Training aids and horses
Chloe Mabbutt discusses the question "should I use a training aid on my horse?"
Training aids…so many people use them, we often have many different types in our tack rooms and often we are tempted to buy the next latest thing – but how many of us actually know how to use them effectively and really know why we are trying to use them?
Using training aids can be a contentious subject, however they have their place for a variety of reasons we will discuss – but – the most important questions you should ask yourself are, WHY for YOUR HORSE, you want to use one? What is it you are trying to achieve?
Another important consideration is, can everything be improved all at once or, should one thing at a time be focused on? For example, can you cause your horse to utilise their core more AND collect more at the same time or, does this cause more harm than good?
Finally, once we have our aims, and chosen the training aid… how do we use it effectively and more importantly – not cause a problem or pain?!
So many questions and unfortunately, they aren’t all simple to answer but hopefully, this series can provide some answers and create a pathway to success.
Desired movement and aims of training aids
The overall aim is vital, as it will influence the training aid you choose. For example, if the aim is to teach a young horse about the ‘contact’ and learn simple self-carriage, side reins are historically popular and useful; whereas if you wish to create more hindlimb engagement, pessoa training aids and hind-end resistance bands are often the training aid of choice¹. However, it is also important to remember not every horse responds the same way to a training aid; how it is fitted and how it is used – lunging, long reining, in hand, ridden, alongside other exercises such as polework, all make a difference to the final effect.
Training aid research is few and far between, with conflicting evidence, however Jane Williams from Hartpury University in 2020 produced a summary table of a few different training aids and their optimal use:
Most of us aim to improve hind end engagement and core strength, and many choose to use a training aid during lunging however, this isn’t always the most effective method.
Physical therapy and remedial exercise is an integral part of rehabilitation and pre-habilitation (to prevent injury) practices, alongside veterinary care², training aids are best used in conjunction with coaches who understand correct movement, and veterinary physiotherapists who can assess your horse’s posture and their way of going, and work with you to create an effective programme that a training aid is just one part of. Different muscles play different roles in posture and movement, and effectively assessing their function can only be achieved with the help of professionals such as vets and therapists. Therefore, work with a professional to get effective therapeutic and performance enhancing aims for your horse.
For proper balance a horse needs to be able to use its core to assist with stabilisation and energy transfer from the hindlimbs, it needs to utilise its hamstrings for power, and its forelimbs for stabilisation/transference of power. Additionally, the thoracic sling needs to provide spring momentum back to the hindlimbs during stance to make movement energy efficient³. This is where training aids and other exercises like pole work can assist, working on length of frame and "roundness" prior to collection. However, it is important to take it slowly, it takes weeks to build muscle strength and, it is equally important to focus on changing one thing at a time, rather than trying to force the horse’s body in to the “desired” shape before it is ready, as this can cause pain and injury.
Picking the right one
I have already touched upon how picking the right one links to your aims, but horses are all individuals, with different conformations and postures, that it isn’t as simple as a “one size fits all”, or as “this training aid should do this so it should work”! You need to work with a therapist or trainer to ensure the training aid is having the desired effect, and not just keep using it because everyone else is!
Using the horse below as an example…in the top left image, it is already clear the horse has a good natural frame, where they are lifting through their shoulder, relaxed over its back, and naturally using their hindlimbs effectively by tracking up and pushing out behind well. Therefore, a useful aim would be simply to teach the horse to collect their frame a little more for greater spring energy utilisation.
The pessoa system is designed for collection through hindlimb engagement, however from the photo, it has not improved the frame. The horse is now more on the forehand (as shown through the top red line from wither to croup being more flat), and no longer tracking up (2nd red circle).
The cotton-lunge aid is designed to encourage the horse to “lift” through the thoracic sling (shoulder muscles) to prevent the horse from working on the forehand. In this case the horse was already raised in the forelimbs, nevertheless it has collected its neck, and caused the hindlimb to hit the ground before the forelimb (red circles), which is a desirable performance trait⁴ ⁵. However, it has caused mild over-flexion and the head to go behind the vertical, therefore loosening the aid should correct this.
And finally, the side reins, although are often a contentious subject due to often being mis-used, in this case they act similarly to the cotton lunge aid, encouraging the horse to collect slightly in its frame by replicating rein contact, causing hindlimb placement before the forelimbs; on the other hand, the horse is not bending as effectively through its trunk (ribs), and instead is placing the inner hindlimb further under the body (2nd red circle), which can cause stifle torsion and pain. However, the tail is relaxed and open which is a positive behavioural indicator⁶, more so than with the cotton-lunge aid.
Therefore, if I had to pick the most effective aid for this horse, in my opinion, would be the cotton-lunge aid, as this horse has had previous stifle issues. However, this is just one horse and one example of a momement in time, with only one of the training aid tools in the tool box.
A horse needs to be consistently monitored to maintain their posture and movement throughout their ridden life, use videos as a more effective way to monitor actual movement and progress.
Having an aim of your training is key, and working with professionals to ensure your horse is physically capable of that aim is vital. Every horse is an individual and therefore try different aids and assess that they are having the desired effective before settling on their use. However, the question remains of is a training aid even needed?! And are there more effective/alternative methods to achieve the same aims? Many training aids are used incorrectly, or are used when they are not suitable for that specific horse. A training aid should do just that…AID training, and not be the sole mechanism used to “fix” a problem. It takes on average 6 weeks to build muscle², and correct nutrition, riding coaching, management and physiotherapy should be employed to obtain the most effective results, with a training aid, if used, simply one tool that can be used.
In the next articles in the series we will be discussing the different training aids in more depth, what they are designed to do, how they are meant to fit to work effectively, the research behind them, and what can happen if you use them ineffectively. As-well-as other exercise alternatives to achieve the same aims to fill up the tools in your tool box!
1. Williams, J., 2020. Equine training aids: can they really improve performance? UK-Vet-Equine. 4(6):https://doi.org/10.12968/ukve.2020.4.6.196
2. Paulekas, R., and Haussler, K., 2009. Principles and Practice of Therapeutic Exercise for Horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 29(12): 870-893
3. Wagner, K., 2016. Equine Biomechanics and Locomotion. Keith Wagner Equine Veterinarian [online]. Available: https://wagnerhorsedoc.com/equine-biomechanics-locomotion/ [accessed 25/2/2022]
4. Higgins, G., 2021. The Paces: Part 2 - Trotting Tendencies. Horses Inside Out [online]. Available: https://www.horsesinsideout.com/post/the-paces-part-2-trotting-tendencies [accessed 28/2/22]
5. Hobbs, S., Bertram, J., and Clayton, H., 2016. An exploration of the influence of diagonal dissociation and moderate changes in speed on locomotor parameters in trotting horses. Peer J. 4(e2190): doi:10.7717/peerj.2190
6. Dyson, S., Berger, J., Ellis, A., and Mullard, J., 2018. Development of an ethogram for a pain scoring system in ridden horses and its application to determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 23: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2017.10.008