Introduction to Basic Training Equipment
No matter what the discipline, most training equipment shares the common goal of teaching a horse to move forward using his hindquarters, come through his back or "top line" and onto the bit. Also known as being "round," the object is for the horse to obtain an energetic but elegant self-carriage or "frame" that is soft and supple. (Just cranking his head between his knees doesn't count.) For hunters the frame is longer and lower, for dressage more collected and for jumpers a bit "bouncy". Western riders like their horses even longer and lower than hunters but still coming up through their hindquarters. Even if you're just riding out on the trails for fun, it's good if your horse has a passing familiarity with being in a frame in case he spooks and you need to slow him down.
Keep in mind that NONE of this equipment is for the rank amateur to use unsupervised. It can take years of experience to know how to properly use some of the equipment and misusing it could cause more harm than good. All training equipment is a tool, not a crutch or a weapon. If your horse has been naughty, it is never acceptable to use or abuse him with a piece of training equipment to "show him whose boss."
Generally speaking, there are two types of training equipment; the kind you lunge with and the kind you use while riding.
It can be very helpful to train your horse on a lunge line. Lunging can help teach young horses how to come forward in a frame and obey basic commands like "trot" or "whoa." You can lunge a horse that hasn't been out in a few days to blow off some steam before you ride him. You can also lunge a horse who has been injured and needs to go back to work slowly. Finally, you can also lunge a horse if you are injured and unable to ride but need to exercise your horse under a more controlled environment. Just bear in mind that lunging can be hard on a horse and shouldn't be done in one direction for more than ten minutes at a time before you change and take him the other direction.
Again, keep in mind that all of these tools are meant to encourage soft, suppleness and flexion, not bracing or pulling. If your horse is leaning too hard on any piece of training equipment, stop immediately and re-set it or ask for advice from an experienced, knowledgeable horse person or trainer.
Basic tools you can use to train a horse while lunging include the following:
- Lunge line – Also spelled longe line. It's a longer version of a lead rope, usually around thirty feet long. Made out of either nylon or cotton, it allows you to lunge (or longe) your horse in a circle a set distance from the handler.
- Gloves - Any time you use a lunge line you should wear gloves, preferably leather or synthetic leather ones that will protect you from rope burns in case the horse you are lunging suddenly bolts or changes directions unexpectedly.
- Boots – It's wise to put some form of brush boot or polo wrap on your horse before lunging him. Often times, horses will take the opportunity to buck, leap or play at the end of a lunge line and could hurt themselves. Even the best-behaved horse may kick himself while being lunged because of the balance and flexion required while moving in such a small circle.
- Helmet – Not just a Pony Club rule, but a good idea. Horses on a lunge line can often kick out higher than a person's head, so it's wise to wear your safety head gear just in case.
- Lunge whip - A whip with a long handle, up to five feet tall, and a lash that's even longer. The whip is used when lunging a horse but it never touches the horse; the trainer uses the whip to make a popping sound that encourages the horse to move forward.
- Lunging cavesson – A type of halter or noseband made specifically for lunging. Made of leather or nylon, the noseband is reinforced and has several metal rings spread out intermittently for attaching a lunge line, long reins, or other pieces of training equipment.
- Surcingle – A strap made of leather, nylon or other synthetic material that goes around the horse's barrel. It buckles on much like a saddle and has several metal rings in a variety of locations. These can be used to attach side reins, run long reins through, or attach any number of other training devices. Usually it's best to use a saddle pad underneath the surcingle to prevent rubbing as the horse flexes and uses it's back muscles.
- Side Reins – Made of either leather or nylon, side reins attach to the bit and either the surcingle or saddle. As the name suggests, one rein goes on each side of the horse and the tension may need to be adjusted as the horse changes directions. They are meant to encourage flexion and suppleness and should never be so tight as to restrict a horse's movement. Most often they will have a rubber ring or "donut" that allows for elasticity as the horse moves. Some have a long section of elastic instead that performs the same purpose. Side reins are easy to learn how to use but you must have an experienced horseman show you how to set them. It's far too easy to have the horse lean, pull on them or even flip themselves over if you are not careful.
- Chambon – Also known as a chambon martingale. It is used to encourage the horse to lower his head and upper neck while simultaneously raising the base of his neck to achieve a rounded top line and improve engagement. Made of leather or synthetic, it consists of a headstall that applies pressure to the horse's poll with cords that run through the bit and back to the girth between the horse's legs.
- Neck Stretcher – A relatively new piece of training equipment much like the chambon, the Neck Stretcher's name says it all. Made from a bungee-like cord, the neck stretcher is placed at the horse's poll, runs through the bit and down between the horse's legs to the girth or directly to the girth from the bit. A word of caution: if used correctly this is a wonderful tool to help teach your horse to be soft and supple. Just be sure your horse is flexing and giving to the neck stretcher, not simply leaning on it and only learning more bad habits.
- Lunging rig – Another relative newcomer to the market, this is a rig involving a butt rope that goes around (you guessed it!) your horse's butt and encourages him to come up from behind and connecting to the bit. Pessoa makes a popular version of this with fleece around the rope to prevent rubs but a similar affect can be gained from using long reins.
- Long lines – Also known as long reins, driving reins or driving lines. They are a pair of three to five foot reins made out of cotton, nylon or other synthetic material that attach to the lunging cavesson or to a bridle. They allow the handler to move from behind or beside a young or green horse and teach them how to respond to bit pressure and achieve greater suppleness. They can also be used to teach advanced moves such as the piaffe or capriole first without a rider on the horse's back.
- Stirrup keeper – A short length of canvas or nylon with clips on either end designed to attach to your stirrups when lunging with a saddle on and keep the stirrups up near the seat of the saddle rather than allowing them to swing freely, potentially marking up your saddle and banging your horse on the side as you lunge.
- Round pen – Usually measuring around forty feet in diameter, a round pen is a useful tool for working the horse either from the ground or in the saddle. It's good for training a very young horse or working with more specific issues on a well-trained horse. It allows for "free lunging," that is working the horse in a circle without a lunge line attached. Round pens, also called bull pens, can have high solid wooden walls allowing for less distractions, or be made out of metal piping that gives it a more open feel. If you have the room for one they are a terrific tool but take care to maintain the footing inside just as strictly as you do in the ring; bad footing on a small circle is a recipe for disaster.
Every time you get on your horse, every time you even take him out of the stall, for good or for bad you are training him.
There is no training equipment worth it's weight in gold quite like a well-written book. There are several good ones written in every discipline and probably a few not so good ones as well. Ask friends or the folks at your local tack store for suggestions. There are staples that everyone should read but new ones coming out all the time designed to help riders of all levels learn how to work with and train their horse from the ground up.
Monthly magazines are another great way to get training tips and ideas on the correct way to use the training equipment you have.
Books to look for:
"Centered Riding" by Sally Swift
"The USDF Guide to Dressage" by Jennifer Bryant
"Hunter Seat Equitation" by George Morris
"Manual of Horsemanship"
Riding Equipment Used for Training:
Like the equipment you use from the ground, the effectiveness of the equipment you used from the saddle all hinges on how correctly you are using it. Your horse should never lean on your equipment or be dependent on the equipment to hold his frame. Training equipment that are used both for safety and to help your horse learn self-carriage include:
- Martingale – A strap, usually made of leather that keeps the horse from tossing his head too high. There are a wide variety of martingales, depending on your use. A standing martingale or tie-down in Western parlance is the most restrictive. It attaches to the noseband of the bridle directly to the girth. It can be used for hunters in lessons but is not recommended or even allowed in some jumper classes or any cross-country jumping because of the way it restricts the horse from using his head and neck over jumps. A running martingale attaches to the girth, and then splits into two straps with a ring on the end. Each rein is run through a ring, providing a leverage point to help teach the horse to yield to pressure from the rider's hands. It's safer to use with higher jumps because it allows for more freedom of movement. Special rein stops should always be attached to your reins when using a running martingale to prevent the rings from getting tangled with the bit. A German martingale is a bit more complicated. It consists of two leather straps that connect to the girth ring that pass through the legs. The right goes through the right bit ring and connects to the rein, the left does the same on the left side. It's only engaged if the horse raises his head too high. (There's also an Irish martingale but it's more of a safety device to keep the horse from pulling the reins over his head while jumping than an actual training device.)
- Draw Reins – One long continuous rein, made of either leather or synthetic material, with loops on both ends. The girth goes through the loops, the reins come up between the horse's front legs and feed through the rings of the bit. They're used in conjunction with regular reins. They encourage the horse to keep his head low but are only engaged when the horse raises his head up. They should not be used to force the horse to keep his head low, thus defeating the purpose of teaching the horse self-carriage.
- Helmet – It's even more important when using special training equipment than ever. You never know if a horse may suddenly react differently to a new piece of tack.
- Side Reins – On rare occasions, side reins are attached when a rider is taking a lunge line lesson. This should only be done with a professional giving the lesson and extreme caution should be used.
- Bits – . Any bit can be considered a piece of training equipment, since the ultimate goal of any bit is control and encouraging any horse to be supple, soft and round. Entire books are written about choosing the right bit, so be sure that the one you're using is the right one for the job.