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Rein Tension During Trot and Canter in Dressage Horses of Varying Levels

Ashley Davenport, B.K. Hull, D.S. Hanson, J.G. Davis, and A. Roy, Young Harris College, Young Harris, GA 30582
26 June 2015 


The dressage horse uses a combination of balance, suppleness, power, and obedience throughout all levels of dressage competition. Connection between horse and rider is primarily through the reins and use of rein tension. One objective of this research is to measure rein tension and determine if there is a difference in average rein tension between horse and rider combinations of different dressage levels. Another objective is to determine if differences exist between the horse and riders within the same level of dressage. The rein tension was measured as the horse and rider completed a series of twenty-meter circles in both the clockwise and counter-clockwise directions. Each set of circles consisted of a full trot circle, followed by a full canter circle ridden in both directions. The Mark-10 tension sensor was first placed on the rider’s left rein to complete the first set of circles at the trot and canter. The sensor was then placed on the rider’s right rein to complete the second set of circles. Twenty-two horses and fifteen riders of seven competitive levels were measured. Results show that the average amount of rein tension and the difference in maximum and minimum do not follow a linear progression pattern as dressage levels increase, but instead varies depending on the movements required for each dressage test. Because excess rein tension shifts bit position and bit angle, changing oral behaviors in the horse, it is imperative to understand if rein tension varies for horses and/or riders of different levels.


Horses have been used for centuries as military mounts, transportation, and for leisure riding (Kelekna, 2009). An effective means of communication is required between horse and rider (Clayton et al. 2005). Methods of communication between the horse and rider rely strongly on the use of aids (Clayton et al. 2005). Aids are cues that the rider gives the horse, such as leg pressure, hand movements, or use of pressure on the bit, a metal mouthpiece that sits inside the horse’s mouth suspended in the oral cavity between the set of incisors in the front of the horse’s mouth and the set of premolars and molars in the back of the horse’s mouth (Bennett, 2006; Clayton et al. 2005; McGreevy and McLean, 2005). The bit has metal rings on each end that sit outside of the horse’s mouth to which reins are attached to and the reins are held by the rider (Clayton et al. 2005, Cook, 2008). As the rider communicates with the horse by pulling on the reins, tension is applied and travels through the reins to the bit; putting pressure on the bit, which puts pressure on the oral tissues in the horse’s mouth, including the gums, the bone of the mandible, and the muscular tissue of the tongue (Bennett, 2001, Clayton et al. 2005). The horse is trained to yield to bit pressure by stimulating specific movements such as slowing down, turning, or stopping (Warren-Smith et al. 2007). Bit pressure is needed to effectively communicate with the horse, but excess pressure can cause severe injuries and trauma to the horse’s mouth, such as Mandibular Periostitis (Johnson, 2002). Mandibular Periostitis is the growth of bone spurs on the mandible bone, or abnormal growth of the bone inside of the horse’s mouth. Bone spurs occur after repeated bit trauma (Johnson, 2002). As the bit exerts pressure, it can penetrate the mandibular bone leading to the development of bone spurs (Bennett, 2006). Many horses with bone spurs are those ridden by riders with “inexperienced or overzealous hands” that pull on the reins too much (Johnson, 2002). The most affected place inside the mouth is between the corner incisors and the second premolars where the bit rests (Bennett, 2006). Bone spurs, though small, are very sharp and very painful to the horse (Johnson, 2002). They must be surgically removed, causing added stress and pressure on the horse’s body (Johnson, 2002).

Rein tension is used in the sport of Dressage, which is practiced worldwide (Barrey et al., 2010). Dressage is a type of riding that combines balance, suppleness, power, and obedience in which the horse follows instructions given by the rider (Dyson, 2000). Dressage movements are based on a training scale consisting of a series of requirements the horse must achieve and retain as he advances through the levels (USEF, 2011). The training scale includs rhythm, suppleness and relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection (Back and Clayton, 2013). As horse and rider advance, both must progress in his mental and physical balance and development, suggesting that skill and physical ability increase as a higher level is reached (USEF, 2011). Studies focused on rein tension have shown that experience of rider and motion of the horse affect the harmony between the horse and rider (Back and Clayton, 2013). Clayton(2005) measured rein tension in moving horses using strain gages and studied correlations between rein tension and horse and rider movements (Clayton, et al. 2005). A horse’s movements dictates the basis of the rider’s posture, but a rider’s skill level influences how well the rider is able to control his posture (Back and Clayton, 2013). When ridden by an experienced rider, the rhythm of the moving horse’s head and neck produces a regular pattern of tension spikes (Back and Clayton, 2013). This can be traced back to the advanced musculature of the experienced rider, as a less experienced rider cannot control their muscles as effectively while on horseback and affects the horse’s movement (Back and Clayton, 2013).


Horses of varying breeds, heights, and weights were selected based upon level of riding to measure rein tension while moving at the trot and canter on twenty-meter circles (Warren-Smith et al. 2007). Twenty-two horses and fifteen riders of seven competitive levels were measured (Clayton et al. 2005). The levels not included are fourth level and Prix St. Georges. Riders were chosen based upon their level of riding and in respect to each horse (Christensen et al. 2014). Each horse and rider pair were trained in the sport of Dressage (Clayton et al. 2005). A tension sensor was needed that was small enough to attach to the reins and durable enough to withstand the tension forces in the reins and could measure up to 500 N (Eisersio, 2013; Clayton, 2012). The tension sensor that was used is the Digital Force Gauges Series 3 because it accurately measures up to 500 N and can be attached to a laptop (Clayton et al. 2005). The tension sensor came with MESUR Lite data acquisition software to record continuous or individual data (Clayton et al. 2005). The tension sensor was connected with a USB cable and plugged into a laptop in order to transfer the tension recorded (Clayton et al. 2005). The laptop fit into a backpack that hooked around the riders’ waists (Clayton et al. 2005). A pair of regular, English style reins were selected to be used on every horse so that the tension sensor and could be fitted adequately.

Upon the beginning of each experiment, an orange cone was set in the middle of one side of the riding arena. A video camera was then set up approximately 40 meters from the orange cone to record the movements of the horse (Clayton et al. 2005). A set of rubber reins, a step stool, a laptop, a backpack, a notebook, and tension sensor were set to the side to be used later. Each horse and rider pair was asked to enter the ring and follow very specific guidelines. First, the rider’s reins were replaced with a pair of rubber reins with cord loops on them. Then, the pair was asked to warm up, or ride around the ring, as if they were attending a horse show, so that although the atmosphere and surroundings were different, the horses and riders would achieve a similar feeling of preparation (Hanson, 2015). Once the pair was warmed up, the tension sensor was attached to the cord loop on the horse’s left rein and held in the rider’s left hand. The empty backpack was then given to the rider to wear. The horse and rider were then asked to ride around the arena to become familiar with the tension sensor and the backpack. The sensor was then taken off the reins and synced to a sensor program on the laptop using a USB cord. Once synced, the video camera set up to film the horse and rider was turned on and began recording. The tension sensor, still connected to the laptop, was attached to the reins and handed to the rider. The sensor program on the laptop was started and as the start button was pressed, “start,” was said simultaneously into the video camera. The laptop was then placed into the backpack. The horse and rider were then ready to ride a series of twenty-meter circles. First, the horse and rider trotted in the counterclockwise direction towards the orange cone. From the orange cone the rider directed the horse in a twenty-meter circle and as they passed the orange cone again they began a second circle. In the first quarter of the second circle, the rider picked up the left lead canter. The horse and rider would pass the cone for a third time and start a third circle. After passing the cone a fourth time, the rider would transition back to the trot and change directions. Once traveling clockwise, the rider would complete the same twenty-meter circle sequence. Every time the horse and rider were in front of the orange cone, “mark,” was said into the camera in order for the movements caught on camera to be synced with the data that the sensor program on the laptop collected. After completing the sequence clockwise, the horse and rider returned to the original starting point to have the tension sensor stopped and taken off. The camera was also stopped after the tension sensor was stopped. The sensor was synced to the laptop again. The tension sensor was connected to the right rein and the same two sets of circles and procedures were completed.

The riders of each horse were given an information sheet to fill out with various questions on it, including contact information, riding discipline, riding level, breed of horse, and other factors about the horse. The factors on the information sheet along with the specific tension sensor data points will be used to analyze the data and compare the results.


All statistical analysis was completed using the program R. An Analysis of Variance was used to compare the average load of the gait with current schooling level and the difference of the maximum and minimum loads of each gait with current schooling level. When a difference was detected based upon a p-value of less than 0.05, a Post-hoc Tukey’s Test was used to determine where the difference occurred. When comparing the average trot load with current schooling levels the average load for trot was significantly different, with a p-value of 0.008, among current schooling levels (Figure 1). The average tension started off very high in introductory level and gradually decreased as the level increased and reached second level (Figure 2). The tension increased again from third level to Intermediare and then decreased again upon reaching Grand Prix (Figure 2). Introductory level was significantly different from other schooling levels (Figure 2). When comparing the average canter load with current schooling levels, the average load for canter wass significantly different, with a p-value of 0.00489, among current school levels (Figure 3). A similar patter as that of the trot was detected in the canter (Figure 4). Introductory level was significantly different from the other levels (Figure 4). The tension was high at introductory level, gradually decreased from training to second level, then increased once again at third level and Intermediare (Figure 4). The level of tension dropped again at Grand Prix (Figure 4). Ideally horses and riders within the same levels should have the same rein tension consistency (Hanson, 2015). The amount of tension applied does not have to be the same, but the difference between the maximum and minimum tension should be similar (Hanson, 2015). The difference of trot maximum and minimums was significantly different, with a p-value of 0.0256, among current schooling levels (Figure 5). Second level was significantly different and had the lowest difference in tension, whereas Intermediare was significantly different and had the highest difference in tension (Figure 6). A similar pattern was seen, in which the tension was high in introductory level and gradually decreased from training to second level (Figure 6). The tension increased at third level and continued to increase until reaching Grand Prix and then decreased again (Figure 6). The difference of canter maximum and minimums was significantly different, with a p-value of 0.0389, among current schooling levels (Figure 7). Second level was significantly different and had the lowest difference in tension, whereas introductory level was significantly different and had the highest difference in tension (Figure 8). The same pattern in trot was seen in canter as well (Figure 8). The tension was high in introductory level and gradually decreased until third level, upon which tension increased again until reaching Grand Prix (Figure 8). The tension decreased at Grand Prix (Figure 8).


Introductory level is the first level of dressage and horse and rider may both be considered beginners in the sport (USEF, 2011). Horses and riders are not required to use contact, or rein tension in introductory level (USEF, 2011). Because of this, horses are not steady in the bridle and rider is often less developed in their musculature (USEF, 2011). This often leads to an increase and in rein tension as the horse and rider (Hanson, 2015). As horse and rider advance to training, first and second levels, the same movements in the dressage tests are required, but the horse and rider must use rein contact (USEF, 2011). The horse and rider are both able to refine their skills from introductory level and build muscle, so that they are able to ride the test movements consistently (USEF, 2011). Because of this, the rein tension decreases and becomes more consistent (Hanson, 2015). As the horse and rider reach third level, bigger movements are required in the dressage tests forcing the horse and rider to put more force and thrust into the movements (USEF, 2011; Hanson, 2015). The horse and rider are not as skilled and are less fluid in their movements, causing the rein tension to increase and become less consistent (Hanson, 2015). Though the next two highest levels, fourth level and Prix. St. Georges were not included in this study, the same concept would occur, in which the horse and rider would become more familiar with the movements and therefore more consistent (Hanson, 2015). Upon reaching Intermediare and Grand Prix, the two highest levels, new movements and bigger movements are again added into the dressage tests (USEF, 2011; Hanson, 2013). The horse and rider become less steady while learning the new movements, resulting in an increase in rein tension (Hanson, 2015).

Overall, horse and rider used less rein tension when cantering, than when trotting, due to canter being the easier gait for the rider to sit (Hanson, 2015). The horse’s movements are more fluid and less bouncy in the canter, than in the trot, allowing the rider to maintain their balance (Hanson, 2015). From the survey, it was determined that the sensor gave riders a better “feel” of their hands and horse. For example, one rider rode two difference horses for this research. On one horse, she felt the sensor helped steady her hands and help steady her rein contact. On her second horse, she felt as though the sensor highlighted her inconsistent rein tension, as maintaining consistent rein contact was harder when holding the sensor in one hand and traveling one direction than with the sensor in the opposite hand and traveling the opposite direction. Some riders felt that the sensor was harder to ride with because of its size and inability to be elastic like the reins, but most riders felt that the sensor made no difference in their ability to control rein tension and ride correctly.

Similar to a person being left handed or right handed, horses are born with sidedness and are generally better moving or more flexible on one side (Back and Clayton, 2013). This can lead to asymmetry in a horse (Back and Clayton, 2013). Some asymmetry is natural due to sidedness, but asymmetry can also be caused from lameness (Back and Clayton, 2013). Locomotor asymmetry is the basis of a lameness exam (Back and Clayton, 2013). Veterinarians have begun using rein tension measurements as a way to detect asymmetry and further a lameness exam (Back and Clayton, 2013; Hanson, 2015). With a thorough lameness exam and diagnosis, the veterinarian can more efficiently treat the lameness, leading to a healthier horse.
As the use for rein tension measurements is varied and continuing to grow, more research is needed. To further rein tension research, a smaller sensor is recommended. A smaller sensor would interfere less with the rider’s hands and range of motion. A wireless sensor is also recommended. If a wireless sensor was used, the need for a laptop and backpack would be removed. This would lessen the overall amount of equipment needed and allow for more efficiency when setting up each trial. In future research, the handedness of the rider should be compared with the better direction of the horse. As both horse and rider are asymmetrical, it would be beneficial to the dressage community to ask if right handed riders are better balanced with horses that move better to the right or to the left. Testing one horse with multiple riders and testing one novice rider and one advanced rider with multiple horses should also be considered when researching rein tension. Rein tension comes from the pull of both the rider and the horse, though the exact forces from each are not differentiable. With one rider and multiple horses and one horse and multiple riders, a possible pattern could be detected and begin to show if the tension is coming from the horse or from the rider.


Figure 1- Average rein tension at the trot for different schooling levels


Figure 2- Comparison of the average rein tension at the trot for different schooling levels


Figure 3- Average rein tension at the canter for different schooling levels


Figure 4- Comparison of the average rein tension at the canter for different schooling levels


Figure 5- Difference of maximum and minimum rein tension at the trot for different schooling levels


Figure 6- Comparison of the difference of maximum and minimum rein tension at the trot for different schooling levels


Figure 7- Difference of maximum and minimum rein tension at the canter for different schooling levels.


Figure 8- Comparison of the difference of maximum and minimum rein tension at the canter for different schooling levels.  


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