Recently I uploaded a video about training and developing a horse's self carriage through what's called Long & Low. In another article I will go into specifics about the reasons behind why you need to train all horses to first carry themselves in a long and low position before expecting them to be able to carry a rider, and then eventually to obtain true collection. (please keep in mind long & low is different than low, deep, and round) However, in this article I want to talk more specifically about the aids I will sometimes use to help the process of obtaining long and low or help in preparing a horse for a rider.
I would first like to start off by saying that these aids do not teach a horse to use its back and develop its topline, no training aid or gadget will. If you are using these aids to create "collection" or strengthen your horse's back and neck you are using them wrong. It takes months, years even, of correct training from the hind end forward for the horse to be prepared enough to use these aids in they way they were intended. The aids should never be used on a horse uneducated on how to carry itself or by a novice/uneducated handler/rider/trainer, as they will end up doing far more harm than good. It is by far safer to never use training aids/gadgets at all.
There are however particular situations where I find very specific training aids to be of use, and I would like to share with you when those times might be and how to use the aids correctly.
* disclaimer, your horse needs to have a complete and full understanding of how to lunge (not just run circles around you) before attempting to use any of these aids. This is not an article about teaching your horse how to lunge.
The Chambon is a very unique tool in the world of horse training aids/gadgets. It is one of the very few tools that doesn't ever in any way pull back on the horse's nose or mouth, therefore it avoids the possibility of teaching the horse to go behind the vertical all together. This makes it a relatively safe tool, with a few precautions.
It works by running a rope/strap attached to the cinch/girth/surcingle between the front legs, then along the neck up to the poll of the horse. At the poll it had a curved bridle like piece that attaches to the crown of the bridle/halter and supports the continuation of the rope to where it connects to the nose piece or bit of the bridle/halter.
When a horse goes to lift it's head too high it will apply poll pressure behind the ears, encouraging the horse to lower it's head back down. The bit/halter attachment at the bottom is hardly engaged if at all, so the majority of any pressure rests on the poll of the head. When the horse lowers it's head the pressure is completely released and the horse has full movement of it's head. Think of it as like the chambon is creating a "ceiling" to limit the height to which the horse can lift it's head.
Most horses accept this piece of equipment extremely well and may only take a few sessions with it on for them to get the idea that their head is supposed to be going down and out, not up and braced. But, as with all training aids, it has guidelines that need to be strictly followed to avoid misuse.
The horse needs to have a prior understanding of giving to poll pressure. You cannot just start using the chambon out of the blue. You run the risk of the horse having a panic attack when it feels the "ceiling", and honestly I don't blame them. If you watch the video I published about teaching long and low I show you how to begin teach giving to poll pressure.
Never start off a lunging or riding session using the chambon, start off with it off the horse until any bucks or freshness are gone and you've got a full engaged horse. Then you can put on the equipment but do not "activate" it by attaching it to the nose piece or bit. After the horse is used to having the equipment on you may go ahead and fully attach it.
The length the chambon should be set at is unique to every horse. Some horses have shorter or longer necks than others. In the beginning it needs to be long enough that the horse can easily raise it's head to a slightly above neutral position, but not long enough that the horse could become tangled in the line if it were to spook. As the horse becomes familiar with the chambon (over many sessions) you may shorten the line a little at a time, but don't ever go short enough that the horse is unable to lift it's head to an almost neutral position.
The reason one might use a Chambon is to help jump start the process of teaching a horse to go long & low. With the use of positive reinforcement and clicker training I have found that it sits in my tack room collecting dust more than it's gets used, since I rarely find I need it anymore. However, for a horse unfamiliar with clicker training or for a handler that isn't comfortable yet using positive reinforcement this can be an excellent tool to help out getting started in long & low.
Just for this video and article I pulled my dusty chambon out of the tackroom and got a few pictures and short clips of how a chambon is supposed to be used.
In this first photo the horse has begun to lift it's head to the point where it's activating the Chambon, placing pressure on the poll of the head, telling the horse to drop it's head back down. (this is the point where a horse knowing how to give to poll pressure is absolutely critical). This horse is well accustomed to the Chambon and therefore has a shortened line, in the beginning the line was a good foot longer as she learned to work with the Chambon.
In the next photo you can see she has chosen to give to poll pressure and drop her head into a long and low position, her nose is in front of the vertical and there is nothing pulling on her head or mouth. She is now working long and low, but lacks a lot of impulsion from behind and will continue to work on this to develop her back (shes a 22 year old horse that has only just begun working long and low. She's stepping up more in behind in the first photo, but this also has to do with her hock/stifle arthritis, her left hind does not come through as far as her right.)
This is a prime example of how you can drop the head but it doesn't mean the back is automatically engaged, but it's a start! From this point we will continue strengthening her back and hind end and prepare her to better carry a rider.
( #gasp Am I right?! lol. Sorry, I have to lighten things up sometimes as I get very serious with these deep topics.)
Side-Reins are one of the most misused, misunderstood, and overused pieces of training equipment out there. In fact, I hesitate to ever mention there are a few times I will use them because my immediate worry is that people will think I give their use of a side-reins my approval because I use them too. This is very far from the truth. My hope is that by providing people with the information they need on how they are supposed to be used I can bridge a gap between the crowd of people that claim side-reins are the anti-christ and the people that misuse them but claim they are perfectly fine.
First, side-reins are intended to be used as a substitution for actual riding reins. They are meant to simulate how it will feel when a rider is on board and there is an "end of the line" to the reins. They are also intended to aid in helping teach horse to reach to the contact while doing ground work, they are not meant to be used to pull the horse's nose in or create "collection". But just like with real riding, there is a right way and a wrong way to use your reins. You could pull and pull on your horse's mouth until it tucks it's nose and call this "collection", or you can encourage your horse to push from behind and forward until it reaches it's nose/mouth out to the end of the rein and searches for that soft contact.
When side-reins and regular reins are abused they very easily teach a horse to go behind the vertical (BTV). This is a form of "contact evasion", and does not mean the horse is collected. It just means the horse has tucked it's nose. I won't go into great detail the long term health effects this can have on the horse, but some of the more immediate issues that will arise from teaching a horse to go behind the vertical will include; limited range of sight, dropping onto the forehand, hollowing the back, lack of impulsion, contact evasion, incorrect muscle development in the neck, and so on. In extreme cases very tight side reins can develop what's called "rollkur", which is the more dramatic and more harmful version of behind the vertical.
However, if side-reins are used correctly they can be very useful for particular situations. Once a horse has developed a strong understanding of long and low, is physically strong enough to maintain long and low for extended periods, and mentally is in a good place, side-reins at a correct length can help prepare a horse for understanding correct rein contact before carrying a rider. Please keep in mind that it can take months or years before a horse is ready to work with side-reins correctly. This is not a beginner horse or handler's piece of equipment, this is for an educated horse and handler team.
One of the first requirements for being able to use side-reins is teaching the horse to drop it's head (correctly - explained in the video) to contact of the reins during in-hand work. If a horse isn't accustomed to the feeling of following and giving to rein pressure then side-reins may cause anxiety or panic in the horse, and will likely lead to a horse that contact evades.
The next requirement is a horse that understands long and low, understands the concept of reaching to the contact, and is physically fit enough to begin preparing for a rider. In the video I created to explain the process of teaching long and low you will get a better understanding of the steps that lead up to being able to use side-reins. This could take months or even years, correct training is a game of patience. If you can not be patient, then don't use side-reins.
When preparing to introduce a horse to side-reins for the first time I recommend starting off with some in-hand work with reins, keeping contact on both reins to get your horse warmed up. Your horse should already be comfortable with this if you've done your homework and followed the process I use in my video on teaching long & low.
The first time you use side-reins start at a slightly longer length than you will eventually set them to during "active" working sessions. Don't have them so long the horse could get caught up in the reins, but have them plenty long that the horse can easily lift it's head all the way up and drop it's head pretty far down. The idea is to get the horse used to the idea of the reins without feeling any restriction. Start off at a calm walk, even walking next to your horse before asking the horse to become more active and forward with its gait or asking for the trot. In some horses I even start off with just the outside rein, as it's less restricting to only have one rein attached, and then add in the second rein if all is going well.
At this point you will begin with working long and low again, asking for the horse to reach to the contact and have impulsion from behind. Watch my video for examples.
I'm going to put a couple visual examples of correct side-rein use with two different horses. Notice how long the side-reins are and how their heads are clearly in front of the vertical. There is impulsion from behind and they are stretching over their backs into the contact.
This is a photo I uploaded to Instagram showing the two types of contact evasions and also the correct form of contact seeking. The side-reins are the same length (on the last hole) in all three photos. This horse has been working long and low for an extended period now but is struggling to understand the idea of reaching to the contact when carrying a rider. In her case I find side-reins useful since I'm able to eliminate the factor of a rider and just work on her contact evasion.
The bottom right is an excellent example of how too short of side-reins cause a horse to go behind the vertical. This horse's side-reins are all the same length but you can imagine if the reins were shortened they would cause this to happen as the horse is forced to tuck it's nose. Her forehand is dropped and her stride is shortened quite a bit, there is a lack of impulsion and she has become more "butt high".
The bottom left is another example of contact evasion, which is often what handlers are attempting to correct when they use side reins. The only problem is that by putting short side reins, or other similar training aids/gadgets (such as draw reins etc.), is the horse still doesn't understand reaching for the contact and will just drop their head and suck behind the vertical. You'll notice her stride is also very short here, she's butt high, and there is no impulsion.
Hind End Wrap
One last tool on my list of "training aids" that you might see me use even more frequently than the previous two mentioned is a hind end wrap. I don't know if this particular type of tool has a specific "name", but I do know that it was first made popular (if I'm not mistaken) by Linda Tellington-Jones. They call it a "promise wrap".
What a hind end wrap does is help bring awareness to the hind end for the horse. It creates a light steady sensation around the back end tied to the saddle or the surcingle, helping encourage the hind end to step up rather than trail out behind.
Some other training aids use a similar idea of having a rope or padding around the hind end of the horse but most of them end up connecting to the horse's head or mouth in some way, also they usually don't involve a steady but forgiving contact but rather a hanging or restrictive rope/strap. At the end of the day using a soft, stretchy material with some resistance only tied to the middle of the horse is cheaper, kinder, and achieves the same goal without pulling on the head of the horse.
Unfortunately I don't have great pictures of using a hind end wrap, but I do have this one. If you want more examples google "TTouch Promise Wrap". You can use a hind end wrap in combination with a chambon or side-reins, but please only introduce one tool at a time and take into consideration your horse's mental and physical capabilities. It's better to error on the side of caution than to overwhelm your horse.
A Note On Other Training Aids and Collection
Though I'm willing to consider the possibility for their to be another training aid out there that wont cause more harm than good, I have yet to find one other than the two mentioned above. There is a reason training aids are often called "gadgets". They are quick fixes to make a "pretty image", but they do not actually create impulsion, strength, collection, self carriage, soft responsive forwards rein contact, and so on. All they do is force the horse to do is drop, lift, or tuck their head. The problem is? The head is only a very very small part of the horse. The head is the last piece of the puzzle.
The head of the horse can be a warning flag or it can be the final touches to a properly developed horse, but it can not collect the horse. Asking the horse to tuck it's nose does not make the rest of the horse collect. In fact, tucking the nose often leads to even less self carriage and less strength, the exact opposite of what many training aids claim they accomplish or what handlers are trying to achieve.
Training aids like the ones listed below focus only on the nose and pulling the horse's head in towards the chest. Sometimes they do encourage lowering of the head, and sometimes even movement from the hind end, but they do this at the same time as they pull the nose backwards... and sometimes through a lot of pressure on the mouth (which can cause desensitizing to the rider's rein aids).
Some of the training aids that shouldn't be used include, but are not limited to...
The Pessoa System
Western Training Forks
a De Gogue
Balance Lunging Systems
and so many more...
I hope I've thoroughly explained to you the reasons why a very select few training aids are safe to use during lunging, and I also hope I explained the how. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to comment or to email me.
On one last note, I want to express again that it is always better to error on the side of caution and to not use any training aids at all. If ever in doubt, just don't do it. Collection, impulsion self carriage, long and low, tracking up.... they can all be achieved without the use of any training aid whatsoever. All you need is patience, dedication, clear communication, and a healthy horse.
If you haven't already, please check out the youtube video intended to be watched in combination with this article. Please do not use any of the aids mentioned above without watching the video first to understand the process of teaching a horse long and low.