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Opening and closing fingers on the reins (a.k.a. sponging the reins)

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  • Opening and closing fingers on the reins (a.k.a. sponging the reins)

    What is your opinion of opening and closing your fingers on the reins to get a horse to soften his jaw and flex at the poll? By opening my fingers, I mean i am literally only opening them a half an inch. I have tried having a steady contact on the reins and pushing him into it, but he undoubtedly inverts and stops going forward. when i "sponge the reins", there is much less of the head issue and he keeps going forward. i literally get his head set to where i want it (poll is at the highest point) and then maintain a steady contact with the bridle and can steer him around a circle with minimal outside rein (wrapped around my inside leg of course!).
    My current trainer has noticed me doing this and disapproves of it even though this is one of the tools in my riding toolbox gained from 20+ years of riding. She says that the contact has to remain consistent and has to stretch from my elbows to the bit. I guess she feels that the half an inch that i am squeezing on the reins is interrupting me being able to have steady contact on the reins. He has been forced into going in a frame with more rigid hands in the past and is very good at telling you where to go. He is a horse that we actually give an ample warm up to in that the first 15-20 min we just w/t/c in somewhat of a western frame without taking up any contact too soon. We just work on getting him forward in his warm up routine. I want to take the path of least resistance approach with him since i don't feel riding should be about a fight! He is not a horse that has any fight in him until he feels you are forcing him into a frame!

  • #2
    I disagree with your trainer and since you have 20+ years of experience, I suggest you tell her that you've tried her method, it hasn't worked, and sponging the reins (we didn't call it that) puts the horse in the desired frame without a fight. When you sponge your reins, do you do both hands simultaneously? We called it "vibrating" the reins and alternated left right left right, in rhythm with the tempo we were riding. It definitely keep a horse soft and concentrating on the bit.

    When someone doesn't have experience they have to rely on their trainer for everything, and if the trainer is deserving of trust they should be listened to and you should learn everything they can teach you. When you stop learning from them, you move on.

    Trust your experience. You horses and past instructors and trainers have taught you well. It may be that this trainer doesn't have this tool in her toolbox. But to show you're willing to try new things, be sure your elbows are remaining relaxed and that you ARE giving through your elbows.
    ~Kryswyn~ Always look on the bright side of life, de doo, de doo de doo de doo
    Check out my Kryswyn JRTs on Facebook

    "Life is merrier with a terrier!"


    • #3
      To get a horse in a frame I have been taught to keep the outside rein steady and "sponge" the inside rein, while also applying my leg. My current horse is very responsive so my version of sponging is not opening and closing my fingers as much as relaxing and tightening my hand/grip on the rein, but to each their own - some horses need more than others. All the trainers I have had have taught some form of this so I would raise my eyebrows if I was told not to sponge the reins at all!

      That being said, I could see your trainer saying something if you're constantly sponging both reins. I was taught to do that to knock a horse that was leaning heavily on my hands off the bit and raise his head, not as a technique for necessarily going in a frame. I can see how it would work for some horses, although I would think you would be losing your contact with the outside rein, and potentially the reins could be jiggling depending on how much give you have in your arms.

      But like I said, to each their own. There's different ways to achieve the same thing depending on the horse!
      Last edited by twelvebelles; Jan. 14, 2013, 03:09 AM.


      • #4
        I think you should have a discussion with your trainer as you might not understand what s/he wants.

        It is not because you have a steady contact that your hands are rigid, and like your trainer said, you must follow with your elbows; which is, IMhO the most important aspect of a steady contact.

        The 'sponging' should be minimal as your horse should yield to the contact, if you have to 'sponge' its because the horse is not accepting the contact, is bracing agaisn't the bit and you want to disrupt that contact in order to get back some 'lightness' in the mouth.
        It works, but if your horse is put in a 'frame' only like that, it clearly shows it doesn't accept the contact correctly/your hands aren't steady/your elbows are following.

        There is a time for everything; the sponging might be appropriate for certain situations but if you are constantly doing it, I truly understand your trainer for telling you it is annoying and probably getting in your way to further your riding knowledge. All of the trainers I ever had always complained about riders with too busy hands.

        At what level are you training at?
        ~ Enjoying some guac and boxed wine at the Blue Saddle inn. ~

        Originally posted by LauraKY
        I'm sorry, but this has "eau de hoarder" smell all over it.
        HORSING mobile training app


        • #5
          Totally agree with alibi
          chaque pas est fait ensemble


          • #6
            I don't sponge the reins. I may ask for flexion a few times in a row but its a turning of the wrist and a very deliberate calculated action.

            I found my natural tendency is to use the reins too much and what I needed was a firm/consistent hold that has elasticity. If the horse isn't taking both reins equally and accepting contact then that is the issue and there shouldn't be any inside rein or outside rein use till that gets cleared up. I've been doing what you suggest with the inside rein and its come back to affect me when I ask for more connection for 1st/2nd ish type work. I didn't have true connection.


            • #7
              Watch the videos on USEF of George Morris doing flatwork (it is the first sessions) and I think he will say it much better: In short, contact must come from the horse accepting all the aids, leg, seat and hand and always the inside leg to outside rein and the horse must move from back to front. I agree that likely what you are doing is getting a false frame, not real contact.


              • #8
                Id say give your trainer the benifit of the doubt There are many ways to rome and learning hers/his might be a good thing to keep you flexible in your own attempt to supple.

                I watched a clinic with Schumacher where he literally had the gal open her rein all of the way out and supple like that. My trainer would KILL me if she saw that but he felt the horse wasnt supple enough and it did go better after. It was only a few times.

                I would try it a bit and I think you should be able to supple without opening your fingers yes
                ~~Member of the TB's Rule Clique ~~


                • #9
                  Is it possible that the 1/2 inch you think you are "spongeing" is actually more, and obvious to the instructor as a "crunch", or grab.

                  My preferred use of softening is no more than a tiny vibration of the pinkie and ring finger, while the rest of the hand remains steady. This should be so tiny that it should be not be able to be seen from the ground.

                  It is simply a reminder,and an encouragement to keep the desired flexion. because the horse himself has put himself round. It does not make him carry himself round.
                  Some riders change their horse, they change their saddle, they change their teacher; they never change themselves.

                  Remember the horse does all the work, we just sit there and look pretty.


                  • #10
                    Agree with senden/merry and a few other posts.

                    The question is always what the rider wants to create. There is a difference between flexibility in joints (ie upper arm generally hanging vertically and the shoulder socket and elbow joint allowing for bascule in walk or canter), and flexibility in the finger joints.

                    And I would try these exercise: have someone stand behind you, have them hold 'reins' (which are placed between you middle and ring finger since that is the most sensitive part of your hand and feels somewhat like the horse's bars). Have them try three different rein effect (they can choose) from barely (and I mean barely) contract a finger (ie 1/4", the opening/closing, turning the thumb over). You try and figure out what they are doing. You will quickly see how what you consider VERY little=huge feeling. Secondly: Start 'walking'. Let them use opening reins, alternating hand, 'sponging', pulling, looping; have them use their knee in your behind to 'keep you forward', try to figure out what they want (ie lateral work/etc.)

                    Manipulating flexion by opening and closing fingers is exactly that. Horses should NOT yield to contact, it creates false flexion (usually at the third vertebrae), causes the horse to come to vertical (or behind), rarely with the poll the highest point, and often with the neck too lowered as well.

                    The question is always what a horse inverts (or curls) or stops going. The first is because the horse is out of balancing and the hand is too strong, and the second is because the hand overwhelms.

                    The connection with the hand is a living thing, it is representative of trust. The hands (as part of the entire connection seat/arm/hand) have times where they allow. There might be actions like hh, but should be carefully on the lips. And there are different kinds of hh (bilateral/diagonal/lateral). But it is an action to change BALANCE and effect the entire body of the horse (ie hind legs/lifting and raising of the neck/allow fdo). Greater flexion of the head/neck is created by how the hind legs are used.

                    A follow up question would be: do you know/use the different rein effects? Things like (minimal) opening rein (i.e. turning the thumb over) has a create effect (ie puts the horse into the outside rein's effect) w/o the 'downside' of manipulating with the fingers.

                    And imho there is a different between sponging (ie alternating) and having flexibility. But always remember that an open hand is not elastic, it is an already stretched rubber band, and that means that then the upper arms have to give forward, and then effect of the seat is lost.

                    Equally rigid/fisted hands also offer 'no choice' from the effect of the hands. In trot this might work (somewhat like side reins). This is fine if the horse is allowed to be up/open (a la a green horse), but it is not fine in walk/canter (where there is bascule). In effect the hand connection 'sets limits'.

                    Imho a western frame (I take it you mean low flat neck and loose rein?) might be ok for walk, but other wise it is just letting the letting the horse go around inactive, on the forehand, and learning nothing. There is a difference between letting the horse 'chew the rein from the hand' and telescope foward/down/out and a 'western frame'.

                    Do you do any in hand work (ie for teaching effects of hh/mobilizing the jaw/having the horse chew the reins from the hand)? Or for lateral work (ie shoulder in/turns on forehand/etc)?

                    And an opening rein sustains a connection, it puts the horse into a better funnel of the aids. It is very basic and should be taught early on both as understanding one of the rein effects, and because of how it 'works' in progressive training.
                    I.D.E.A. yoda


                    • #11
                      "Sponging" should be just slight, as Merry said. Imagine your fist already closed around an object and simply squeeze your bottom fingers lightly toward your palm. The most important thing is to release forward as soon as the horse gives even minimally. The release is typically a bigger movement than the initial give-and-take on the rein. It is in the release that steady contact is established... the tiny movements of the ring finger encourage the horse to give in the jaw, and then your hands allow that give to become a forward, steady, stretchy contact.
                      Proud COTH lurker since 2001.


                      • #12
                        The horse imho should not 'give' to the hand except in that they mobilize the jaw/taste the bit/flex laterally. Activity/proper use of the hindlegs and balance create longitudinal flexion. Release is used to reward better self carriage, or to gradually allow the gesture of fdo (depending upon the coordination of the aids).
                        I.D.E.A. yoda


                        • #13
                          Ideayoda I agree - I think we're saying the same thing in different ways.
                          Proud COTH lurker since 2001.


                          • #14
                            Not a dressage rider, but I do have 60 years of experience. I get my hackles up just a little when someone says there's only one way to do something. I have ridden hundreds and hundreds of horses, and some respond the way they're supposed to, to the 'correct' use of aids - and some don't. And I don't see anything wrong with responding to the horse's wishes and compromising on
                            some things as long as I get the desired outcome.


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by twelvebelles View Post
                              To get a horse in a frame I have been taught to keep the outside rein steady and "sponge" the inside rein, while also applying my leg. My current horse is very responsive so my version of sponging is not opening and closing my fingers as much as relaxing and tightening my hand/grip on the rein, but to each their own - some horses need more than others. All the trainers I have had have taught some form of this so I would raise my eyebrows if I was told not to sponge the reins at all!

                              That being said, I could see your trainer saying something if you're constantly sponging both reins. I was taught to do that to knock a horse that was leaning heavily on my hands off the bit and raise his head, not as a technique for necessarily going in a frame. I can see how it would work for some horses, although I would think you would be losing your contact with the outside rein, and potentially the reins could be jiggling depending on how much give you have in your arms.
                              This is what I was taught as well. I only ever sponge left-right when the horse has locked at the poll and asking with inside leg to a steady outside rein with quiet reminders from the inside rein has not worked.


                              • #16
                                I was taught to sponge the reins like this, and it drives my horse bonkers to the point that I actually changed disciplines thinking she'd never wrap her head around being ridden like a dressage horse. We went jumper/eventing, but new trainer has significant classical dressage training. She changed how the contact is handled to a very steady but forgiving rein, and the fingers Do Not Move. Any softening is from the elbow only.

                                Maresy has gone from having tantrums over first level work to beginning to school third in a year.

                                Not saying this is how is works for every horse. This is what works for my horse. And maybe it's possible that your trainer is suggesting a different road to Rome may be needed for your horse as well...
                                "Adulthood? You're playing with ponies. That is, like, every 9 year old girl's dream. Adulthood?? You're rocking the HELL out of grade 6, girl."