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Hollihorse Index | Recycle Racehorses | Harness Racing Update | Horseride
by Holly Covey
Many thanks to Bit O'Horse Clipart for the excellent illustrations
I've thought about this subject and concluded there isn't much on side reins to assist the novice horse trainer.
While you can go to the dressage handbooks and the pony club books, I think these writings assume a level of competence above what us ordinary folks have. Many of us are really learning to lunge our horses for the first time. Some of us have had the good fortune to watch top trainers lunge horses at shows or training stables, but the proper use of side reins is probably still a little mystifying.
Side reins are used to replace what human aid? The hands. As such, they must be adjusted so they duplicate the action of the hands -- not create a false head carriage or "set the head" or other such notions that have nothing to do with bitting. Side reins are attached from the horse's bit -- in his mouth -- to the side of the horse, often to the girth of either the saddle or the roller. Most training rollers have several rings to adjust the reins high, medium, or low. More on which rings to use later. The attachment of side reins onto the caveson of the lungeing halter, or onto a western type of "sidepull", or any other use of the side reins onto something other than the bit in the horse's mouth is not really beneficial in teaching a horse to give to the hand. Rather, the lunge line and two side reins (one on either side) attached to just the horse's nose will simply create a lot of pulling forces on the delicate nose bones which most horses cannot differentiate from up -down- sideways -slow down -whatever. The mouth, however is more sensitive and can differentiate from the corners/bars resistance of the properly adjusted side rein.
Side reins should never be used on very young horses due to the growing and sensitive nature of the teeth and bars of the mouth. (I really think a 2 yo is too young for side reins, however, at the Quarter horse shows you see them on little yearling babies for the lungeline futurities, something I am horrified by and would like to see outlawed. No 8-12 month old baby horse should be lunged on a 25-foot circle with its head tied down for an hour. JMO) Side reins should never be used first thing without lunging the horse freely first in order to warm up and loosen the neck and jaw muscles and let out the "kinks" without bruising the mouth from a buck or two. Side reins should not be used attached to the girth from between the front legs, like a tiedown onto the bit. They should not be used while riding with a regular bridle and indeed this procedure is strictly outlawed in dressage and AHSA show competition warm up areas. Allow the horse a warm up period on the lunge first before attaching the side reins to the bit. Then be sure to lunge equally in both directions.
Side reins should first be used loosely adjusted so that when the horse throws his nose out or up, he will feel their pull but just at the end of the resistance. As the horse's back and neck begins to muscle and build endurance over time, the side reins can be adjusted shorter to allow him to balance against a deeper resistance, but most young horses and ex-racehorses will need a looser adjustment for quite a while so these muscles and the carriage improves. A horse must be bending and supple, in a regular lunge circle, before side reins do a lot of good for you. So that might mean, with an ex-racehorse, that you'll first have to teach him to lunge and be working on it for a month or more every day before introducing side reins.
(Lunge the horse freely first.) I introduce side reins in the stall, in a controlled situation where I have the lunge line in my hand and can hold the horse closely. At first, walk the horse in the stall by leading him. When he acts calm, take him out of the stall and walk him in the pen or arena. Make sure he "hits" the reins at least once or twice so he knows they are there. Then gradually introduce the lunge circle again, walking, and gently ask for a little bitty trot, because you must make sure he understands the reins are there to steady and keep straight, not stop him.
ALWAYS adjust side reins exactly even. Only on rare, rare occasions should one be shorter than another and then only the inside rein. This is not usually necessary with most normal horses. If you have leather side reins constantly check one is not stretching out more than another by holding them up against each other and measuring the length.
Side reins are dangerous to horses because they artificially hold the jaw. This is why elastic inserts and the donut inserts are sewn into them to allow a "give" to the horse, fooling him into thinking he's got a little room. The problem is, that give is sometimes not enough. I've seen many a horse rear up and go over backward due to tightly adjusted side reins without much give or without any elastic at all which gives the horse no room to escape the pull. They can only take so much!
But the advantage of side reins once again is that they train the horse's mouth for you. Your hands are not as steady and solid as the side reins and that's the beauty of them. They are so consistent they teach a horse that to evade is futile and that the constancy is to be relied upon. They keep a horse straight and train the muscles so the horse can hold himself straight. When you get on, he will try to use your hands like the side reins that help him. So it's up to you to make sure the side reins' good work isn't wasted, with hands that stay steady, soft and elastic but firm and balancing when necessary. One good snatch and it's all wasted.
If your horse is leaning on the side reins they are attached too high on the roller or saddle. If your horse is carrying his head to one side they may be too loose. If he is constantly jiggling his head up and down, they may be too heavy -- find some light bungee cords for instance with the hooks on the ends that are longer (36 inches or more). Pinch the hooks closed a little more than they are originally in order to keep them from jumping loose. The side reins should be just about horizontal as your horse trots. That means they may be slightly above that for walk. That is a loose guide, if you have an Arabian with a high crest or a Standardbred with a neck that comes out of the shoulders high, the side reins may also have to be adjusted high in order to maintain the proper contact with the bars of his mouth.
An incorrect downward pull of a side rein will make that snaffle bit constantly folding in half in the mouth, poking the roof of the mouth and causing the horse to 1) evade or 2) open the mouth. This is why you should lunge in a caveson which keeps the mouth closed and stops that bad habit from starting and also why side rein adjustment MUST be horizontal or higher. By the way, you should always use a snaffle bit with a ring -- not a tom thumb western style snaffle with a shank side -- to lunge in side reins. The action of side reins on a shanked bit is much too strong to be of use in creating a soft, supple horse.
Remember, the tougher the mouth the less fun he is to ride! Lunging is boring and can be really time consuming but it's supposed to be making you a better riding horse. So use side reins just as you would any other training aid -- to teach the horse something useful you will need when you RIDE. If he holds his head down with side reins but pokes it right up the minute you mount and hold the regular reins in your hands, then your side reins aren't doing the job for you or your hands are not helping him make the connnection. I'd look in the opposite direction then -- engaging the hindquarters and bringing the horse up to the hands rather than pulling the horse down to the hands or relying upon gadgets to create a false head set.
My personal preference is to leather side reins with the small brass snaps with elastic inserts. The newer ring side reins are also nice. I know a lot of folks have the donut side reins but they always seemed heavy and bouncy on the horse's mouth to me. And you can create very useful lightweight side reins with the long bungie cords, but they aren't real sturdy or meant for heavy use.