As an experienced dressage judge, I can always spot the horse which has been "schooled" in draw reins. Although they may have some value when employed by a highly experienced and competent rider in the re-schooling of a badly trained horse, they are no substitute for correct training and the patient application of the scales of training. Draw reins have no real place in schooling the dressage horse and amount to little more than a short cut to force a horse to work in a round outline.
Unless the horse is working freely forward in a good rhythm through a supple, swinging topline he will not readily accept a correct elastic contact and seek to carry himself in a round outline and in self-carriage. If the horse is not working in this way, draw reins will only serve to pull his head behind the vertical and encourage him to over-bend and to fall onto his forehand. Draw reins do not encourage the horse to flex correctly at the poll and jaw but simply pull him into an incorrect, over-bent outline which will leave you with a score sheet full of fours!
In order to develop true self-carriage the horse must become stronger in his quarters and more supple through his back, allowing his hind legs to step more underneath him as he negotiates corners and circles. As frustrating as it may be to aspiring dressage riders who can't wait to get into the arena, there is no substitute for systematic and correct training.
What are draw reins?
Draw reins are made of synthetic webbing or leather and resemble a short lunge line. They run through the bit rings and may either be attached to the girth between the horse's front legs or, less commonly, to the sides of the girth. They are intended to lower the horse's head and neck and to develop the muscles of his neck and shoulder. Draw reins should never be used with anything other than a plain snaffle bit with ordinary reins attached to it and should always be the secondary contact, not the primary. They should never be used when hacking out on the roads as the horse's balance is compromised and there is a greater likelihood that he may trip. Also remember that your horse will need to raise his head in order to focus on objects in the middle distance. If his head is strapped to his chest he can't do this and may become frightened by scary "monsters" (like approaching cars for example) that he can hear but not see.
When used for long periods of time draw reins can cause the horse neck and back pain, particularly if used on young and unfit horses without sufficient breaks given when the reins are loosened off and the horse is allowed to stretch. The horse may fight against the reins by tensing his topline, hollowing his back and hiding behind the bit instead of happily seeking to take it forward. This can lead to excessive development of the muscles beneath his neck.
It is felt that the use of draw reins has led to the increased use of Rollkur; the hyperflexion of the horse's neck during schooling, which was recently banned by the FEI on welfare grounds.
There is nothing wrong with encouraging a horse to work "long and low" and to stretch through his topline as a relaxation aid during schooling, as long has he is put there by the rider's leg and allowing him to take the rein forward and down with forcing him to do so. Rollkur is a completely different technique (and a subject for another post entirely).
I personally don't like draw reins although I have used them in the past on a horse that reared. I certainly don't believe they have a place in the tack room of a serious dressage rider. What do other members think?
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