When a rider keeps their horse on a tight rein (whether it's English or Western), I think there's potential for a disaster if that horse trips, spooks, etc. Chances are that a nervous rider isn't actually asking anything OF their horse, they just think they have more "control" by keeping a tight rein. What they don't realize is that their tension flows right down the reins into the horse. I use split reins, so there's no "dropping the reins" for me, but most of the time on my own horse they are quite loose and relaxed and I allow him to pick his way through rocks or fallen-tree areas.
The sorrel TWH my boyfriend owns (which I also ride frequently) is also one that I mostly ride in a relaxed rein BUT not as relaxed/long as with my own. He can be a bit of an airhead when the footing gets tricky, so I take up a bit more contact in those sections just to keep his attention. Otherwise, it's more like "step over rocks, step over rocks. . .ooh, look, a bird!" at which point he totally forgets about where he is putting his feet.
I know a guy who likes to ride his horse "on the bit" on trail all the time - well, he
says his horse is "collected" and "on the bit," but basically he just uses a WonderBit and keeps the horse's chin in his chest the whole ride. The horse tends to be on the sensitive and quirky side to begin with, and I think the guy is one of those who kind of likes being seen as having this big, black "fire-breathing monster" because it somehow proves what a great rider he is.:roll: Apparently, it works, because most of the people at the barn think the horse is crazy; he fidgets and prances and spins and jigs any time we're standing together as a group and the behavior is never corrected.
I've take that same horse out on trail solo and with others (with the owner's permission, of course!) and kept him on a much lighter contact and using a different (Robart's Walking Horse) bit. That "fire breathing monster horse" was quiet and well-mannered. At one point, my cell phone rang and I halted to answer it. . .the horse stood quietly, on a loose rein, and waited patiently until I got off the phone. Then I took up light contact again, and we were on our way. When we ran into a couple of hikers, the horse balked a bit. . .but rather than haul on his mouth and try to "control" him, I relaxed my own body and put my hands forward a bit. Like I said. . .he's a sensitive horse. . .and when he felt the reins relax rather than tense up, he relaxed as well.
Of course, the owner still insists that his horse needs to be "on the bit" at all times. . .and he still seems to enjoy having a "fire breathing monster." Oh well. . .