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!