I am a certified riding instructor through CHA and I have a question regarding the safest way a person should lead a bridled horse. Do you think it is safer to have the reins over the horse's head and behind the saddle horn (western) or should the reins be completely off the horse, held in the person's hands?
I have always heard that the reins should be completely off the horse, however I have never heard a specific safety reason for the rule.
Also, I have found that beginning riders and children have difficulty keeping the reins off the ground and out of harms way. Sometimes, it seems that they will accidentally drop the reins and then in an effort to pick them up, wrap them around their hands or step in them or allow their horse to step in them. While the program I work in has specific, easy to understand guidelines that we teach for leading horses and a specific way to hold reins or a lead attached to a horse (that does not involve wrapping them around any part of the body!), we are finding young and inexperienced riders having trouble with this. I would like to move to change the rein hold to keep the rider's attention on where they are going with their horses and their surroundings rather than worrying about their reins. However, I wanted to check and see what the advantages and disadvantages would be. Thanks a lot for your response!
I am not sure if you are asking about leading a bridled horse with a rider mounted or unmounted, so I will address both issues as both are good questions. When leading a bridled horse with no rider mounted, the leader should have the reins in her hands, not over the horse's neck. The reason why is that if the reins were over the horse's head it would be far too easy for the horse to get away from the leader. Also, leading with the reins over the horse's head does not give the leader a sufficient and safe distance and tends to put the rider right under the horse; too close for comfort. It is awkward for the leader to learn to handle the reins and lead the horse, but it is a necessary skill for young riders to develop.
In regards to leading riders mounted on a horse, there are some important factors to consider: First, you must always give the rider a means to control the horse; never mount a rider without the reins. Even with beginner or incompetent riders, if they are up on the horse, they need to be given a means to control the horse. Never lead a rider with the reins pulled over the horse's head (How many of us would get on a horse in that situation? I wouldn't!).
Also, learning to hold and use the reins is a fundamental part of learning to ride. There is no one rein-hold that is the right one to teach beginner riders, but I have noticed that most one-time ride providers use the California hold (or the "ice cream cone" hold). Back when I had a trail ride concession, we used to tell people that the reins were like a joy stick; reach forward to go, back to stop, right or left to turn. Most people can get that concept.
Secondly, the horse being led in a bridle will be more comfortable with a halter underneath the bridle, so that he is led by lead rope, instead of pressure on his mouth. You could also use a heavy cavesson/noseband under the bridle with a ring attached to it to snap a lead rope to when leading is required. Another option many of our programs use, is the "Ride n' Tie" bridles so that lead ropes can be snapped to the halter ring. These bridle/halter combinations are also very handy when it comes to tying horses between lessons.
When leading a horse, whether in a bridle or halter, do not crowd the horse's head, give some slack in the lead. I see many horse leaders cause problems with school horses by crowding them too much, choking up on the lead and the horse gets defensive and nippy.
If you lead with the reins instead of halter when a rider is mounted, place one hand lightly on the reins, not holding the reins too close to the horse's chin, being careful not to squeeze both reins together and pressure horse's mouth. Frankly, I prefer that a leader only holds one rein in order to avoid pressuring the horse's mouth with both reins and to keep the horse from leaning into the pressure. But it is a standard recommendation that a leader hold both reins, being careful not to squeeze the bit rings together, clamping on the horse's jawbone.
The leader may not need to actually hold the reins, but just walk at the horse's shoulder. You may need to work in a round pen or do lead-line work with the horse until the horse will follow at your shoulder so that you do not have to actually hang onto the reins or use leads.
I hope this helps you to iron out your leading policies. Thanks for the great questions.