When I was learning to ride, draw reins were not part of the lesson. We had the odd standing martingale on horses that threw their heads, but for the most part, there wasn’t a lot of special equipment, just a lot of wet saddle pads.
I didn’t really encounter draw reins — or, should I say, the potentially negative effect of them — until I bought my Trakehner, Kronefurst. I had a real problem with him accepting contact. He would “pose” with his neck arched and would float behind the bit. It turns out, he’d been ridden in draw reins. Incorrectly. Without release. A smart horse, he learned pretty quickly that he could escape from the pressure of draw reins by sucking back. The problem is, it’s difficult to get a horse that’s learned this to trust the bit again.
Now, he wasn’t an easy horse to ride. I can understand why someone tried to use them on him. He had a thick tongue and a low palette that made many bits uncomfortable. His neck was set high and it was, in some way, easier for him to carry himself to look “pretty” than to work properly. Let me say that it took a long, long time to get him to accept the bit and work correctly.
Still, unless used judiciously — and with a light hand — draw reins can often cause more problems than they fix. Why do they cause a problem?
The elusive connection, the feeling of being “on the bit” comes from the horse accepting contact, not being forced into it using leverage. Connection occurs when the horse is ridden from behind, into an accepting hand. When the horse has the abdominal strength to hold its body — and the weight of the rider — in harmony. Using draw reins to correct head carriage is the epitome of riding the horse from front to back. And by shutting down the horse in front, you lose the impulsion that you need from behind, leaving the hind legs trailing.
Many horses simply can’t sustain the frame of what people envision a dressage horse to look like because they aren’t strong enough. Sure, they might be able to
hold themselves in self carriage briefly, but when they get tired, they get heavy in front. Or they throw their head. Or they pull on the bit. It takes time to build the muscles for a horse to move correctly. Just think of the first yoga class you took. I bet you couldn’t hold all the poses right away. Imagine now that someone puts a pulley system on you to hold your limbs in the right position. Not fun, right?
Of course, like all tools, draw reins aren’t all bad. It’s just that too many people use them as short cuts. One of my dressage instructors — Renate Lansburgh — used to emphasize that the quickest way to train a horse was to take your time. How true that is! Only by working a horse in a way that allows him to gain the strength and confidence he needs, can you achieve the coveted self carriage.
When used correctly, draw reins can help you encourage your horse to stretch and work over his back. Unfortunately, too often you see people riding only in a state of constant hyperflexion. They forget that the release is the most important part of the process and serves as the reward. That’s one of the things I dislike about draw reins — it’s not a self correcting tool. The release comes only at the discretion of the rider.
Personally, I’ve only used draw reins on one horse. An OTTB who was probably part giraffe. She had the propensity to raise her head so high that it was practically in my lap. Working with a trainer, I found that draw reins helped her find a different way to use her body. Once she learned that, they were no longer necessary. But for the most part, I wouldn’t chose to use them again; I’d rather take the long way and end up with a horse that has come to balance and connection because he’s willing and able.
Have you used draw reins? What do you think of them?