Proper head position?and the impulsion and round frame that make it possible?is the Holy Grail of most horse sports.? It happens because of increased understanding, strength and suppleness that are the result of regular, progressive training done over months and years.? it's that simple?and it's that hard.
You have to train a horse to accept and work with your aids, but the horse's temperament, previous experiences or conformation can make the work difficult and frustrating for both of you. If you have an independent seat and enough knowledge or instruction, ?head-setting? devices, like the three we'll discuss in this article or the five you'll find in our June 2011 issue, should be considered a tool that could help you proceed toward this Holy Grail. they're not necessarily a shortcut, however.
This month's trial includes the CB Training Rein (sort of a Western version of draw reins), the Balance Training System (a whole-body longeing system) and the Camelot De Gogue Martingale (sort of cross between a chambon and a German martingale).
These devices are a few of the many available to help teach a horse to use his hindquarters and back, to be soft in his jaw while he does that, and to immediately and softly accept your aids. Each of the devices we discuss here has a legitimate and proper use, but you must be able to ride or longe a horse well enough to achieve the correct effect. If they're overused or used without sufficient forward energy, they can make a horse overbent, sore or mentally sour.
You must also have enough knowledge of equine biomechanics to be able to tell when a horse is merely, and uselessly, in a headset (that is, his head is being held in a position regardless of what the rest of his body is doing) and when he is truly working through his body and over his back. These are tools for experienced riders or professional horse trainers and shouldn't be used otherwise. (For more advice on longeing and conditioning, see our articles in May 2010, January 2011, March 2011 and July 2012 issues.)
THE CB TRAINING REIN. Clark Bradley, a member of the National Reining Horse Hall of Fame, invented the CB Training Rein ($27 to $91.50 at www.schutzbrothers.com, 800-348-0576, depending on whether you want just the cords with the snaps in nylon or leather or the complete set). He says in a video on the Schutz Brothers website, ?I've always had problems with draw reins. Yes, you can get their head down, but they?ll run through the bridle or get behind the bit.?
So he created a set of two reins that allows the horse to release the pressure, which draw reins do not allow, unless the horse comes behind the bit. With the CB Rein, ?You can set the release to occur at the perfect spot so that the horse gets a reward,? said Bradley.
Bradley also believes that his reins overcome the shortfalls of the German martingale. ?The German Martingale can be difficult to adjust and provides a constant ?down? between the legs, where the CB Rein goes to the side of the saddle, allowing suppling exercises and making it easy to bend the horse,? said Bradley.
We tried the CB Training Rein on half a dozen horses of varying types, ages and state of training, and we were pleased with its effect on all of them. We compared their effectiveness to the clever Joseph Sterling Pro Series Draw Reins (www.sstack.com, 800-365-1311, $79.99) we liked in June 2011.
The difference in their effect was noticeable, even dramatic. Bradley is correct in saying that draw reins have a steady, pull-down effect that only the rider can release. So horses often feel trapped by draw reins, and some resist even more mightily or just give up.
One such horse is an aged Thoroughbred gelding, who gets quite tense and strong in either draw reins or the also effective SmartPak Neck-Stretcher (www.smartpakequine.com, 888-752-5171 $19.95, see June 2011). The CB rein, though, appeared to give him enough elasticity and release to keep him comfortable while definitely encouraging (and then rewarding) him for working calmly in a low and round frame and using his back.
The other horse is a six-year-old, Thoroughbred-cross mare whose short neck and opinionated personality impinge on her desire to work her back and remain round, especially at the canter. The CB rein encouraged her to work softly into the bridle and to relax her jaw. It had a similar effect on a four-year-old Thoroughbred-cross mare.
Bradley says that you can use the training rein with your regular reins (like draw reins) or alone. We found them much more effective when used alone with these three horses, which could be partially attributable to the difficulty of riding with the harness-leather reins that are attached to the nylon cord and another rein. (You can buy just the ?front part? with the snaps and attach your own reins.)
We found the CB rein to be highly effective on horses who resist by going above the bit. But, just as with draw reins, we would advise against using it on horses who resist contact by falling behind the bit.
This tool has two downsides, however. One is that it doesn't really encourage horses to work into solid contact?no surprise since a basis of reining is the horse working in butter-soft contact. So, it could be disadvantageous to use it on a horse whose work requires him to be solidly on the bit, especially for dressage levels requiring collection. But we believe that it can teach a horse to more readily accept the contact and connection he will need later.
The other is minor. it's designed to attach to the multiple D-rings on a Western saddle. Attaching it to a dressage or jumping saddle requires using baling twine or leather loops to fasten the snaps to the billet straps or the girth.
CAMELOT DE GOGUE MARTINGALE. While this device is best used while longeing, we found that you could use it while riding, if you don't run the nylon cords at the end through the bit. We suggest using it this way, because some horses will object to this level of head restraint by rearing.
Two of the horses we longed with the Camelot De Gogue Martingale ($31.95-$36.95 from various distributors, www.englishridingsupply.com) initially resisted the pressure on the poll, but after two or three sessions both had accepted it and worked effectively in it.
Like any chambon or the time-tested Shires Equestrian De Gogue Training Martingale (www.shiresequestrian.com, 603-929-3880, $59.95, see June 2011 article), the Camelot De Gogue Martingale works well on many horses. The definite pressure on the poll, combined with the steady pressure on the bit, induces most horses to soften, to lower their heads and raise their backs.
The trick with these longeing devices is that you must use your whip and voice to continually urge the horse forward, to urge him to drive with his hindquarters in order to strengthen them and to stretch his back. You accomplish nothing if you let the horse just jog around. They have to push.
Some horses prefer a de gogue martingale or a chambon to side reins. Some horses object to the unforgiving pull of side reins on the bit, which the chambon or de gogue reroutes, while others object to the pressure on the poll from the chambon or de gogue. If you want to try side reins, we like the well-constructed Dover Side Reins with double elastic insert (www.doversaddlery.com, 800-406-8204, $57.90, see June 2011).
We found two main differences between the Camelot De Gogue Martingale and the Shires Equestrian De Gogue Training Martingale.
The first was size. The Camelot is available in only a horse size, which it fits a 16.2-hand or taller horse well. For smaller horses, you'll need to punch additional holes in the leather piece that attaches to the girth and/or the leather martingale attachment, but there is enough extra leather to allow this. For one horse, we also ran the nylon cord and snap through the loop in the martingale attachment and snapped it back on itself, shortening the loop a further three or four inches.
The Shires De Gogue comes in full, cob and pony sizes, and we found the full size is giant, too big for all but our hugest horses.
The other difference is price. The Camelot is $20 less expensive.
BALANCE TRAINING SYSTEM. The Balance Training System ($106.95 to $129.99, from various retailers, www.fabri-tech.com, 800-332-4797) is a whole-horse device that can only be used while longeing. It includes a nylon longeing cavesson, a loose-ring snaffle held in the mouth by an independent nylon cradle, a padded nylon longeing surcingle, and a padded nylon breeching pad. The pieces are connected with black elastic lines.
The system creates a complete connection between the horse's hindquarters and mouth, rather like the circle of your riding aids. The literature stated: ?At the trot, the training system concentrates on building muscles in the neck and back while achieving flexion. At the canter, the system begins teaching your horse better balance by bringing his hindquarters under him. By transferring his weight from the front to the rear, the horse is able to balance and propel more easily.?
We found the system a bit daunting when first removed from its carrying bag, and we initially set it up on two chairs to figure it out. It became easier with use, but it requires a few minutes to attach everything once you reach the ring.
One reason the attachment phase takes time is that there are no holes to gauge the length of the cords. If you only use this device on one horse, once you find the right length, you can leave the cords knotted and remember which D-rings on the surcingle you attached them to. Otherwise you'll need to adjust it for each horse.
We found the elastic cords on the Balance Training System nicely reward horses who know how to work in a round frame and are able to respond correctly, and the system is a great longeing training aid. However, they're a bit too stretchy to require a truly unresponsive, unwilling horse to soften his jaw and top line and work in a round frame.
BOTTOM LINE. As with the devices in our June 2011 article (available online to subscribers), each of these tools is useful, well-made and reasonably priced. Each one has proper uses, and some are more effective on certain horses than on others. All require an experienced person to use them for both human and horse safety. If applied correctly and conservatively, each can help you and your horse leap over the hurdle to being on the aids.
Overall, we found that the de gogue, chambon and side reins require a horse to work correctly by offering no comfortable alternative but to stretch and round their frame and poll.
The Balance Training System and the CB Training Rein devices both ?ask? the horse to work correctly and allow a softening reward when he does so, but their elasticity may allow a determinedly resistant horse to ignore them.
Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor.