Side Reins Work Quicker?

Joanne: Is it true that if you lunge your horse with side reins you would be able to get them on the bit and get their frame right sooner than if you were to school them while being ridden?


That is a very interesting question you have asked, and one I hear often. There are a couple of things to take into consideration here.

Firstly, there is the matter of getting your horse in the right frame, and `on the bit`. The second matter I will address is that of lungeing and using `lungeing aids` to achieve certain goals.

It seemed to me, growing up in the riding world, that everyone around me was always very concerned with `getting the horse on the bit`. People were constantly on their horses grinding away at them to drop their heads and bring in their noses. The horses and riders that were able to get their horses to drop their heads and tuck in their noses, by whatever means possible I may add, were respected and worshipped and we all secretly wished we could ride as well as them. Through the years there were all sorts of gadgets that became fashionable to use - running reins, German elastics, balancing reins, de Gouges, side reins and so on - and believe me when I tell you that I have used them all. Now, I am not knocking any of them - they all have their uses and I will never become one of the purists who never use any type of gadget at all on my horses, BUT, I never really understood what it was I was trying to do, or what I was trying to achieve! It was not until I understood HOW a horse should be working and what it means to be in the correct frame that I could finally use gadgets intelligently and only when necessary.

The first thing that I am going to ask you to toss out of the window, is the idea that to work in the right frame, the horse simply needs to drop his head and bring in his nose. THAT IS NOT `ON THE BIT` !

You may find that if and when your horse is working correctly through his frame from behind, that the nose/head/neck will almost pop into place all on its own! It is a side effect of working correctly, not the correct work itself. How many times have you seen riders pulling left and right on a strong bit to force the head in? The chances that that horse is working correctly are very slim. If you watch closely, you will probably find that that horse is dragging his hind limbs, dry in his mouth and is tense through his entire body.

So, how should your horse be carrying himself, and you?

A horse that is working `on the bit` is a horse that is doing three things correctly - he positions himself correctly with his nose held almost at the vertical and his POLL is the highest point of his body, he is in total acceptance of the bit and the rider and he shows engagement of the hindquarters. (borrowed the pics off a site - thanks to the artist!)

It all sounds great in theory, but the problem is firstly, how do you know if your horse is working correctly on the bit, and how do you help him if he is not. That is normally the biggest problem riders face.

The most important thing when trying to work your horse correctly is to remember that the entire process of working on the bit BEGINS BEHIND!

If you imagine your horse`s body look like this: (not 100% ideal pic, but bear with me!)

The main idea is that to carry himself well, the horse will step in further underneath his body with the hindlegs, using his abdominal muscles too, soften the hips and hock joints and (you will note that tell-tale `swing` in the hips) that results in a slight lowering of the hindquarter and the back will lift , releasing the neck/shoulder and the head will lift to the correct position, dropping the nose to just slightly in front of the vertical. If you look at the 1/2 circle, that is almost the effect you want - tuck in lift up back and push up wither and base of neck. In this way, the horse is using his muscles correctly, will be able to maintain his balance and will most definitely supple up and become very comfortable to sit on!

Again, it all sounds really nice in theory, but what does it mean for the rider who is at home trying to ride their horse?

When you are schooling your horse at home, the first thing you want to do to encourage your horse to work in the correct frame (and the first thing most riders kill right off the bat) is FORWARD MOVEMENT. When your horse walks, he should be stepping out boldly, proudly and with lots of energy and you as the rider should be using you seat to encourage that swing and push. The trot should be as forward moving as the horse will give without running onto his forehand or losing his balance. In the canter, you should allow him to move forward whilst at the same time driving him up into your contact to encourage the lowering of his hindquarter. Changes in transition become very important to improve balance and volte`s (10 or 8 m circles) at the trot will encourage the hind leg to step further underneath the body. Lateral movement, like the shoulder in and leg yield will supple the horse up and will sharpen him up to the leg. All of these exercises are geared at teaching the horse to use himself correctly. Most riders will ride endless 20 m circles in a half hearted trot and think that their horse is working... NO! Go in with a plan and achieve a goal each time you ride.

This is where lungeing is a very important tool indeed. I always tell my pupils that if the horse cannot carry himself correctly and in balance on a circle in the lunge, how can he be expected to do so with a rider on his back! It also gives you a great opportunity to check his engagement behind and how he is working without being on his back. Lungeing gadgets all have their place and I find that there are horses that need to be `shown` what you want them to do, as well as helping to build the correct musculature in order to help the horse to what we want. It is very effective in undoing incorrect muscle development without the burden of a rider on the back, yawing at the mouth, getting the horse upset and sour because he cannot physically do what the rider is asking. When you are lungeing, I would say the most important thing to check is that the horse is tracking up well behind - his hind leg should step well over the print of his front leg - and that does not equal speed! Drive your horse forward in the trot, do loads of transitions like walk to canter, canter to trot, trot to halt, etc. and that will improve his balance.

To the issue of using side reins whilst riding and lungeing. I do believe that this can be helpful if done correctly and appropriately. Whether it will `get the horse working on the bit faster`, well that all depends. If you are not using them correctly, your horse will never work properly anyway. What usually happens the minute you slap the side reins on is that the horse drops behind the bit at the neck, (you will see the neck almost dip behind the wither,) he will disengage behind and start dragging his hind legs and hollow his back. Yes, the nose will probably tuck in, most likely behind the vertical and the neck will be the highest point of the top line instead of the poll, but you may as well get off for all the good it will do. If you want to use side reins while working, get someone on the ground to check your horse`s activity behind, really ride him up into the contact and preserve the forward movement. Also be aware that many horses ridden for months in side reins (especially the ones who were unbalanced to start with) will learn to use them for balance. The minute you remove them your horse will be all over the place because he doesn`t know how to carry himself. Remember that although it can be frustrating to battle on day after day with a horse that is not working well, doing things the long way round will be more rewarding and really, you may just try to quick-fix one problem and create another. I would stick to a good lungeing program, with the side reins, but limit them in your work under saddle.

Please find a really good instructor to get you started on a good training program and even if you only have one lesson per month, do that. You will be sure to get the results you want. Good luck, and enjoy your horse!

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