I read something this week that totally mazed my mind. Since I am unable to even think about anything else I guess I will write about it.
On Barbara Ellin Fox's US Horsemanship blog she has a posting on the modern misuse of draw reins (the web address is at the end.) As a general rule I do not like draw reins, I know that, in experienced well trained hands, they can be an extremely effective TEMPORARY method to reteach a ruined horse how to move properly. I am not this good a rider, and I will never be this good a rider. But what I read in this blog about the modern methods of using draw reins was unbelievable. It is an example of how horrible the top ranks of competition horsemanship has become.
There are trainers who use draw reins on HUNTERS OVER FENCES, supposedly to teach the horse to keep a "proper" head set over a jump. I had been wondering why a lot of the horses I see pictures or videos of jumping don't move their heads much over a jump, now I know why. Part of the problem of training horses to jump effectively is that an unridden horse rarely voluntarily jumps anything, that is the only reason we can keep jumpers securely in a pasture with just 3 or 4 foot high fences, otherwise jumpers would HAVE to be kept in fences of at least 8 feet high. Since the horse is not really built to jump, the horses have to move their heads and necks a lot to get over a jump safely. Many a rider has gotten over a jump that his horse had misjudged because they let the horse have all the rein length it needed so it could use its head and neck freely. If a horse keeps its face at or behind vertical (in frame) the horse is not a safe jumper, if the horse does not know how to use its head and neck it will often fall if it meets the jump wrong. But apparently some professional horsemen routinely use draw reins for jumping training just so the horse will have a certain look over jumps, one that is obviously rewarded in the show ring. This is wrong on many levels. Even if the trainer is a good rider and fully releases the draw rein the friction of the draw rein on the rings of the bit has the same effect as a rider not giving enough rein, there is tension on the bit, the horse is trained to always tuck its nose when there is tension on the reins, so the horses end up jumping without being able to use its body to jump effectively. I imagine that this would take around a foot off the heighth of a jump that the horse can handle. Even the old English hunt seat riders (pre-Caprilli) moved their hands forward and let the reins go through their fingers as they leaned back over the jumps. Of course they did, the old English hunt riders wanted to survive to hunt another day, and they knew if they did not let the horse have its head at all that they would have a very good chance of falling! These old time English riders may not have given enough rein for the horse's comfort, but they did not jump a horse in "frame". They wanted to live to an old age.
In this blog Barbara also wrote that from everything she's seen that nowadays allowing a student to use draw reins is now a "rite of passage". Even children. Sheer incompetence, if a riding "teacher" cannot teach anyone to control most horses without the aid of draw reins, that riding teacher cannot teach proper riding. Their students may win in today's shows, but 40 years ago they probably would not have, especially if the judge was an old cavalryman (yes, I know, there has always been bad riding in the USA.) Now I have nothing against a riding teacher teaching a rider to effectively use draw reins on a horse that has bad, bad problems brought on from bad riding. Life is never perfect. Once the student learns how to use the draw reins correctly and the horse's problem is corrected, then the draw reins can come off and the horse can be retrained properly. People have been riding horses for thousands of years without using draw reins all the time. It is possible! But if a student is "graduated" to using draw reins all the time even if the student is not an advanced rider, all that will result is a horse that is dangerous to ride. The horses go on their forehands, they curl up to protect their mouths, and if the draw reins are used improperly the riders end up with a horse which CANNOT be ridden safely without draw reins.
Not only that but apparently it is legal to use draw reins in some show classes! Horror!!!!!!
People, this is a very, very, very dangerous practice. Riders may be able to get away with the improper use of draw reins on the flat if they ride warm-bloods or any other quieter breed, but if the rider jumps the horse in draw reins he/she is making sure that the horse is not safe to jump. If the horse ever gets into problems the horse will not know how to use its body to keep on its feet and it will fall, probably on the rider. This is how jumping riders get KILLED. DEAD. Funerals, closed caskets (a squashed human body is not good looking) and mourning parents, family, spouses and friends, just because the rider never let the horse learn how to handle itself over jumps. I know, even horses with full freedom of head still fall over jumps, but often as they fall they sort of twist a little and a decent rider has at least a chance to project himself off so that the horse does not land on him. I am not familiar with present day 3-Day training, but now I wonder if many of the fatal riding accidents in 3-Day events the past several years were of horses being trained to jump improperly and never getting to learn how to handle difficult jumps when everything goes wrong. I don't know if this is true, but I see it as a possibility.
If I see an amateur using draw reins all the time I have an automatic response, that person does not know how to ride well, and I don't care how many championships they have. I would not allow them up on a horse I trained or used for a riding horse with draw reins because my horse would quickly become totally ruined, ruined so bad that I would probably have to completely retrain the horse from step one to become a safe riding horse again (one to three years of work, its MUCH harder to retrain a ruined horse than an unbroken horse.) I would not allow them to use a bit on a horse of mine, even without any draw reins, because draw reins distort the feel of the reins and this rider would not know when my horse was correctly responding to the hand aids. Luckily there are many excellent bitless options.
Parents, if your kid's riding teacher, coach or trainer recommends or insists that your child ride only with draw reins, not only are you wasting your money because your child is NOT learning how to ride well, your child's life is in danger if they jump the horse. Is that blue ribbon really so important to you that you are willing to risk your child being crushed to death? There still are riding teachers around who are perfectly capable of teaching your child to ride safely without draw reins, teachers who can teach your child to ride so well that your child could become a top rider and be able to ride ANY horse in any tack (though it does take some talent and a lot of hard work to get to the top.) And this is not the only problem, any horse taught to jump in draw reins to get that winning head set IS NOT SAFE TO JUMP. Again, I do not care how many championships the horse has because one day it will meet a fence completely wrong and it will not know how to save itself and may fall on its rider.
Probably the main reason that the Forward Seat remained popular so long is that fewer horses trained and ridden Forward Seat fell over jumps. Not only that, but when the horses did fall the rider tended to be catapulted off AWAY from the horse and not get fallen on by the horse. Any horse can fall over any jump no matter how it is ridden, that is just a fact of life. However using draw reins on a jumping horse is the nearest thing to a sure recipe for disaster that I can think of. Adults, of course, will do what they want no matter the consequences. But I'm old fashioned, I think children need to be protected.
Barbara Ellin Fox's blog "New Lows for Horsemanship" is on her US Horsemanship blog. The web address for her blog is ushorsemanship.com/?p=1005. This blog here, my blog, is purely MY personal opinion, Barbaras blog is different but she is also horrified.
If you are an adult you are, of course, at perfect freedom to ride as you want.
Have a great ride!