What's Up with West?

My first time using draw reins!

Okay, not *actually* my first time. Maybe my third ish time. My first legit time though! I’ve always been very weary of draw reins. My preferred aid of choice has always been the neck stretcher. Honestly, it’s because ..

  1. I’ve never been taught how to properly use draw reins.
  2. I’ve seen the irreversible damage they can cause when in the hands of those uneducated and/or rough.

The decision to give the forbidden training aid a go actually came after West’s body work session a few weeks ago. His neck and poll are all kinds of messed up. All kinds. My bodyworker (Stellar Equine Performance Therapy) recommended lots of stretched out neck work. She said forget the upper level dressage frame. Ride him like a hunter for a bit – just until you get those neck muscles strong again.

If you know West …. you know that we have the hardest time getting the big dude to put his head down. To really relax over his back and drop his nose to the ground. Most of the time we can’t even get his neck parallel with his back. It’s bad. My last few lessons before the body work had actually been focused on exactly that. Stretching. They haven’t gone so well.

I texted my trainer after West’s session. The conversation went….

Me: ” I have a weird request. I want you to teach me to use draw reins. If you see fit. West had bodywork last week and pretty much everything that can be wrong with his head and neck are wrong. She recommended a lot of stretchy work. Seeing as how unwilling he’s been to do it on his own – I wondered if you thought that would be a good idea? I’ll let you tell me what you think, but if you think it’ll help – I’m going to need you to teach me how.”

Trainer: “Absolutely! I’m actually glad you asked. I think that would help him a huge amount and would be happy to help you learn how to properly use them!”

Approval : check. Now for the hard part…. actually using them. I trailered to my trainer’s barn for this lesson, and my friend Kelsey came along to document my new adventure.

I don’t have much experience using two reins, so I was a little worried about that part. That’s one of the many reasons why I love the neck stretchers. You don’t have to fiddle with two reins or try to micro manage, just sit back and let the device do it’s own work. I borrowed a pair of my trainer’s draw reins for the lesson, and was actually pleasantly surprised with how non bulky they felt in my hands. When I needed to adjust, it was simple and quick. I will find the brand and update you when I do!

We started out just walking. Getting a feel for the two reins in my hands, shortening/lengthening my reins, and just seeing how West would react. Not phased, but definitely responsive.

The entire goal of this lesson was to get West to stretch. Through all three gaits, the draw rein was loose, and used as encouragement. He wanted so badly to stay in that upper level frame that he adores, but after about twenty minutes, he became submissive. He’s a smart horse, he knew exactly what we were trying to do with him – but old habits die hard.

a lovely trot, and a much lower than normal frame for West.

an even lower trot – getting there!
Success! West’s neck is parallel to his back and he is relaxed over his topline.

My trainer really stressed the importance that draw reins play in training. Not for every horse, obviously – some horses may never need them. But for specific situations, like mine – they are a fabulous tool! She is an upper level dressage rider and 4* eventer who uses them in her training barn frequently.

She said “People will give you dirty looks. They will. I understand. Draw reins can be one of the absolute worst things in the world for a horse. They can also be one of the best. That is when used softly and effectively by an experienced rider on a willing horse. “

It was one of the most fantastic lessons I’ve ever had. We didn’t even work on anything specific, we just rode. West’s frame and the way he was using his body was completely different. Obviously, he doesn’t need to go in the dressage ring looking like a hunter, but my trainer called it “body building work.” She advised me to use them for one ride a week to really help him stretch and strengthen his neck and back muscles.

My takeaways : they aren’t as bad as everyone (even me) makes them out to be. They CAN be, but don’t HAVE to be. Using them brought a higher level of awareness to my hands. I was so careful and still with my hands because I didn’t want to be yanking on the draw rein and forcing his head down. That awareness has transferred to my following rides – which has been fantastic.

If you think that draw reins are something that your horse could benefit from, please reach out for help! I’m so glad that I did. I could have bought a pair and used them myself and I probably would have ended up making my problem bigger than it was to start. Now that I’ve spent an entire lesson with my very experienced trainer on the ground helping me, I feel much more comfortable using them on my own. West is so fake with his frames, which makes it hard for me to tell what he looks like from the ground. Is his nose touching his chest? Is his nose poked to the sky? I have no idea. He’s so good at being a fake-o, so having her be able to tell me “this is where he needs to stay” or “keep him right here” and being able to feel where that is really helped me.

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