Draw Reins

Draw Reins

“In the wrong hands, draw reins are as dangerous as razorblades in the hands of a monkey”

Alois Podhajsky

The greater the goal, the less value will be found in mechanical methods”

Egon von Neindorff

“If a rider or trainer cannot put the horse ‘on-the-bit’ without resorting to the use of draw reins or other mechanical devices, he or she should not call themselves a classical rider much less a classical dressage trainer”

Paul Belasik

The impetus for my decision to write this article came from my painful observations over a prolonged period of time of churlish riding by non-thinking, lemming-like acolytes caused by inept teaching from sham instructors/trainers.  I am constantly amazed and absolutely appalled at the extreme lengths to which the human resorts to in a vain attempt to gain control over the horse by employing all manner of artificial aids, especially draw reins.  Absent of theory, these (and most other) so-called dressage riders and trainers think that the pursuit of technique alone will overcome ignorance – never realizing that knowledge arises from ignorance rather than overcoming ignorance.  When they insist on rigid structures in their dressage practice without first firmly establishing a two-way communication process with the horse they will continue to struggle with the inherent sense of needing to be in harmony with the horse so that they and the horse can meld into a single unit.  They should heed the words of Ray Hunt (1929-2009), author of the book Think Harmony with Horses (Pioneer Publishing Company, seventh printing 1991), and called by his followers the Master of Communication (with horses), who used to say, “first you feel of the horse, then you feel for the horse, and then you both feel together”. Without this harmony, the result is that they lose sight of the fact that the correctness of dressage is determined by the effects of the work upon the horse’s body and mind, in that it relaxes the horse making him quiet and content without resistances.  On the other hand, a horse with a bulging underneck, subluxated spine, overdeveloped pectoral muscles, an overbent neck (meaning a horse whose neck curls with the highest point being at the third/fourth vertebrae and the poll below this point with the nose coming back towards the chest) who is nervous, balky, and irritable with dull eyes and flat gaits indicates poor gymnastic technique which is not following correct proven principles of classical horsemanship.  As a special reminder, do not confuse the term ‘overbent’ with the description of a horse being ‘behind-the-bit’.  A horse can have the correct position with his head and neck, i.e., stretching out from the withers in a crescent shape with the poll at the highest point, but if his nose is behind a vertical line dropped down from his forehead, then he is considered to be ‘behind-the-bit’. So, in essence, what I have been a witness to, given the caliber of the so-called “trainers”, is brutality (meaning crude and unfeeling) toward the horse and brutality is nothing but ignorance in action.  For example, they attempt to teach the horse a certain head carriage before getting his legs and feet under control (forgetting or, perhaps, not knowing that the rider’s hands and the horse’s feet are connected) and so, in order to attempt to have the horse immediately assume what they think is the proper “shape” they resort to the use of draw reins; one of the many types of artificial aids listed under the general category of auxiliary reins. Two other applications of idiocy by these trainers regarding the use of draw reins will suffice to create a clear picture of the dangers I am writing about.  The first involves using draw reins when lunging horses (which they also do not know how to do), and the second involves rigging a horse up in draw reins and then chasing him, at liberty, around an arena.  Enough said!

 Other devices which fall into this category (a majority of which will not be addressed in this article) are sliding reins, running reins, check reins, various types of martingales (standing, running, German), side-reins, the Chambon, the Lauffer rein, and the de Gogue. All of these types of artificial aids are designed to act, on a temporary not permanent basis, in a supplementary role to the normal regular reins. However, because of the dangers accruing to the horse from the mis-use of these devices, they should be used only by experts who are extremely knowledgeable about horse training, movement, and muscle development of the horse.

Draw reins were first used in the 17th century by William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle (1593-1676) and were written about in his book A General System of Horsemanship (facsimile reproduction of the 1743 edition by Trafalgar Square Publishing 2000).   He was a superb horseman who was the first to develop the use of the shoulder-in position as a means of suppling the horse’s shoulders, albeit on a circle and not on a straight line as De la Gueriniere did a hundred years later.  But his reputation was diminished as a horseman because his horses were bent in the middle of the neck, i.e., overbent, not at the poll, and traveled behind the bit. Waldemar Seunig (1887-1976), coach of the successful German Olympic equestrian team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in his book Horsemanship (reprint edition published by Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2003) wrote the following about Newcastle “often brutal, often anticipating the right path is the ambivalent equestrian portrait of this horseman”.  E.F.Seidler (1798-1865), another outstanding master of the horse who was famous for his ability to train difficult, spoiled and vicious horses in the German cavalry fared no better and was also criticized for his use of draw reins.

          Many riders and trainers commonly and erroneously refer to draw reins as ‘sliding reins’, a term discussed by Wilhelm Museler (1887-1952) in his book Riding Logic (Methuen & Co.Ltd., London 1937) or ‘running reins’ as written about by Richard L. Watjen (1891-1966) in his book Dressage Riding (J.A.Allen & Co., London 1958).  The terms ‘sliding reins’ and ‘running reins’ can be used interchangeably, but draw reins and ‘sliding/running reins’ are not synonymous.  There is a distinct difference between draw reins and sliding or running reins as they are fitted to the horse in different ways and have the potential to have different effects on the horse. But generally speaking, they both have the same real danger of being used improperly ending up with the same disastrous effects on the horse.

        Draw reins, which can be made of leather, nylon or cotton webbing, consist of two straps each seven to nine feet long buckled in the middle. They should be of a different width than the normal regular reins so the rider can differentiate between the two when using them. The ends of each rein are attached at the bottom of the girth and run through the horse’s front legs, then up along his chest to the rings of a loose ring, hinged mouthpiece snaffle bit from the inside to the outside and behind (in back of) the regular reins, and then back to the rider’s hands.     The draw reins should not run through the rings from the outside to the inside because they may not slide freely enough in an emergency situation, plus, in this configuration, they will cause the snaffle rings to compress against the sides of the horse’s mouth resulting in a “nutcracker” effect with the hinged mouthpiece lifting up into the horse’s palate. If they are made of leather, the smooth side of the leather should rest against the snaffle rings to reduce friction as much as possible.

        The draw reins are held, one in each hand, just like the regular reins.  The two reins together are held as follows: the draw reins are normally held between the middle finger and the ring finger on the inside and the regular reins of the snaffle are held between the ring finger and the little finger (pinky finger) on the outside.  However; a number of riders choose to hold the draw reins around the outside (bottom) of the little finger.  Both reins then pass up through the inside of the rider’s hands along the palm and over the top of the index finger where the thumb then holds them both firmly in place.  Another way to hold the reins is as follows: have the regular snaffle reins come around the outside (bottom) of the little finger and then up through the inside of the hand along the palm and over the top of the index finger with the draw reins coming over the top of the index finger (and on top of the regular reins) down the inside of the hand along the palm then out through the bottom of the little finger.  The thumb holds both reins firmly in place.  This method separates both reins by the width of the hand and gives the rider more flexibility when handling the reins.  This happens by first  creating action with the regular reins and then, if the horse hesitates, braces or does not immediately respond, quickly but smoothly activating the draw reins by either lifting the hands slightly or moving the top of the hand slightly backward with the thumb coming back towards the elbow to activate the draw reins.  This way of holding the reins could be called the French method (a la francaise), also widely known as the ‘Fillis Method’ because it is how French riders (of the Cadre Noir) hold the reins of the double bridle which allows for a more discrete use of both reins.  However, as is normally the case, the rider just pulls both reins backwards causing the mouthpiece to bear down on the bars of the horse’s mouth resulting in a “pain” rather than a “feel” correction.

        Much of the above also pertains to the sliding/ running reins except for the fact that these reins are fastened along the sides of the girth in the vicinity of the rider’s knees and, as a result have the potential of having an entirely different effect on the horse. When using a western saddle the reins would be affixed to the cinch rings (if the purpose was to get the horse to bring in his nose) or affixed to the “D” rings used for attaching a breast collar (if the purpose was to slightly raise the horse’s head because when the reins are activated by the rider the mouthpiece of the bit will lift up into the curve groove of his mouth).

        In any case, it is mandatory that the rider not activate either the draw reins or the sliding/running reins simultaneously as the effects will cancel out each other.  First, the rider must apply the normal regular reins and then, and only if the horse does not unhesitatingly respond without resistance, the rider must, within one-quarter to one-half second, activate the auxiliary reins.  Only if used in this manner will the horse gain an understanding of what is being asked of him.  Of special importance is the absolute necessity  for the rider, prior to doing anything with either the regular reins or the auxiliary reins to energize the horse with the legs and seat to have him step to the rider’s hands, i.e., ‘shorten his base of support’.

        Draw reins apply greater leverage than sliding/running reins and ask the horse to lower his head, often to the point where he becomes overbent in the neck, i.e., “broke” at the third or fourth cervical vertebrae causing him to be behind the vertical.  While their use may possibly have some temporary results, in the long run they cause the horse to lower his head too much and drop his neck too low putting him on the forehand.

       Additionally, if the horse overbends his neck when his head is drawn back towards his body, the hind legs are unable to bend and flex at the stifle, hock, and fetlock joints and cannot step more underneath his body, plus his back becomes tense and cannot move with any spring or elasticity. Further, since the head and neck play the role of a balancing pole, it is very clear that any constriction affecting the natural play of the neck muscles will also lead to a corresponding constriction in the play of the horse’s equilibrium and his locomotive mechanism, i.e., being able to correctly engage his hind legs as mentioned above. This also means that horses that are strongly hand-ridden (implying that no leg or seat signal preceded the hand signal) without the neck cresting up and out with the poll being at the highest point will also lose their overall bascule (roundness).  The result is that the horse suffers in his ability to properly make use of his back in the transmission of power causing, for one thing, poor execution of transitions.

To reinforce this point, here is what Paul Belasik (1950-    ) has to say as quoted from his book Exploring Dressage Technique (J.A. Allen, London 1994)

“Every way you come to analyze hand riding in daily training and practice, you find trouble.  Furthermore it leads riders even further away from the importance of a good seat and dexterity of the legs…If one doesn’t understand all the reasons why hand riding is crude, including the biomechanical and spiritual aspects, one cannot understand the finer forms of classical equitation”.

This all leads to the eventuality that the rider will be hindered from using the natural leverage of the horse’s head and shoulders as a means to, on required occasions, shift more of the horse’s weight onto the hindquarters for good collection.

       Sliding/running reins, on the other hand, when correctly used, ask the horse to bring in his nose, but do not drop his head down to the same extent as draw reins.  But, as mentioned earlier, when not used correctly, they have all the same negative effects as draw reins. And it goes without saying, that there is no need for any of these types of reins for a horse that has been trained in a correct, systematic, and progressive way by knowledgeable trainers steeped in the ways of classical horsemanship.  As form follows function in classical horsemanship, i.e., the correct posture always being the result of balance and suppleness, putting a stiff, unbalanced and disconnected horse (of any age) into a superficial “frame” and riding “tricks” (dressage movements being  ridden incorrectly) with a “headset” is entirely without value and will make the horse lame in the long run.  In classical horsemanship one doesn’t strive for merely an outward appearance, but for a certain feel.  This is achieved through carefully selected, sequential and progressive  exercises that help the horse to develop his body awareness as well as his ability to shift balance quickly and seamlessly from side to side and from front to back and vice versa, so that he can find the optimal balance for each turn, each transition, and each movement. 

To quote George Morris (chef d’equipe of the US Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Team and a member of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame) from his column in Practical Horseman magazine (September 2009) concerning the use of artificial aids in training the horse:

“I am totally opposed to them in any form, such as draw reins, running martingales, etc.  In my experience, they are used as a shortcut to correct training.  There is absolutely no substitute for time and patience, repeated efforts when training a horse (or rider, for that matter).   German martingales and the like make a horse defensive, because he soon learns that he can’t use his head and neck without hitting the bit.  This leaves him unable to use his back, which, in turn, will necessitate the use of heavy boots on his hind legs, because he can’t use his hind end properly”.

         However; neither draw reins nor sliding/running reins will automatically put the horse ‘on-the-bit’. All too often, nowadays, the term ‘on-the-bit’ is used to describe a certain headset attained by the horse when he is curling his head down and back as he is forced into a false frame by impatient and plebian riders and trainers – obviously the antithesis of correct horsemanship.  In reality, ‘on-the-bit’ means the condition of a completely relaxed horse accepting the rider’s aids without resistances.  In the Old School, a horse being ‘on-the-bit’ was the result of what is called “throughness” (translated from the German word durchlassigkeit; based on durchlassig, which literally means porous). The essence of being porous is to ‘let through’, thus durchlassigkeit is ‘letting-throughness’; a state in which the energy and power produced by the horse’s hindquarters and hind legs is allowed to travel freely over the horse’s back, shoulders, neck, and head back to the rider’s hands.  Throughness was the product of the highest level of suppleness, submissiveness, balance, and relaxation – think of it as a horse rotating the whole of his body in bascule around the bit with the reins being held with feeling by the rider’s educated hands. As Charles Harris (1915-2002) wrote in his book Workbooks from the Spanish School 1948-1951 (J.A. Allen, London 2004) “The feeling of the reins in the hand should be that of holding a very small bird comfortably but without hurting it or letting it fall”.  Other authors, at a later time, in their books use the same analogy.

           However; the following must be kept in mind. ‘On-the-bit’ is not possible without the horse being ‘in-front-of-the-leg’, which, in turn, is not possible without the horse being ‘in-front-of-the-whip’.  This means that the horse both understands and responds to the differences between a light touch versus a pressure touch versus vibrations of the whip.  A light touch assures the horse that the whip is nothing to be fearful of; the pressure touch creates, in a trained horse, movement and/or more power, and a vibrating whip transmits a “stay alert” signal.  A vibrating whip should create an “active” horse, but this can only happen when he is free of tension, which can only occur when he is ridden by a relaxed rider who knows how to handle the whip.

       One of the great dangers of riding with draw reins (or sliding/running reins) lies in the false assumption that they can replace suppleness, balance and submissiveness of the horse and provide some kind of shortcut to the correct development of the horse.  One can never compensate for the lack of throughness (where the horse offers no resistances and responds without delay to the rider’s signals) by solely relying on draw reins – which is, to the detriment of the horse, too often the case today.  If the rider/trainer forces a false flexion and restricts the horse’s movement by hand riding alone without energizing the power of the hindquarters through the use of the legs, then he only works on the horse’s head and neck frame and not on the athletic development of the whole horse.  This concentration on working isolated parts of the horse prevents the horse from learning how to travel in a connected manner.  Thus any one part of the horse which is singled out and worked without paying attention to the whole body will, at best, end up disconnecting his head and neck from his hindquarters resulting in a pitiful caricature of a horse which has been subjected to human ignorance.  However; before riding with draw reins, if one is even silly enough to even contemplate it, the rider must have, without question, developed a steady, independent seat which is the base for relaxed and sensitive hands because the effectiveness of the draw reins depends entirely on good hands as well as feeling.  The thumb is the only part of the hand which exerts strong pressure on the reins.  The rest of the hand, fingers, back of the hand, and the wrist as well as the lower arm must remain completely relaxed and free of tension and stiffness.  Draw reins, as stated previously, are used as a way of maintaining the correct position of the horse’s head and neck only temporarily as a supplementary aid if the horse resists the action of the rider’s hand by stiffening in the poll or jaw when being taught new movements.  If they are used correctly, success should be felt within a few minutes.  If not, it only proves that the rider does not know how to handle them and, in that case, would do far better to discard them at once – otherwise the damage to the horse will be greater than the gain (if any!).  Only skilled riders who know what a horse feels like when properly on the aids and only on horses who have already been taught how to move “on-the-bit’ should use draw reins or sliding/running reins.  I have observed only a very few riders skilled enough to make use of these types of auxiliary reins.  For the majority of riders and trainers there is no substitute for knowing how to correctly develop a horse and putting that knowledge to use in practice following the time tested principles of classical horsemanship.  So, in my judgment, they should refrain from using them until they learn how to ride correctly – for the well being of the horse.

           In the introduction to Udo Burger and Otto Zietzschmanns’ book The Rider Forms the Horse (reprint of the first edition published in 1939, FNverlag der Deutchen Reiterlichen Vereinigung GmbH, Warendorf/GER, new edition in English 2003), Dr. Gerd Heuschmann (author of the book Tug of War: Classical versus “Modern” Dressage, Trafalgar Square Books 2007) asks the following question:

“Why must so many horses continue to work in spite of extreme muscle pains and, in the final reckoning, suffer because of the ignorance or lack of sensitivity of their riders?”             

       I cannot think of a more appropriate answer to that question as well as a more fitting summary and conclusion to this article than to quote Klaus Balkenhol (Olympic gold medal winner and former national trainer for both the German and United States Olympic dressage teams) in his Forward to the same book

“Riders often resort quickly to (the use of) auxiliary aids such as, draw reins, to make their task easier. This is unfortunately the case even in well-known dressage yards. Very few people realize that this is in fact INCOMPETENCE ON THE PART OF THE RIDER (author’s emphasis added) as well as abuse of the animal. Vets, chiropractors, osteopaths and acupuncturists are then called in to treat the injuries which have been caused. AUXILIARY AIDS OF EVERY SORT SHOULD BE SUPERFLUOUS IN CORRECT TRAINING (author’s emphasis added).”