Side Reins and how they can work against your best intentions (as seen at British Eventing Dauntsey Park Horse Trials)

I get it. We all want the best for our horses and sometimes we use different training methods. What works for one horse, doesn’t work for another and all that.

However, with all the world wide web education, with coaching becoming more and more professional, with training becoming more and more focused on equine soundness and longevity – why do we still see things like this at an affiliated British Eventing event…?

side reins main pic

I thought I would just jot a few points as shown by the bay horse on photos for those of you who perhaps do use side reins with best intentions but would like some help in knowing whether they really work for your horse or not.


side reins 3

Notice that even though the lunger is lunging the horse to the right, his whole body is inverted and twisted. I do have a video of this horse but I chose not to post it since it shows the lunger and it is not my intention to shame anyone. Suffice to say, the bay sustained this posture for most of the time he was lunged. This is not beneficial for the riding horse and in fact, can cause plethora of issues when ridden: poll discomfort/locking, avoidance of the contact, tight shoulder muscles, choppy stride upon rein contact to name just a few.

It also “teaches” the horse a very dysfunctional posture on a circle.


side reins 4

The same horse a few circles later, still going to the right…Notice how his wither is tilted to the inside, how he commits his weight to his inside shoulder and then rescues his balance by moving his neck out. Now imagine sitting on this horse…You would feel as if you were “falling in” and motorbiking around the corner/circle. You would feel as if you were sliding to the inside with more weight on your inside seat bone. The horse might feel as if he is “pulling” on your inside rein and you “have nothing” in your outside rein.

A lesson from Photo 1 and 2: a very unnecessary “training” is going on that teaches the horse to look after oneself in a way that is bound to make him load his limbs unevenly and potentially make him unsound long term.


side reins 5

Notice: the horse looks fairly upright through the wither (no more motorbiking) but notice an odd buldge/broken line at the base of his neck on the outside followed by a tilt at the poll to the outside. The horse is trying his best to mould himself into the contraption of the side reins and creates an unhealthy posture once again. Instead of curving the neck very gently to the inside and flexing at the poll to the inside, his neck takes a shape of an “S” letter and that is neither promoting soundness nor better marks in dressage.

Lesson from Photo 3: Look after your horse’s neck, once the horse learnt to be afraid of the bit and squashed himself into dysfunctional, ugly looking broken neck line, it is not easy to gain his trust again and re-train those “bonsai-ed” muscles.


side reins 2

At first glance you might say that from the wither on, the neck line doesn’t look too contorted but how much this is wrong and how constricted the horse really is you can see in the action, or lack of it, of his hind legs and in the stiff line of his back. The neck, that is an important balance tool for the horse, is blocked. His balance is non existent – he is forehand heavy and avoids adding any more push from behind so he doesn’t cartwheel over his head…His handles are “behind him” rather than “underneath him”.

The lunger is determined for him to go forward but he can’t having been restricted so much in front. The lunger chases him and an awful, disjointed, unbalanced, angry and inverted to the outside trot follows (Photo 5 below).


side reins main pic


side reins 6

Behind the light bay horse (who on Photo 6 is testing another option – tensing the muscles on both sides of the neck and leaning onto the bit and side reins) is a dark bay horse that is also being lunged in side reins. His are adjusted at the length that allows for natural neck carriage and they only come into action when he puts his head well above the bit or drops it well down/left or right. His whole biomechanics is much healthier, relaxed and his body (from poll to tail) follows the line of the circle fairly accurately.


side reins 1

Both horses undergo a training session but whilst the dark bay is potentially learning how to enjoy school or at least, just get his muscles warmed up well before the rider gets on board, the light bay is learning how to skive it and how to hate the subject of this lesson…

PHOTO 7 shows this lovely, athletic horse in a nice, forward, uphill stride which might fool you into thinking it’s all good and he just needs to learn to repeat that stride over and over.

The problem here is he isn’t learning how to move better but how to avoid discomfort in a more clever way. Sadly for him, he finds ways that potentially will cause him neck pain, poll pain, limb issues, pelvis and back issues etc etc

Side reins have been around for many years. They are used by many trainers from classical school to plain abuse. Used in an intelligent way, they help the horse understand the concept of straightness and relaxed reach towards the rider’s hand.

Those aims can never be reached by attaching the side reins very low, very short and then chasing the horse around a “circle” – those would only teach the horse evasive, ill techniques that damage his body with micro injuries.

side reins end pic

P.S. If you saw a horse being lunged in such a way at an affiliated event (or any event) – would you report this as a misuse of equipment? If yes, who would you report this to? BE after the event? Stewards during the event? If not, why not? 


10 thoughts on “Side Reins and how they can work against your best intentions (as seen at British Eventing Dauntsey Park Horse Trials)”

  1. I think the BE rules state that you can’t warm up your horse in any training aid / equipment that you can’t use in the ring, or is that Riding Club?

  2. I totally agree that many people do use training aids wrong. However, I feel it is hard to judge in a situation like this. I lunge my boy in a pessoa and he goes lovely in it. I give him a good warm up on both reins before attaching it. However, once its first clipped on, he can sometimes take a while to settle into it and to someone just passing by, it may look like I am using it all wrong.

    It could have been a case of the horse usually goes lovely with the side reins being used the exact same way at home, but due to the excitement of the show, they never settled into it. Although, if this was the case I would like to think that the owner would see it wasn’t going to happen and call it a day and it sounds like you watched for a while and the handler didn’t come to this conclusion in this time.

    Just look at Laura with Kauto Star at Olympia. He had been going lovely at home and when he didn’t perform, the pressure got to her and she didn’t see that she should just call it a day. Shows can put a lot of mental pressure on both horse and rider and can cloud judgement.

    1. I do see where you are coming from. Maybe if I wasn’t there and didn’t watch it for a long while I would be more likely to agree with “other factors” but the truth is, attaching side reins so low where they really have no place to be whatever the circumstance and so short, where they contort the neck so much, is just a pure abuse 😦

      The way I see it, no amount of “settling into the gadget” makes it right as it would be like saying that just because the horse submitted to contortions and stopped fighting them, makes them right.

      I personally find it so very sad, unnecessary and inhumane – my enjoyment of the sport suffers as a result.
      All postural habits in a horse can be trained without the use of any gadgets, why not train oneself rather than rely on a few ropes and pulleys and attachments :-/

      If one is used, why not educate oneself as to how the muscles work and how the skeleton collaborate with them to create a functional movement. Especially when we are suppose to be athletes competing at affiliated events…

      1. From what you said originally, it didn’t sound like this was abnormal behaviour for both horse and handler. I just wanted to say there is the possibility there could be more to it.

        As for gadgets in general before I got my boy, I was very much “you don’t need gadgets, just need more hard work.” and I still am in a way. But my boy is an ex racehorse and when I got him he had no topline what so ever. So much so that my instructor said I don’t want to see him working long, low or round when being ridden as he hasn’t got the muscle to properly support the rider while doing this. If I hadn’t worked him in a pessoa from fairly early on (on a very loose setting) and slowly built him up, he wouldn’t have enough muscle for me to be now asking him to work properly under saddle or for me to feel happy jumping him and he loves his jumping.

        I think as long as they are used properly, they are great things and for some horses, they really help understand what is wanted. Such as when they carry themselves in the correct way, the majority of training aids give immediately. Whereas there can be human error in riding where we might be a bit slow to give the release.

        And just to clear up my “settling into them point”, I mean this in the sense that it’s not so much to do with the setting it is on, more so the environment around them. A horse could be going lovely, then a noise or anything could cause them to tense and not settle back into using the gadget for a while. It’s not so much they are fighting the gadget, just that something else has their attention. I do totally disagree with people using gadgets to force the horse into a certain shape!

  3. Thank you for sharing, I found this really interesting. To answer your questions, my choice would probably be to not report this particular incident to the show organisers: the horse is certainly uncomfortable, but my impression is that this isn’t life-threatening (or dangerous to other humans or animals) and that the handler probably isn’t doing this with the intent of harming the horse. If they were harming the horse on purpose, showing no remorse and becoming a danger to others (for example, if the horse was demonstrating extreme behaviours through fear or discomfort to try and communicate his distress, and therefore causing potential danger to others nearby), I would probably alert someone.

    Would I intervene in another way? It would depend on what I’m looking at: I think you’ve been absolutely right not to fully identify the horse and handler, so it’s not quite possible to gain your perspective, but I think again it would depend for me on what I were looking at. If the handler looked as if they may be receptive to help, I would perhaps go over and start a conversation, but try to keep it non-confrontational. So I wouldn’t march over and say, “Can’t you see what you’re doing to the horse?!”, it would be more like, “I was admiring your horse, I think he’s lovely, which section are you entered in today? Have you been here before? Have you travelled far?”… some sort of small talk to appear friendly and curious rather than on the attack of, “You’re doing something wrong and I’m here to tell you how bad you are.” Because they may not realise (which you have noted). My next line would be, “Have you tried X with your horse?” and to take it from there.

    I’d also only go over if I were in a calm mood! Because from looking at these photos, it’s clear to me that the horse’s body language isn’t good, and I’m worried that I’d just burst out with, “Go home. He’s in a state and you’re not going to be successful. Put your relationship first and burn those side reins”. It’s very hard not to sound like a know it all preacher when it comes to horses, so the reality is that I’d almost definitely turn a blind eye. If I saw blood, I wouldn’t hesitate to step in and inform someone, because ignoring the fact that you’ve overused a tool (whether it’s spurs, a bit, or other equipment) to the point where you’ve drawn blood is straight up abuse and cannot be tolerated. The situation you’ve shared here isn’t good, but I think I’d be afraid to stick my neck out and open myself up to criticism for daring to try and help!

  4. Upsets me to see people using side reins which are WAY too short and very low down. From the images shown, the side reins are not achieving anything except restricting the horse, it is not able to use its back end and has got it’s mouth shut with a flash as well. People are always in such a rush, it takes time and patience and consistent training in the right way and as natural as possible to achieve a happy horse which enjoys its work. 😦

  5. EquiPepper – I understood what you meant 🙂 However, I stand by the opinion that the side reins were unacceptably short and wrongly attached regardless. They gave the horse no chance to work correctly at all even if he was most focused, willing and calm.

    As to gadgets – yes, I used to use many different gadgets with some positive results but since discovering classical work in-hand and realising it works the same but in a much more natural way as well as requiring the handler to develop timing and skill, I personally prefer it. I do work with a lot of ex-racehorses though so do understand what you mean by their muscles being developed in a way that doesn’t support non racing training.

    Becky – that’s probably most honest comment I got on this so far! I would certainly not approach the lunger but I would want to know who to speak to at an event in the future if something I observed concerned me. I know many people who saw this horse being lunged the way he was and believing it was ok…I also know some who would happily walk up to the lunger and gave them a talking to 😉
    I know at BD events there are stewards who supposed to observe warm ups for signs of rollkur and other abusive training methods but I am not sure of procedure at BE events.

    Bella – indeed 😦 fast, fast and up a level and who cares about the horse :-/

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