Equipment Everything Else Training

Does the devil ride in draw reins?

As some people know, I am rather taken with horse forums and often find they host some interesting discussions. One I’m currently following is about the use of “artificial aids”, specifically things like draw reins, and whether or not their short term use to facilitate a change, even with the risks involved, could be balanced against longer term wear and tear through letting the problem persist. One participant made the point that we don’t force people to assume yoga positions they struggle with – a very valid point! But then, is that always what we are considering when we are training? Developing correct moment in a healthy, mentally well adjusted horse SHOULD be an easy, almost zen process. But what about if there are already problems? Where is the line between yoga and physiotherapy? For that matter, it yoga always “easy”? And how do we get horses to understand the changes they need to make? I was pleased with my reply to the point about not forcing people to do yoga and thought I would reprint it here in an amended format.

To the question of whether or not it would be “preferable” to force someone to assume new yoga poses rather than allow for gradual improvements . . . . But what if we are talking about pathology not standard range of motion? If you had developed a pathological form of movement or a significant proprioceptive issue would you rather your physio allow you to continue, maybe making some minor changes on your own but almost guaranteeing long term physical damage from wear and tear, or effectively “forced” you to make changes using physiotherapy practises which can be, in the short term, pretty unpleasant? People KNOW why they need to make changes for the better and in many cases can’t push themselves enough to make them. The problem with horses is you have to show them what “better” is and why they have to try to get there consistently because making changes is almost never the most obvious or pleasant option.

There might – most likely are – physically easier options for change. But what if you have tried those options and failed? What if time is limited for some reason, not just ego or impatience but through finances or logistics or external pressure? Better to let a problem continue or try to find a way in quickly, knowing it’s a gamble? What about horses who have learned to use their strength against the rider to resist change. I think these situations are less common than some people think – most horses are not naturally resistant without cause – but it is quite possible to “teach” a horse to use force and, faced with something difficult or uncomfortable, there are horses this will default to that. After all, many people think nothing of using chiffneys – which I am not a fan of – to fix leading issues because it seems obvious that the problem HAS to be fixed before someone gets hurt. Are there ridden issues where the short term has to be balanced against the long term? Are there times when the “quick fix” is kinder, in the big picture, than letting the situation continue?

The fact is. . .there is no one answer! Skilled hands using tools to teach a lesson the trainer understands thoroughly is not the same thing as someone without understanding using the same tool to produce an incorrect facsimile of something they might have seen but have not felt. Leverage devices used with ego or anger can mete out horrific punishment. The same tools used to get pin point accuracy at the outer reaches of sport or to save physical wear and tear on a rider who rides half a dozen or more strong, fit, athletic horses a day is not the same situation. Of course these same skilled riders might be driven to take the short cuts less often, as their skill and experience is already streamlining their training and giving them more tools – literal and metaphorical – to work with.

The fact is, everything that exists was invented because someone, somewhere found it useful. That doesn’t mean it’s always or only useful. Context is everything. And personal choice comes into it – there are things I would never use/do as they don’t suit my style or they make me uncomfortable or I feel I do not fully understand how to do it correctly with maximum reward and minimum risk. And there are things that I did in the past I would not do now. And things I would not do now that I might consider next week, with a problem I haven’t seen before or in light of new information.

So, does anything that gets to the right place with less wear and tear have value? Yes. But, obviously, if the practice causes damage or then necessitates a situation that needs MORE work to sort out, then that’s not valuable.

Obviously the best case scenario is always to make the most gain with the least risk. But the fact is life is not always that simple and we rarely train horses in a vacuum.

I know people would love to have someone say, “This is always right and this is always wrong,” but in fact there are not that many situations in horse training where you can say “always” and “never” outside of the obvious cases or abuse, motivation by ego etc. You may think you know it all today and tomorrow you will meet the horse who proves you don’t.

No doubt the people who see me as “alternative” will be taken aback at my more pragmatic stance and others will see any questioning as fluffy bunny hugging. But that is my point! Don’t just do what the people in your crowd say is “right”. If you do as you’ve always done, you’ll get as you’ve always got. Question. Learn. Ask. Consider. What do I hope to gain? What are the risks involved? Can I get there easier? If so, do I run greater risks? Think about what you want and how you want to get it.

About the author


TarrSteps is a Citizen of the World (aka Canadian) currently working with young horses and "problem solving" - for both horse and riders - in the Surrey area. She has dabbled in most horsey disciplines but loves eventing because there is always another question to ask and another answer to find.


  • We have 1 horse here & draw reins are a no no , he will take light pressure for about 7 to 10 mins after that he losses his mind & could kill u, He will work ok in the pessoa for 20mins twice a week & seems to be ok in it.

  • I think this article is great. No 2 horses are the same and the solutions are therefore different. I am currently having physio after a dislocated finger and the pain the physio puts me through is awful but I know its the only way to stretch the scar tissue to regain the movement. A horse is not going to chose to do something which hurts. I have used draw reins occasionally but with a lot of thought having gone into it first. I see some people using them and its horrific but in the correct hands and for the right reason they can be a useful tool.