teacher I’ve ever had for this was Jim Wofford, he showed me how to explain that the rein cannot be stagnant or stiff against the motion so to best help someone not lock their arm their hands need to be relaxed, hence the thumb over the forefinger holding the rein and allowing the rest of the hand to stay relaxed and supple and the arm to bend and follow the movement. Jim was a genius and I’m just repeating his teachings but it’s one of my favorite things to review with riders!” -Brittany Massey
Read Brittany’s response on It Happens! here.

“I have a set of reins made by Correct Connect that I use. I think the problem of closing the fingers is less that it’s hard for a rider to do it, and more that they have a hard time understanding what true connection feels like. If I can show the rider what true connection feels like then I find that they seek to close their fingers automatically.

The reins that I have are actually Velcro and they come with gloves that work on those reins. They are very safe and come undone easily, but when the reins are in the hands of the rider they don’t slip when the rider opens their fingers. This helps the rider feel a true connection with the mouth and gives them a reference of the correct feel that they are looking for.” -Georgy Maskrey-Segesman
Read about Georgy’s big move in The Plaid Horse here.

“I think it’s key that when riders can feel the benefits of riding connected to the outside rein the problem goes away, but I do tell a story that I find beneficial too. 

The story is this, for the first ten plus years of teaching I had only one rider that broke a bone riding with me. They had a tendency to ride with open fingers (very open fingers). One day while jumping, they jammed their fingers on the horse’s neck. Because their fingers were open, they broke a bone in the palm of their hand. It was very painful and if they had kept their fingers closed it simply wouldn’t have happened.” -Mark Aplin

“This is a problem we see all the time from beginners to advanced and in both kids and adults. We give visual examples such as holding ice cream cones, glasses of water (or wine for the adults), or even baby birds to help remind them to keep their fingers closed. If all else fails they get a knot in the reins, that always seems to get those fingers to stay closed.” -Sue Chambers, Quinn Haven Stables
Read the Quinn Haven Athlete Pledge here.

“This will come down to simple practice of keeping one’s fingers closed around the reins with the thumb on top and the rein between the pinky and ring finger. I don’t know if there is any particular trick to learning to keep fingers closed other than to constantly remind your students. To break any bad habit, it just takes repetition of doing something correctly and then it will become a correct habit. Remind your students that they don’t want a closed fist on their reins but a “gentle hold” of the reins so that shortening or lengthening your reins is soft and elastic. Fingers closed, yet soft.” -Lyman ‘T’ Whitehead
Listen to T on the Plaidcast here.

“Teaching a little how to hold reins can be difficult, especially when the reins might be wider than their palms! I like to start littles on holding with their whole fists until they’re comfortable with steering.

From there I like to demonstrate with my hands so they can see exactly what they need to look like. A lot of the time if I get a rider with soft contact I tell them they need to hold pressure like a stress ball – firm but not a death grip. I like to show them with my hands on the reins while walking around how to have that even contact. Fingertips help control contact and how to slip and slide to shorten their reins when they feel their reins getting long.” -Catie Beth Varian

“A common hand flaw I see when holding the rein is the thumb is not pressing down on the top of the rein as it comes out of the hand. The rein length should be held between the thumb and the first finger so that the middle fingers can manipulate the rein and the pinky can act as an anchor to keep the rein from slipping.

If your rider tends to keep the thumb on the side they are either going to be stiff in their grip on the rein trying to hold it with their fingers or they are constantly going to have unintended lengthened reins. By changing or addressing this one flaw, riders tend to hold their fingers closed and learn how to use them correctly.” Amy Owen Center

“I’ll sometimes pick up a leaf or a piece of grass and place it in the rider’s hands. It helps bring focus to the hands as they navigate a course or exercise. If you’re teaching adults, it’s fun to up the stakes and give them money- if they drop it, they have to replace it with their own. 

I also describe using your thumb to firmly press into the reins as a locking mechanism to stop the reins from sliding.” Brett Shear-Heyman

“I have several different tools I use for this, especially when it’s a common habit. I like the correct connect reins as they help to close the fingers around the hand holds. I also like to have them use a driving rein as I find it easier to close the hand and then it gets the idea for when they take the reins back into a regular hand hold.

Holding a small stress relief ball in each hand while riding will encourage them to close the fingers as well. Last is placing a rubber band around the fingers after they pick up the reins. A small, thin rubber band does the trick because it will break easily and/or pull away if the rider gets in a situation.” -Heath Gunnison 

“In my experience, open fingers are often connected to too-long reins. So rather than focusing on getting someone to close their fingers, I’ll tie a very short knot in the reins – halfway up the neck, or more – and have someone feel that level of connection, both on the flat and over fences.  Afterall, the connection is what you’re trying to develop and encourage. 

Once someone consistently has the level of connection that short reins facilitate – which, of course, is impossible with open fingers – I find that the fingers often take care of themselves!” -Chris Peregrin

“Ear plugs! For the riders that use their fingers to be “soft” and not their elbow, try making them ride with horse ear plugs in their hands. Forces them to close their fingers.” Kit Menis

“I think this happens at different levels and stages in riding. The issue I will go with is when riders are trying to learn contact. Often they got extremes of giving too much or taking too much and the movement that comes from learning to find connection. Talking about the different muscles in their arms that will engage, teaching them how the bit works in the mouth, and how you find the corners of the mouth versus the bars of the mouth are all very important.

It can also be helpful to ask the rider to hold the reins while they loop a finger to each side of their saddle pad and see what happens when your reins have a constant elastic pressure for an extended period of time. This will be on a longer rein than they are used to but eventually they will be able to mimic it on a shorter rein. This should result in the horse being able to relax on the steady surface you created with the bit. Even if they don’t soften the neck and head will noticeably get quieter and straighter.

When you get the rider to feel the difference, their muscle memory will start to want to find that feeling again. They will be more aware of how much movement they were actually making and how much that affects the horse.” -Denise Tilley

“My favorite way to help a rider keep their fingers closed is to have them hold onto something while holding the reins. I find if they have to concentrate on holding onto something it makes it easier for them to be aware of what their fingers are doing.

However, while I want my riders to have a solid, soft feel of the reins, I don’t want them to have a death grip – squeezing so tightly that they are unable to feel the horse’s mouth – so I prefer to use a soft object such as a squishy stress ball or in a pinch even an ear pomm that we would use to stuff the horses ears can work. Anything that encourages them to keep their fingers closed in a sympathetic manner!” -Stirling Kincannon 

“I have a student right now who has a problem with this. What I found that really worked is I gave her a $5 bill to hold. I told her she could keep it if she could keep her hands closed, throughout the lesson. That cured her very quickly! When she realized in her mind the importance of keeping your hands closed not just for the money but was determined to make herself a better rider, I didn’t have a problem.” -Pearl Running Deer
Read about Pearl here.

“We tell the students to imagine they have baby birds in their hands. They don’t want to squish or drop the baby birds! Sometimes as a follow up we give them the soft early plugs to help them with the ‘baby bird’ concept.” -Lauren Kissel 

“One way to help a rider learn to keep their fingers closed on the rein is to spend a session hyper-focused on keeping fingers closed. Work it into the session from beginning to end and make it the primary focus throughout the lessons activities, reminding them to close them and teaching them the value of why during each different part of the lesson.

A fun way to do this is the students must ‘pay’ me each time they are reminded to close their fingers and grip the reins. We do a candy jar of me (the trainer) vs them (the students), and see who has more in the jar at the end of the lesson. A parent can help keep track and place candy in jars. We use skittles or M & M’s for example.” Colleen Seeley

“Rather than making a tight fist on the rein, I like to teach riders to engage their ring fingers as a leverage point where you squeeze and release the rein to massage the bridle should you need to add pressure. By keeping that right finger mobile, you can follow the motion of the canter without having the reins pulled from your grasp, thus the ‘slipping’ some riders experience. 

You should go a step beyond following the motion of your horse’s rhythm with just your ring fingers, but from your whole arm and elbow as well. This can be demonstrated by taking the reins opposite the rider and pulling back and forth as if you were the horse, encouraging them to keep the tension light and constant as they would while cantering. Practicing this on the ground will enforce the motion needed to follow the horse, making constant contact easier – and when done correctly – less adjustment of rein length will be needed because there is no ‘drop’ of communication from bit to hand to elbow. 

Jumping however, is where the reins most commonly slip from fingers and I find myself telling riders to re-shorten their reins. Simply, I think the problem is from the same basic lack of moving with the horse, just on a larger moving scale as they arc over fences. If I have a rider that can’t keep their reins the right length on landing, I like to say ‘there is no shame in the mane grabbing game.’ Placing your hands in the horse’s mane as they jump will force your body to have to move with them in the air, keeping your arms and reins close to your horse so that when you land and sit tall again, your reins come right back with you at the appropriate length, without having to readjust.” -Megan Rosenthal

“I use a couple of different tricks to get a rider to keep their hands closed on the reins. Bridging the reins helps a lot with grip, steadiness and connection. I’ve also given riders small pebbles to hold in their fist and tell them I expect them back at the end of the lesson/ training session. At the shows I call them ‘lucky rocks’. Tying knots in the reins can help as well, although I personally find that cumbersome because often the knots are too big to comfortably close my hand around. The last thing to try, which works very similar to the bridging of the reins, is to use a crop under the thumbs. All of these exercises seem to help riders hone in on their hands, creating greater awareness of their connection with the horse’s mouth as well as their hand carriage.” Jo Seaver

“I think most of the time riders don’t close their fingers on the reins because they think they are being kinder to the horse. They think that if the reins are very soft in their hands, it is softer to the horse’s mouth. First I would talk with the rider about how loose reins, or inconsistent reins, from loose fingers are actually more mean to the horse, because the aids are not as direct. This inconsistency makes the horse more nervous as a horse does better with consistent direction. 

One way to learn to close your fingers on the reins is to hold a coin under your thumb, or in between your finger and rein where they connect. By holding the coin you have to keep your fingers closed or risk dropping the coin. You can also tie knots in the reins to give the rider a more substantial piece of rein to hold onto. This will encourage the rider to keep their fingers closed, which in turn creates muscle memory to help for the future.” -Taylor Flury

“Preparation is the secret weapon in riding, so riders and trainers study the function of the bit from the military teachers of de Nemethy and Steinkraus (et al).  These ‘lessons’ explain the meaning of the bit for the lower jaw of the horse, and how the horse is taught these sensations, which is up-close. The masters say these up-close lessons for the horse also educate the rider’s hand! It’s true!

When the students feel the ‘real’ response of a mouth, all temptation to jerry-rig with open fingers or ‘broken wrists’ vanishes. Every nerve in their closed, soft, ‘hollow fist’ connects to the horse’s educated-mouth and makes conductivity through both bodies – including the hindquarters and seat!  The correct, folded, fist becomes intuitive and natural.” -Jane Frizzell

“I like to start by just simply saying, ‘think about touching the tips of your fingers to the palm of your hand.’ My goal is never to get them to have a death grip on the reins as that not only makes it impossible to be soft, but really stiffens the entire arm. If I have a real problem with open fingers, I love to give them an ear plug to hold and find that it does the trick. For a little added motivation, I usually tell everyone they owe me $5 if they drop it. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually had one dropped, but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t collect if one did.” -Amy Kriwitsky

“Horses often pull the reins simply because they are asking for adjustments. Take the time to gain the trust of the horse’s mouth and allow them to settle into the contact. Relax your elbow and parallel forearm close by your side.

Allow them to move fluidly, following the horse’s motion through a straight wrist and following hand. As you close your fingertips on the reins, think about tightening the grasp from your pinky first, keeping your thumbs up.” -Skye Gravois

“For riders that have trouble keeping their fingers closed, I like to have them hold something light under the thumbs, perpendicular to the horse’s neck. Bonus points if it’s something that helps keep the width of the hands!” -April Bilodeau
Read April’s articles here.

“Basics are basics. I know there are even a lot of adults and professionals that hold the reins differently. I see the reins often on the outside of the little finger which I know is more comfortable to some but it’s traditional to hold the rein on the inside of the little finger. With the thumb down on top of the reins and the fingers closed around the reins. I would penalize this for sure, in an equation class any other way.

As with anything, time and practice, but teaching the correct way to hold the reins automatically teaches them to keep their fingers closed around the reins. I’ve also seen riders ride with the reins incorrectly with a Pelham bit. The snaffle rein should always be on the outside, it is not acceptable to me any other way.

Another thing that’s a pet peeve of mine is to have the bight of the reins – the excess of the reins – on the right side of the horse. There is no real right or wrong way in the ring at showtime, but I do think there is some importance in this. It comes from way back in the hunt field if you ever had to Mount or mount out in the field it would be out of the way from being tangled up. Certainly a safety feature which is taught in pony clubs and a lot of local clubs still to this day.” -Robert Crandall
Read about Robert here.

“It’s hard to get riders to feel what it’s like to close your fingers while still having a soft hand. Growing up my trainers used to have us hold gravel, sand or sawdust in our hands while riding to teach us to keep our fingers closed. I still love using that method but have switched to small rocks. To me, holding a very fine material tends to make riders clench their fingers trying to keep the material in their hands, using small rocks allows them to have a softer feel while still having to close their fingers in order to prevent the rocks from falling out of their grip.” -Brooke Farr
Read about Brooke here.

“I have them carry a pair of foam earplugs or the cat toys. It teaches muscle memory of keeping the fingers closed while not encouraging a death grip.” -Missy Roades

“In order to use any rein aid correctly, the rider’s hands must be kept closed around the reins, the fingertips on each hand touching the palm. But many riders struggle to maintain this consistent, soft fist around the rein, no matter how many times their instructor reminds them. My solution? Fingers Closed Balls.

A Fingers Closed Ball is a soft foam ball around 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter that the rider will carry in the palm of her hand. It provides a tactile reminder to the rider that she must close her fingers around the ball or risk dropping it—and when she does, I make her get off and pick it up herself. Pretty quickly, riders start to hold both the ball and their reins more correctly!

As with all of our Training Tools, the Fingers Closed Balls should not become a crutch. Ride with them for a portion of your session, then set them aside and see if you can maintain the correction.” -Sally Batton
Read Sally’s book The Athletic Equestrian: Over 40 Exercises for Good Hands, Power Legs, and Superior Seat Awareness.

“Holding a tight first for an extended period just isn’t natural, so no wonder it’s one of the hardest habits to break (open fingers). A few tips and tricks I like to use are: Reminding the rider to think about touching your fingers to your palms. You can’t have open fingers and touch your palms.

People also often confuse a soft hand coming from open fingers when a soft hand actually comes from a soft/following elbow. Having proper contact with your horse means you have your fingers closed on the reins so you can hold them while your elbow gives and takes for softness and pressure. Imagine your hand the buckle to connect you to the reins and your arm/elbow like a rubber band adjusting as needed for the task at hand.” -Denise Finch

“An exercise that helps my riders keep their hands steady is to ride with a crop under the riders thumbs. The rider would hold the reins normally, and place a crop under their thumbs.” -Rob Van Jacobs

“I have my riders hold a short crop between their hands when riding, with the ends pushing into their palms. They are forced to keep their thumbs up and a tight grip on the reins. It also ensures that their wrists are straight and their elbows are bent!” -“I have my riders hold a short crop between their hands when riding, with the ends pushing into their palms. They are forced to keep their thumbs up and a tight grip on the reins. It also ensures that their wrists are straight and their elbows are bent!” -Alexis Taylor
Read Alexis’s response on It Happens! here.

“Whenever I have a rider that wants to ride with open fingers I ask them to take their thumbs off the reins. Riders often pinch with their thumbs which causes them to open their fingers which can result in breaking their wrists. Sometimes I have my riders practice with driving reins in order to keep their fingers closed and create the straight line from the horse’s bit to the elbow.” -Laura Reist

“I find a lot of the time a kid who can’t hold the reins has stiff elbows. The first thing I work on is making sure they’re not too stiff in their upper body and elbows—then I give them an earplug to hold in each hand. I find since they’re foam it makes for a fun way to get them to softly close their hand.” -Lauren Kardel
Listen to Lauren on the Plaidcast here.