Lets talk about training aids. There’s been a lot of activity on this page lately, so I’ve updated a few things to be a little more clear. I want to make sure and stress that the use of any of these aids should in no way damage the horse. If you have ill fitting equipment, or something you’re using causes any cuts, bruises, scrapes, burns, rubs, or anything else unnatural, you need to inspect and re-fit the equipment until it no longer causes these issues or discontinue it’s use. No training aid or method is worth your horse being uncomfortable, or harmed in any way that can be prevented.
There is a LOT of controversy and a lot of misconception from people outside the saddlebred industry on training aids and practices that may or may not be harmful to the horse. Now, I have been around the Saddlebred world for a long time, at risk of aging myself it’s been about 27 years. I know there are a lot of people out there who think we are snobby, and that we “force” our horses to have their animated motion and high head carriage, among other things. While I can’t speak for every horse trainer out there, I can speak for those I have been around and consider to be knowledgeable and professional, on top of being considerate and respectful of the animal. I can say that the training aids I have seen used and personally use are not harmful to the horse in any way at all. I am going to talk here about a few of the common training aids that I have used, and explain as best I can my experience and knowledge.
Number one: Action Chains
Purpose: To aid in what’s called proprioception, or a horses awareness of body positioning and movement. This aid helps with stride, causes the horse to think about the steps it takes with each foot and help it stride more evenly. They can be used only on the front or only on the rear, or on all four, depending on what you are trying to teach your horse. For example, if your horse forges with it’s back end (overreaches, hits the front feet with the back feet) you can apply a light chain to teach the horse to step more upward rather than forward, and over time this can change their way of movement to eliminate that problem. Chains alone aren’t going to cure irregular movement, however. There are other factors such as how the horse wears it’s bridle, how effective a rider is on the horse, shoeing, etc. But the chains can aid in training, hence why they are called an aid and not a solution. Think about how a horse moves when you apply shipping boots. They tend to step more upward because the item applied to the leg makes them more aware of their leg movements due to being conscious of the item applied to the leg. Chains work in a similar manner.
Chains can also be used to imitate the weight of a shoe in barefoot horses, or to work similarly to “ankle weights” that humans use. Helps with exercising the horse using it’s full range of motion and increases conditioning. Used properly, these “bracelets” are no more damaging to a horse than that shiny bangle or cuff you see on the fashionistas of the world. I have never used or seen any action chains used that were more than 10 ounces each, and most of the ones I have seen were 2- 6 ounces, which is basically nothing when you consider the sheer weight of the animal it’s being applied to. I use these minimally, because if used excessively they tend to lose their effect. In my personal opinion, I have seen these be helpful to more horses than I have harmful, and they are only harmful if used improperly. That said, just about anything can be harmful if used improperly.
Chains and/or ankle weights can also be used during rehabilitation. During the study (linked below) it was found that light ankle weights facilitate muscle toning and range of motion during exercise. Read more on this here: Proprioception During Rehabilitation
What to make sure of:
1) Make sure your chains are tight enough to rest above the coronary band, and that they can freely move so that they do not get stuck. This could cause discomfort to your horse and an undesired affect.
2) Make sure they are not so tight that they would rub or cause other discomfort to the horse. When I work a horse in chains, I also have them wear rubber bell boots so that they don’t do either of the above unwanted things. I have even seen bell boots that come with chains attached, though I do not own any.
3) Only ONE set should be used at a time. You should not have multiple sets of chains on the same leg at the same time. If you’re going to use them, one on each desired leg works just fine. You may choose to only use them on the front feet, or only on the back feet, depending on the needs of the horse and what you’re intending to teach them.
3) There should NEVER, in any way, shape, or form, EVER be any sort of chemical or substance applied to the chain (or the legs/feet/body/mouth, etc of the horse-unless instructed/approved by a veterinarian and for therapeutic or medicinal purposes). I hear this is prevalent in the training of some saddleseat type horses (Tennessee Walkers come to mind) but I have never had any experience or knowledge on how this is even done, nor what it accomplishes, but I feel the need to stress that this should never be done. To me, it goes without saying, but evidently it’s a practice that someone out there thought was a good one. We in the Saddlebred industry do not use this method.
Number Two: “Stretchies” (Two fleece covered shackle cuffs with surgical tubing snapped to each one to connect them)
Purpose: To help training with stride, coordination, balance, and muscle toning. I read a blog where a professional, successful horseman explained that your intent should be specific with each horse, and that each horse should have a length of surgical tubing custom fitted to the horse, it’s stride, and your intent of end result. Think about resistance bands that people use when they work out. This training aid works very similarly to resistance bands in the way of building muscle. It also aids in opening up the shoulders and chest so that they move more freely. It also controls the stride, only allowing the horse to step so far, teaching them to step evenly and consistently. It has been explained to me that the surgical tubing causes the horse to think about each and every step, giving a consistent cadence. When they wear them, they have to adjust their stride length accordingly, and when you ask a horse to step up into it’s bridle, push from it’s hind end, and yet, only allow a certain stride length, the only place the horses leg can go is up, rather than out on front, making them bring their knees higher, and working the muscles that wouldn’t otherwise be worked. This will provide the horse the muscle tone to use it’s legs to the best of it’s ability when they are not being worn. (I hope that makes sense). These should not be used in excess, but only for a limited amount of time. I usually trot each direction of the ring for about 5-8 minutes, walking in between for about 5 minutes, then remove after the second direction trot. I also do not use these every workout, but maybe once a week.
What to make sure of:
1) NEVER, EVER use the stretchies on the back legs. Only use these on the front. Using them on the back legs is a dangerous practice that can cause serious injury to horse and rider.
2) Secondly, never use stretchies when you canter. They are not designed for the uneven beat of the canter. They should only be used when doing “even beat” gaits. These include the walk, trot, slow gait, and rack. The canter is a 3 beat gait, and it is not safe for your horse to canter using stretchies.
3) Make sure the shackle cuffs are properly fitted. A lot of them come with adjustments, but if they don’t you need to make sure they fit properly. Like chains, they should be tight enough that they do not get stuck, and that they can move freely. They should also be loose enough that they do not rub or cause discomfort to the horse.
4) Make sure you use a surgical tubing length that is correct for the stride of your horse. Obviously, if you are working a 13hh pony, your tubing would not be as long as it would be for a 16hh horse. On the other hand, you would not want to use the short tubing you would on the pony for the tall horse.
5) Be careful to pay attention when you are using stretchies so that you will notice if they break. If they do break, stop and remove them before continuing. Working a horse in broken stretchers could cause the horse discomfort by the tubing hitting it in the legs as it moves.
6. NEVER snap the “stretchies” directly to chains. Make sure proper fleece covered shackle cuffs are used. The fleece padding is designed to protect the legs and keep the horse comfortable.
7. These should not be used for an extended period of time. As with any aid, keep it to a minimum to produce maximum effects. You don’t want to overexert your horse. Think of how you feel when training with resistance bands. It takes a lot of focus and effort, so keep that in mind when using these on your horse. I usually do warm up including walking and sitting trot before applying these, then about 2 trips around each way of the arena with them on (you will have to modify this for your arena size) and after that take them off.
Number Three: Blinders
Purpose: To keep the horses eyes focused forward, and to keep them from seeing distractions that are all around. Since a horse can see nearly 360 degrees, there are many disctractions that can be happening that the human will not see. Blinders help the horse focus on what is in front of it, causing it to give more attention to the tasks being asked of it by the handler. Also used to help a horse learn to use it’s ears (forward is always preferred over all else). If a horse can’t see, but it can hear, it will perk it’s ears forward so as to hear more of what is going on. Have you ever heard of how if you lose one sense, all the rest get stronger? For example, if you lose your sight, your sense of hearing, taste, smell, touch, etc all get stronger to compensate. If the horse loses it’s range of vision (normally they can see nearly 360 degrees, with the exception of directly in front of and directly behind them) Blinders are also used in driving, so that the horse does not see the cart attached and does not get startled by the cart traveling behind them. Blinders are a typical feature on a harness.
What to watch for:
1) Make sure your blinders are not too far up or down on the horses face if using them with a harness. There should be adjustments to allow the middle of blinders to be positioned about at the middle of your horses eye.
2) The blinders should be far enough away from the horses eye so as not to rub the horses eye or eyelashes. Most harnesses are sized with this in mind for the average horse/pony/draft. Make sure your equipment is made for your type of horse.
3) If you are using a blinker hood (a fabric “face mask” that has eye holes with blinder cups attached at the sides) then you need to make sure this is also made for the size of your horse and that the holes are positioned correctly and the closure of the hood is not too tight.
Number Four: Bell Boots
Purpose: To protect a horse’s feet from various things, but mainly overreaching with the hind feet which can cause them to pull the front shoes by stepping on themselves, or damage to the front legs or feet. If your horse has a tendency to forge, or overreach with its hind legs, bell boots are a good idea to use during workouts just as a safeguard. You need to be aware that there are different sizes, and that you need to purchase the correct size for your horses hooves. You want them be fitted, but not tight around the ankle and large enough to cover the horses hooves. In other words, don’t use a size “small” on a draft horse, or a size “large” on a pony.
I know there is a plethora of training aids out there, and I have only covered a few common ones used in training the saddleseat type horse (Saddlebred, Morgan, Arabian, National Show Horse, etc) here. I want to point out that no matter what discipline you are in, the number one rule is to make sure your equipment fits properly, is adjusted properly, and is in good working condition. This is to ensure the safety of both you and your horse. You want to make sure nothing you put on your horse is causing rubbing, chafing, or is too tight, too loose, or otherwise poorly applied or ill fitting.
Remember, you WANT to make sure you’re not doing anything that will harm your horse (cuts, rubs, burns, etc) because any good horseman or horsewoman knows that an unhappy horse does not perform as desired. The happier they are, the more willing they are to please you, work hard for you, and try to do what you are asking. When a horse/human bonds (the horse TRUSTS the human not to put it in danger or harm it) the team will perform worlds better than a forced submission. The difference is clear. The more uncomfortable they are, the more unwilling they are to work which causes you a whole set of problems you’re not going to want.
That’s all I have on this subject for now. Maybe later I will revisit, and have more to add. Happy riding folks!