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🚶🏽‍♀️🐎How to Lead a Horse by a Bridle & Reins

Leading a horse with the bridle is more complicated than it seems. While actors in movies and TV shows make it look easy, leading a horse with a bridle requires more skills than using a lead rope.

In this article, you’ll learn how to lead a horse with a bridle and reins safely.

Where Movies Get it Wrong

You’ve seen it in movies: An actor dismounts from their horse and proceeds to lead their horse around by the reins, tie their horse up using the reins, or – the most offensive act to actual equestrians – try to pull their horse forward by the reins. Ugh! At this point, every equestrian rolls their eyes.

In actual practice (as you’ll learn in riding lessons or from a good horse trainer) reins and lead ropes are very different. Leading a horse by the reins should be avoided, tying a horse by the reins is very unsafe, and pulling a horse forward by the reins should never be done.

Why Pulling a Horse Forward by the Reins is Bad:

Horse bits sit in horses’ mouths in a way that is specifically designed for the comfort of their mouth, jaw, and teeth. Horses can feel slight shifts in pressure from tiny movements of a rider’s hands. Bits are designed to translate pressure toward the back of the mouth, but not in the opposite direction.

When the reins of a horse’s bit are pulled forward, the bit’s mouthpiece rolls forward dramatically. For 90% of horse bits, the pressure created by reins tugged forward is extremely painful for a horse. 1 Most horses respond to pain by “misbehaving” in an attempt to escape the pain. 2 Therefore, tugging a horse forward by the reins is known to cause rearing, bolting, or charging. These behaviors can be dangerous to handlers and bystanders.

Ways to Lead a Horse:

so we’re clear on terms, let’s review.

An illustration showing the difference between a halter and a bridle.

Leading a horse by the bridle and leading a horse by the reins are two ways of saying the same thing. While there is some very technical difference between leading a horse by the bridle (which is the part of the headstall which straps to the horse’s head and holds the bit in place) and leading a horse by the reins (reins are flat leather, cotton, or nylon straps that connect to that horse bit held by the bridle) most people use these phrases interchangeably.

Leading a horse by a lead line, however, refers to a single rope that attaches to an O-ring under a horse’s chin when the horse is wearing a head halter. Horse halters are made from leather, nylon, or sometimes rope. A halter is somewhat similar to a bridle, however a halter fits loosely and has no bit in the horse’s mouth. Halters are specifically designed for horses to be led and tied. Halters are usually worn on their own, but can be worn in combination with a bridle if a writer knows they may need to tie up their horse during a ride. Read more about using lead ropes.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about how to lead a horse by a bridle if you absolutely must:

How to Safely Lead a Horse by a Bridle or Reins

An illustration showing the right and wrong ways to lead a horse by a bridle.

The correct technique for how to lead a horse by the bridle or by the reins depends on your horse’s level of training:

While a horse should never be tugged forward by the reins, many good riding horses – such as those used for riding lessons or horses that are appropriate for beginner riders – are so well-trained that they will naturally walk alongside any human who stands at their left shoulder and walks forward.

If you have an exceptionally well-trained horse, you can lead a horse by the reins simply by:

  • Standing at their shoulder holding the reins with slack in the line,
  • Looking forward, with your body pointed ahead, and walking forward.
  • Some horses may need a verbal cue, such as a “cluck” sound with your mouth or a word of encouragement to move forward, like “come along”.

Leading less seasoned horses by the reins:

Not all horses have spent enough time being handled by humans to automatically follow and keep pace. Although most of us don’t think about it, learning to walk alongside a human, matching their pace, and not charging ahead is actually a skill that horses have to be trained for. (In fact, it’s one of the best activities you can do with a foal and among the most important things you can do with a yearling horse)

To lead these horses forward, you may need to use physical cues they are more familiar with. If you’re near a tack room you can grab a lead rope and attach it to the chin piece of your horse’s bridle’s noseband. Clipping the snap onto the leather strap of the noseband effectively turns the headstall of the bridle into a halter- a tug on a lead line signals the horse with pressure at the poll, and generally, even green horses will walk forward at this cue.

If you don’t have a lead line handy to snap onto your horse’s bridle, you can unbuckle one or both of the reins from the horse’s bit and attach it directly to the noseband of your horse’s bridle. This prevents uncomfortable – or even painful – pressure on the bit that would be caused by trying to lead a horse by reins still attached to a bit and bridle.

Leading a green horse by the bridle

Both green horses (not well-trained yet) and hot horses (high-energy horses) are probably not safe to be led by the bridle in any circumstance. If the horse charges ahead or won’t walk forward, leading them by the reins leaves you with no control. If your horse suddenly pulls back, and all you have are reins, held on the ground, you might injure their mouth by holding them too tightly. Even if you avoid injury in the situation, the horse might have the opportunity to learn a bad habit that would be dangerous for future handlers.

For this reason, ride hot or green horses in halters or halter/bridle combinations. Alternatively, you can make sure to have a halter handy when you dismount, so that you can switch to a halter while you untack them.

How to lead a horse safely:

How to lead a horse, illustrated

How to lead a horse safely:

Begin by standing at the horse’s left shoulder

Horses are creatures of habit and memory. If you stand at their right shoulder, they may not understand that they should follow and keep pace with you.

Wear a helmet

A significant number of equestrian injuries occur when people are handling horses on the ground. All it takes is a sudden movement knocking you off balance for serious injury to occur. Best practice for horseback riders is to keep helmets on until you’re finished untacking your horse after a ride.

Use both reins, if leading a horse by the reins

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It is safer to lead a horse by a read rope. However, if you do lead a horse by the reins, and the reins are split rather than being one continuous loop, be sure to hold both reins loosely folded in your hand- never looped around your hand.

Never loop a lead line or reins around your hand

Horses are incredibly strong, and if they run ahead or rear upwards, whatever you are leading them by will be jerked out of your hands. Dropping a lead rope, in this scenario, is much better than having it wrapped around your hand and drawing tight. Folding a lead line into an accordion-type zigzag is an essential safety practice for leading a horse.

Make sure nothing is dragging

When you dismount and lead a horse by the bridle, make sure that nothing is dragging – such as a secondary rein or another strap. If the horse stepped on the dragging strap, they could injure themselves or become startled.

Research sources used for this article:

  1. Cook, W. R. (1999). Pathophysiology of bit control in the horse. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science19(3), 196-204. []
  2. Cook, W. R. (2003). Bit-induced pain: a cause of fear, flight, fight and facial neurolgia in the horsePferdeheilkunde19(1), 75-82. []

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