This is a tool that has been used for many many years especially in the english world. I myself have used them on several horses. It wasn’t until recently when I compared my young horse Jack to some of the other horses I had worked that I kinda had an epiphany.
What are the side reins supposed to teach a horse?
The side reins are to teach a horse to work more correctly over the top line and to keep the horse relaxed and moving forward happily while accepting the contact of the bit.
What does the side rein usually teach the horse in its most common uses?
Now when most people use side reins they adjust the side reins to short, which is very easy to do I might add. (I’ve done it myself!) Side reins should be adjusted where the head is straight out from the shoulders, and slightly forward of perpendicular to the ground while standing. But many times they are shortened so we see the nice curve in the horses neck of an “ideal” headset.
Now even proper use can cause the following: with young horses and very nervous horses, especially, they will often duck their head behind the vertical or will learn to lean on the bit.
Why does the horse learn to do this?
The side reins have no real give. Even the ones with elastic and the rubber donuts. The horse has to lean on them to extend his head in anything other then a trot. When walking and cantering the horses head naturally moves in a more in and out motion. When a horse attempts to do this with side reins on they will hit the end of the side reins and cause a jerking and painful motion on their mouth.
To combat this, they either duck they head behind the bit to avoid hitting the bit or they learn to lean on the bit so there is no loosening of the reins. Both situations effectively create a horse with a “hard” mouth. They are already pre conditioned to ignore a lot of the signals from the hands.
Another reason the horse might duck behind or lean on the bit is purely exhaustion. Especially with young or inexperienced horses, they can’t hold the positions we put them in for long. It’s common to unconsciously work the horse longer then their muscles can handle. Horses aren’t like people that will let you know the exact moment they are tired. They will go as long as they can physically handle and even then some. The more tired they get the more they will lean, or the more they will lower and duck their head.
What actually transfers over?
This is a big one for me! When riding in the saddle our reins, and subsequently the contact with the horses mouth are at a completely different angle then the side reins. Because of the change in angle horses won’t correlate between what happened on the side reins to what you’re doing in the saddle. You are sending completely new signals even if you don’t think you are. This is all new sensory input with any horse. Eventually they will learn to listen to the hand, but it can make things much harder if the horse already has learned to ignore any signals.
I’ve seen horses ridden with side reins. While this is a style used to help the horse learn, I don’t recommend it. For me there are way to many bad things that could happen, the worse is when a horse panics. They can easily flip themselves over trying to fight the side reins (this can happen on the ground as well but more likely with a rider) because they feel trapped.
Now am I saying never use side reins?
Absolutely not. I think any training aid can be helpful in the right situation with the right horse BUT I see the side reins misused way more then I see it used correctly (myself included when I first started using them) It’s easy to rush a horse in their frames and balance with side reins (like draw reins but thats another topic for another day!) so you are getting a false frame and a horse that is being ridden from front to back instead of back to front.
Do I use side reins now?
I have a pair in my tack room incase I have a horse I think will benefit from them but I have retired my use with my own horses. I find my horses respond better to lungeing and to my rein aids when they haven’t been used.
When training horses the biggest thing to remember is to take our time! Patience is a necessity, at least if you want them taught correctly and you want your horses to last many many happy years!