Improve your feel and connection to your horse’s mouth through how you hold the reins. All-around hand and two-time World’s Greatest Horsewoman Kelsey Love Thomas shows you how.

WE’VE ALL GOTTEN OUR BARREL RACING PHOTOS BACK FROM A RACE and felt proud of what we thought were light hands, guiding our horse around the barrel with two fingers on the reins and a pinky in the air. You might be surprised to learn that creating that lightness in your horse and developing ‘good feel’ as a rider starts with creating a consistent connection to the horse by learning to keep a firm grip on the reins.

Two-time World’s Greatest Horsewoman, National Reined Cow Horse Association world champion, ranch rodeo competitor, roper and barrel racer Kelsey Love Thomas explains why riding with closed fingers is crucial to bettering your horsemanship and connection to your horse’s mouth.

“Being light-handed doesn’t have anything to do with having a light hold on the reins; being light is your feel on the mouth. It’s two different things,” Thomas said. “You need to have a firm hold with a light feel.”

closed fingers on split reins
Closed fingers around the reins allow for consistent communication and a steady connection to the horse’s mouth. A firm grip also gives you better control of split rein management — lengthening, shortening or sliding your hand down one side. Photo by Blanche Schaefer

Why is Your Grip on the Reins Important?

Ideally, Thomas wants to see fingers closed all the way around the reins. Not only is it good horsemanship, but a firm hold is a safety measure.

“The faster or more intense work you’re doing, you might need to squeeze harder,” she said. “When you’re running barrels and your horse trips, or working a colt on the ground and they yank away, you don’t ever want to drop the reins or lead rope. The last thing you want is your horse to trip at top speed and your reins go flying over their head.”

A firm grip also allows you to more easily manage your reins, especially split reins. Thomas strives to keep her hands within an imaginary 6-inch box in front of the swells on her saddle and above the horse’s withers.

This isn’t a concrete boundary — stopping, turning, teaching certain maneuvers or adjusting your reins require your hands to move outside the box or your fingers to temporarily open. Thomas will then return her hands to the box as a neutral zone.

“Keeping your hands in that box keeps everything in line to the horse’s mouth. You obviously have to get out of that sometimes when you’re riding, but if I can keep my hands in front of the horn and swells, that’s optimal,” Thomas said. “You open your hands and fingers to adjust your reins, but then come back to the box and close your fingers to get that feel. Having a good grip lessens the chance of dropping a split rein on the ground while you adjust.”

incorrect hold on the reins
Kelsey Love Thomas demonstrates a common way reins are incorrectly held. Open fingers and a loose hold muddle your cues and put you at risk of losing the reins should your horse stumble. Photo by Blanche Schaefer

Firm Hold, Soft Feel

Riding with a loose hold and open fingers creates muddy and inconsistent cues for the horse. Closing your hand allows you to tighten or loosen your grip depending on the situation or what you’re asking, and it makes cues crystal clear to the horse.

Thomas can adjust her cues through her fingers when they’re wrapped around the reins, especially by tightening or relaxing her pinky finger — not something you can do when your pinky is out in the air.

“It lends to clearer signals. I relate it back to roping. I got a lesson from Jackie Crawford, and she was teaching me how to help my horse leave the box off my hand. One thing she stressed was squeezing the reins hard to create that good connection so I wouldn’t be slipping on my reins,” Thomas said. “It’s a black and white feel to the horse. Even though you’re squeezing your reins, you can have a light feel off your pinky when it’s closed around the rein. Just because you’re squeezing your hands [on the reins] doesn’t mean you’re pulling on the bit hard.”

Firm hands and a strong grip doesn’t mean rigid arms, rough hands or a constant pull on the horse’s mouth.

“It’s a firm grip, not a firm pull,” Thomas clarified. “You’re feeling the reins, squeezing around the reins. I can be as light as a feather with my connection to the mouth or ride around on a loose rein, but I have a firm hold on my reins.”

holding the reins in a circle
Maintaining a firm grip on a single barrel rein is just as important as when riding in split reins. Developing the habit of closing your fingers on a daily basis while you ride will translate to muscle memory in a run. Photo by Blanche Schaefer

A more visual way to think about the connection to the mouth is the phrase, ‘Put a little life in your reins.’

“The first place I heard that was from Buster McLaury,” Thomas said. “It’s a mental energy connection. If you want a light feel, think about putting some life in your hands, some energy in your reins, and it connects to their feet and ties your connection to the horse together. You can’t always see it, but it’s a feel and a connection you can develop.”

Like anything in horsemanship, improving your feel requires daily awareness of your hands when you’re riding.

“It’s a habit where you have to make yourself accountable. I even catch myself not holding my reins right or dropping a lead rope,” Thomas admitted. “I am always reminding myself to squeeze and grip. It’s a simple thing you can work on every day that makes a big difference.”

—> Watch More: Jyme Beth Powell’s Trick to Hold the Reins and the Horn in the Alley


Blanche Schaefer is an avid barrel racer and managing editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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