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Using Draw Reins and Side Reins

What is the purpose of draw reins and side reins? When and how should they be used, and should I be taking any precautions when using them?

Draw reins and side reins are training aids that can help your horse learn to maintain light contact with the bit while moving forward freely into the bridle, and to carry himself straight and in balance. Draw reins are used for schooling under saddle; side reins are used primarily for work on the longe and in hand.

Draw reins in use.

Before I explain their use, though, let me clarify what side and draw reins are not: They're not shortcuts to force a horse's head down or force his nose to the vertical, or to "muscle him up" or "make him flex" on one side or the other. Used improperly, side reins and draw reins can cause a horse to habitually shorten his stride, stiffen or overbend to evade contact, and become heavy on the forehand; They can also make him sore in the neck and back. And with side reins in particular (not draw reins, which are easy to lengthen or drop in an emergency), a horse unaccustomed to their restrictive feel may bang himself in the mouth and panic, then run backward, rear, get a leg caught in the reins, or even flip over.

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Because of these risks, introduce your horse to draw reins or side reins only after you thoroughly understand their "what, why, and how" - which I'll explain - and only with the supervision of a trainer who can tell you whether you horse will benefit from these aids. (For instance, draw reins may be useful for reschooling an older horse who's stiff and habitually carries his head high and his nose out. But they should never be introduced to a young horse until after he's learned to walk, trot, and canter steadily in straight lines and circles, and to execute basic upward and downward transitions.) And if your horse is excitable or nervous, let your trainer be the one to introduce him to draw or side reins; that way, he'll get a calm, reassuring first experience and you'll get a good look at what you're trying to accomplish.

Protect your horse's legs with exercise boots and bell boots when you begin working with draw or side reins, just in case he missteps during this new part of his training. And, at least until the two of you are accustomed to these new aids, use them in an enclosed area (a ring or arena) so he can't bolt if there's an accident.

One more thing: If your horse tends to toss his head when you ask for contact, hold off on using draw or side reins until your veterinarian has ruled out physical problems that might be causing him pain.

Using Draw Reins

All set? Let's start with draw reins. They're used only while the horse is being ridden under saddle, wearing a bridle fitted with a snaffle bit and regular reins. (I'll tell you how to manage the two sets of reins.)

Draw reins are a continuous strap, 15 to 17 feet long, buckled in the center, with ends that loop around the girth on both sides of the horse. Position the loop ends halfway between his elbow and the bottom of the saddle flap. (Some professionals attach the loops to the center ring of a breastplate yoke, or to the girth between the legs, but I don't. That's a severe use of draw reins that can overflex the horse.) The draw reins go from the girth, up through the bit rings - remember, use only with a mild snaffle - and back to the rider's hands. Draw reins don't have much stopping power; use them together with the regular snaffle rein on your horse's bridle, holding the two sets of reins as you would the reins of a double bridle (draw reins on the inside, snaffle reins on the outside).

I recommend using draw reins for flatwork only. However, if you and your trainer wish to use them for jumping, you MUST run them through a neck strap (a stirrup leather buckled around the neck) to keep them out of the way of your horse's legs.

Draw reins are available in cotton webbing, leather, or nylon. I recommend against nylon; it's slippery when wet, and it can "burn" your hands if your horse pulls. I like webbing reins, particularly those with hand stops to help you place your hands consistently - so, for instance, your trainer can tell you to "put your hands on 'two.'" Correct hand placement is critical for straightness; yes, your legs encourage straightness, too, but correctly used draw reins unmistakably communicate the feeling of straightness to you and your horse by aligning him from withers to poll through a "tunnel" created by your hands.

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