Riding in the Two-Rein

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the October 1996 issue of The Trail Less Traveled

Riding in the "two-rein" refers to a stage of preparation for work in the bridle where both the hackamore and the bridle are used--hence, the two reins. The horse is ready for this when he is operating well in the leather hackamore and when several other conditions are present in his education. This is an important and delicate transition for the horse.

You'll Know Your Horse is Ready for the Two-Rein if...

  • He softens in the poll to the left and right in the leather hackamore in response to the feel of the slightest pressure on the reins.
  • He can follow a feel laterally and drop his chin and have longitudinal flexion.
  • He can understand the distinct feel of your body and mecate reins in one or both hands when you ask him to move his feet forward and backward, left and right, and in combinations.
  • Your lead changes are coming along.
  • Your upward and downward transitions are smooth and accurate.
  • Your turnaround is starting to be smooth and rhythmic.
  • There is flow and consistency in your horse's movements.

It should be approached with great respect and patience because the shift from primary reliance on the feel of the mecate reins on his neck and the hackamore on the bridge of his nose to the feel of the reins and romal and the half-breed or spade bit in his mouth is critical to the outcome of the whole endeavor. Misuse of the bridle reins can shatter the horse's confidence in himself and his rider. This can lead to other problems.

When your horse is about 4-1/2 years old, outfit your horse with a 5/16-inch hackamore under the bridle for the next 12-18 months, or as long as it takes. This is essentially the same as the 5/8-inch hackamore and mecate rein setup, except smaller. It should fit easily under the bridle. Your hand must accommodate two reins.

When you first get into the two-rein, adjust both reins so that there is no pressure on the bridle reins when you take them up. In the beginning keep a big float in the bridle reins when you lift your hand. You only take a hold with the hackamore rein. Hold both reins in one hand, but stay ready to adjust quickly to any situation that requires the use of a direct rein to maintain the horse's understanding of your intent.


The reins are held in one hand, beginning with the hackamore rein being the primary rein (left). It takes supple wrist, nimble fingers and a lot of practice to develop the one-handed finesse and accuracy necessary for the horse to implement your agenda through his body and feet. At right, Buck Brannaman demonstrates how to increase the firmness on a direct rein with one hand. This clarifies a message to your horse.

If your horse goes off course, or becomes rigid in his movements or confused about the degree of lateral flexion you want in his neck, reach down and lift one rein to draw the nose across to the desired direction of travel.

As your horse becomes accustomed to wearing this bridle, the two reins gradually become even and you can rely on the reins and romal more. Both the hackamore and the bit should take a hold of the horse when you pick up both reins so that he can associate these distinctly different sensations with a specific intent. Your second goal is for him to translate that clearly from his mind--through his body--to his feet.

More thought and preparation is required as you adjust to the feel of the new equipment. Nothing new or different is required to communicate effectively. It is the same that was required in your groundwork. You will reach your goal through patient, consistent, well-timed releases for each attempt your horse makes to operate his feet and position his body.

c914783006"There are times when I have to revert back to rely on a direct rein and two hands," says Buck Brannaman. "Every so often, I simply reach down and pluck one leading rein--either left or right--if he's not shaping his head and neck in position like I need him to be."

Plan for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

About halfway through the 5-year-old year you'll notice one day that you haven't picked up on the hackamore reins in a long time. You might ride for a month or two with the reins and romal and keep the hackamore's mecate just looped over his neck. It's there when you'll need it, especially if things speed up and you want to avoid pulling on his mouth. You might have to let your bridle reins drop onto the horn and just take hold of your hackamore reins in two hands.

"I have no problem two-handing my horse from time to time," says Buck Brannaman. "If I need to rope something kind of quick, I'm careful that my bridle reins have a big sag in them. I've adjusted the reins so that when I pick up on them, the hackamore rein takes hold and the reins and romal do not take hold. If a cow broke back and things were going to get rapid, I'd see him through the crisis with the hackamore rein."

The Goal is the Reward, the Reward is the Process

As your horse progresses towards understanding the feel of your hand on just the bridle reins, you will be refining the turns, stops, gait transitions, lead changes and backing.

To improve these maneuvers, stop schooling before any of this work becomes boring, or a drill. Break up your schooling sessions with no-stress groundwork exercises that are "old hat." This refreshes the horse and reinforces the fundamentals that are key to high-quality mounted work. Keep it simple and fun. The rich rewards of the process are in the success of the process.

"It's a couple of hundred-year-old tradition and I'm adamantly following it as closely as I can. It's classical horsemanship. It's really elegant riding and I hope to preserve it. I hope to have some of you get interested and try the same thing."
--Buck Brannaman

Notes on the Equipment

The Santa Barbara cheekpiece is one of the many traditional bits used with the rawhide reins and romal. If it has a half-breed mouthpiece, it is worn with a split-ear headstall or a browband. If you use a half-breed mouthpiece, you can handle the reins and romal a little bit earlier than you would with a spade bit because it has a lower port and is not an upper-palate bit.

With a spade bit mouthpiece always use a browband so that it will hang straight. Do not use a split-ear headstall. The spade bit needs to be in the middle of the mouth because it works off the roof of the mouth.

The spade bit rests against the horse's palate and puts a horse's head at a position of about 86-87 degrees. With no pressure from the reins, but simply from wearing it, he'll hold his head this way. Before picking up on the bridle reins, let the horse adjust to this mouthpiece by wearing it for a longer period of time than you would with the half-breed. If you need to do any work at moving the feet, work with the hackamore rein.

As an end result, when you pick up on the reins on the bridle horse, it moves the bridge of the nose from 86 or 87 degrees to 90 degrees (vertical)--the same your horse should be in a collected state. The head of the bridle horse doesn't really move very far from a loose rein to a collected position.

Remember: Never take your bridle reins down. Just don't do it. Bad enough to get dirt ground into your rawhide reins and romal, but there is a great risk in damaging your horse's mouth--not to mention the betrayal of his trust--if he steps on those reins with a spade bit in his mouth, or even with a half-breed. The reins and romal are the first thing on and the last thing off. This is the reverse of the procedure when using the snaffle.

Part five of this series, Moving into the Bridle covers the transition from the two-rein to the bridle.