Do no harm: understanding the function of tie-downs, martingales, and draw reins

jumper wearing a running martingales

“Brutality begins where knowledge ends. Ignorance and compulsion appear simultaneously.” ~Charles de Kunffy.

It’s rampant in every discipline, every breed. I see it in training barns, show arenas, boarding facilities, and backyards: people using devices that restrict their horses’ natural movement. I am appalled at the practice, but what really baffles me is how many otherwise loving owners there are who daily subject their horses to painful devices in order to force a particular look or position.

I am convinced that the majority of horsemen using devices just do not realize the harm they cause to their horse. Unfortunately there are also many amateurs and professionals who DO know and choose a quick result over the well-being of their horse.

There are too many devices to discuss all in one post, so for now, let’s focus on draw reins, tie-downs, and martingales. Their general purpose is to create a certain head carriage that imitates the natural posture of horses when they are motivated to “strutt” in elegance and grace – art in motion.

horse trots freely with neck arched
a rider’s goal should be to preserve and encourage natural movement – not inhibit it (photo credit: Rachel Gutbrod)

When a horse is excited we see a natural arching of the neck and vertical position of the head. But this is only the front end of the horse. Looking at the whole horse, we can see that this arched neck and vertical head position is created through hindquarter engagement. The horse shifts his weight back, and the head comes up. It is a balanced lightness resulting from a natural rhythm and suppleness. Headset is the last step, not the first, so this is not something that can be properly achieved by forcing a horse to carry his head artificially.

Draw reins, tie-downs, and martingales not only artificially set the horse’s head, they also prevent a horse from moving his back, neck, and hindquarter freely. The horse may have the “look” of being naturally arched, but the artificial head carriage will take its toll on the body. Such restrictive devices can cause both mental and physical damage, often beyond repair. Damage to the jaw, neck, back, and hocks often lead to the eventual breakdown of the horse. Lameness develops and behavior problems frequently surface. Gaits can become irregular. Strength, elasticity, and balance diminish.

See for pictures of draw reins in action. Notice how restricted and unnatural the horse’s movement is.

horse trotting freely
when a horse moves freely, the flexion is at the poll (photo credit: Spanish_Girl1)
Now look at the poll when a horse naturally arches his neck. It will always be the highest point, no matter how high he holds his neck. The flexion is at the poll, not a few vertebrae behind the poll.

comparison of two dressage horses
Compare the horse on the left, bending behind the poll, with the horse on the right with a more natural headset. The damage caused by forcing a horse into an unnatural headset can be irreversible (photo credit: MissTessmacher)
Using head-setting devices can force the horse to bend behind the natural point of flexion, which in time causes lasting, irreversible damage. Look around at shows or at photos online and you can easily spot horses that have been forced into this artificial bend during their training. If only judges refused to award horses carrying themselves this way, maybe these devices would not be so popular.

I often tell my students not to “humanize” the horse, but in this case, I think there is a credible analogy to be made: pretend your head is tied so your neck is bent in any direction. Keep it there. Walk, jog, and run like that. Stand like that. How long before you feel cramped, painful, tired, frustrated, angry? If you were really tied that way, how would you try to release the pressure? Would you fight for relief? I expect it would become difficult to move with grace and beauty.

The horse in comparison is limited in his ability to protect himself and relieve the pain. His power is greatly diminished. Remember, he is a flight animal. Unable to flee, he may resort to fighting to get relief. But if he fights, he’s called a “rogue” and punished. It’s a no-win situation for the horse.

jumper wearing a running martingales
You can easily see signs of pain and frustration in a horse whose natural movement is being restricted (photo credit: Tiffany)
I find it incredibly unsettling and sad to see a horse with eyes that show pain, anger, or resignation. Please look at your own horse. Be honest with yourself, and if you have been using such devices, question your own motivation. Do you want to win so badly that you’ll sacrifice the well-being of your equine partner? He has no choice…but you do!

Horses CAN be trained without causing pain and long term damage. Take the time to learn the methods of lateral and longitudinal bending, and how to engage the body and communicate with the mind. Understanding all of the physical aspects we observe in the horse’s natural posturing: impulsion, relation of the spine, rhythm, and flexibility, is the first step in learning to duplicate it under saddle.

It might take a bit longer than the tie-down method, but the results will last a lifetime. You will have a physically healthy horse as well as a willing partner.

25 Comments on “Do no harm: understanding the function of tie-downs, martingales, and draw reins

  1. so in reading this the only people it’s really directed at is people overusing it/ relying on it too much? Because we use these at the barn I ride at but we always make sure they’re not to tight we just use them on horses that bolt or like to throw their head up and bite the bit,and the horses are comfortable not to happy about not getting their way but they all seem perfectly fine other than that.

    • Monica,
      I do not believe in using devices of any kind period. If a device must be used I believe it’s an indicator of the horse /rider needing additional training.

    • Don’t pay too much attention to this article. I’m sure the writer has good intentions, but there are undoubtedly appropriate uses for tools (especially running martingales). Your examples of reasons to use a martingale are completely appropriate and you shouldn’t feel guilty or concerned that you are abusing your horses. The author seems to ignore the fact that the disciplines that most often use a running martingale (eventing, show-jumping, etc) are not concerned with head-set, but rather with ensuring control to avoid costly/dangerous mistakes. Even amazing horsemen, like Michael Jung, find it necessary, at times, to use a martingale.

      • Monica, I do stand behind my study of devices. I understand the difference between using a device for additional control/safety and one that is used for a head carriage. However, if you need a device, your horse needs more training. After 47 years of training and making many mistakes I look back and realize that is what my horses and myself needed. I am familiar with jumping as I used to do combined training and hunter/jumper. I too used martingales for “my safety” but using leverage and force to control your horse just spells out discomfort and pain for the horse. Just not the way I want to relate to my equine partner.

  2. I respectfully disagree with your assertions that the only purpose of these devices is to tie down or force a position. Martingales can aid in keeping a horse balanced, as part of the leg/hand/seat and other aids. Running martingales and draw reins can be a helpful training device when used carefully to help a horse to understand to lighten in the bit and to listen to the leg aids. You chose one photo of a horse that is foaming at the mouth which is generally a sign that a horse is accepting the bit, and while this horse doesn’t appear completely soft at the poll, it doesn’t appear to be inverted or pulling either. It’s not possible from that photo to see entirely what is going on because we can’t see the rider or the entire horse. Used well, each of these devices can help a horse to move properly and not to restrict.

    • I appreciate your comments regarding this topic, but after reviewing the photo you mentioned, I do feel the horse is behind the vertical. This appears to be caused by a combination of bit pressure (short and taut reins), a figure 8 noseband causing both pressure on the nose as well as keeping the mouth shut, and a very short martingale.

      There is foaming at the mouth, but this does not necessarily mean softness or acceptance of the bit. Foam is caused by the lower salivary glands being stimulated. Stimulation can be caused by either pleasurable sensations or by chomping, chewing, grinding.

      The poll is tense. If you look at the bunched up tight wave of muscles at the top of the neck you will see this. The underline of the neck shows a bulge which again shows pulling or bracing against the bit. The additional photos in the post can help clarify the horse that is moving in natural posture vs the horse that is in a forced artificial flexion.
      I have studied Natural Horsemanship for over 40 years. The body language of this horse’s posture clearly is not soft, relaxed or comfortable.

      I would ask this rider why it is necessary to ride this horse with such equipment. My solution would be to train using classical horsemanship and not devices. Natural horsemanship is about leading a horse, not forcing a horse. Classical training is proven through centuries of success to create a balanced, light, and willing partner without devices. The physical damage caused by these devices is clearly seen in the vast number of horses with permanent improper flexion (behind the poll), impure gaits, and many lamenesses, including back issues.

      I can hear your intent is good, however, I urge you to research additional information. There is a wonderful article with great diagrams and photos that you may find helpful. More study of the body language of the horse may also help.

    • If you know how to ride you will not need all this f*cking stuff. Even in correcting horses I never use those. I have seen horses foaming…with the tongue out.

    • Lara, why do you think it normal that you have to ‘control’ the animal.?

      Surely horsemanship is about persuasion… finding a way of the horse ‘wanting’ to do something for you because it likes you.

      Or is that a little too deep for you to understand in your litttle world of time restraints and power. Lighten up… your horse will start liking you I’m sure of it.

      Foamiing at the mouth… just accepting the bit…?

      You make me feel slightly nauseous… try bitless, or have you not the courage …?

    • Good riders don’t use some martingales, learn riding well and you nerver have to use those subterfuges.

  3. Don’t me started on the tack used in Polo :/

  4. I am dealing with the residual damage that someone (and I know the person) caused in the beautiful mare I am trying hard to ‘retrain’ and condition – mentally as well as physically, focussing on the foundation principles of dressage. The area just a few vertebrae behind the poll on her left side is buldged out due to the ligament and muscle damaged caused by her first trainer who made her live in draw reins and brace against the rider’s hands hanging and yanking on her left rein for 2 years. After my 2+ years with her, I have seen a huge reduction in the muscle and connective tissue in that area and she has, about 80% of the time, achieved soft contact on both sides (I use a very gentle snaffle, without a flash and I keep the cavesson very loose). But it is still difficult for her to get round to the left in a ‘true way’ and flex correctly through the poll. To the right, she is gret. I’ve spent more time getting her to move ‘open and out’, in round frame and using her back – and work her through 3 different levels of head and neck height during our warm-up. Our walk warm-up takes about 15 min, followed by soft trot on an open frame. I’ve concentrated on suppleness, balance, and self-confidence in using her own body and not relying on me to hold her. She has really come a long way. But it is clear that she will always have this ‘legacy’ of abuse. It took me a while to realize that this ‘injury’ is never going to go away entirely. But, she is an honest mare and I’m committed to making her life – in and out of the ring – full and happy. We will move up the levels when these basics have been achieved. I do, however, feel bad that when people see that permanent damage they credit me with it. There was a mention in your article about penalizing horses in the ring who bear evidence of this treatment – just keep in mind that it may indicate an animal’s past and not its current state.

    • Rebecca, an excellent point regarding past damage showing in the present. A reminder that we should hold judgement unless we know the root of the posture. Thank you for bringing that point up! I was wondering if you’ve tried some chiropractic, acupuncture or body work for your horse? It may not change the damage to the structure but may help in the comfort of your horse. Also, I so appreciate you sharing your commitment and care and well being of your horse.

      • yes to all three of your suggestions! We’re now beginning to work with one of the best equine massage therapists around (she works on the Olympic team’s horses!), and have a meeting with an acupuncturist lined up. I’m so excited to apply these with the ‘mental therapy’ I’ve been using. My mare has gained so much confidence through our work together and I know we’re on the right path. Keep getting the message out that we need to learn how to properly develop our horses and that it takes time. I’m a fan of the process, and get frustrated with folks who focus on the result. Love your blog! I have posted this and others you’ve written on a dressage FB page I manage (I’m active in our regional dressage association and committed to education.)

      • You are a breath of fresh air! What lucky horses that meet you! Thank you for sharing the posts that are appropriate to fit your needs. I need to get back to writing. Lots of thoughts, lack of time, but I’m heading in that way.

  5. Buck Brannaman, one of the country’s most recognized horseman and trainers of natural horsemanship, has made some poignant statements about such devices in his book “Faraway Horses”. In this passage, he remembers a conversation with his brother-in-law, back when he was still in high school, before he started using natural horsemanship principles.

    “Roland and I were out on horseback one day after I had started competing in high school rodeos. He looked over at my horse and said, “You know, there’s a difference between a rodeo cowboy and a working cowboy. Working cowboys don’t use tie-downs or draw reins or any of those gimmicks on their horses.
    He was right, of course. I was still a kid and didn’t realize that using restrictive tie-downs in rough country could be dangerous: a horse that wore one and then stumbled and fell could have difficulty getting his head back up to regain his balance.”

    In a later chapter he talks about staring polo ponies for a woman named Jorie Butler Kent. He says:

    “My job was helping to start the horses. After the horses were started, Jorie took them down to Florida where the teams’ players would play them. She tried to get the players to ride in the same manner that I did, without tie-downs, bit gimmicks, or other devices of torture that players thought were absolutely necessary. Their response was that a Montana cowboy might be able to ride a colt, but he wasn’t qualified to educate a polo horse.
    I grew tired of hearing that reaction, so in the winter of 1988–89 I finally told Jorie, ‘If you don’t mind, I might just go to Florida, and play the horses myself this winter.’ Jorie thought that was a great idea…”

    To say Brannaman went on to play polo that winter very well is an understatement. He had never played the game before yet did an amazing job. His success is a small testament to his riding skills and the partnerships he has built with is saddle horses. And he did it all without a single bit gimmick or other torture device that the other players insisted on using. He worked hard with those horses to try and undo the harm that these poor animals had endured do to unskilled riders and their “devices”.

    So to Cheyenne and Lara, in my humble opinion, if you need these devices, then you and your horse need more training. Just because someone else in your event/sport/field uses them, doesn’t make them right. We owe it to these magnificent animals to provide the most humane and dignified training we can. I would hope you would want what is best for your horse.

    • Jessica, this testament from such a world renowned horsemen says it all. Regardless of discipline a device is a indeed a gimmick and a cause of discomfort and damage to the horse. If we are going to enjoy these magnificent animals we should show equal respect and kindness. I agree wholeheartedly, a device is a poor excuse for training. As stated previously, the goal for me is for the spirit of the horse and rider to come together in harmony. It truly is beautiful. A horse trapped in devices cannot be comfortable or happy. The harmony will be lost. One may achieve their goal of the blue ribbon, but at what cost?

  6. Great read, and so very true. Thanks for posting.

    • Thank you for reading the post. I’d love you to share it with your friends. The more people that take the time to think about the damages of devices perhaps the more horses life we can effect.

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