As a rider and trainer I rarely, if ever, use draw reins and in fact actively choose to avoid using them. However, I understand their effectiveness when used correctly in certain circumstances, and if one of those situations arose I would consider their use, but more as a last resort than a first thought.
This is one of those topics many people shy away from if asked about and I can completely understand why. In fact, I have really struggled to write this as it is a very sensitive subject. The reason I have pursued it is purely for the welfare of the horses and also, our own education in this area.
There is much bad press around draw reins, and rightly so. But I do feel we can't let this put us off being open and honest in our discussions about their usage when, more than anything, education on correct and effective training is needed now more than ever.
Before deciding if to use them or not there are many things you need to take into consideration and be careful of.
Can the horse physically come over its back?
Before we even ask the horse to come round and over their back with, or without, a gadget we need to know they are physically capable and happy to do so. Firstly we need to know the horse is comfortable to come round, and this means checking their teeth, back, soundness, tack etc. If our horse is extremely tight in the back then asking them to come round would be like someone pushing you down to touch your toes when you're just not physically ready yet, making a horse supple takes time and patience and correct training.
Next, we need to look at their age and strength. To force a horse to work in an outline more advanced of their capability is, I believe, both ethically wrong and can not be beneficial for the long term training of the horse. In my mind, it would be comparable to you going to the gym and being made by your Personal Trainer to run 10 k when you are only capable of 1k. We would not expect ourselves, or our loved ones to do this so is it reasonable to expect our horses to?
False sense of achievement
Draw reins can make a rider feel that they have their horse through and working correctly, when really the horse is just being fixed into this outline. When you think your horse is in a good outline and has released through their back, the draw rein should be loose and not aiding you or your horse. This is why, I feel, it is important if you decide to use them, that they are only used as a short term training aid to give some guidance, never as a long term, regular aid as that defeats the object. It is critical that you are knowledgeable about how to use them, and when, and how tight. I would always advise professional help.
Quick fix and short cuts
Draw reins really should be a last resort. Many horses, with correct training and patience can learn to come into a good outline. If you are reaching for the draw reins out of frustration or to hurry things along, I truly believe you have already lost and are approaching the problem you have from the wrong angle, perspective and attitude. Draw reins were designed to assist in training the horse, to help them strengthen and understand the correct position, and enable them to carry themselves in a outline. This in itself gives us some guide lines about draw reins - they are to 'help not force'.
Are you as a rider, balanced enough to have independent aids?
Many people stress that draw reins should only be used by experienced riders who not only know the feel they are looking for, the right balance, and know when the horse releases etc., but also because they have independent aids. If a less experienced and capable rider is balancing off the reins then this means that they will not be in full control of the draw reins and this in turn may result in pulling the horse onto the forehand or into an uncomfortable outline. This clearly would go against every purpose of the short term use of the aid and could then create longer term problems much harder to correct.
Can they be helpful?
Personally, when used correctly and with strict guidelines, understanding the conformation, and physical requirements of the horse, then yes, they can benefit some horses, in some situations.
We are all familiar with how important it is that our horse works over their back. The reason for this is if the horse is working with a hollow back, the vertebrae in the spine will be much more likely to touch and the muscles with become tight, when this happens not only is it uncomfortable, and often can cause pain, for the horse but they will not be able to track up with the hind legs, which is fundamental for the way of going. In an ideal world and on the ideal horse with correct, methodical training this can be achieved without any gadgets.
I am of the opinion that, unfortunately, some horses have been ridden incorrectly for so long that this can be hard to achieve without some additional help. Instead of having to get very strong in the contact to help the horse release and know where you want them to go, it can be a more effective way to show them with the help of draw reins as a short term training aid and step forwards. However, draw reins are not the only way to achieve this, but I feel if used correctly, they can be an option.
I came across this in one of Patricia Pitt's Blogs on 'The Crystal system' and I think it explains it well.
'Perhaps a session to enable the horse to find the release over its back does not seem so bad compared to allowing the horse to continue to travel in a severely inverted posture (neck high and hollow back) for several more weeks?'
To read the full blog - http://likecrystal.com/draw-reins-draw-conclusions/
I do believe, if used correctly, draw reins can be useful from a safety point of view as well. It is a lot better to have that extra bit of control rather than putting yourself and the horse in danger. For example, out hacking, if they help you to steer away from a nasty accident in which you or the horse can be put at risk, I would say this should be allowed, again with the correct understanding of tightness and as a short term training aid.
As a rider and trainer I would look for every other alternative solution or exercise before deciding to use draw reins. I actively avoid using them, but would not dismiss that, in the correct, knowledgeable, sensible and compassionate hands they can be extremely effective.
I would ask each of you to consider other options before using draw reins, but if you must use them, please make sure you use them sensitively and correctly, and as a last resort. I have seen so many horses negatively impacted through incorrect use of draw reins, where other alternative methods could be used more successfully to the benefit of both horse and rider.
As always I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings on the matter.