Thursday, November 5, 2009

To Draw Rein Or Not To Draw Rein

...that is the question.

Yes, I am still thoroughly flummoxed (isn't that a great word?) and on the fence about the whole draw rein issue. I can see both its potential benefits and its potential drawbacks. So, let's examine the evidence, shall we?

On the one side of the fence sits the Dressage Purists, who believe that any "gadget" is a short-cut, a cheat, and does not teach the horse properly. On the Sustainable Dressage site, it states, "The active draw rein, pulling the bit down and in, in a direction between the attachment at the girth and the hands, trap the horse. There is room to move inside the confinement, but not in the desired direction - forward-down-out. The horse can however curl back in (green position). It can also shorten the neck and elevate the head some (red position), in trying to relieve the action of the bit.

In order for the horse to be able to relax the jaw and poll, and stretch forward-down-and-out as one would wish, the rider needs to give the draw rein out of the hand more than an equal amount, and to be honest - this is not something draw rein protagonists tend to do! Instead, much of the problem seems to originate with a non-feeling hand that reluctantly gives, and rarely with any good timing. Stretching is not a priority for these riders, as much as pulling together and shortening the frame.

The short draw rein will do exactly the same as the underline muscles during rollkur work - they will shorten the underline and pull on the nuchal ligament to be wrapped around the spinal column lengthwise, and compress it. The bottom of the S-curve will push out, and the horse will hollow. Added to this, the exaggerated pressure on the tongue will cause stiffness in the jaw and poll, which will tense the topline in the same way as a stargazing horse tenses his topline. Whether the horse actually holds his head way up, or is striving to move his head upwards but stopped by the draw reins, it's all the same. The same hollowing reflex is at work. "

Yikes! Are you all running and throwing out your draw reins yet?! Deep breaths, and stay with me. I think one very important point to note is the section that I italicized above -- "In order for the horse to be able to relax the jaw and poll, and stretch forward-down-and-out as one would wish, the rider needs to give the draw rein out of the hand more than an equal amount." I'm certainly no expert, but my interpretation of this is, "Don't crank the horse down with the draw reins, keep them loose as a guide." Yes? No? And, of course, I personally always follow the basic rule, "As soon as the horse responds to pressure, reward him immediately by taking that pressure away."

Ok, on to the other side, the People Who Believe In Draw Reins. I found an article on Equisearch, which was taken from a Lisa Zinger article written for Practical Horseman. Here's what she had to say --

"Draw reins (and side reins) also let your horse know he can lower his head under saddle. If he's unfamiliar with stretching down, draw reins let him feel contact as he stretches forward and down while you have your leg on and your fist closed around the reins. But you're not "cranking" his head down; you're encouraging him to lower his neck and head, with his nose just a little ahead of the vertical, by guiding him to that position with your fingers softly closed on the draw reins. When his head is where you want it (here's a moment where your trainer's input is valuable), your draw-rein contact needs to be giving, even loose.

Draw reins show your horse the way, but you don't want him to depend on them once he's there. Constantly riding with draw reins may teach him to hang or lean on them ; when you take them off, he may be less on the bit than before because they were "holding" him there. He may even throw up his head or poke out his nose - the very things you were trying to teach him not to do. So keep draw rein sessions short: Warm him up in regular reins, ride five or ten minutes with draw reins, and then ask him to maintain the proper neck and head position with regular reins. If he pokes his nose forward, close your hands and legs for one or two strides and see if he responds by coming back. If he doesn't reinforce the lesson with another five or ten minutes with draw reins, and then ask him to maintain the proper neck and head position with regular reins. If he pokes his nose forward, close your hands and legs for one or two strides and see if he responds by coming back. If he doesn't, reinforce the lesson with another five or ten minutes using draw reins. Finish your schooling session with a free rein to let him stretch his neck.

Don't use draw reins every day. Use them periodically, as a reminder - for instance, at times when your horse is offering more resistance, or when you introduce a new or more difficult exercise."

She also says that draw reins should be attached to the sides of the girth between the saddle flap and the horse's elbow, never between the front legs (as I was taught). She says this is "a severe use of draw reins that can overflex the horse." Wow, you learn something new every day!

Hhhhhmmmm. I'm still not sure where I stand. I definitely know that I don't want to be a Draw Rein Junkie -- I used to know a few (at my old barn up North), who put them on their horses every ride, crank their horse's chins down, and then expect you to drool over what a great "head-set" the horse has. These horses, of course, learn to lean into the draw reins, as their riders never give them any release from pressure, so the rider has to constantly hold the horse up. That's certainly not my idea of a fun ride. And it also does not teach the horse self-carriage (which is supposed to be the ultimate goal).

As a little experiment, I rode Salem in draw reins today. I kept them fairly loose; and, to be honest, he started out pretty ostrich-necked, as usual. But, as we went along, he started to get it. We had one amazing moment -- after cantering on the right lead, I asked for a downward transition and *yowza!* found a whole new gear that I never knew Salem had. Somehow, my leg had magically found its "home," Salem was soft and flexing and right there, perfectly between my hands and my legs. We found this big, powerful trot that even had a touch of suspension. And, while it was forward, it didn't feel rushed -- because he was actually using his back-end and pushing with his back legs. We trotted once around the field like that and, Lordy, it felt ever so loverly! After once around, I brought him back to a walk and gave him lots of pats and praise.

So, after my experience today, I'm thinking..."Well, maybe I should use them every once in a while, just to show Salem exactly what I want from him." I'm still not sure. What do you all think? I would love to hear your opinions, both pro and con. And, for those of you who do use them, what do you think about draw rein placement? Do you put them between the front legs or on the sides? All opinions are welcome.

P.S. Aaaack! Three posts in a row with no pics! Dearie me, my standards are slipping (and so soon!). I brought the cam out today, fully charged and complete with memory card. Unfortunately, I was in a bit of a hurry to get on before the sun went down (*shakes fist* Damn you, Daylight Savings!) and it was, of course, far too dark afterwards. My Jennie-friend was there, but she was having waaaaaay too much body-clipping Savvy and Largo to take pics of little old me. *sigh* I'll get some soon, I promise!


eventer79 said...

Sustainable dressage is a site that has a lot of great information. But a HEAVY bias and so I take everything there with a grain of salt. The fault in their draw reins argument is that they assume that the reins will always be used incorrectly with no feeling. Well, OF COURSE a training aid that is used with no thoughtfulness will be harmful. *dope slaps writer of article*

It's all in the give and the use, just like a bit, just like a whip, just like your leg, just like ANY aid. As you saw in your experiment, a draw rein really can show your horse what you are seeking in a gentle way that is clear to him, something that those of us with less-than-Olympic level riding skills can have a hard time doing with just hand/seat/leg clearly.

I do attach them between the front legs, I have found the aid is clearer to Solo that way. I don't crank him in, just put enough contact there that he has a limit to how high up he can go. Just like a running martingale, the draw rein does not come into play unless he becomes resistant. If he wants to stretch forward/down/out, gasp, I can give him rein with my elbow or lengthen the reins as needed.

I've been reading Wofford as well and in his usual humourous fashion, he says -- I know you will use the gadgets no matter what I say, so when you use them, use them sparingly and always finish a session without the pressure of the gadget to assure that your horse has actually learned what you wanted him to learn.

See, despite what lectury Sustainable Dressage lady thinks, it is possible for riders to have the ability to be thoughtful and use aids with consideration for the situation and needs of the horse at hand!

Frizzle said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I was getting overwhelmed because it seemed like everything that I was reading said that draw reins are bad, evil, and to be avoided at all costs. And, like I said, I knew a lot of people who overused and abused them. I don't want Salem to have his chin cranked to his chest and be pulling/leaning on the reins constantly!
And, yes, after my ride yesterday, I'm beginning to lean a bit towards pro-draw rein, although with limited use, obviously.
If the Woff says that using them sparingly is ok, then it must be true!

Anonymous said...

Solaris, that's from Training the Three Day Event Horse and Rider, isn't it? I've been reading that religiously! Seriously, I read it once and I go over it periodically when I feel my perspective has changed.

Meghann, interesting post... I'm right there with you, having never used draw reins I don't know how I feel about them. It's really interesting to read the differing points of view.

eventer79 said...

Faith, yup, I just won that book in a raffle after trying to find it forever, so have been reading it, but there is so much in it, I can't possibly absorb it all at once! But my clinic with Jim drove home to me how important it is to be a THINKING rider/trainer and so I spend a lot more time just thinking about stuff that I used to spend just doing stuff randomly.

Repeat after me: Tools are not evil, tools are not evil, only people are evil, only people are evil.

Frizzle said...

Lol, ok, Solo, I will make that a...what do ya call it?..daily affirmation? Like SNL's "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough; and, gosh darn it, people like me.";-)
Oh, and thanks for adding to my Book Wish List. Seeing as I'm broke as a pauper, that list is getting veeeeeery long! I need knowledge!

piaffe4me said...

A couple thoughts, if I may...
I am glad that the comment included JW's entire quote, but the emphasis from that sentence that you need to think about is on "I know that no matter what I say". Here, he is diplomatically cautioning his readers that HE would not use draw reins, so drawing the conclusion of "well, if Woff says it's okay..."; just make sure that you realize that he really didn't say it is okay. ;-)
The other point I would like to make is that your post and the comments indicate that you don't think you have perfect finesse and timing of the aids, so you probably need the drawreins to mitigate that fact...please consider the other side of the coin--I believe that IF you use drawreins, it is absolutely crucial that you have the most impeccable timing and finesse, because the horse is in a position of complete helplessness; the drawreins give the rider an incredible amount of leverage over the horse's head and neck, and it takes away his ability to use them for his own balance. Balance is the single most important thing to a horse psychologically, so when you take that away from him, he is completely at your mercy.
To be truly "merciful", which--in this context means having the ability to give A LOT of rein and at the precise moment that the horse needs it--requires more finesse, talent and timing than even most Olympic riders possess (to take from the quote in the other comment above).
I have learned from many true masters of riding both here in the U.S. and in Europe (you may check my bio at, and all of them agree--by the time we have learned enough that we are qualified to use drawreins, we have learned enough to never need to use drawreins.
I hope I have made my personal opinion clear without offending anyone, and I agree with JW--NO MATTER WHAT I SAY, there are people who will use drawreins, so IF YOU FEEL YOU MUST, then 1. know that you will ultimately limit your horse's upwards training potential, and 2. please use them VERY sparingly and with great empathy for the horse as well as the understanding of the biomechanics (great illustration, BTW!), and timing of the give...and remember how much leverage you actually have on the horse's head and neck when you use drawreins.

Frizzle said...

Yes, as I said, I certainly did not "crank" him with the draw reins; in fact, I kept them quite loose. And, as I also stated, I believe in the immediate release of pressure when the horse gives you the response for which you are looking.
I've had this horse with me for a month and have used the draw reins of him twice, even though I ride just about every day. I usually do not use them, and have been getting him to stretch down without them (although, towards the end of the ride). Those two times with the draw reins helped make things more clear for him. Now, I am finding that I just need a LOT more leg in order to help him engage his hind end and, consequently, relax and lower his head.
I do think that you misread eventer79's Olympic quote -- "a draw rein really can show your horse what you are seeking in a gentle way that is clear to him, something that those of us with less-than-Olympic level riding skills can have a hard time doing with just hand/seat/leg clearly."
I appreciate your comment. And, no, I didn't take offense to it. I do think that draw reins are often times abused, and I will certainlty never be one of those people. I think that using them every once in a great while, in a gentle and considerate fashion, can be beneficial.

Marissa said...

Hi, just came across your blog for the first time... I had a similar debate going on over at my blog about gadgets in general, there's always a wide range of opinions....