Training

Using Draw Reins

Two professionals share words of wisdom about this horse-training aid.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

Draw reins are used to help train your horse to gain collection. Journal photo

Ask a random set of horsemen for their opinions on draw reins, and you’ll probably get a different thought from each, ranging from adoring them to hating them or not thinking about them at all.

You find draw reins across breeds and disciplines in western and English versions, made from rolled leather, cord and flat nylon. In the AQHA show industry, many respected horse trainers point to them as a useful part of their horse-training programs, for a variety of reasons. But they’ll also point to them as a device all-too-commonly used in an abusive manner, depending on how they are rigged, bitted and whose hands have them.

To get a productive conversation started on draw reins, right and wrong, the Journal sat down with two highly respected trainers no stranger to the AQHA rail-and-pattern world: AQHA Professional Horseman Charlie Cole of Pilot Point, Texas, and AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lainie Deboer of Hugo, Minnesota.

Both have trained, shown and coached multiple world champions for several years, Charlie in all-around and Lainie in hunter classes; Charlie is an AQHA judge, Lainie a restricted AQHA judge; both have conducted educational sessions at AQHA judging seminars. Both are also frequent contributors to the Journal.

Here’s what they had to share:

Charlie Cole, Pilot Point, Texas

Q: What’s the purpose behind using draw reins?

Draw reins are used to help train your horse to gain collection. That’s what I use them for. I personally have seen them used quite a bit in many disciplines: in reining, western riding, trail, pleasure, barrel racing and the hunter world.

When used properly, they are a good training aid. Used improperly, they cause severe problems.

Q: Where do draw reins go really wrong?

When they are used for the wrong reasons and when they’re overused. A lot of times, you’ll see people use draw reins just to get a horse’s head down, and they forget about the rest of the horse’s body, they forget about the collection and just put the horse on the forehand. So they get the head down but lose the horse’s self-carriage.

If you only use them to get the horse’s head down, you’ll lose the horse’s natural movement. You see horses in draw reins where their heads are to their chests, and they are just shuffling around, flopping on their front ends without any carriage or lift to their bodies. It’s very hard to correct that.

Q: How should draw reins work?

When you use them to gain collection, there is give-and-take to the rider’s hands. You pick up, feel him come to the collected frame and then release immediately. Used properly, a horse can have his head up but still be collected in draw reins.

But if you have the draw reins really short and you’re driving a horse’s head down with a constant hold, he might keep self-carriage for a while, but eventually, he’s just going to lay on his front end.

You want to teach a horse collection and position, so at some point you have to release the draw reins to let the horse understand what you want him to do. At some point, you have to take them off.

If you just demand, demand, demand and trap him down, he won’t learn collection, he learns to go trapped and on the forehand. The horse shouldn’t have his head down between his knees. I am very careful where I put the draw reins, I usually put them where the stirrup hooks onto the saddle or just below at the cinch (see photo). If you put them down between the horse’s front legs, it’s more likely you’ll put the horse on his front end.

Q: Where do you use them in your program, exactly?

We’ll use them on a 2-year-old, but not until he’s already learned how to lope around balanced with his head up. We only use them to a certain point, just to help him start to learn where to carry his body and neck and head.

We are really careful not to get a young horse’s head down too low in the draw reins, because we want to maintain his lope and balance, let that develop over time. He won’t stay too long in the draw reins, just a short period, maybe a week here or a couple there.

Draw reins are not just for trainers. They can really be an aid for a Select, an amateur or a youth – they can help when those riders are starting out on a new horse and learning how to change leads with it, etc.

We start every single western rider in draw reins. In fact, with every horse we start on lead changes, we use draw reins. We’ve done that for 20 years.

It’s a softer way to take control of a horse’s body, shoulder, neck and head to help him learn the right shape I want him in for the lead change. Again, I want collection and frame in the neck and head, but I don’t want his head in his chest.

I use draw reins for weeks when I’m teaching a lead change, and they really seem to help. My horses seem comfortable with it and I run into fewer problems. Many times, I’ll put draw reins back on an older show horse just to school.

But the goal is to have a lead change without them.

Q: Where do you specifically avoid them?

I don’t use them when I teach trail, because I want a horse to use his head and neck differently when I’m in trail. I want him to reach down and look at the poles.

If you have him in draw reins, he can only reach to a point and then he has to tuck his nose. I want him to reach toward the poles, especially in the walk-overs and trot-overs.

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Lainie Deboer, Hugo, Minnesota

Q: What’s the purpose behind using draw reins?

I think they help a horse get a feel of what it should feel like to be round and underneath you. It helps them learn that shape in their topline.

They’re meant to be a subtle reminder of where the horse should be in his body and to help keep him steady. But they should never be used to fix a horse’s head or lock a horse’s neck down. They shouldn’t replace true riding, that leg-into-hand feel.

There is a time and place for draw reins. I believe you must have an educated hand, seat and leg to use them correctly. They are meant as a guideline, not for intimidation.

Q: Where do draw reins go really wrong?

When they are used to set a horse’s head in a way that’s forceful.

We’re riding horses whose instinct is fight or flight. Anytime they feel overpowered or trapped, you’re going to get one of those responses, and neither is good. They only naturally react to what we do to them. When someone is being abusive with draw reins, that rider is forcing a horse to do something it is not comfortable doing at that point.

The horses look distressed, and they act out. They evade: get crooked, throw their haunches one way or another, or they run sideways; or their chins are to their chests, they’re frothing at the mouth and coiled up behind the rider’s hand. That’s when I cringe. It’s not teaching the horse anything that’s correct.

I’ve never seen a horse go around with its chin to its chest and have his ears be forward and his eyes look happy. He’ll look worried, scared, confused, angry, and as a horseman, I don’t think that ever does a horse any good.

Q: How do you use them in your program, exactly?

I have used them to work with a horse resistant to lateral bending. You see a lot of people put them down in between the horse’s legs, but I’ve used them more on the side to get a lateral bend. I might use them on a younger horse to help him feel how it’s supposed to feel when his body is round, just to give him a sense of what’s correct. And then I step away from them. The actual correct, consistent frame and movement comes from work without the draw reins, strengthening the back and topline and developing that over the long term.

I actually have used them less and less, the older I get. I tend more to ask myself: Why do I need draw reins? Is my horse not coming off my leg; is my horse not bending correctly; is he not giving through his jaw?

I go back to the basics, because there must be something lacking in the foundation for me to feel like I’ve got to go to an aid.

Maybe there was a step skipped in his training along the way when he was younger and I just need to go back to working on accepting my hand and moving off my leg. Or maybe he’s hurting somewhere. Usually, when I tackle something that way, basic flatwork can fix it - circles, transitions, lateral work.

I had a horse that would have been a good candidate for someone to put draw reins on. He was really inconsistent in his frame - he was up and he was down, then back up, and he never would cradle into my hands.

I started just walking for 20 minutes, nice and forward, in a round frame, consistently, in a snaffle, with a small spur. I slowed it all down to the walk.

It took a lot of patience. As soon as I could get that horse to walk for 15-20 minutes, in a frame, coming from behind, in front of my hands, round, supple, bending left and right, I finally went to trot, and it was perfect.

Not always, but I do think a lot of people make the mistake of going to something like draw reins just to hurry through a step. As a horseman, you can’t let them become a crutch.

Q: Where do you specifically avoid them?

There are people who jump in draw reins, but I do not. Not to say that I haven’t jumped in draw reins in my career, but I came to the conclusion that what I thought I was correcting was creating more problems, and I was worse off. I think they can scare a horse over the fence.

People feel like they will make a horse rounder over the jump. But what I’ve found is that it actually stops his motion in the air, the natural motion from the hind end pushing and thrusting off the ground and going across the arc of the jump.

It gets him to the peak of the arc over the jump, and then the horse hits the draw reins and they cut downward. That can really change how he jumps.

He’ll find a way to evade it and get behind your hand. When you go to jump, he’ll stutter off the ground and be a little worried going off the ground. He’ll jump high and “dwell” off the ground. You have changed the naturalness of your horse’s jump.

I want him to look at the jump, feel confident to get from one side to the other, and look beyond the jump. But when draw reins have made him feel held back or fixed or trapped, that has just taken his attention away from what you want him to be attentive about. I would never use draw reins on a horse with a shanked bit.

In my opinion, draw reins should not be in the hands of a novice rider. They don’t have strong enough aids and balance and good hand position. They don’t have good enough feel.

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Trends

There are trends in draw rein use that - taken together - can flag the quality of how they are being used. How would a visitor add up the trends in your barn?

Trending Good

   Trending Bad

Used for a specific intention and short periods of time

   Used on a horse all the time outside the show ring

Used by a rider with a soft feel in his/her hands

   Used by a novice

Used by a rider with strong seat and leg

   Used by someone who rides from his/her hands

Used with a mild, direct-pressure bit

   Used with a long-shanked, high-leverage bit

Used on the flat

   Used while jumping or around cattle