I was recently looking through some horse forums on the Internet and noticed that a rider was shown riding one horse with draw reins and another with side reins. She had posted photos of herself to see if others readers would critique her. It was interesting that her position had shown marked improvement in the span of a few months, but that she was relying on equipment to hold her horses’ heads down.
First thing, you should never ride with side reins, unless you are being longed by someone standing on the ground and have your regular reins tied properly in the horse’s mane. The side reins are to keep the horse from bowing to the outside of the circle on a longe line so that the horse won’t injure its outside legs with the inside legs. The function of the side reins is to help the horse maintain its frame and balance, not to force its head down. (To find out more about longeing equipment and how to properly longe a horse, you can go to the sample chapter of my book at http://annamullin.com/longeing.)
Secondly, draw reins are for very advanced riders who know how to use them. They are intended to help the horse keep its balance and frame, but they should never be used to pull the horse into a head carriage that is behind the vertical, which is exactly what most inexperienced riders try to do. Even advanced riders sometimes use them as a shortcut to good training and end up with a terrible result. I once saw a famous three-day event rider warm up with draw reins, then take them off right before entering the dressage arena. The horse trotted down the centerline, halted at X, then reared when it realized that the instrument of torture was no longer in place.
The famous instructor, Gordon Wright, used to say that draw reins were “the razor in the monkey’s hand.” Personally, I feel that if you ride well, you don’t need contraptions to hold your horse’s head down. Framing a horse properly is all about positioning the haunches of the horse with your legs, accompanied by soft hands and frequent half-halts to help the horse keep its balance. Once this is accomplished, the head and neck will follow a natural downward curve that is comfortable for the animal.
Although the position of the girl’s lower leg was improving with time, her use of side reins and draw reins will prohibit her from developing the proper relationship with the horse’s mouth. Expertise comes from work on one’s position, so that the body is in balance with the horse, and development of a feel for the animal, so that the horse and rider can work as a partnership, not as master and slave. Avoid using any gadgets that keep you from becoming a better rider, for today’s shortcut can mean tomorrow’s ultimate failure.
Merry Christmas, and I’ll talk to you later! — AJ