Why we don’t use side reins on horses

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Whatever his body angle, a chicken controls balance by keeping his head and neck perfectly vertical. Hence, stabilizing the horse head and neck with side reins is a chicken theory. The horse, instead, controls balance by moving his head and neck.

Recently, we had an interesting discussion on Facebook involving the use of side reins. It was about a deadly accident due to the use of the system and side reins proponents get offended. Enthrallingly, not a single side reins-believer ever addressed the effects of side reins. Their only references were, “everybody does it” or “my trainer uses it.” The statement was then followed by a long anthology of the trainer, as if emphasizing the trainer’s value would prove the validity of side reins.

It was of course the usual catch phrases, “engaging the hind legs,” “muscling the back”, “ putting the horse on the bit,” etc, but these stereotypes are part of an equestrian language that is repeated over and over without any understanding of the underlining biomechanics. Whether it is about selling alternative bending of the neck, touching the limbs with one or two whips, lowering the neck, or rushing the horse on the forehand, the same phrases are used, promising results that never go beyond the rider’s wish.

side-reins

Members of the Science of Motion’s online course (IHTC) proposed better solutions and it was interesting to see they were comfortable with the evolution of knowledge, while by contrast, side reins proponents were afraid of new knowledge becoming aggressive when they were technically cornered. It was obvious that while many peoples use side rein, very few truly understand or even know how the system affects the horses.  My trainer uses them”, might be sufficient for riders who select their training technique based on faith rather than on facts. The problem with all these restrictive systems – side reins, draw reins, chambon, gogue, etc. – is that they theorize a reaction omitting a fundamental fact. A horse does not work a muscle imbalance, reflex contraction or morphological flaw, but instead, protects it. Whatever the system applied, a horse deals with neck posture protecting his actual muscle imbalance, weaknesses, morphological flaw or other issue.

It is understandable that marketing strategies theorize effects that may sell their products. It is the rider’s duty to differentiate marketing strategy and reality. There are, for instance, 21 pairs of muscles that can move the horse’s head. Hence, there are at the least 21 reasons why the horse’s reaction might not be the one promised by the advertising. The horse can adapt to the restriction of the side reins by bending and twisting the neck, lowering the trunk between the shoulder blades, bending or twisting the thoracic spine, arching the thoracic vertebrae and so on. Side reins proponents will tell you that “this is because the side reins are not properly adjusted.” Truly, this is a preposterous form of denial. Such denial was easy to defend when knowledge of the equine physiology was at its infancy. With today’s knowledge a much better analysis of the horses’ reaction can be made.

Here are the reasons why we do not use side reins.

Drawing by Michael A Simmons. Mas44@cornell.edu
Drawing by Michael A Simmons. Mas44@cornell.edu

The combined head and neck segment executes characteristic oscillations at the walk, trot, or canter that are closely linked to the movement patterns of the limbs. The main muscles creating neck movements are the upper neck muscles, the splenius and the semispinalis capitis. The splenius covers the whole length of the neck. The muscle inserts at the level of T3, T5 and is attached at the other end on the nuchal crest behind the skull. During locomotion, the splenius exhibits bilateral activity during each forelimb stance.

At the trot, the head and neck are at their lowest position in the oscillation cycle half-way through the support phase of each forelimb. The splenius decelerates the downward oscillation of the head and neck that is pulled down to earth by the attraction of gravity. At impact of each front leg, the splenius contracts, resisting accelerations of gravity that are created by impact forces. At the walk, splenius activation commences before the head reaches its lower position and continue until after the head has begun rising. When up and down oscillation of the head and neck are restricted by the use of side reins,  the horse will likely compensate for the restricted oscillation of his neck by leaning on the bit. Often, horses use the support of the side reins instead of coordinating their upper neck muscles.

Drawing by Michael A Simmons. Mas44@cornell.edu
Drawing by Michael A Simmons. Mas44@cornell.edu

The semispinalis capitis is also inserted on the cranial thoracic vertebrae and ribs and is attached on the crest of the skull. The semispinalis capitis is compartmented. This type of architecture allows a large diversity of movements, rotations, bending, etc.

The muscle does have an internal central tendon that covers two third of the length of the muscle. There are 7 compartments above the central tendon and six compartments below the central tendon. Most of the alternative lateral bending and transversal rotations of the neck that occur during locomotion are created by the semispinalis capitis.  One can easily conceive that any system restricting or modifying the normal cycle of head and neck movements is going to modify limb kinematics and the mechanism of the vertebral column. The horse’s adaptation can be beneficial, but also damaging. It is true that some good horses are capable of sustaining suspension, cadence, a round neck and round back while working with side reins, but these horses are the exception and truly do not need side reins.

Bob Hope joked one day, “A bank is an institution that loans you money if you can prove that you don’t need it.”

The same can be said with side reins. If a horse can adapt to the restriction of the side reins and remain functional, the horse does not need side reins.

This horse became dysfunctional when side reins were added. He shortened his neck, lowering the trunk between the shoulder blades. He hollowed, arched and contracted the thoracic vertebrae, shifting the forelegs backward underneath himself.
This horse became dysfunctional when side reins were added. He shortened his neck, lowering the trunk between the shoulder blades. He hollowed, arched and contracted the thoracic vertebrae, shifting the forelegs backward underneath himself.

Common reactions are illustrated in the picture at right. The horse’s owner is a member of the Science of Motion online course and, as an experiment she placed side reins on her horse. The horse’s adaptation to the restriction of the side reins was very different from the theory promoted by advertising strategies. The horse shortened the neck, lowering the trunk between the shoulder blades. He hollowed, arched and contracted the thoracic vertebrae, shifting the forelegs backward underneath himself. The horse became dysfunctional. The side reins were adjusted relatively long. They could have been adjusted slightly longer or slightly shorter and that would not have improved the horse’s reaction. The horse’s brain adapted to the restriction of the side reins protecting whatever muscle imbalance, morphological flaw or other issue was the horse’s physical situation at this moment.

Due to their more lateral attachment on the proximity of the skull, the spenius muscles are effective for lateral bending. Some 59% of the muscle’s fibers are slow oxidative fibers, implying that postural support is a large part of splenius function. These two peculiarities explain that quite often, horses strongly develop one side of the splenius as an adaptation to the side reins. A horse dealing with natural imbalance between right and left splenius will likely react to the side reins aggravating the already existing muscle imbalance.  The same protective reflex mechanism can of course involve one or both semispinalis capitis creating torsion of the neck.

The horse in the picture has restricted his neck, afraid of the unsophisticated contact of the side reins. Many horses, on the contrary, push heavily on the bit. To do so, the upper compartments of the semispinalis capitis, which is inserted on the crest of the skull, contracts concentrically, pulling the upper end of the skull backward and consequently moving the nose forward. The skull is then pushing backward on the cervical vertebrae, hampering forward transmission of the thrust generated by the hind legs through the thoracic and cervical vertebrae, and causing quite often a deepening of the cervical vertebrae’s lower curve.

Virchow already pointed out in 1915 that the S shape of the cervical vertebrae remained whatever the neck posture. “In the dorsal direction, the cervical vertebral column can be stretched only so far that the vertebrae are lying in straight line.” Slijper (1946), added to the comment that a further dorsal flexion is chiefly prevented by the ligaments.

The combined action of the skull pushing backward on the cervical vertebrae and the thrust generated by the hind legs transmitted forward through the thoracolumbar spine, (blue arrows), will likely deepens the lower loop of  the cervical column, (red arrow and black circles).
The combined action of the skull pushing backward on the cervical vertebrae and the thrust generated by the hind legs transmitted forward through the thoracolumbar spine, (blue arrows), will likely deepens the lower loop of  the cervical column, (red arrow and black circles).

The horse in the above picture exhibits deepening of the cervical vertebrae’s lower segment, lowering of the trunk between the forelegs, arching of the thoracic vertebrae and consequently, flattening of the lumbar vertebrae, without pushing on the bit. The horse explains that the same damages are created, retracting the neck and avoiding the rigid contact of the side reins. Some side reins are built with a rubber ring theoretically designed to avoid rigid contact. Quite often, the horse uses this rubber action to lean heavily on the bit.

The problem with all these systems is that they dismiss the most fundamental principle of sound education. A horse always reacts by first protecting any existing muscle imbalance, reflex contraction, morphological flaw, or bad habit.

The rider’s capacity of analysis is the horse’s only chance of success. At the lunge, one can change the cadence, or the size of the circle but guiding the horse’s brain toward the most appropriate body coordination demands a conversation that only riding the horse or working in hand the way we profess at the Science of Motion can achieve.

For instance, if the horse travels bending the thoracic spine laterally more to the left than to the right, the horse will adapt to the side reins aggravating such lateral bending. If, as it is often the case, lateral bending is coupled with inverted rotation, the horse may adapt to the side reins increasing the intensity of the inverted rotation, shifting the weight on the outside shoulder. Simplistic thinking will suggest changing the direction of the circle but this will not change the asymmetry of the bend or the intensity of the transversal rotation. The horse will turn in the opposite direction falling on the inside shoulder, shifting the croup toward the outside, or other compromise. The concept that placing the neck will make the horse’s back function a specific way is as naïve as the theory “correct aids equal correct movement.

This is complete ignorance of the horse’s mental processing. The horse’s first reaction is always protecting his actual body state. If the horse’s “errors’ are analyzed intelligently, they inform the rider of the horse’s actual body state and the rider can decide and provide appropriate insights. But if the horse’s errors are judged in respect of the theoretical effects of the side reins, the horse will figure out a compromise to protect his fundamental muscle imbalance, morphological flaw, memory, or other issue.

When I was training at the jumping and three-day-event Olympic center of Fontainebleau in France, an authority in terms of working with side reins showed me how to free jump a horse with side reins. The horse was a great athlete and his reaction to the restriction imposed by the side reins was flying very high above the jump. The horse had the power to do that and the trainer was delighted, explaining that the side reins were producing the athletic work of higher jump without exposing the horse’s legs to the stress of higher jump.

But what I saw was a horse flying very high above a four feet oxer, incapable of properly using his back over the jump.

Consequently, the horse landed heavily on the forelegs. What shocked me the most was that as the back was unable to properly work during the fly above the jump, the body posture at the landing was not as vertical as it should be. As a result, the hind legs impacted too far back, inducing abnormal stress on the joint of the hind limbs and the thoracolumbar structure. The landing of the hind legs was painful to watch.

This is basically the problem. There is a superficial way to look at it and, at this level, the side reins can please one. Once the athletic performance is analyzed for what it truly is, an athletic performance, the side reins are not preparing the horse’s physique for the effort.

However, one should not throw the side reins away. They work very well as a leash for the dog.

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Jean Luc Cornille

Jean Luc Cornille M.A.(M.Phil) has gained worldwide recognition by applying practical science to the training of the equine athlete. Influenced by his background as a gymnast, Jean Luc deeply understands how equine training can be enhanced by contemporary scientific research. A unique combination of riding skill, training experience and extensive knowledge of the equine physiology enables Jean Luc to “translate” scientific insights into a language comprehensible to both horse and rider. This approach has been the trademark of his training. – read more about Jean Luc

27 thoughts on “Why we don’t use side reins on horses

  • July 28, 2015 at 8:29 pm
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    The lucky horses are the ones that only have structural and muscular imbalalances
    As an Equine hospital, we often euthanase horses which have catastrophic injuries from flipping over, in side reins. Just not ever worth the risk…

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    • August 30, 2017 at 8:40 am
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      Thank you for your comment. I wish many people would be aware of it. Especially young horses are often trained with side reins and get scared by being imprisoned by them. I would love to write an article about what you wrote. I do not use side reins at all, I do not find them to be benificial in any way.

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  • July 29, 2015 at 1:43 am
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    Are side reins and side pull reins both the same? I like the idea that my pony rides hackamore or bit less so I’m concerned now that the way to steer is pull to the direction I want to go?

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    • July 30, 2015 at 2:15 pm
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      Regardless of the type of bridle you ride your horse in, you should not steer by pulling on the reins. Use your reins only to block the horse from taking his head in the direction you don’t want him to go (i.e. your left rein prevents him from taking his head too far to the right) An open rein (that doesn’t pull) can be used to help show the horse where you would like him to go (like opening a door). But the steering comes from controlling the hips, shoulders and, most of all bend, from your seat and leg. When your horse responds to your seat and leg aids, you can ride without relying so much on your reins. And your horse will be much better balanced and comfortable.

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      • July 30, 2015 at 8:57 pm
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        I totally agree with Anne and try to get the importance of the outside rein when turning, to my pupils. But the biggest difficulty is persuading them not to pull the horse round with the inside rein. I never use side reins and feel they are far too restrictive and only serve to teach the horse to lean on the bit. I would be interested to hear what everyone thinks of draw-reins. I have found them useful when lungeing a fizzy horse, but adjusted quite long,never pulling the horse on the bit and definitely never ride in them

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    • October 12, 2015 at 12:09 pm
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      Side reins, and reins connected to a side-pull bitless bridle while you are riding are very different things. Side reins are not connected to a rider, instead they are connected to another part of tack such as around the billets of a girth, or D-rings on a surcingle. A side-pull bitless bridle is designed to allow the reins to be connected from an attachment on the bridle (usually the noseband) to the rider. The issue with side reins is that they are not connected to a rider who is able to adjust their contact with the horse’s mouth, instead they are connected to a piece of immobile equipment in an effort to “teach a horse” to move around in a frame. There is nothing wrong with using a side-pull bridle if it works for your riding style and your horse still understands what is being asked through your rein aids.

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    • September 4, 2017 at 11:00 am
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      A hackamore cannot be used in the same manner as a snaffle bit! They can only be used in conjuction with rider weight aids and neck reining. If you do not know how to use the hackamore please do not use it as you will be causing your pony considerable discomfort/pain when you try to pull the rein to turn him sideways. Maybe try a bitless bridle if you want to go bitless. Either way learn how to ride.

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  • July 29, 2015 at 6:14 am
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    Short sidereins are so incorrect. Though long side reins that allows the horse to STRETCH aren’t wrong. “Long” is the key word here, I use a draft size on my horse at the longest setting.

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    • July 29, 2015 at 11:18 am
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      I agree with you Alicia. The two pictures of the horses with sidereins on in the article are way too short. I want my horse to stretch long and low to the contact.

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      • July 29, 2015 at 5:30 pm
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        Actually, long and low is biomechanically incorrect. It’s too much strain on the nuchal ligament, which should stay in neutral balance. Hang your own head long and low for a day and see how it feels. And, no, it doesn’t “lift the back”…they aren’t connected.

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    • July 30, 2015 at 6:17 am
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      Thank you! I found these articles to be a bit misguided. When used correctly – you aren’t “tying a horses head down” you are asking them to stretch.

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      • July 30, 2015 at 12:25 pm
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        Hi Andrea. Upper neck muscles don’t stretch. They resist gravity that is pulling the head and neck down. Whatever the neck and neck posture, the upper neck muscles, the Splenius and the Semispinalis capitis resist gravity. The concept of stretching is a fantasy and a false one. JLC

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        • July 30, 2015 at 6:54 pm
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          Interesting. I’ve never before heard such a claim so I tried to do a bit more reading and the only source I could find that reitterated this was in fact your articles. While perusing your Science of Motion website, I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the photos of horses [with gorgeous raised heads & necks] seemed to invert their back. I don’t want to say hollow, but to my eye it looks as if the lumbar part of the back has collapsed.

          Another question, I’ve read you say that here is no correct version of long and low. Though all of the video, photo, and illistrations I’ve seen resemble a horse that is [what I would call] hollow, and behind the vertical. So it looks painful. Though if you ‘let the horse have their head’ on a loose rein and they drop their head while keeping that lofty trot with a moment of suspension; is it still a damaging ‘long and low’ if I chose to use that terminology? I suppose I’m just trying to understand. Thanks for your time.

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          • July 31, 2015 at 2:59 am
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            Hi Alica. You like interpreting pictures the way you want and you are not only dead wrong but obviously more intense in protecting your beliefs that learning anything. If you read educated and real scientific studies you will learn the role of the upper neck muscles which is resisting gravity. Their structure and function has been studied in many publications. I am talking about serious studies. One of them has beeen done by Karen Gellman,DVM PhD “Morphology, Histochemistry and Function of Epaxial cervical Musculature on Horses. I would suggest that before making uneducate statements you would read serious studies. JLC

          • August 1, 2015 at 8:37 pm
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            I think JLC’s reply to Alicia’s questions was, to say the least, brusque. She was only asking questions in order to understand and learn. I too would like to know whether a long rein is considered as damaging as ‘long and low’? We don’t all have the luxury of access to scientific journals but that shouldn’t belittle our desire to learn in our horses best interest.

  • July 29, 2015 at 7:10 am
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    This is why we (western riders) let a horse have their head. Reins are only used to “neck rein”, that is lay the reins gently aside the horse’s neck, to tell him or her where you want to go, NEVER pull on the reins or keep the horse’s neck taught. Both reins are layed when you wish to back up. A truly skilled horse/rider partnership is when the horse responds to a shift of weight in the saddle. A horse with a tough mouth is a victim of abuse, and virtually unrideable

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    • November 17, 2016 at 4:06 am
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      Maybe not unridable ….but certainly not such a pleasure to ride or behold, do not enjoy riding or watching a horse that has been intimidated and is unhappy.

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  • August 7, 2015 at 12:55 am
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    Alicia, Andrea and Vicky also. It must be difficult to read this kind of stuff and even more difficult to try to understand it – truly. It’s not your fault, it’s the system that causes this. Your questions about draw reins etc. tell immediately that you didn’t understand this article at all. And it’s totally understandable.

    When it comes to streching the horse with the help of strings – there is no such thing. The horse does not think that “Today I will try to approve my upper neck line and go streching on a circle.” Concept of side reins is based on a belief that it HELPS THE HORSE TO DO SOMETHING. In order to help the horse, you should somehow make the horse understand that it’s good for him and just like that: the horse stops resisting and protecting itself and starts to stretch? The horse starts to seek the correct frame, because it will help him to be a better horse/ a better athlete? No, the horse will lean on the reins and move in a certain frame because it’s the ONLY option. There’s no way of doing these kind of things properly without awareness

    Do not make horses DO something (train, strech, bigger, lower, more, less) but try to make them THINK instead.

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  • October 23, 2015 at 5:29 am
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    I also would seriously question the notion that all long and low work is bad for the horse. The examples used in support of the arguments against side reins are also all examples of incorrect work while most who have learned a bit about biomechanics and lungeing would recognize the horse was working incorrectly (hollow, stiff, or behind the bit in most of the selected examples) and take steps to rectify this. Crooked, stiff horses will often work in unhealthy frames without any side reins as well when first being worked to correct or improve their way of going. Correctly used I have particularly seen the chambon used with good result as a temporary tool to address an issue. Aside from whether side reins are always incorrect though Alicia was referring to the assertion the long and low position is always a bad one regardless of the use of any side reins or not. Why would this be so? I have seen it as a very beneficial first step in getting horses to stop hollowing and learn to work over the back and swing. With positive changes in musculature and an associative relaxation response. Of coarse I mean by long and low the long and low with nose stretched out in front forward of the horse not bent in and low or like rollkur. In this position they can be using the back better, bringing the hindquarters more well under, swinging through the back and more laterally supple. Of course they are still on the forehand and as training progresses the goal is to shift to carrying more weight in the hindquarters. In my experience though the long and low is an important first step, skipping it often leads to tight horses and people trying to collect horses that are in fact hollow or coming behind the vertical. Even once you achieve this goal of getting the horse to collect and engage the hindquarters more it is a position that allows the horse to let go through the body in a warm up, cool down, or break. You can look at steps in the progress of training and say this or that is wrong but they are rungs of progress on a ladder, you don’t jump from the bottom rung to the top in a few sessions.

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  • July 22, 2016 at 9:25 am
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    Hi, I ride both in Western and English. I don’t use side reigns, but is it bad to use regular reigns to put my horse’s head down when riding English by “see-sawing” back and forth?

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    • August 2, 2016 at 4:41 am
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      Yes it is. You want to support with a steady outside rein and “tickle” or suggest with inside rein. And the goal is not to simply put the horses head down, but for it to seek the contact while you push the hind end forward and underneath. Make sure to keep a steady forward rhythm, and your inside rein should never have more contact than the outside, making sure to release (reward) when your horse offers to lower their nose with the inside rein. Reward even the smallest offer of softness at first.

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    • June 19, 2017 at 1:28 pm
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      No! ‘See sawing’ is emphatically incorrect :). You want to sponge gently with your fingers, mainting a light, but steady contact, and actually fussing with the reins as little as possible. A see sawing motion only serves to move the horses’ head artificially, and it will not encourage them to seek contact with the bit. The outside rein is where ‘most’ of your contact should be, with no pulling on the inside rein.

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  • October 26, 2016 at 7:50 pm
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    I have never participated in this sort of discussion before. I avoid them usually because it is very difficult to introduce change. Part of the human survival system is to cling to established convictions. Questioning them destabilizes the psyche and actually causes neural discomfort to the one questioning his knowledge, beliefs or convictions.
    I worked for seven years at one of the largest equine hospitals in the UK as their rehabilitation specialist. In this role I treated horse after horse suffering from extreem muscle pain and body distortion. Not because the owners were cruel or deliberatly attempting to harm their horse, but because they were applying tools of training that they were taught which we now know to be harmful. The vocabulary built around these traditional methods lead the rider to exert forces on the
    equine body and mind which it is simply not equipped to deal with. The concepts around which traditional training methods have been built are human not equine. The simple act of making an animal built on a horizontal axis perform endless circular shapes for example. Horses are linear thinkers built to move in straight lines…not circles. Teaching a horse to adapt his body and mind to perform within a human construct requires knowledge. Knowledge that science is now giving us. You can argue all you want about wether or not side reins are good bad or indifferent, but know the anatomy it is affecting and what has led you to use them. After all remember this…it is not you who has to wear them and it is not the horse who chose to be trained.

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  • November 16, 2016 at 7:24 pm
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    Do yourselves a favour and get a copy of the DVD IF HORSES COULD SPEAK , Stimmin Der Pferde, it is incredible. Shows you everything you need to know.

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  • November 17, 2016 at 2:19 am
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    I found myself in full agreement with this article until I read the negatives on “long and low”. In my experience, which is plenty, I have come across many back sore horses and have rectified this by working horses long, low, and forward both in hand and under saddle. I do not use any gadgets other than a lunge line. If you lunge a horse requesting a slight inside bend for a few circles then release the horse to no pressure whatsoever, they often will relax and travel long and low. This is how I achieve this. The difference in often just one session is remarkable/ going from back sore to not at all……..It also builds up enough muscle to later set the horse up for collection. I am confused as to what you are saying in regards to this.

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    • January 10, 2017 at 4:23 pm
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      Hi marnie, I was once right with you. But a horse who moves uninhibited will have no problem performing the request. Also, a horse whose tight back improves with it, will never improve beyond a certain point and will always need that “warm up”, leading you to believe it’s even necessary. However, it does not improve their gait and if the horse has an issue, it complicates and worsens the compensation. I was a forward riding student of Paul Cronin and I used long and low with my hunters. However, a couple had stifle issues that popped up every now and then ….and they all needed supportive corrective shoes at some point and in age..
      Fast forward to my trakehner, I’m his 8th home. He is athletic and strong, with issues. That was ok. Long and low appeared to help his back tightness. Also needed stretching routine. Also needed special shoes, also was on robaxin, also got acu/chiro….3 years of consistency and i felt like i was at a dead end…no real marked improvement for this conformationally exceptional horse. It didnt make sense. Then I stumbled upon JLC’s compiled info and haven’t looked back. My horse is developing suspension he hasn’t had since he was ungelded. He is in self carriage. He is outgrowing his size 84 blanket (81 was baggy on him when we purchased him) He is 15. His breeder is in disbelief. He has been off all those meds and routines since my first lesson. I just pulled his shoes because the horse doesn’t need them anymore, and it’s frozen out there and he is completely sound. My horse who needed magic cushion in his feet with special shoes, year round, on a 5week schedule DOESN’T NEED SHOES and he’s More sound than ever, with improvements measurable by the week.
      Our perception is at the mercy of our pool of knowledge and experience. Until you’ve had a horse for whom none of the typical traditional methods work, you might not understand that the methods and reasoning outlined by JLC are completely and utterly accurate.

      Reply

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