Why I’m Not Allowed to Use Draw Reins

Why I’m Not Allowed to Use Draw Reins

I’m not one of those crazy natural horsemanship bloggers that will stalk people’s blogs and write scathing comments the minute they pick up a martingale.




I don’t like those people, and neither do others. Those people don’t typically get invited to parties, and I like parties.

I also don’t like draw reins or gadgets, and have banned myself from using them. Here’s why:

Once upon a time I had a Quarter Horse I bought out of the newspaper because I thought he was a paint horse (he wasn’t) and was told he had done every discipline under the sun (he hadn’t). Though I loved that dear horse, Elvis, with all my heart, I rode him very very poorly. Get ready to grimace at the following set of pictures, because I’m about to share some of my worst riding with you.

Now Elvis was not the world’s fanciest creature back then, and he certainly isn’t now at the ripe old age of 24. However, he was your typical salt of the earth Quarter Horse that wanted to go trail riding and plod around safely. Given his preference, he would have preferred to always trot like this:

This will not be the last of poor helmet choices I show during this post. I never said I was a role model.

For a few years, that trot was fine with me. He went straight, slowed down when I wanted him and turned the direction I asked. Perfection! All was fine until I went to college, and started horse showing him. With a little bit more education, we turned into this:

And really, that’s not a bad place to start. He’s stepping under his long ass back and moving forward. Yeah, he’s a little on the forehand but his expression is happy and I’m kind of attempting to equitate. Things could be worse, and they quickly got worse when I became obsessed with headset.

See, Elvis and I predominately showed on an open show circuit that ran much like a breed show. We were constantly losing to peanut roller stock horses and really anything that was “on the bit.” Instead of getting formal education about how to properly flat a horse (seemed like a lot of work), I turned to gadgets.

First an elastic attachment to my reins. I’m not sure what I thought this would accomplish, because magically giving me feel overnight since my reins were all of a sudden bouncy bouncy?

Did I also mention he was incredibly too small for me?

Then a German Martingale, which pretty much did nothing for me. It was expensive and strange. I used it for two months before tossing aside.

Finally I hit the motherload – draw reins. Not even your fancy hunter draw reins, but a nylon ghetto western set with big silver clips. The draw reins were magic, or so I thought. All of a sudden my horse started putting his head down! I could yank yank yank and see saw my way to on the bit! Not only that, but he was learning oh so quickly! It only took a few months of riding with draw reins at home to magically get my horse’s head down like I had always dream! It was time for the ribbons to start flying in!

I would warm up for a few laps before touching my horse’s face, because I thought it only fair to let him go naturally before I demand he start “working properly.”

I don’t hate this… I mean except my outfit. Dear god woman.

Then I would start my favorite thing, see-sawing with too low hands. That would immediately get him “listening” and we would get to work!

Notice how immediately his expression starts to stiffen. My leg is entirely off the horse, and my hands are soooo low.

Every now and then, he would even lower his head enough to sort of get the Quarter Horse “peanut roller” look I was originally after. Since he couldn’t keep this up most of the time, I decided it would be better to show him in a “dressage frame” versus the typical stock horse long and low.

It is not lost on me that the only time he sort of goes long & low is when my leg is actually on, and his hind end is *more* activated than before

I wish I could tell you that judges at our local shows immediately sniffed out this forced headset I had trained my horse to do, and we continued to lose… but I can’t. While we were never flashy enough to be the hack winner, the ribbons I took home started multiplying in great numbers. It was rare that I wasn’t in the ribbons in a flat class, even with larger numbers.

This is what I thought was an excellent picture in 2004

At this time in my life, I had the fortune of a good barn friend who loved taking pictures so I had tons of documentation about my horses “progress” on the flat.

My saddle pad tastes have… changed

All I saw was his head down. Look at how it was down! His forehead was perpendicular to the ground! After years, we had finally achieved “on the bit!” I was so proud of my training.

Can you get any heavier on the forehand? No, you cannot.

I turned away from the stressed expression in his eyes in every picture. The gritted teeth, pinned ears. I wasn’t educated enough to see how heavy he was on the forehand, and how disengaged his hind end was. All I saw was a headset.

This now makes me cringe in ways I can’t accurately describe.

All the while, Elvis developed a bit of a stopping problem over fences. Though I don’t remember cranking on his face during courses, I probably did out of sheer habit and muscle memory. I blamed the stopping on him being scared of “new” fences, but I’ve never had a horse with the same problem since. The real reason was how terribly back to front I rode him.

Eventually, I realized how much I had screwed up my horse. I moved barns, and got better instruction with a trainer that yelled out to me the first time she saw me ride Elvis, “Um can you ride him without doing… that?”

I did. Kind of, but whenever I rode Elvis I couldn’t seem to break the ugly pattern I created. It took selling him for a green horse, getting a lot of dressage lessons in the event barn I rode at in Massachusetts before I could kick my see-saw forced frame habit. Honestly, it wasn’t until getting my perfect-to-me Simon before I knew 100% that I could not screw up my new horse in the same way. Instead, I have screwed him up in different ways that I’m sure I’ll write a blog post about in a few years because if you haven’t figured it out by now I’M NOT A VERY GOOD RIDER, OKAY???

Can I blame all of this on draw reins? No, of course not. They’re just a tool, but they’re a tool I abused and they’re a tool that taught me incredibly bad habits. When I started working with Simon, I vowed to never put draw reins or any kind of gadget on him. It’s a promise I’ve kept.

Photo by Heather F

My pictures now are far from perfect. Dressage riders will find 100 things to rightfully critique, but I like what I see. My horse’s expression is soft. I have contact, but I’m not yanking on his face. His butt is working on being tucked up, and his hind end is fairly engaged. My hands are still too low and I’ve also gained about 50 lbs since the Elvis pictures were taken, but hey we’re talking about HORSES here, right?

Oh yeah, his head is down too… but that’s less important.

I hate that it took me screwing up a horse so badly to get here, and I hate that deep down my go to when things aren’t going well is “more hand” versus “more leg.” But I learned, and I am learning still.

29 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Allowed to Use Draw Reins

  1. Lauren, I’ve got some old pictures that would just make you cry. And those are just from the outfit choices. Hey, at least you’re learning right? And getting better? We’ve all got to start somewhere and I love how Simon just looks engaged and happy and comfortable. What more can you ask for (we all know there’s so much more we can ask for)?

  2. Major props for learning! I think the only real terrible horse sin is not recognizing past faults and learning from them. I’m with you on the whole “more hand!” thing being my default, and changing that muscle memory to “more leg!” is a long journey.

  3. Oh man, you have a lot more lady balls than I do! I have a lot of pretty awful pictures from my early days, before I even know what bending and on the bit were… much less anything else!! Everyone starts somewhere, and we all make mistakes and screw stuff up. I’m just grateful for saintly quarter horse geldings who put up with that shit, and amazing trainers who helped retrain us!!

  4. I know all too well the woes of ruining a horse. But it is an amazing learning experience. While you promised to never use gadgets again, I promised to thoroughly vet my trainers and to to have endless patience with my horse.

    I see so many people obsessed over gadgets and ‘getting the head down.’ Even my own parents, who don’t understand the intricacies of the horse’s body and movement, always freak out when Fiction’s nose pops up a bit. I have to continuously reassure them that it’s OK!

    Also, Simon looks beautiful in the last picture and you look very soft (as in hands/relaxation).

  5. Oh lordy! I wish I had photo evidence of my poor choices, but then again … maybe it is a good thing I don’t – not sure how long the statute of limitations is on stupidity. I agree with Olivia – Major props for learning! I do have to disagree with your being too big for him. I don’t see it. Sure he had a long back, but he took up your leg very well in my opinion. That last pic is great. Love the panther photo bomb.

  6. Oh my goodness the low hand struggle. It’s a good thing for media, because I am constantly amazed that my hands aren’t where I thought they were.

    Simon has done so well without gadgets though, and he’s definitely a testament to the idea that probably 90% of the time, a horse just needs time to be educated, and a little bit of patience. Used sparingly and thoughtfully with an educated rider I do think gadgets sometimes have merit in helping a horse really “get” something, but more often than not their use becomes a hindrance, or even a crutch, rather than actually teaching the horse a new skill so that they learn to carry themselves without help.

    On a different note, I think part of riding is just making mistakes and learning for each next horse or next ride, and as long as you are learning those lessons and not making the same mistakes, you’re doing ok!

    1. re: On a different note, I think part of riding is just making mistakes and learning for each next horse or next ride, and as long as you are learning those lessons and not making the same mistakes, you’re doing ok! –>yes to all of that!

  7. Dude I don’t know what you are talking about in regards to saddle pads, that first one is like A+. Is that a galaxy print? I need me some damn cats in the universe print saddle pads.

  8. Um, yes, please make “Old And Questionable Riding Pictures” a blog hop. Soooo many bad choices over here. So many.

    It’s funny how you can develop bad habits that only really manifest on one horse. I find myself doing all sorts of stupid things on Moe that I don’t do on Gina.

    It’s good to learn, though, and reflect on how MUCH you’ve learned!

  9. I was literally just scolded this week for sawing with my low hands. It’s hard to let go of those bad habits when it seems like they are the “quick” way. I second Stephanie’s Old and Questionable Riding Picture hop….oh lord I was a mess.

  10. But did you rig up keychain rings to a noseband so you could use draw reins with a hackamore? Because that is some next-level, uh, training *averts gaze*

  11. Oh my goodness I’m pretty sure 99.9% of us have been there!! You have reminded me of all the terrible ‘training’ I did when I was young and dumb, naturally including see-sawing my hands somewhere around the horse’s shoulders and riding hunched over with my hands five miles away from each other because THAT’S WHAT THE HUNTER PROS LOOK LIKE WHEN THEY FLAT A HORSE, YA KNOW! Oh, dear. Thank the Lord we all learned better.

    P.S. This would be a GREAT blog hop. I’ll have to dig out photos from my mom’s shoeboxes full of pictures.

  12. haha i’m always blown away by what i thought of as ‘excellent’ years ago, or last year, or, um, yesterday… compared to what i think of as ‘excellent’ today. it kinda goes in both directions sometimes too. basically tho, i try to keep it all relative. especially with respect to what could be considered “correct” flatwork, the truth is that it can ALWAYS be better. so i let myself be happy that my horse is only “heavy on the forehand” today instead of his “dear god he is actually going to fall on his face” of yesterday. lol….

    agreed tho about the idea that, often, external aids intended to speed up the process can often backfire. alas, there is still no magic bullet!

  13. I grew up riding at a barn where everything went in draw reins as standard procedure. It’s part of why I’m very passionately anti draw rein now. Been there, done that, seen what it does, have had to spend a long time undoing the damage. Very few people that use draw reins have any business with them. As in, aside from the people I’ve seen use them to stay alive during victory gallops, I don’t think I’ve ever seen ANYONE use them that actually should.

  14. Well you have inspired me to dig up my own scary old/bad/terrifying photos! We all have them. We are all so critical of ourselves, when really none of us knew any better at the time you know? Frankly I don’t think the photos of you on Elvis are even bad! It’s not a photo I would look at at cringe at all. You guys just look like an average pair really. No better or worse than my photos that’s for sure!

  15. This is the great thing about riding… you learn to be BETTER! Old photos of my riding make me cringe. Current photos of me riding make me cringe! It’s a good sign that you’re a willing student 🙂 Thanks for sharing these with us.

  16. I always try to remember that it’s human nature to solve problems with our hands, and be super grabby. Usually while I’m in the process of attempting to clutch at my twins like they’re a set of pearls. 😉

  17. But seriously those saddle pads are awesome. If they need a good home I can volunteer one!

    Anyway, we all make mistakes along the way but you recognize and learned from yours and that’s the best we can do sometimes.

  18. I love this post, thank you for writing it!
    We all make mistakes that we look back on and shudder at.
    What scares me though is that (at least in my neck of the woods) this type of ‘training’ often goes hand in hand with competition success. So how do you know you’re doing the wrong thing? Plus media outlets, fashionable IG users and pros use pictures of overbent horses so often that it’s become the new norm.
    Anyway, I love that last photo of you and Simon – a happy horse is the most important thing to us riders after all 🙂

  19. I love all the retro photos! Trust me, I have many cringe-worthy pics. Mostly of really bad jumping. That’s what happens when you’re 12 and don’t know how to ride but have a family friend with really old field hunters who will do just about anything and you’re too young and stupid to know you should just gallop off into the field and jump over fences without adults nearby. And the zebra pad is amazing. I have zebra polos, but I’m honestly too lazy to ever put polos on anymore. Boots it is. God bless all those good-natured Quarter Horses we learned on!

  20. Horses can be very forgiving creatures. Just look at anyone’s stash of old riding photos. Thankfully I don’t have many, but the few that I do have? Lets just leave them buried in a shoe box, shall we?

  21. I wish I had more pictures from my old riding lesson days. I sure would love to see some of my old bad habits and my progress. I do have a few scattered photos of riding from my childhood, but they are vintage AWFUL, and few and far between. It’s really cool that you can look back and see how much you’ve changed!

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