WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #108
GIMMIK OR GOOD GEAR?
Should you use certain tack items with your horse or not? Get
professional input on seven commonly used pieces of horse
Take a stroll through any tack shop, peruse the pages of a
horse-gear catalog, or shop any online equestrian supply company,
and you're likely to grow wide-eyed looking at all the devices
that hold out the promise of improving your horse manship and
your horse's performance.
Even if you're not sold on the product hype, there's always your
riding buddy who swears by some item that solved all his or her
horse's behavioral problems. "You really gotta try it!"
But is that item a good piece of training gear ... or a gimmick
that could create more problems than it solves?
To help you sort through some common but often misunderstood
training tools, we asked members of Team Horse&Rider and other
extremely accomplished horsemen and horsewomen to offer their
views on seven pieces of equipment. Here's what they offered as
insight and advice.
BY GAVIN EHRINGER
Tack item: Draw reins. Alias: running reins.
Bob Avila, all-around horseman and famed reining and working cow
horse trainer and member of Team H&R.
This gear consists of a long set of reins of leather or woven
cord, or a combination. The reins run down from the rider's hands
through the rings of a snaffle bit, then attach to the cinch
between the horse's front legs or to the rings on both sides of a
cinch. They can be used with or in place of normal reins. How
they work: Like a pulley system, draw reins add considerable
leverage to the rider's hands. If the rider's hands tighten, the
reins exert pressure downward, toward the ground, and inward,
toward the horse's chest. Likewise, if the horse raises his head,
pressure comes to play on the mouth by the reins affixed to the
saddle's girth or cinch rings.
"I seldom use draw reins, but the one time I do is when teaching
some horses to change leads," says Avila. Specifically, Avila
will use draw reins for a horse that wants to change leads by
elevating in front instead of driving from behind. He also sees
some utility in using draw reins to "capture" the horse's head
(hold it in a desired position), compress its body, and get its
parts to work together, as when teaching a sidepass.
However, the trainer cautions about relying on draw reins for
sustained training. "I might use them for a while, but never more
than 30 days."
"Ninety percent of the time, people use draw reins as a crutch,"
Avila asserts. "They think draw reins will teach a horse to hold
his head down on his own if they just use them long enough. I
haven't seen anyone who was successful at that."
Steer clear if:
You don't have someone who can teach you how to use them. Like
most leverage systems, draw reins add considerable force, but
take away feel and feedback. The considerable pressure draw reins
exert can injure a horse's mouth, sore his neck, and serve to
make him heavy on his forehand. "Draw reins aren't a great tool
for anyone not experienced in their use and purpose," Avila
Tack item: Running martingale. Aliases: training fork, training
Julie Goodnight, a popular natural horsemanship clinician,
Western trainer, Team H&R member, and host of the RFD-TV show
HorseMaster With Julie Goodnight.
The running martingale attaches to the cinch between the horse's
front legs and then forks into two straps with a ring on each
end, through which the reins are run. It may or may not have a
strap that goes around the neck to hold it up. How it works:
Running martingales are commonly used in Western and English
disciplines. Their purpose is to prevent the horse's head from
getting too high. Once the horse's mouth is above the withers, a
rider no longer has control through the reins, so the running
martingale is a fail-safe device to prevent the horse's head from
going above the rider's hands.
The running martingale is commonly used with young or green
horses. If the horse gets excited and his head goes up too high,
the device will engage and cause a downward pull on the reins,
helping the rider maintain control. Once the horse has gone a
period of time without control issues, the rider can cease using
the running martingale. However, some riders opt to use it
routinely on a high-strung horse that gets too "amped."
"Many riders misunderstand the purpose of the running martingale,
and think it should be used to get the horse to lower his head
instead of preventing the head from getting too high," says
Goodnight. "There's a big difference."
Adjustment is another factor. When the device is properly
adjusted, the rider should be able to lift the martingale's rings
all the way to the horse's throat; any shorter and the device
will pull down on the reins when the horse's head and the rider's
hands are in a normal position, interfering with communication
from the rider's hands.
Goodnight warns that another common mistake is to use the running
martingale without rein stops, which attach to the reins (below
the martingale's rings) and prevent the rings
from sliding up too far and getting caught on the bit. "This can
cause some crazy wrecks and result in injury to both horse and
rider," she says.
When properly adjusted and used with rein stops, the running
martingale is relatively benign, with little potential for abuse.
But if it's adjusted too tightly and pulls down on the reins to
lower the head, it becomes a crutch that the rider can't wean
away from - because when it's taken off, the rein cues feel
totally different to the horse.
Steer clear if:
Your horse is chronically out of control already and you don't
know how to stop it from happening. "Don't think the running
martingale will solve any problems," cautions Goodnight. "It
doesn't prevent the horse from getting out of control, but it
might help you regain control. You'll still have to solve the
training or physical issue that results in the problem."
Tack Item: German martingale. Alias: cowboy martingale.
Al Dunning, Team H&R member whose accomplishments include winning
world championships in reining, cutting, working cow horse, and
A short piece of rope or leather is attached to the D-ring at the
center of the front cinch. This forks to form two pieces, each of
which runs through the rings of the snaffle bit and attaches to
the regular reins, about 18 inches behind the bit.
How it works:
When a horse raises his head, the regular reins go slack but the
short leads of the German martingale become taut, exerting
pressure on the bit. If the horse yields to the pressure and
lowers his head, the German martingale goes slack and response is
restored to the reins themselves.
"I'm an advocate of it," says Dunning. "If there's one piece of
specialty equipment I would recommend, this is it. I've even
designed my own Al Dunning German Martingale."
Dunning goes on to explain that if the horse raises his head out
of position, losing poll flexion and tipping his nose upward, the
German martingale exerts pressure and reminds the horse to tip
his nose and lower his head. If the horse pushes against the
rider's hands, the device engages to help bring his head back to
a soft, vertical position. Then, it releases and allows the rider
to ride with hands on the straight rein, with nothing pulling on
To be effective, the German martingale must be adjusted to
release when the horse's head becomes vertical. Even when
properly fitted, the device can act quickly and suddenly, causing
unpredictable reactions in a horse that's not accustomed to it.
Also, this gear won't compensate for a rider who doesn't know how
to get proper drive and collection in the hind end.
"All these (tie-down) devices are no good unless you use your
legs and ride the back of the horse to the front," says Dunning.
"All of them give resistance in front, so you can drive the back
end and get the horse to round up."
Steer clear if:
Your horse has a tendency to rear. As a German martingale engages
on a rearing horse, it can cause him to lose his balance and fall
Tack item: Tie-down.
Fred Whitfield, seven-time Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association World
Champion Calf Roper and 1999 PRCA All-Around Champion.
A leather, rope, or nylon strap is attached to the D-ring of the
cinch, run up through the breast collar, and linked to a noseband
that's supported by a hanger that loops over the horse's poll.
Nosebands can be soft, as with a wide strap of smooth saddle
leather, or hard, using a narrower material such as nylon strap
or a piece of braided rope or cable, the latter typically covered
with a sheath of rubber or plastic.
How it works:
A tie-down is a simple device. If the horse raises his head, the
tie-down exerts force on the nose; it can also be designed to
exert pressure on the poll through the bridle-like hanger.
"A tie-down keeps the horse's head down and out of the way and
gives him something to brace against when he stops," says
Whitfield. "I use several different kinds, either soft or hard,
depending on the horse." The roper also says that when the horse
lifts his head in the stop and feels the tension of the tie-down,
his first reaction is to back, which is desirable. But, he adds,
"If the (roping) horse is exceptional, you might not need the
Roping is a fast event, and as soon as a run is over, the rider
can release pressure by unsnapping the tie-down. But for everyday
riding, the continuous use of a tiedown puts strain on the neck
muscles and vertebrae, possibly leading to arthritis over the
Outside the arena, a horse encounters uneven ground, obstacles,
and more that can upset his balance. Because a horse uses his
neck for balance, a tie-down can prevent him from regaining lost
balance and thus cause wrecks. Horses crossing streams with
tie-downs have drowned. Further, tiedowns can be crutches that
compensate for inadequate training, heavy hands, or fear on the
part of the rider.
"It might be a cliche, but I always tell people, 'You have to be
smarter than your horse,'" advises Whitfield. "Whether to use a
tie-down, and what kind you use, has a lot to do with the horse
Steer clear if:
Your horse has an undiagnosed reason for tossing his head. For
instance, if he has dental problems or a pinching bit, using a
tie-down won't solve the underlying issues.
Tack item: Sidepull. Aliases: Bitless bridle, Bozo bridle, Indian
hackamore, and a number of others named for their inventors.
Kristie Peterson, four-time Women's Professional Rodeo
Association World Champion Barrel Racer.
A number of designs are categorized as sidepulls and bitless
bridles, but two main designs predominate. The first is a leather
or nylon headstall, almost like a halter. The reins attach near
the cheek, cross below the horse's jaw, and then run through
steel rings located just below the noseband. It's the gentler of
the two designs.
Peterson's Bozo Sidepull Bridle by Classic Equine' is a replica
of the headgear used by Peterson on her horse, French Flash Hawk
(Bozo); who carried her to four world titles. These are akin to
"soft" mechanical hackamores, with steel shanks, a noseband, and
curb chain under the jaw.
How it works:
Rather than applying pressure to the mouth, sidepulls exert
pressure either on the nose and chin, or the nose, chin, and
poll. Reining is mostly direct: If the rider pulls on one rein,
it directs the horse's head to that side. When the rider pulls on
both reins, pressure is exerted down and back to "check" the
horse or signal a stop.
Early in Bozo's career, Peterson ran mainly in futurity events
using an O-ring snaffle bit. "Bozo never liked the snaffle-he
always gagged," she says. "After he got to be 5 years old, my
friend Steve Lazor made a sidepull. I tried it on Bozo, and he
never used anything else his entire career."
Peterson now recommends a sidepull when a horse is bitsensitive,
prone to throwing or shaking his head, roots at a bit, or has
suffered dental or tongue damage. It's also a solution for riders
who are too active with their hands or, as she says, "always ride
with their hands in the horse's mouth." A horse that's been
desensitized to bit control could also respond to a changeover to
a sidepull design.
The champion barrel racer also recommends her design for barrel
horses that tend to laterally overbend, and even for trail
riding. "I find with many horses, it relaxes them," she says.
Although bridleless designs are fashionable among individuals
looking for humane gear, some sidepulls can in fact be harsh.
Placed high up on the horse's face, they can put pressure on
sensitive facial nerves. They can also exert vise-like force on
the nose and mandible, especially the hackamore-like designs with
shanks that increase leverage.
Creators of certain designs claim them to be pain-free, making
the point that the bitless-bridle design exerts pressure across a
broad area, including the poll, nose, and jawas though the rider
is cradling the horse's head. Weigh such claims against your
horse's degree of training.
Steer clear if:
A bit already works for your horse. "This isn't a training
device," Peterson notes of her Bozo sidepull. "It's for a
finished horse." Also, any of these designs might not be
permissible in the arena by competitive associations. Be sure to
check rules before committing to a program that employs one of
the sidepull or bitless-bridle designs.
Tack item: Mechanical hackamore. Aliases: Mechanical bridle,
Clinton Anderson, famed clinician, Team H&R member, and star of
the Fox Sports Net show Downunder Horsemanship.
A mechanical hackamore operates as a bitlessbridle design based
on the classic bosal, in that it applies pressure to the bridge
of a horse's nose and beneath his lower jaw. But unlike the
noseband of a bosal, the noseband of a mechanical hackamore
attaches to two steel shanks, to which is attached a curb chain
that runs under the horse's chin.
How its works:
When a rider draws the reins, he or she engages the shanks, which
in turn tighten the curb chain. This exerts force on the
noseband, capturing the horse's nose and lower jaw with a
vise-like action. Reining tends to be direct, as pulling on a
single rein will pull the horse's face in that direction
(although this isn't necessary if a horse is trained to neck
Like many other trainers, Anderson sees little utility in this
design because it's seldom permitted for arena use. "I don't like
it," he states flatly. "It tends to lift the head, and it can
also cause the horse to throw his head. And it can't be used for
most show competitions. I find it best not to use equipment you
can't show in."
That said, Anderson admits that some riders might find the
mechanical hackamore useful. "Any piece of equipment can work
with the right rider, with a rider who has light and sensitive
hands. But with the wrong rider, the mechanical hackamore exerts
a lot of pressure on the nose. There's just a lot of pressure
that comes from those long shanks."
This is a piece of gear that has its place. For the recreational
trail rider whose horse is trustworthy without constant rein
pressure, the mechanical hackamore can be useful in that it
readily allows grazing yet affords control when necessary.
Similarly, it can solve problems for the rider whose horse has
become desensitized to the bit or has facial or cranial issues.
However, one needs to be sensitive to the fact that, even though
it might appear more forgiving than a bit, the mechanical
hackamore creates a great deal of leverage and can be abusive in
Steer clear if:
You don't have a specialized need, as outlined above; your aim is
to compete in the show arena; or your horse is already working
well in a traditional bit. An alternative, such as a sidepull or
a traditional bosal, might be a better solution for many riders
than a mechanical hackamore.
Tack item: Twisted-wire snaffle.
Gordon Potts, Team H&R member and owner/ founder of The Brass
Ring, a full-service show-horse, training, and breeding facility
that's produced Arabian national champions in English and Western
The twisted-wire snaffle is made of two O-rings bridged by pieces
of twisted wire joined in the middle. Use requires care and
How it works:
The non-smooth surface of the mouthpiece sensitizes the horse's
mouth to bit pressure. Many trainers advocate a progression of
bits, in which the horse is started with a smooth, large-surface
snaffle, then moves to smaller-surface and more sensitizing
snaffles as he gains experience and possibly becomes less
responsive to the earlier bits. In theory, the horse should
maintain responsiveness and lightness throughout the progression.
However, if a horse should become less responsive, a trainer
might employ a twisted-wire snaffle for short periods to lighten
up a horse's mouth.
"When a horse is getting dull on a smooth snaffle, the
twisted-wire snaffle gives you a place to go," says Potts. "When
used correctly, it's a useful tool for advancing a horse's
A twisted-wire snaffle can damage a horse's mouth if not used
with supreme care and skill. It should never be employed by an
unschooled or heavy-handed rider, whose lack of feel and timing
could be the very cause of the horse's dullness to a milder bit.
"In the wrong hands, this bit can cut into a horse's mouth, which
can lead to head tossing and getting 'above the bridle,'"
Steer clear if:
You're not a light-handed rider with a well-advanced degree of
feel, and/or you're a rider who can't control his or her temper
and digresses to jerking on the reins when a horse isn't
performing as desired.
DECEMBER 2010 HORSE AND RIDER
To be continued from time to time