Principle 5. Auxiliary reins are banned, on the lunge as well as under saddle

These days amongst students and colleagues, it is so rare to see anyone using ‘auxiliary reins’ that it’s tempting to brush over this post. However, I know that out there in the wider world, many horses are still being subjected to them. Therefore, we had best press ahead and consider why they are not a great idea.

First of all what is an auxiliary rein? The best known are side reins and draw reins, and within that camp a variety of styles and types. The word auxiliary means to supplement or support, so it’s easy to understand why someone could believe they are helpful bits of kit. Tack shops are full of them. In fact, they can still be seen in use in some of the classical European schools and as you get struck down in flames for contesting what they do, I’d better watch out. However, I am going to take the leap and say that ‘even’ the Lipizzaner doesn’t really need side reins. Philippe Karl is pretty unequivocal in his statement – they should be BANNED. Never shy about what he believes – here are some of the reasons he is so sure that we do not need to strap horses’ heads and necks into any kind of fixed position.

Because, in the words of the magnificent Maya Angelou, ‘When you know better, DO better’. It’s time to do better. A horse has a head and neck which he moves around a lot for a reason. It’s his means to balance himself, and he also needs to move his head to see. If you spend any time watching horses in nature, you will notice how much they use their heads and necks; they do not keep them in one fixed position. As their vision is so different to ours, if they want to look at something they need to move their heads to focus. When they are in movement they are constantly adjusting their heads and necks, in order to act as a balancing pole for the rest of their body. Therefore, freedom of their heads and necks is a big deal for horses. Like, life and death important. That in itself is a good enough reason not to strap a horse’s head into a position that he cannot escape from. However, if you need further persuasion here are some more reasons.

In the Ecole de Légèreté communication and relationship are important . We want to converse with our horse down the reins, stride by stride, to help him feel better, move better, balance better. A piece of leather and metal has a lot less ability to do this job than the hands, body and mind of a rider. Therefore, when you give over the education of your horse to a fixed set of reins, you miss out on what is a fascinating conversation with your horse. From your horse’s perspective, when given one set length of reins to organise his body around he has two choices available to him regarding the bit; lean on this, or get behind this. He cannot do anything else. Having ridden many horses that have been trained in side reins, I know how these horses feel and it would not be my choice. I believe that had the horses had a different option it wouldn’t have been their choices either. It takes a long time for a horse to develop the postural stability he needs to remain ‘stiller’ with his head and neck. This is something he gains through long-term high-quality training. When you impose this ‘stillness’ on a horse with static reins you take away much of movement that he needs, especially as a young or green horse.

Early in a horse’s education he will need to move his neck a lot, particularly in walk and canter. It is the responsibility of the rider to first go with the horse, not the other way around. This means our hands and arms must be mobile, soft and following. You can put any amount of elastic into a side rein, but it still won’t be able to follow the large movement of a young horse’s neck in canter. I wonder how many behavioural or training issues are caused by these reins when horses simply cannot use what nature has given them (their neck) when being asked to do things by humans which are tricky for him (cantering on a circle, for instance).As with everything, this comes back to the education of the human. When you understand how to lunge and ride a horse in a way which helps him to profit from your knowledge of the balancing pole of his head and neck, you both will benefit. I believe a horse prefers to work with a human that lets him maintain his balance, his vision, and his dignity.

Written by Kate Sandel