There is no shortage of topics to discuss in the horse world. Yet few engender such forceful opinions as a debate over the use of draw reins and whether they help or hinder the schooling of a horse. Like many debates, there may be no absolute right or wrong. Each individual has to weigh the impassioned anecdotes before choosing sides.
Perhaps it’s the primary purpose of draw reins that incites such fervent discussion. They are, essentially, a training aid designed to help set a horse’s head. Though there are a number of styles of draw reins, they are all variations on a theme: draw reins run through the rings of the horse’s bit, with one end attaching to either a breastplate or directly to the girth, and the other end being held in the rider’s hands. When the horse elevates its head above the height restricted by the draw reins, it feels pressure on the bit. The pressure is released when the horse lowers its head. Furthermore, draw reins can force the horse to bring its nose toward a vertical plane.
To escape pressure, the horse arches its neck and brings its nose closer to its chest. Sounds fine and good, right? After all, aren’t competition horses of all disciplines required at some point to perform in a collected frame, their head in a suitably submissive posture?
Not so fast. Purists steadfastly claim that there are more classic methods of teaching a horse the proper headset without resorting to gimmicks such as draw reins. If a young horse is started properly, their argument goes, it can be taught with exercises to supple its head and neck by bending it laterally. Then, as it learns to respond to the driving aids of a rider’s leg plus the restrictive aid of the rider’s hand, it will learn to travel lightly on the bit with a naturally balanced and proper head carriage. When draw reins are added to the schooling sessions, the young horse learns vices such as leaning on the draw reins for support, becoming dull to the rider’s hands. Remove the draw reins and the horse’s head zings right back to where it was in the beginning. Draw reins, the purists assert, are merely a crutch for the unsophisticated rider.
And just who are these unsophisticated riders? Draw rein supporters cite some of the top competitors in showjumping and western performance who are not shy about schooling their horses in draw reins, especially before a major event. While not every equestrian possesses the skill level of a grand prix rider or Quarter horse World Show champion, there’s no harm in employing some of the same tactics on their own horse, right? After all, a headstrong horse can morph into a compliant puppy dog once it feels the restrictive powers of a set of draw reins. And if an otherwise well-trained show horse needs a few minutes in a pair of draw reins to reinforce what it already knows, where’s the harm? At a large show, the last thing a rider needs is a horse sightseeing rather than focusing on its job. Draw reins, enthusiasts claim, are a useful tool.
So, where do you stand on the great draw rein debate? Do you chastise anyone who uses them, or do you view draw reins as an auxiliary aid for riding, right alongside your favorite pair of spurs?
To be certain, draw reins can cause problems in the wrong hands. Before using a pair on your horse, consult with a professional trainer who can evaluate your horse’s current level of training. And then listen to both sides of the draw rein argument. Only then can you decide what is best for you and your horse.