WA Classical Dressage






The Draw Rein Debate

Cynthia F. Hodges. JD, LLM, MA

Draw reins, or running reins, are auxiliary training aids that behave like sidereins, but are meant to be used under saddle. They can teach the horse to move forward onto the bit while maintaining a steady contact, and convey to him the idea of traveling straight and in balance by putting him "between the reins." Despite their classical history, there is a good deal of controversy surrounding their use because, when used improperly, they can lead to disconnection, leaning, even lameness in the horse.

Draw reins, available in leather, nylon and cotton webbing, consist of two straps between seven and nine feet each in length, buckled together over the withers. Each end is attached to the girth at the rider's knee on either side of the horse. The straps then pass through the snaffle, from inside to outside, and from there into the rider's hands. The reins should never pass through the snaffle rings from the outside to the inside, because they may not slide freely enough in an emergency and could pose a danger. The smooth side of the leather should face the the rings of the snaffle to minimize friction. The left side rein is held by the left hand, the right rein by the right hand as is a double bridle: draw reins on the inside (between middle and ring fingers), snaffle reins on the outside (between ring and little fingers.) The reins can also be detached; the rider would then use one rein on the side that the horse offers the most resistance.

The draw reins' lever-like power increases the lower the ends are fastened to the girth, therefore, it is preferable to attach them as high as possible. If they are too low on the girth, the horse is likely to overbend his neck and come behind the bit. Only the snaffle reins should be used with the draw reins, never the Weymouth. The action of the running reins should be gradually decreased until only the snaffle reins are used. Putting pressure on the inner draw rein, while giving with the outer, encourages the horse to soften at the poll and in the jaw. Draw reins should act unilaterally, not simultaneously on both sides. If the rein is used on one side, it cancels out the action of the rein on the other side.

Only skilled riders who know what a horse feels like when properly on the aids should use running reins, and only on horses who have already been taught how to move on the bit. The rider should always feel like he is pushing the horse's head "out" in front of him as much as possible, and not that the horse is curling his head towards him. They must never be used to force the horse into a frame. Adequate driving aids must be maintained, and the draw reins should only be used for as long as the horse resists by stiffening in the poll or jaw. As soon as the horse gives on both sides, the running reins should be dropped. If draw reins are used properly, success should be seen within the first few minutes. Generally a resistance to giving in the poll is a consequence of the horse not stepping evenly into the bridle on both sides. In this case, the rider should concentrate on getting the hindlegs to bend and work evenly, at which point, the resistance to the bit will disappear.

Running reins should only be employed when teaching the horse new movements, as a way of maintaining the correct position of the head and neck. Be sure that the horse has been adequately prepared for the new movement and that his resistance is not due to physical inability. If the draw reins are held with little or no contact, they will have little effect as long as the horse stays round. However, if he raises his head in evasion, the running reins respond immediately, without the danger of the rider being distracted and thereby giving the aids late, which can cause the horse to become confused and frustrated. Once the horse understands the exercise, reward him by dropping the draw reins.

Karl Mikolka suggests riding with the double snaffle whenever draw reins are required. Using draw reins on the same bit as the one with  the snaffle reins makes it difficult for the horse to tell the difference between the use of  the snaffle reins from that of the draw reins. The aids given by the rider will be muddy because the draw reins will feel just like the snaffle reins. However, by attaching the draw reins from the girth, through the rings of the thinner snaffle (closer to the rider) from the inside out, and holding normal reins on the true snaffle, the rider can "play" the true bit against the draw rein bit.

Used on both sides at once, running reins block the correct engagement of the hindquarters. The danger in using draw reins is a tendency to pull the horse's chin to his chest; they tempt the rider to bring the horse's head on the vertical with only the hands, not by driving the horse into the bridle. The action, then, is not back to front, but front to back. William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle, the first to utilize draw reins in the17th century, ruined his reputation as a horseman because his horses bent in the middle of the neck, not at the poll, and traveled behind the bit.
If the rider forces a false flexion and restricts the horse's movement, he works only on the head and neck frame and not on the athletic development of the entire horse. In this manner, the gaits can easily be destroyed. Disconnecting the horse's head and neck from his hindquarters can lead to a pacing walk and a four-beat canter. When running reins are used to force a horse into a headset, the result is often shorter strides, stiffness, overbending in the neck to avoid contact, and heaviness of the forehand due to leaning. Creating impulsion, throughness, collection, and self-carriage are then difficult at best. Draw reins can also give the horse a sore neck and back.

The "deep" style of training, made popular by the international success of Nicole Uphoff and Anky van Grunsven, employs the use of draw reins. To get an idea of what this feels like for the horse, put your chin on your chest. The muscles affected are those over the shoulder and in the neck, not in the rest of the body. The concentration on isolated parts of the horse prevent him from learning how to travel in a connected manner. Eventually, the rider will have to go back to square one to put the horse together properly and teach him how to carry himself. This differs from the exercise of forward and downward stretching of the muscles over the neck and back, as seen in the AHSA Training Level and First Level dressage tests, is of benefit. To approximate this feeling, lean forward slightly (while standing) and extend your head downward, with your chin sticking out. Your stomach, neck, back, and shoulder muscles all work together to keep your balance. The horse's back muscles are raised and stretched, strengthening and relaxing them, while the other muscles are likewise exercised and conditioned. This exercise allows for unity through the horse's body, it does not disconnect the head and neck from the haunches.

Karl Mikolka warns of some of the consequences of riding deep, aided by the use of draw reins, "Let us suppose that contact is started too early and too heavily. Young horses must be ridden long enough in their daily training until they begin to relax and reach for contact with the rider's hands. If the rider takes up contact on the horse's mouth too soon, before the horse relaxes, the horse's muscles remain in their cramped condition. The horse then does not carry his own weight and that of his rider on his four legs, but rather leans as heavily as he can into the rider's hands. Should the rider now pull even harder with his hands, the neck muscles of the horse no longer have to do their job properly. Thus the rider is not strengthening the neck muscles of his horse, but only carrying the whole load in his hard hands. The horse then leans on his rider's hands, and the elastic connection between the long back and neck muscles is broken. The hindquarters drag, so to speak, behind, and impulsion is lost." (Mikolka, 389) 

As to the reliance on draw reins, Kurt Albrecht von Ziegener says, "Mediocre trainers cannot make draw reins and other methods of force the norm, just because they themselves cannot get by without them, and because they are incapable of teaching their students the correct seat and aids to a degree where they do not need these devices." (von Ziegener, 68)


Hodges, Cynthia. "Riding auf Doppeltrense: Reintroducing the Double Snaffle."
de Kunffy, Charles. Training Strategies for Dressage Riders. Howell Book House. New York: 1994.
Mikolka, Karl. "The Basis for Gymnastic Training of the Horse." USDF Dressage Manual. Originally appeared in Dressage & CT, November 1972. 
Mikolka, Karl, Oberbereiter a.D. "A Few Thoughts on the Use of Draw Reins." 1998.
Mikolka, Karl, Oberbereiter a.D. "The Double Bridle: Considerations and Applications," 1998 Revised from the 1996 edition: "Thoughts On The Double Bridle." http://www.equiresource.com/karlskorner/KK_art_dblbri2.htm.
Mueseler, Wilhelm. Riding Logic. Arco Publishing, Inc. New York: 1981.
Podhajsky, Alois. The Complete Training of Horse and Rider in the Principles of Classical Horsemanship. Melvin Powers Wilshire Book Company. USA: 1967.
Seeger, Louis. Herr Baucher und seine Kuenste. Ein ernstes Wort an Deutschlands Reiter. Verlag von Friedr. Aug. Herbig. Berlin, 1852.
Translation available. Please contact Cynthia for more information.
von Ziegener, Kurt Albrecht. "Vorbilder Gesucht." Reiten und Fahren St. Georg. Januar 1998, pp. 68-69.
Zinger, Lisa." Draw Reins and Side Reins: Why, When, and How?" Practical Horseman. August 1998, p 24.

Translations on classical dressage:

Monsieur Baucher and His Arts: A Serious Word with Germany's Riders by Louis Seeger

System of Horsemanship by Louis Seeger

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