Training Aid Fact and Fiction for Better Riding

How to properly use equipment such as elastic bands, longeing systems, and rein rigs

I was 8, and I couldn’t dive. I thought I understood the technique. But my stomach and face hit the water first every time, and I’d come up for air ­frustrated—and hurting.

My dad finally said, “You just need to know what it feels like. If you can recognize the feel, you’ll get it.”

He picked me up and aimed me headfirst into the water, my arms stretched out dutifully in front of me as I’d had them for weeks. This time, those arms broke the water over my head, and I slid deep down into the water until my ears were heavy. It was an amazing and totally new sensation. I pushed up to the surface, energized with this discovery, and called out, “I get it! I get it!”

From then on I dove correctly—and never again did a belly flop. All I’d needed was a training aid to get me going, literally, in the right direction.

This article isn’t about swimming, of course. But the metaphor is relevant. In the equestrian world training aids—such as elastic bands, Pessoa longeing systems, and various rein rigs—can play useful and effective roles in correcting certain mistakes or issues under saddle, whether horse-, rider-, or training-based. Misuse of these tools, however, can make things worse and potentially even dangerous.

Before you dive into using devices, consider two equine biomechanics researchers’ insight into these trendy pieces of equipment. By separating fact from fiction, you’ll know how to take advantage of their benefits and avoid inappropriate use.

FACT: Good horse training doesn’t require any devices

When good training and good riding coincide with a sound and well-balanced horse, there’s no need for training aids, says Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, former head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, England.

“The aims of these aids are generally to encourage the correct use of the back and core abdominal muscles, and if the horse is being worked correctly under saddle, these areas should be getting sufficient activation,” she says.

The biomechanics of training aids are fairly straightforward: Get the horse’s head and neck down and the hindquarters engaged for better core muscle strength, balance, and straightness.

“If the horse goes with his head in the air, that reduces range of motion in the back, and the abdominal muscles won’t be engaged like they should be,” Dyson says.

Training Aid Fact and Fiction for Better Riding

FACT: Not every horse is fit and balanced

Horses that have had an injury, illness, or prolonged lack of exercise for any reason could benefit from training aids, says Dyson.

“Being off work for some time is going to cause loss of some core muscle and back strength,” she says. “And with lameness, horses adapt by reducing back movement, and those muscles can actually start to atrophy (waste away). Once you start to treat the lameness, you’ve also got to rebuild those muscles so that the horse can move correctly again with support from the back and core muscles.”

For example, using a Pessoa longeing system properly during hand-walking or occasional longeing, as instructed by an equine physiotherapist, could help retrain those muscles, she says.

“Any rehabilitation program after time off work for any reason should aim to strengthen the whole horse and include core building exercises, including carrot stretches and the proper use of training aids,” says Dyson.

To resolve asymmetry, a simple lightweight chain or even a bell boot placed around the pastern of the weaker limb works as an effective training aid, says Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, FRCVS, Dipl. ACVSMR, McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita at Michigan State University (MSU) and president of Sport Horse Science, in Mason, Michigan. Weighing as little as a sheet of paper, these devices “remind” the horse to pick up that limb, working the muscles and evening out strength for improved symmetry.

FACT: Sometimes the rider needs training, too

We can’t all be the most balanced, finessed riders. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ride, but it might mean considering training aids. “We don’t all ride like top competition riders, and many of us never will, for various reasons,” Clayton says.

Those reasons could include a simple lack of training or natural talent of either the rider or the horse, she says. It could also result from not having access to an optimal coach. “Some of these devices can be quite helpful to less experienced riders,” Clayton adds.

For instance, the elasticized Equiband system, which can be used under saddle, teaches riders what it feels like when a horse is properly “rounded,” Clayton says.

“These bands get the horse to move with his back more rounded and his hind end more engaged,” she says. “Some riders have never had the feel of sitting on a horse that does that. The idea is that the rider evolves to be able to ride in a way that gets the horse in that position independently. So this system trains the rider as well as the horse because now they’ll both know what to achieve.”

FACT: Training with devices is harder work for the horse

These devices might seem simple—just a few cords and straps and elastic here and there. But they’re actually working horses significantly harder than riding or longeing alone, our sources agree. That’s true whether it’s a full-body system like the Pessoa, local training aids such as fetlock bracelets, or head-and-neck devices like chambons or draw reins.

“It depends on the horse as well as the aid, so you can’t lay down hard and fast rules about how much to use them,” Dyson says. “Some of them can be quite demanding, so it’s probably good to alternate using them and not using them.”

Work sessions with elastic bands, for example, should be “greatly reduced in length,” says Clayton. “The horses are initially tapping into muscles they may not normally be using,” she says. “I generally recommend working the horse for only about a third of the time of a regular training session to avoid fatigue.”

The best way to know how much is too much is to watch your horse, Dyson adds. “Pay attention to how well he’s tolerating it,” she says. “Some can go 15 minutes; others might not be able to handle more than five. They’ll tell you they’ve had enough by their behavior—not willing to go forward properly, pinning the ears back, looking resistant.”

FACT: Devices need to be properly fitted and require user training

The last thing you want to do with training aids is dive right into that deep water, so to speak, with no instruction, our sources say. Research each type, take your time, and get help from reliable experts.

“Some veterinarians might know how to use them, but many won’t,” says Dyson. “Talk to a certified equine physiotherapist, and watch instructional videos from proven sources.”

Certain kinds of training aids, like bungee lines (also called neck stretchers), are “less complicated” to apply, but she says getting fitting advice and, if possible, one-on-one training would be ideal.

“You’re more likely to grasp the correct principles and be advised of potential problems,” Dyson says, such as restricting the horse’s movement or causing the horse to react aversively, even kicking out or trying to run off.

Improper equipment fit or use could create more problems than solutions, says Russell Guire, a PhD candidate at the Royal Veterinary College, in London, and a researcher at Centaur Biomechanics, in Warwickshire, U.K.

His group studied the biomechanics of a Pessoa system, a continual rope system, and side reins on 10 longed horses (­TheHorse.com/159259). They found significant pressure points along the thoracic vertebrae caused by an improperly fitted surcingle where the devices attach.

“Training aids are very useful for a variety of reasons, but the benefits of their use might be diluted when there are other pressures interfering,” he says.

FICTION: Training devices can replace rider skill

Training aids can help less experienced riders, but they’re not a fix-all, say our sources. In fact, in less skilled riders’ hands, the devices could be ­counterproductive.

“Draw reins are a good example,” says Dyson. “Some horses are just harder to ride on the bit, and proper use of draw reins allows them to get the horse on the bit without a battle of force. But there’s no point getting the horse’s head vertical unless he’s pushing from behind, so the rider needs to know how to engage the horse simultaneously with the seat and legs.

“If you put draw reins in the hands of a poor rider, they’re not going to achieve what you want to achieve,” she adds. “Put them in the hands of a better rider and you may well achieve what you want to achieve.”

Another example is the running martingale, says Clayton. It can steady rein tension in low-level riders—but that tension still runs higher than that of a skilled rider working without a training aid, she says.

FICTION: Training aids work by forcing horses into unnatural positions

The goal of a training aid is to encourage a horse to work in a beneficial position he’s naturally capable of achieving, our sources say. A rounded, engaged position with a vertical head can lead to improved performance. It can also contribute to good health and welfare for the ridden horse because he’s better able to carry the rider’s weight through a discipline’s various movements.

However, a properly used training aid isn’t going to force the horse into a position, they say. Good devices generally work by using the horse’s natural ­proprioception—the awareness of what different parts of the body are doing—rather than force.

By stimulating the skin and hair, the devices cause the muscles to react and build proprioception, says Clayton, adding that research is still lacking on the details of this phenomenon.

“For example, with the lightweight fetlock bracelets, which create no real measurable force on the horse, what we’re essentially doing is stimulating the tripping reflex,” she says. “If a horse grazes a log while stepping over it, he’s going to have a proprioceptive reflex telling him to pick that leg up a little more to clear the log. The lightweight chains—which, to be clear, are not action chains in any way—create that same effect.”

With ropes, straps, or elastic bands around the horse’s body, proprioception is also at play; they tickle the hairs, making the horse “aware” of those body parts and activating the corresponding muscles.

“They stimulate the skin and hair follicles, both of which are richly innervated, and we believe this results in the contraction of specific core muscles,” Clayton says.

FICTION: The science behind these devices is biased

Research on training devices is lacking, and what research has been done is “way overdue,” says Clayton.

“The biggest complaint we always have about using this equipment is that all the evidence is mostly anecdotal, and people are subject to the effects of placebo by proxy,” she says. “We need the science to actually prove that it works—or that it doesn’t.”

The problem, though, is it’s hard to get independent funding for such research. The people most likely to provide funding are the manufacturers, who have vested interests in the outcome, and they are to be commended for using scientific testing to evaluate their products, she says. The slight drawback is that even though the manufacturers remain at arm’s length, some researchers might feel pressured to produce a favorable result.

The existing research—limited to a few rein devices and a handful of basic studies on the Pessoa system (TheHorse.com/117068#pessoa), elastic bands (­TheHorse.com/136733), and fetlock devices (TheHorse.com/149734#bracelets)—is solid, however, Clayton says. 

Take-Home Message

In the unique sport of horseback riding, involving partners of two species, there’s significant risk of error, injury, imbalance, suboptimal fitness, and more. Riders can choose to fill these gaps by considering training aids that help the horse and rider find and recognize healthy positions, while improving core fitness and symmetry. To be effective, however, riders should learn to use these devices properly from reliable, recognized sources such as certified equine physiotherapists. By ­encouraging—not forcing—horses to acquire an ideal body position under saddle, say our sources, riders can help them develop into sounder, straighter, stronger, and better-performing athletes.