The history of romal reins goes back to vaqueros who brought them to California from Mexico. The design is rooted in function—the closed reins make it impossible to drop, unlike split reins, and the romal (or quirt-like extension) can be used to urge the horse forward instead of spurs. Traditional rawhide braiders such as Luis Ortega took making romal reins to new heights with their braiding technique, use of various hide types and colors, and silver elements.
From those traditional roots, romal reins found their way into the show pen, in everything from working cow horse (where the no-dropped-rein factor is imperative for fencework) to trail, Western riding, and now ranch riding.
Traditional tack has a way of giving the user an aura of expertise when used properly. Here I’ll discuss why romal reins are made with certain features, correct use, and proper care.
How It’s Made and Why
Traditionally, romal reins are crafted of rawhide. But as braiders started to think outside the box and big manufacturers looked for cost-effective production practices, other materials entered the fold. Now you can find romals made of everything from kangaroo hide to nylon and combinations of many different materials.
Romals attach to the bit in a variety of ways—snaps and leather ties are most common. These allow you to easily move your reins from one bit to another and to hang the romals straight when they’re not in use. If you choose snaps, beware that they can fail under pressure. To prevent that, I place small rubber bands around the snaps to keep them closed. I check and change the bands regularly, because they’ll rot, wear out, and break over time.
The buttons or ferrels you see at various places on the reins add style and eye appeal, but they serve a purpose. The horse feels these knobs when they touch his neck, reinforcing a neck-rein cue. Another benefit of the romal rein: It’s always the same length on each side when you hold it in your hand.
What Did You Say?
Depending on where you’re from, you might pronunce the tack discussed here differently. Traditionally, it’s pronounced RO (as in row a boat) mal (like the first part of malfunction). I ride with folks from all over the country, so I hear all kinds of pronunciations, but this is the correct way.
Traditionalists (like me) cringe when we see romal reins used improperly. If you’ve never used them before, study hand positions of those familiar with the tack. Hold the reins so they run up through the bottom of your closed fist, with the connector coming out at the top and the romal running back toward you, over your thumb.
The romal portion goes in your non-rein hand, with 16 inches of separation between your left and right hands. Most riders hold their romal hand at waist height. But in horsemanship, the rider places her hand on her romal-side thigh.
When using the reins, it’s important to keep your rein hand in a box that stretches about a foot in front of your torso and hip width. Your guiding movements are more directly left and right. For example, rather than moving your hand back toward your hip, up, and to the left or right as when using split reins, your rein hand is in a more upright position, which tends to help your horse stay straight. This style of rein use means you’re less likely to “cheat” by slipping rein, which is the same as shortening one side.
There are a few basic rules for using romal reins. Your hand must be completely around the reins, no fingers are allowed between the reins, and your hand cannot be open, using your fingers to steer. In events other than reining, you can reach up to the connector with your romal hand and slide your rein hand farther down the reins. National Reining Horse Association rules disallow using your romal hand to adjust your reins.
There are times when you have to hold both reins and romal in one hand, such as when working a gate. If it’s a left-hand gate, gather your reins and romal in your right hand, and vice versa for a right-hand gate. When you’ve completed the obstacle, pause and arrange your reins in the proper manner.
It’s illegal to threaten your horse with the romal, but you can use it to encourage your horse forward to chase a cow in a working cow horse class. Be sure to check your association and discipline rulebooks for a complete understanding of the rules governing romal use at the events you compete in.
Care for Longevity
Caring for your romal reins—whether they’re pieces of art, such as those made by a known braider like Ortega, or less-expensive pieces—will contribute to their long life. When you’re not using your romals, disconnect them from your bridle, and hang them by the connector between the reins and the romal. This allows both pieces to hang straight so they don’t kink or bend. Be sure to keep them out of sunlight to prevent discoloration and heat damage.
If your reins are made of rawhide, use a cream that’s designed to hydrate the hide, especially in dry climates. Leather reins can be treated the same as split reins and the rest of your leather tack.
Al Dunning, Scottsdale, Arizona, has produced world champion horses and riders in multiple disciplines. He’s been a professional trainer for more than 40 years, and his expertise has led him to produce books, DVDs, and his own online mentoring program, Team AD International (aldunning.com).