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Split reins, roping reins, two-rein, romals: Which one is right for you?

By Dennis Moreland for the Paint Horse Journal

“The secret to making a finished stock horse lies in the way the reins are handled. There is nothing that can be put on his head that will force him to stop or turn properly unless he knows where to put his feet … his feet have to be positioned before he can do it right, and his feet are positioned by the way the reins are handled on his head.”

–Ed Connell, Hackamore Reinsman


Do you wish you knew more about the various types of Western reins used to train horses? Would you like to be involved in a discipline like cutting, where no rein cues are used while the horse is working the cow? Or how about working cow horse, where split reins, mecates, two-rein outfits and romal reins are each used as the horse progresses? When choosing reins, you’ve got to consider the functionality, safety and traditions of each type along with your personal preferences. When showing, you’ve also got to know which rein or reins are legal in your event.

Split reins are acceptable in most association’s classes with a snaffle bit for direct reining or a curb bit for indirect (neck) reining. Junior horses can be shown in a snaffle with split reins. Split reins are used exclusively in the cutting show pen on any age horse, although you’ll get a deduction for any use of the reins after your cow has been cut. In APHA ranch riding classes, for instance, you can use split reins on a snaffle or curb bit on any age horse. Leather is the product of choice for good split reins.

Mecates are single reins used on California hackamores. Some riders prefer to use them on snaffles instead of split reins. A mecate has both a looped rein and a length used as a lead rope, called a tie-rein. Young working cow horses are often started in a snaffle and transitioned to a California hackamore for further training. Junior horses can be ridden in working cow horse classes in a hackamore with a mecate or in a snaffle bridle with a mecate or split reins. Twisted horse mane hair or nylon make excellent mecates.

When you transition your young horses from a hackamore or snaffle to a curb bit, the two-rein outfit is a good tool. It’s a narrow diameter California hackamore (bosalita) under a bridle with romal reins, hence the name two-rein. As your young horses begin to learn to hold, carry and use the bit correctly, you guide them with the bosalita and mecate. When they’re ready to advance, you guide with the mecate and romal together. The final product is a horse that can be ridden successfully in the bridle with romal reins to do almost anything you need him to do.

Romal reins were introduced to the Western United States in the mid 1700s by the Spanish vaqueros coming north from Mexico to raise cattle. Their life depended on extremely hardy, well trained horses that required only slight movements of the romal reins for direction. These are a closed rein with 2 distinct parts: the reins and the romal, balanced in length and weight.

“I don’t ride my colts with romals, but I do check my 3-year-olds in romal reins to see how they’re coming along. Romal reins will really help tell you if you’re getting a young horse trained,” said Boyd Rice, National Cutting Horse Association world champion, $4 Million money-earner and National Reined Cow Horse Association World’s Greatest Horseman.

Holding the romal with your thumb up also helps you to sit up straight in your saddle; romal reins don’t pull you forward like split reins will, so they really help your riding posture. Good romal reins are hand-braided of beveled rawhide or kangaroo with buttons on both the reins and romal for weight. The buttons also help give your horse a signal before the rein touches his neck and help to keep sweat off the reins.

Roping reins are actually a single rein, coming in various lengths, that’s commonly used in roping and other speed events; it’s also legal in team penning and ranch sorting. Tack historian and writer Phil Livingston remembers as a boy the old timers telling him how they used their reins to rope and doctor calves before roping reins became popular right after World War I.

“Back then a cowboy would step off and wrap his split reins around the rope to keep them off the ground while they attended to the calf” he said. “Just like now, they didn’t want their reins hanging on the ground.”

The length of the rein is dependent on the event and your personal preference. Good roping reins are made of leather, nylon or braided rawhide.

When shopping for new reins you want to look for reins made from dense, heavy, tight fibered leather that have an even texture throughout the length of the rein. Good split reins should be naturally thicker on both ends to give you good drape. They should feel good in your hands and get only better with age. Romals should be balanced and have good weight and drape. The rawhide should be hand-beveled evenly on all four sides, and  hand-braiding should be even without space between the strands. Mane hair mecates should be twisted firmly and evenly on a hair core.

Be sure to read your association’s rule book and ask show management if you have any questions about rein requirements before you enter the show ring. You can have a lot of fun trying out new disciplines and learning how to use the tack that’s required.


Resource: APHA Rule Book

Learn more about APHA class rules and judging standards thorough our innovative virtual learning platform, HorseIQ: aphahorseiq.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 Paint Horse Journal. Dennis Moreland is the owner of Dennis Moreland Tack in Weatherford, Texas. Subscribe to the Paint Horse Journal at apha.com/phj/subscribe.


[Reprinting all of part of this story is permitted, so long as credit is given to the Paint Horse Journal and a link provide back to apha.com.]

About APHA

The American Paint Horse Association is the world’s second-largest international equine breed association, registering more than a million horses in 59 nations and territories since it was founded. APHA’s mission is to inspire, nurture, promote and provide meaningful experiences to generations interested in preserving the versatile Paint Horse.