Risks in using side reins on horses identified in study

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The different auxiliary reins used with horses as training aids. Image: Gehlen et al. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11072146

Many users of auxiliary reins in a just-published study had them adjusted too tightly and did not change them despite the risk of related breathing problems, researchers report.

Auxiliary reins, such as running side reins, lunging reins, side reins, draw reins, Chambon, de Gogue, and the sliding ring martingale, are mechanical equine training aids that are used for various reasons, and exert influence on the posture of the horse.

Auxillary reins are often criticized, especially if they are used incorrectly and against the principles of animal welfare.

Professor Heidrun Gehlen and her fellow researchers at the Free University of Berlin set out to investigate how much knowledge horse owners have on auxiliary rein use and whether they employ them appropriately.

The researchers noted that many equestrians are proficient at using training aids. “However, regardless of the qualification level, unintentional neglect due to owner or rider ignorance and inflated confidence in their equine-related knowledge could result in people utilising equine training aids inappropriately and unintentionally comprising their horse’s welfare and performance.”

The study team, writing in the journal Animals, said auxiliary reins, if used incorrectly, will not help, and can harm the horse by causing overwork, accidents, and injuries. “They also often conceal causal rider problems while trying to achieve quick success,” the researchers said.

The study team used an online questionnaire distributed via social media and emails to 24 horse groups from Germany and Austria. The 49-question survey was available online for five weeks.

A total of 1026 people responded, most with extensive experience with horses. Of these, 823 complete questionnaires were used for the study,  with the main focus on the 362 who were using auxiliary reins at least every two weeks.

Side reins and the like can be an invaluable training aid, but there are risks from inappropriate use, say researchers.
Side reins and the like can be an invaluable training aid, but there are risks from inappropriate use, researchers say. Image by Rob Glenister

Respondents were asked about their horses and their training methods. Only those who said they used auxiliary reins regularly went on to answer further questions.

The researchers found that 40.2% of regular users considered the use of auxiliary reins important in training. They were mainly used according to their discipline: The running side rein was the most popular when working from the ground and the sliding ring martingale was the most popular for ridden equestrian activities.

Most of the horses used by the study participants were warmbloods (58.7%) and ponies (17.4%). Nearly three-quarters of the horses were already trained. Roughly half the riders used auxiliary reins for self-correction and support and the remainder for correcting the horse.

Most of the individuals attached the auxiliary reins only after the warm-up phase, but half the participants did not change them during the entire training session.

Most participants – 75% – could identify what the correct head position of the horse should look like.

However, there were still too many – 50% – who adjusted their horse too tightly and did not change anything at that time despite the potential for related breathing problems, the researchers reported.

Participants were asked whether they had noticed any defensive or feel-good reactions during the use of auxiliary reins in the last three months. In this regard, 92.8% (335 participants) said they had not noticed any signs of resistance.

A minority (4.2%) of the horses showed signs of tightening or bucking, or showed tense neck muscles and scuttling away (3%). Tail flicking, lack of acceptance of the aids, stamping, and kicking were only occasionally reported. By contrast, many more feel-good signs were observed: snorting, a swaying back, suppleness, a swinging tail, and a satisfied facial expression.

Additionally, 350 of the regular users (84.4%) said they did not have the impression that their horse had less air with auxiliary reins, and 97.5% of the horses did not make any breathing noise. On the other hand, seven participants felt that their horses breathed less, five noticed an increase in the breathing sound when using auxiliary reins, and four even noticed that it was created by the use of auxiliary reins.

There are behavioural consequences of physical restraint in horses through using auxiliary reins, the study team said. Improper use, with auxiliary reins buckled too tightly in order to force the horse behind the vertical (hyperflexion), can result in negative biomechanical and health-influencing aspects.

In the study, most of the individuals attached the auxiliary reins only after the warm-up phase, but half the participants did not change them during the entire training session.
In the study, most of the individuals attached the auxiliary reins only after the warm-up phase, but half the participants did not change them during the entire training session. Image by Pezibear

“It is clear that sliding ring martingales and tie-downs that apply pressure to the nasal planum via the noseband (in the case of the standing sliding-ring martingale and tie-downs) or the mouth via the reins (in the case of the running sliding-ring martingale or draw reins) are designed to prevent evasive raising of the head.

“The rider can use the lever action of the running sliding ring martingale to pull the head lower.

“Critics rightly point out that these reins force the horse into an outline rather than train self-carriage through lightness. When the head is forced downwards, the muscles of the neck and top line are not ‘suspending’ the head and neck, but instead, the horse is attempting to raise its head against aversive pressure.”

The authors said most participants in the study felt they used the reins responsibly.

“However, to our mind, there is still a need for clarification and a lack of information among the horse owners regarding the pros and cons of using auxiliary aids as well as the effects of the different reins used.”

Half of the participants did not change the reins during the entire training session.

The study team found that the objective of using auxiliary reins was not significantly different between the professional and recreational riders in the study.

“Both wanted to achieve contact, forward-downward extension, and support of the rider. However, by comparison, leisure riders wanted to avoid lifting the horse and to control the pace more often, whereas professional riders wanted to use auxiliary reins more to promote muscle development.

“The goal,” they said, “must always be to use auxiliary reins only for a short time in a problem-oriented way in the training and correction of horses in order to make these reins superfluous, and this knowledge must become an integral part of riding training.”

They continued: “Further research is needed to explore strategies to educate horse owners/trainers, improve their knowledge about riding aids and, by association, improve equine wellbeing. Educating horse owners, riders, and trainers by promoting scientific information and research results is essential to promote equine wellbeing.”

The study team comprised Gehlen, Julia Puhlmann, Roswitha Merle and Christa Thöne-Reineke.

Gehlen, H.; Puhlmann, J.; Merle, R.; Thöne-Reineke, C. Evaluating Horse Owner Expertise and Professional Use of Auxiliary Reins during Horse Riding. Animals 2021, 11, 2146. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11072146

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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