Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price
Lisa Zinger, FEI Dressage competitor, explains draw reins and side reins with tips for avoiding common errors.
What are the purposes of side and draw reins? How and when should they be used? What precautions should I take when using them?
Side reins and draw reins can be used to help your horse learn how to move forward in the bridle and keep his balance. Side reins can be used to work on the longe or in hand, while draw reins can be used for schooling under saddle.
Let me first clarify the purpose of draw and side reins . They are not meant to be used to force horses to flex one or both sides. side reins or draw reins may cause a horse’s stride to become shorter, stiffen, overbend, or evade contact and can even make his neck and back sore. Side reins (not draw reins) can cause horses to panic and bang their mouths. They can also make them feel restricted.
These risks are why you should only introduce your horse to side or draw reins after you have thoroughly understood their “what, Why and How” and with the guidance of a trainer. Draw reins can be used to re-school an older horse who is stiff and has his nose out. They should not be given to a young horse until he has learned how to walk, trot and canter in straight lines and circles. He also needs to learn basic upward and down transitions. If your horse is nervous or excitable, you can let him know that you will introduce draw or side reins to him. This will give your horse a calm and reassuring experience, as well as give you a better understanding of what you are trying to do.
You can protect your horse’s legs by using exercise boots or bellboots to help him with side reins and draw. You should also use the new aids in an enclosed space (a ring, arena, or other area) until you both get used to them. This will prevent him from bolting if he has an accident.
Another thing: Your veterinarian should rule out any physical issues that could be causing your horse to turn his head when you ask him for contact.
Use draw reins for horses
Are you ready? Let’s get started with draw reins. These are only used when the horse is being ridden underneath saddle. They wear a harness with a snaffle piece and regular reins. I’ll show you how to use the two sets.
Draw reins are a continuous, 15-17 foot long strap that wraps around the horse’s girth. The loop should be placed halfway between the horse’s elbow and the saddle flap. Professionals attach the loops to either the middle ring of a breastplate or the girth between the legs. I don’t. This is a very severe use of draw reins and can cause the horse to overflex. Draw reins run from the girth to the bit rings. However, only use mild snaffles. Then they return to the hands of the rider. Draw reins have little stopping power. Use them in conjunction with the regular snaffle and draw reins on your horse’s harness. Hold the two sets of reins like you would a double bridle. (draw reins are on the inside, snaffle on the outside).
Draw reins are best used for flatwork. If you want to use them for jumping you must run them through a neck buckle (a stirrup leather strap around the neck) to ensure they are not in the way of your horse’s legs.
You can choose from nylon, cotton webbing or leather for draw reins. Nylon is slippery and can burn your hands if it’s pulled by horses. Webbing reins are my favorite, especially those that have hand stops. This will help you keep your hands consistent and ensure you don’t slip when you pull. Your trainer may tell you to place your hands on “two” if you need to. Proper hand placement is crucial for straightness. Yes, your legs can encourage straightness. However, correctly used draw reins communicate straightness to your horse and you by aligning your horse from his withers to poll through a tunnel created by your hands.
Side reins and draw reins are also useful to let your horse know that he can lower himself under the saddle. Draw reins allow your horse to feel contact while he extends forward and down. Keep your leg on the reins and keep your fist close around them. You’re not pushing his head down, but you are encouraging him to lower his neck, and keep his nose slightly ahead of the vertical. Your draw-rein contact should be open and giving until his head is in the right place (this is a time when your trainer can help).
While draw reins can show your horse how to behave, you don’t want him relying on them once he’s done. He may learn to lean or hang on draw reins, and he might be less comfortable with the bit if you remove them. You may see him spit out his nose or throw his head up. Keep draw rein sessions short. Warm him up with regular reins, then ride for five to ten minutes with draw reins. Then ask him to keep his neck and head in the correct position using regular reins. Close your hands and legs for a few strides, and if he continues to poke his nose forward, you can ask him to come back. You can reinforce the lesson by giving him five to ten more minutes of draw reins. Then ask him to keep his neck and head in the correct position using regular reins. Close your hands for a few strides, and if he continues to poke his nose forward, you can ask him to come back. You can reinforce the lesson by giving him draw reins for another five to ten minutes. To let your child stretch his neck, finish the schooling session by giving him a free rein.
Draw reins should not be used every day. You can use them occasionally as a reminder, for example, when your horse resists or when you are introducing a new or harder exercise.
Using Side Reins For Horses
Side reins can be used with horses under saddle, on the longeline or in-hand. Side reins are not recommended for riding unless your horse is under your trainer’s supervision and on a longeline. If he’s not, and if he stumbles or bucks, or if your trainer is watching, side reins can become tangled. Side reins are best used when you are on the ground or being longed. It is difficult to adjust the length or decrease of the side reins while mounted. Side reins can cause horses to slip, so make sure they are level and dry when you’re training them.
Leather side reins with rubber nuts are cheaper than nylon. Many of them come with elastic inserts which eventually stretch up to three or four inches. A plus to inexpensive leather is that it can break in an emergency, while nylon cannot.
Side reins can be used with a saddle, longeing surcingle or other type of saddle. The reins are looped around the surcingle or girth at one end and then snap to the bit at another. You can adjust each rein independently with the buckles; the numbered holes make it easy to adjust evenly.
Safety tips: Don’t let the snap ends on the side reins dangle. They could get caught around the horse’s legs or be stepped on by pulling the saddle or supracingle around. If you have side reins on, but they are not being used, attach them to the D-rings of the saddle or to the surcingle. Don’t let your horse rub against something or scratch his side reins; it could cause him to get hung up.
Preparing your horse to go on a school in the side reins is as easy as tacking him up and snapping the side reins out of his way. Begin to warm him by walking and trotting. Then, halt and make sure the girth and surcingles are tight.
Attach the side reins to his bit. This is a good idea, even though he is highly trained. Allow him to walk and trot a bit more to become comfortable with the contact. Now, halt him and reduce the side reins until his nose is in front of the vertical.
You’ll need to adjust for the different conformations and sizes of horses. There is no one right setting. You should always start your session with the side reins and not attached. If you do, your horse might try to grab them in the barn.
Side reins can be used to help your horse keep his body straight, especially at the outside shoulder. If your horse is already straight, you can adjust the side reins to make the circle more inside-bending. Adjust both reins to the exact same length. The reins will be taut if your horse is stiff on the one side. If he’s weak on the other, it will be loose. To allow your horse to feel the pressure equally on both sides, you may need to cut one or two holes in the rein. If you aren’t sure how to adjust the tension, you can have another person longe your horse while you watch him move. He will carry his tail straight and move his back evenly if he is moving in a straight line.
Side reins can also be used to work your horse in hand (for higher-level movements like piaffe) and long-lining. However, this is advanced training.
Lendon Gray’s book “Create A Good Longe Partner” ( Practical Horseman February 1997) and Holly Hugo–Vidal’s book “Longe Safely, Longe well” ( Practical Horseman December 2000) provide more information on longeing with side reins. End your longeing session with your horse by letting him stretch and taking the side reins off.
Lisa Zinger is a dressage competitor at FEI level. She also works as a East Coast clinician. She is based out of New Jersey.