From Endurance to Dressage
A week or so ago, I shared a post about lunging Izzy with draw reins. I don't want to be overly dramatic or anything, but the change in Izzy over the past week and a half has been almost miraculous. Chemaine's suggestion that I use these on him was genius.
I have so much to say about this transformation that it would probably be easier if I start at the beginning...
When I first went to look at Izzy a year and a half ago, the one thing that I wasn't so thrilled with was his movement. I felt like his gaits were choppy, and he carried his head quite high. I didn't hold it against him though because while he'd been started as a four year old, he then spent the next 18 months in pasture doing nothing. I am not an expert at judging conformation, but I instinctively liked Izzy's short back and how his neck tied into his body. I figured with some work, his gaits would improve.
Since bringing him home, Izzy has always looked tight through his back. During turnout, he never stretches down and trots like Speedy does. He rarely canters in turnout either. He either gallops with his head sky high or does this convoluted I am trotting ... now I am kind of cantering ... and now my back legs are trotting. Basically, he's been a bit of a mess.
Since about February though, I've started to see some real changes in his movement. For one, he's actually starting to bounce a little when he trots in turnout, and he can actually trot a straight line. Instead of galloping, he now picks up a pretty quiet little canter. And even more amazing is that he is now picking up a RIGHT lead canter. And all of it is looking so much more relaxed and comfortable - for him.
I don't have any recent conformation shots, but you can see how much he has filled out in the picture above when compared to the shot taken in 2014. His head doesn't look nearly so large now that it's attached to a neck that has filled out. He also now has some back muscles.
This change is not due to a week's worth of lunging in draw reins, of course. It's clearly the result of a year's worth of (at least somewhat) correct riding. While things have been progressing well, we had kind of hit a glitch though when it came to relaxing over the topline. Chemaine suggested lunging with draw reins as a way of teaching Izzy how to stretch his back under saddle and accept contact.
I don't know how it worked so quickly, but after only a half a dozen short sessions, Izzy gets it. On the lunge line, he is now quiet and soft and stretches down in the trot. When he starts to get quick in his stride, I simply say, easy and lower the whip. He immediately slows himself down and rebalances.
Our lunging sessions take 11 minutes: 5 minutes per side with 1 minute to change the lunge line to the other side. I have him walk for 1 minute, trot for 1 minute, do walk-trot-walk transitions for a third minute, and then I ask for a canter. He now picks up the correct lead every time. I let him canter for a 4th minute, and then I ask for a couple of trot to canter to trot transitions before we switch directions.
After I lunge, I ride. Not only has the lunging helped him to stretch his back and relax, but it's all transferring to his under saddle work. He has gotten better and better each day. On Sunday, he picked up both canter leads with hardly any fuss, and it was quiet and controlled. I was laughing out loud in delight. I am loving this work right now because I know that we'll challenge him again before too long, and he'll tell me he can't do it. For now, this is fabulous!
For those of you who are interested in trying the draw reins/sliding side reins, I wanted to share a quick how-to-build-your-own for about $5. They're not pretty, but they get the job done and are very adjustable.
You'll need a length of ¼" - ½" diameter rope about 18 feet long. I bought some cheap poly rope at Home Depot a number of years ago. You'll also need a trigger snap and two bolt snaps.
Slide the trigger snap onto the rope. This is the piece that connects to your girth ring between the front legs. Tie a bolt snap to each end of the rope. To adjust the length, tie the knot farther down the rope. I untie one end and shorten it depending if I am connecting it to the surcingle (above) or my saddle. When I connect it to my saddle. I just run the rope behind my billets and then snap it back onto itself using the bolt snap.
To apply the draw reins, I clip the trigger snap to the girth and then grab one end of the rope and run it from the inside of the bit ring to the outside where it attaches to my girth. Then I grab the other end and run it through the other bit ring and attach it to the other side of my girth. The first few times I did it, I started fairly loosely, but now that Izzy knows what's going on, I don't bother to change the length.
The way this type of draw rein works is that it encourages the horse to stretch down. The rein slides from either right to left or up and down, so the horse never gets held in a fixed position. If he raises his head too high, he'll feel pressure in his mouth. The moment he drops his head, he gets instant relief. This is probably not a good tool for horses who already want to travel behind the bit (like Speedy), but for a horse who wants to be a giraffe, this is an awesome self-correcting tool.
I checked with the 2016 USEF Dressage Rule Book and found that this type of "draw rein" is legal for the warm up.
DR 121 Saddlery and Equipment
Right now, I am using the draw reins before each ride. Once I am certain that Izzy can start a ride already relaxed through his back, I'll try to only use them a few times a week. Using them only adds 15 minutes to our ride time so it's not an inconvenience to attach them. And really, if they get him working more effectively before I get on, then the 15 minutes is time well spent.
If you end up trying these, let me know what you think.
4/26/2016 06:37:40 am
I know some people don't like "gadgets" such as these, but I've had similar experiences when using a chambon or side reins. Sometimes it just helps the horse really "get it," and if that's the case, then by all means use it! I've had a horse that learned to be more trusting of the contact after being longed in elastic side reins, and using a chambon really helps Taran stretch down and out (interestingly, side reins just encourage Taran to be tight is his neck and back and BTV). Paddy just leans into side reins though, so it doesn't always work for every horse. As long as you can find what does, more power to ya!
4/26/2016 07:01:09 am
I'm a chambon person now that I've learned how it merely suggests to the horse what to do, with nothing fixed solid. Properly adjusted, a horse can throw its head straight up in the air with a chambon, but then they choose not to.
4/26/2016 06:46:32 pm
I am not against any "tool" if it's used purposefully and and effectively. I am glad this one is working for Izzy!
4/27/2016 05:48:43 am
That was Chemaine's plan, Tracy, let Izzy figure it out without me up there to interfere. It seems to be working. :0)
4/26/2016 06:56:22 am
I don't really think of Vienna side reins, or sliding side reins, as draw reins. I know they are often called that. But I have such a bad connotation in my mind, I can't even. The sliding reins let the horse stretch and don't have the human hand error that comes with draw reins, I really like them.
4/26/2016 02:25:23 pm
Agreed! Draw reins are a gadget I can't stand, but this rig seems to work really well and is definitely something that can be useful for a young, green horse.
4/27/2016 05:51:05 am
I guess the reason that Chemaine refers to them as "draw reins" is because they do slide in the same way. The only difference is that my hands can't shorten or adjust the rein. They are simply fixed at the girth.
4/26/2016 07:10:04 am
Karen, these sliding reins (good name for them!) are what students ride with in Germany, fixed to the saddle. I've blogged it before, how ubiquitous they are (and not for lunging, for riding).
4/27/2016 05:53:06 am
I am not a big fan of riding with something attached to the saddle either. I don't want to trapped or hung up by a horse having a melt down. And no, Izzy didn't fuss about them at all, but then I've lunged him quite a bit in fixed side reins (back before I got on him). I knew he wouldn't have an issue with them.
4/27/2016 05:53:42 am
Gotta love home made. :0)
I think I might give this type of sliding rein set-up a whirl with Penn. When I lunge him, I usually use double lines and basically long line him. However, I get very involved in what he's doing that way where I guide him a lot but don't hold him up. After this past weekend and a lot of weird canter lately, I think I'd like him to learn how to stretch and move and get comfortable with his hind end again (his butt grew in height). It certainly won't hurt!
4/27/2016 05:56:07 am
I am shocked how much improvement Izzy has made in less than two weeks. It's like something huge clicked for him. When I lunged him yesterday, he looked fabulous. He kept stretching down and went deeper and deeper. I never liked lunging him before because his back was ALWAYS hollow and his head was straight up in the air as he careened around.
4/26/2016 11:47:10 am
I'm glad you're blogging about this. So many people are opposed to any gadget. I've used draw reins with Nilla in the past and they really help her. I do really like your sliding reins though so I might make a set for our lunge work.
4/27/2016 05:58:01 am
I am not opposed to any tool actually if it's used with a purpose and is effective. I think "gadgets" can be misused in uneducated hands, but who am I to judge if someone finds a particular tool to be effective?
4/27/2016 05:58:59 am
I have always wanted to give a Pessoa a try, but it looks like a lot of work to get it set up. It sure seems to make sense for starting a young horse though.
I think Izzy needed these to help him figure out how to carry his body and work through. The problem arises when people use training tools without understanding why or when to stop (in my opinion). I remember when Irish used to fling his head so high I was in danger of getting hit in the face. I rode him in a running martingale for a while until we worked through it. I got some flack from others but I ignored them.
4/27/2016 06:01:36 am
Almost every endurance rider uses a running martingale. We used to get a lot of flack from non-endurance riders who would claim we needed better trained horses. The problem is that you're asking a horse to zoom along in a crowd without actually t "racing." They're hot horses who want to GO. I used the running martingale for my safety. I say use what works and keeps everyone safe. :0)
4/27/2016 04:04:18 pm
I love Vienna reins. I don't really use them on Hampton because he is already so naturally long and low, but they are a positive god-send for any other type of horse really.
4/27/2016 06:15:07 pm
For the giraffes, they are definitely a God-send. When I rode Izzy this afternoon, he actually VOLUNTEERED to stretch down REALLy low in the trot. It was the first time ever. I have to force Speedy to pick his head back up because he's happy to trot around all day with his head between his toes - not Izzy. I am 100% hooked on this lunging warm up. It is solving so many problems. He is now MUCH calmer and more relaxed in his work - it's like horsey heroin! :0)
4/16/2017 10:36:20 pm
Thanks for posting this. I started using sliding side reins in the manner you described and it has really helped my little Arab mare. She had a hard time getting the canter lead right and would go disunited on both leads sometimes in the hind. After using the sliding reins for just a short time she is able to work more correctly and maintain her leads. I found she was more relaxed overall.
4/17/2017 06:09:29 am
Thanks for sharing, Lorie! I am glad you found them helpful. I haven't needed to use in a few months, but I might throw them on him now just to see where we are.
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About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2023 Show Season
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Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
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3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: