Thursday, June 07, 2012

Semi regular Weekly Post - Gadgets

I'd love to get back in the Weekly post groove.  Lets see how long we can keep this up, shall we? 

#4 (or something) – Gadgets
DISCLAIMER: I am not a trainer. These are things that I've learned from lessons, books that I've read and personal experience.

I’m a classical dressage purist. I think Alois Podhajsky is the classical dressage master and his book The Complete Training of Horse and Rider is a book that every dressage student should read. It’s not an easy read, but it’s fantastic.
Because of this, my stance on gadgets like martingales, draw reins, and until very recently, side reins, have no place in classical dressage. Don’t get me wrong, I used to use them all the time. Sometimes I’d lunge a horse in side reins, and then ride it with a martingale and draw reins at the same time. How’s that for ya? It’s not uncommon to see horses at breed shows so trussed up with lines and reins and gadgets that they can hardly move. How is that beautiful? It’s not. So I’ve completely (almost) moved away from any artificial gadget. Here is why.
I’ll start with martingales.

The standing martingale is something I’ve only used with a jumping horse, and, as I haven’t jumped very much at all, I haven’t used one more than a handful of times. It’s used basically to keep your horse’s head out of your face. Something I actually could have used when Phil whacked me in the face with his head! But for everyday use, it’s totally unnecessary for dressage.

The running martingale is something to help you get your horse’s head down. It gives you leverage on the reins so that when you pull back, you are actually pulling the mouth in and down. This type of situation makes contact impossible. There can’t be a direct line from bit to hand if there is a ring in the way making the rein not straight. Sure, you can adjust them so that the ring doesn’t come into play unless the horse’s mouth is above it’s withers (which is something to be avoided in dressage), but if you don’t learn how to deal with that at home, then how will you deal with it at a show when you can’t use the martingale? Best not to use them at all.

Draw reins. Used to increase the leverage of the rider even more to pull the head into position. Just writing that sentence is so wrong. In dressage you can’t pull the head into position. You have to first let the horse go to the bit and stretch the neck and back. Then, after much time has passed to allow the back to be strong, you can begin to elevate the front end. At this point, if you have done your homework properly, the neck and shoulders will naturally come up, allowing more weight to be taken on the haunches. This can be done safely, with less risk of injury, if the back and haunches have been developed properly and systematically over a long period of time. Any horse can have a FEI frame with big spurs, two whips, and draw reins. That doesn’t mean the horse is strong enough to maintain it, or do it at all without injury. Also, draw reins make it impossible for the horse to make a consistent contact and connection, since the reins are constantly sliding through the bit. Just don’t use them. Ever.

The German Martingale. Also called Thiedemann reins.  Kind of a draw rein/martingale combination. It’s like draw reins that have a “stop” to them so you can only crank the head so far in. An improvement on the draw rein, but still not the ideal thing. If adjusted loosely you could argue that the draw rein would only come into play if the horse’s head were dramatically out of position. Again, this is something you need to deal with, and teach the horse that it’s wrong, without outside gadgets that you can’t use in the show ring.

Side reins. Podhajsky addresses them in his book, saying to use them on a young horse but that they should be long. In my pre-dressage years I used side reins all the time to achieve a “head set”. I would adjust the reins so that the horse’s head was where I needed it to be, and then lunged the horse that way. The thinking was that I could show the horse where I wanted to head to be, and that he could work in that frame and build up the right muscles, etc. This works for other training, but not for dressage. We don’t want a “head set” in dressage. We want a fluid frame, one that can be shortened and lengthened and is flexible. This is not possible with a head set. So when I first started with dressage I abandoned the side reins, thinking they were counterproductive to what I wanted to achieve.

Now, I am using them again. I was surprised when my trainer suggested I use them on Phil. He was a maniac on the lunge line when I first got him, and at time I was afraid he would fall down at the canter because he was tearing around and was so unbalanced. She said I should use a long side rein, attached to the girth, so that he couldn’t whip his head around in the air like he was doing. I didn’t have any side reins, but I found one (useable one) at the barn that I started to use. I used the side rein on the outside, and then on the inside I ran the lunge line through the bit and attached the end line to the girth. That way I had a rein on the inside that was flexible and movable, but could still contain his head and neck to the point where he understood that when he was wearing equipment it was work time and not time to toss his head in the air and act like a fool. The side rein on the outside was long enough that he could stretch his nose almost to the ground, but if he brought his head straight up it would stop him. I think it’s a good compromise, and it’s certainly worked for us.

All of these gadgets, and many more, are listed in a much more in depth manner at this site -

You should really hop over and check out this page.  I know the author is critical of side reins, as am I if they are too tight (as they are in the photos on the site).  I'm using them very long, and only to keep my horse from tossing his head in the air and fooling around.  He still has plenty of room to stretch down without jerking his mouth on the reins.  I'm also not trying to do any straightening, or head setting.  So I find my use of the side reins acceptable.  The author may disagree.  :) 

This all indicates that I’m a complete and utter dressage snot. But I’m not so inflexible that I’m unable to see the benefits of something that is presented to me in the correct way.

So, my stance is – just go with a straight bridle and simple snaffle if you can. It’s really the best way to teach your horse, to develop your horse’s body, and to train yourself in how to deal with the less than perfect frame. Dressage is hard work. As it should be.


Stacey Kimmel-Smith said...

I forget who said it, whether it was Zettl or DeKunffy or someone else, but the quote was "where draw reins start, training stops." Maybe it's my imagination but I feel like you can tell when a horse has been worked in draw reins. There is something too "confined" and not quite "live" about the connection. The conversation is or isn't happening, or there is a certain agreement between horse and rider that is or isnt there. Their head may be in a predictable place but it doesn't look right.

L.Williams said...

Great post. I use a standing martingale on my horse and my trainer complains that it is too long, but the way i see it, its not meant to keep his head in a frame, its meant to keep him from whackadoing my nose in a precarious situation!

Marnie K said...

I'm curious how you feel about using a standing martingale for a young kid just learning to ride that is on a horse throws its head. Yes, in an ideal world there would be no green horses with green riders but in reality I see most green riders with relatively green horses - or older horses that have grown sour.

Val said...

Thanks for this frank discussion.

I get really annoyed when I see photos or videos of people riding in draw reins with a disclaimer like "get over it". So few want to work or take time to do something well and correctly.

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