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Auxiliary reins – help or hinder?

Auxiliary reins

Thanks to the networked world, many people are increasingly striving for sensitive, non-violent communication with their horses. We admire dazzling freedom dressage at trade fairs. We are enthusiastically refining our body language to understand the language of our horses and to start a conversation.

Horses are empathetic, alert animals, who are constantly reading and striving to understand their environment. They forgive communication errors on the part of their humans, and try very hard to classify us in their world.

If you ask a layman how to steer a horse, the answer will probably always be “with the reins”. In addition to seat, voice and maybe a neck ring for some of us, reins are our direct connection to a horse, its head and its steering. Responsible riders and trainers learn and teach how to use reins gently.

A number of so-called “auxiliary reins” in the equestrian world are used diligently. The term sounds great at first, since the word “help” is in it.

I am very critical of auxiliary reins. With this blog I would like to explain why.

Reasons against auxiliary reins

Stress caused by restriction of natural movements:

Prey animals ensure their survival, among other things, through their sensitivity to their environment and their willingness to react. The smallest changes in their environment, or in training, can unsettle them and thus trigger stress. Auxiliary reins hinder horses in their expression, minimize horse’s field of vision, increase occurrences of muscle spasms, induce fear and often can dim a horse’s “spirit”. Horses whose head and neck (which act as their balance bar) are restricted from moving freely, lose the ability to communicate through body language. When communication is suppressed, there is no space to express emotions and to make independent decisions. Any pain or pressure that the auxiliary reins causes, can trigger a behavioral chain of stress, fear, resistance, attack and/or flight. Letting go and the willingness to learn are then no longer possible. When a horse attempts to raise its head, bucks, or bolts and is prevented from doing so by auxiliary reins, it suffers physically, mentally and punishes itself. By suppressing these signals, we miss the opportunity to remove deficiencies and health problems (e.g. blockages). We as horse trainers and owners must strive to broaden our horizon. 

  • Unnatural Movement – Distress due to restricted natural movements:

Horses are designed to move in a specific way. One of the biggest problems with using auxiliary reins is that they limit a horse’s natural movement. This can cause injury or pain. Since auxiliary reins force the neck and head into a fixed position, it is not uncommon for the horse’s shoulder to become tense due to tension in the head-arm muscle. Muscles are designed to move bones and joints by contracting and relaxing. Constant tension leads to wear and tear and overload of the tense musculoskeletal system and thus also of the organism. As a result, tense shoulders can inhibit activity in the hindquarters and prevent the horse from stepping forward. If the forehand and hindquarters are restricted in their range of motion, the back cannot freely swing anymore. A horse with auxiliary reins might appear in the desired shape for a moment. This gets lost immediately as soon as the auxiliary reins are unbuckled. A long-term training effect is therefore absent both in lunge work and when riding.

  • Pain:

The risk of injury in the area of ​​the horse’s head through the use of auxiliary reins should not be underestimated. The nostrils as well as the hyoid bone and gums can be damaged. Horses with auxiliary reins often lean on the bit, which causes pain and, in the long run, can lead to numbness  in the mouth. Alternatively, many horses avoid the pain by rolling their heads inwards.

Muscles that are fixed in one pose will start to hurt after a while.

  • Incomplete education:

If we deprive a horse of the opportunity to move independently and discover its body by using auxiliary reins, one important component is missing. Horses trained with auxiliary reins don’t learn to elongate and stretch. They don’t explore their healthy self-carriage. Instead, their heads are forced unnaturally low, high, or behind the vertical. A position and bend in the neck or poll can either not be achieved or can only be achieved by shortening the buckles on one side.

  • loss of trust:

Since auxiliary reins don’t release tension or provide situational feedback, there is no communication at eye level. The horse is so severely restricted in its expressions that it can hardly react to other rein aids. It takes two to tango. If only one is leading and the other one is unable to express themself, it damages trust and the relationship.

What do you expect from auxiliary reins?

Before purchasing and using auxiliary reins, you should obtain sufficient information and acquire skills to minimize the risk of physical and psychological injury. The integrity of the horse should always be top priority. Please ask yourself:

  • What would I like to achieve by using auxiliary reins?
  • What improvements am I expecting?
  • Is there another way to accomplish my goals?

Here is a list of the most common auxiliary reins on the market:

Side reins, chambon, Vienna or triangular reins, Lauffer reins, Gogue, Colbert reins, neck extenders, draw reins, sliding ring martingale.

Are there good reasons for using auxiliary reins?

A few special cases can – if considered  individually- justify the use of auxiliary reins.

To inexperienced riders auxiliary reins can provide a sense of security and control, if impossible otherwise. Beginners can focus on their seat rather than on elastic rein handling achieved through increasing experience. 

Likewise, professionally used auxiliary reins can be tools in Therapeutic horseback riding.

One disadvantage remains: A spooking or tripping horse has no way to catch itself, which can increase the risk of a fall. Furthermore, the inexperienced rider does not receive any immediate feedback, such as head tossing if a rider bounces in the saddle. Therefore, only a well-trained and minimally skittish horse should be chosen to minimize any chance of an injury. A certain risk, e.g. of overturning, still remains if we restrict a horse’s visibility and freedom of movement. Carefully weigh the pros and cons and keep the horse’s well-being in mind.

There are different ways! For 15 years I ran a small riding school at my ranch.

I didn’t use any auxiliary reins and I was happy about that.

I personally know a therapeutic riding institute that trains their horses with the lunging course. None of the therapy horses walks with auxiliary reins.

Finding causes instead of fighting symptoms

  • “But my horse usually raises its head and arches its back. It’s finally moving forward-down” and
  • “I use auxiliary reins because they help my horse find its position. Otherwise it always carries its head too low/high” 

are the phrases I hear most when looking for reasons why horse owners use auxiliary reins.

I believe coercion and a fixed body position in training are pointless. Auxiliary reins hinder a horse in finding self-carriage. The horse is forced into a posture that humans perceive as correct. Biomechanical connections are often overlooked. There is a lack of a fundamental understanding that a horse should not be pressed into a neck shape. The body needs to be seen holistically and should have the right to find its balance and movement. Everything is connected to everything. If you are interested in respectful cooperation, invest in knowledge, high-quality training, trust work and horse-friendly communication.

We must understand that a certain body position is not desirable, but that every single part of the body and mind are in constant exchange. Promote this exchange instead of shutting it down! I highly recommend the work after the Course in Lunging. It explains why good movement is the basis for a healthy horse. You will also learn how to utilize positive energy to help your horse regain joy in working with you. Both forwards-down and collection are part of the course. Your horse will learn to adopt a good posture independently through the lunge work. Auxiliary reins become superfluous.

Important muscles will be built once horses learn to move balanced and with good posture on a circular line. Through sensitive and anatomically suitable support they will gain self-confidence. A proud posture and bright eyes are the reward for non-violent, varied work on the lunge and under the saddle. Horses that no longer run meaningless circles, can benefit from this lunging method (on circular tracks and straight lines, track figures and in combination with gymnastic manual work)once they become riding horses.

Case study Honduras

The effect of correctly buckled auxiliary reins (forehead-nose line in front of the vertical) can be seen in the picture on the right.

auxiliary reins

Although the length of the auxiliary reins is unchanged, Honduras’ head got behind the vertical when he was trying to “drop” a bit. This got worse the more he tried to lower his head.

auxiliary reins

If the head-arm muscle cannot move freely and the poll remains tight, the forehand cannot swing forward. The muscles of the upper and lower neck cannot operate together smoothly and efficiently. Since all areas of the body ultimately form a unit, the hindquarters are also affected by the disharmony. In the picture below you can see that Honduras is tight at the poll. He is not correctly bent and positioned to the inside. Instead, he resigns. Honduras leans on his inside front leg and runs heavily on the forehand. It becomes clear that auxiliary reins hinder horses from biomechanically running a circle in a good manner. His facial expressions, his eyes, are consistently bad. A “happy athlete” truly looks different!

auxiliary reins

Many of these illustrations of horses with auxiliary reins circulate in literature and on the Internet. Our eyes simply become accustomed to them. Unfortunately, such pictures do not show any extremes, but depict the reality of many riding arenas, where horses move lap after lap in hyperflexion and with tense backs. Horses can be deprived of any zest for life and their own will can be broken. Many horses suffer from what psychologists call “learned helplessness”.

What the horse’s facial expressions tell us

Hondura’s facial expression in this picture speaks volumes. He suffered from both the physical pressure on the ark and tongue and the mental strain of being constricted. Honduras knew auxiliary reins from its past and associated only grief with it. Who would want a horse that looks so mournful?


There is another way!

On the left picture you can see Honduras without auxiliary reins, in a nice bend and with the shoulder raised. In the right picture his expression when he is not in distress. Doesn’t he look happier right away?

Horse luning

My final advice

In everything you do with your horse, pay close attention to his facial expressions and behavior. If your horse is “rebellious”, see it as an expression of distress. See with your eyes and your heart, too. Always pay attention to your horse’s emotions, because mental health is just as important as physical. If you realize your horse is in need, find another way. It’s always there!

Horse lunging