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Side Reins Vs. Draw Reins

Riders dealing with a resistant horse may be wondering if the answer to getting their horses working softly over their backs lies in the use of side reins or draw reins. However, determining which training aid to use depends on several different factors.

Side reins are most commonly used during longing and in-hand work. Draw reins are used when riding and can assist horses in achieving a long and low frame. Both draw reins and side reins encourage horses to work in the correct frame but will cause significant damage if misused.

Both side reins and draw reins elicit strong reactions amongst the riding community. Some trainers adore these training aids while others revile them as ineffective and even damaging quick fixes. Which viewpoint is correct, and when should these training aids be used?

What Are Side Reins And How Do They Work?

Over the years, horse trainers and riders have developed numerous tools to teach their horses to move correctly. These gadgets include side reins, draw reins, De Gogues, and chambons.

Side reins are reins of a fixed length attached at one end to the horse’s bit and the other end to the horse’s girth or rings on a lunging roller; they may be elasticated or non-elasticated. This training aid is typically used to help a horse flex its jaw and mouth by restricting neck extension.

When Are Side Reins Used?

Side reins are primarily used for in-hand work and longing with or without the rider. Many classical riders, including riders in the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, make frequent use of side reins.

Side reins are particularly beneficial with encouraging a horse into the correct frame when the trainer can’t actively influence the mouth as with longing.

How To Correctly Fit Side Reins?

The side reins must always be used with either a longing cavesson or snaffle bridle; the action of the side reins will be too severe if attached to different bits.

Fitting Side Reins To Unfit Or Young Horses

When first introducing a horse to side reins, the side reins should be long enough not to restrict the movement of the horse’s neck but not so long that they are a trip hazard. The reins are slowly shortened according to the young horse’s tolerance to pressure from the side reins.

If the side reins are shortened too quickly, the horse may become claustrophobic and frightened; they will resist the rein contact and injure themselves. The side reins are shortened until the horse can achieve a novice frame.

A young horse will always work with the side reins attached to the lowest ring on the longing roller. Attaching the reins to the saddle may cause the saddle to slip forward as the horse initially resists the side rein contact.

Fitting Side Reins To Schooled Horses

Older, fit horses can work with the side reins attached to the saddle’s girth (e.g., when a rider is being longed) or to the middle or top rings of the longing roller. The side reins are adjusted to a shorter length than those on a novice horse but should never be so short that they cause the horse’s head to move behind the vertical.

Horse’s working in advanced frames should be given frequent breaks to stretch their muscles and prevent fatigue-related injuries. The side reins should always be adjusted to the same length so that the horse learns to work straight within the corridor of aids.

What Are Draw Reins And How Do They Work?

Unlike side reins which always come in pairs, draw reins are made up of a single long nylon or leather strip. The rider holds the draw reins between the middle and ring fingers, just above the regular reins held between the ring and pinkie fingers.

The draw reins exert a downward and backward pressure on the corners of the horse’s lips and bars of the horse’s mouth. The rider squeezes the draw reins encouraging the horse to soften its jaw and poll by moving the head and neck downwards and flexing the poll.

When Are Draw Reins Used?

Draw reins are used when horses are being ridden by riders with light hands and strong seats. These riders use draw reins to encourage horses to stretch long and low when jumping or working on the flat.

Inexperienced riders or riders with busy hands should never use draw reins. Draw reins are unsuitable for use when working horses in hand, longing them, or working in advanced frames.

How To Correctly Fit Draw Reins?

Draw reins are attached after you have finished saddling your horse. One end of the draw reins is clipped onto the girth. The draw rein is then passed between the horse’s front legs and looped through the bit ring, moving from the inside to the outside of the ring.

Once passed through the bit ring, the draw reins are passed over the horse’s wither and back to the opposite bit ring. The draw rein is threaded through the bit ring, moving from the outside to the inside before passing back through the front legs and clipping onto the girth.

The bit-wither-bit loop of the draw reins should never be shorter than the length of the horse’s reins. Neither should the set-up be so long that it risks tripping the horse up.

The Advantages Of Draw Reins Over Side Reins

Draw reins have the advantage over side reins in that they allow the rider to change the horse’s frame throughout the ride and thus prevent fatigue injuries. The direct contact between horse and rider allows the rider to adjust the pressure being applied. Therefore, ensuring a more harmonious and intuitive manner of working between horse and rider.

The Advantages Of Side Reins Over Draw Reins

Side reins provide a fixed contact for horses, thus making them eminently suitable for horses with unsteady rein contacts and busy mouths. Side-reins are ideal tools for teaching horses to accept a quiet rein contact and allows them to move without undue interference.

Side reins allow a small amount of upward and downward neck movement, unlike draw reins which only allow downward and backward head and neck movement. This greater freedom of movement enables horses to experiment with different positions and their effect on their balance.

Disadvantages Of Using Draw Reins

The classical method of putting a horse into the correct frame is achieved through riding the horse from back to front. In other words, the rider’s seat encourages the horse to create energy and power by engaging and flexing the hindquarters.

The energy is passed along the horse’s spine and is “caught” by the rider’s hands. The rider’s hands encourage softening of the horse’s mouth and neck, thus directing the energy upwards on a circular path.

However, many riders view draw reins as “quick fix” gadgets and focus exclusively on the horse’s neck and head while neglecting the rest of the horse’s body. Thus, these riders ride from front to back and block the horse’s natural movement.

The horse’s stride will become short and choppy; they may move with their heads behind the vertical, and the wither will drop due to the “broken” neck outline and frame. In other words, these riders have created a false, incorrect frame that failed to account for the horse’s natural biomechanics.

Additionally, the draw reins exert substantially greater pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth. Riders lacking tact and good balance will bruise and even cut the bars of the horse’s mouth. These horses will evade the contact by carrying their heads above or behind the vertical. They may also develop a resistant negative attitude towards riding.

Disadvantages Of Using Side Reins

It is vitally important that the trainer encourages the horse to flex its poll and engage its hindquarters. Failure to bring the hindquarters under the center of mass will cause the horse to:

  1. “Lean” on the side reins
  2. Develop a false contact and bring the head behind the vertical, thus “hiding” from rein contact
  3. Develop muscles spasms and fatigue-induced muscle pain, particularly in the neck and thoracic muscle structures.


Both draw reins, and side reins are beneficial tools when used tactfully by experienced trainers. However, these tools can cause significant physical damage and unfixable training issues if misused.


Anrie Diedericks

I've been around horses since I was 6 years old and started competing at the age of 9. Horses are my greatest passion and I am thrilled to be able to share my 23 (and counting) years of experience and knowledge with you.

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