Training in the Right Way: Let’s Talk about the Correct (and Incorrect) use of Equipment

The focus of this week’s article is to shed some light on some commonly used — and almost as commonly misused — pieces of equipment found in training and discuss what their original purpose is.

Dressage training is supposed to be the process of training ANY horse to be a better riding horse. The more the horse learns, in theory, the easier they are to communicate with and therefore complete more complex tasks with. Although competition dressage training often is more focused on training for the dressage test, that is not what the original intention (and original judging requirements) were for competitive dressage. Initially, it was designed to give riders and trainers a way to determine how their training measured up to the theoretical ideal of the training process. That said, it is critically important to understand the meanings and reasons for some of the terms we use to describe dressage training and what to look for when observing training and competition (and videos and photos), regardless of whether you intend to compete or just train your horse to be a better whatever you do with him. That, ultimately, is the main purpose of my articles. To provide education and knowledge for riders to understand and improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training is supposed to be. While there will always be some differences in practice and theory, good horse training is always recognizable to the educated eye. That said, it absolutely is necessary that we remember and understand that limited knowledge is limited judgment.

The process of training a horse, put simply, is the process of teaching the horse to accept the aids of the rider and perform specific activities as directed by those aids. There is a great body of knowledge and theory about training that has been developed over centuries which gives us a tremendous trove of information on what to do— and what not to do— to make horses more accepting of (willing to do) what we ask of them. This process of training was known for a while as dressage. In recent decades however, dressage is better known as a sport and less so as a training method. Because of this, a lot of the knowledge about how to educate horses enough to willingly comply with our requests is being lost. Instead, the same exercises and equipment remain but the correct usage and application of them has become the wild west. In this article, I wish to shed some light on some commonly used, and almost as commonly misused, pieces of equipment found in training and what their original purpose was.

The reason humans started to tame and train horses is because horses are bigger and stronger than we are. The challenge was that the horse can also use its strength and size to overpower us. While it would be wonderful if all horses could telepathically understand exactly what a human wants to do, and willingly comply through thoughtful and selfless understanding, this is not the way horses think and respond to being asked to do things in the real world. Horses must be told (and taught to understand) what humans want, and while we have a limited number of words and noises that help clarify what we would like the horse to do, we are mostly at the mercy of using the sense of touch for all communication. So, essentially, when we ride or drive a horse, we are asking an autonomous large animal to perform a task for us that it will most likely never fully understand or appreciate through the sense of touch and maybe 2-3 words or sounds.

This is why we need equipment. Equipment allows us to increase the specificity and intensity of the feeling of our “sense of touch request” without exerting all the strength we have in our body to get the effect.

The “normal” types of equipment that are generally accepted in dressage riding are meant to increase the effect of the rider/handler and aid in the training of the horse. But realistically, everyone who handles horses in any capacity uses various types of equipment. For example, we put a halter on the horse in order to be able to lead it with less strength and more accuracy than holding on to its mane and trying to lead it. We do, of course, have to train the horse to understand what the pressure of the halter means when it is used to direct him. This training must occur before we can rely on the equipment doing its job. We may even be able to reach a point of leading our horse by the mane, or at liberty, with a great deal of careful repetition, but in the end, when we need to lead the horse through a horse show grounds, or down a busy road, or restrain it for a vet visit or an emergency, we will need a halter.

Each piece of equipment that I am going to discuss here can be a method of transmitting knowledge and understanding, but it can also be horrific instrument of pain and abject misery. It is up to the practitioner to learn all there is to know about how to adjust and manipulate this equipment in a responsible and productive way. The vast majority of the “abuse” that occurs in the use of these items is done through misunderstanding and lack of knowledge. And yes, the rest of the misuse is indeed purely abusive; it is imperative that we know what the difference is and make the right choices in our own practice.

Snaffle bit

What it is supposed to do: help create suppleness and general direct communication about balance, direction, and head and neck carriage. The snaffle bit is jointed and has the ability to apply mild pressure to one side or the other of the mouth of the horse independently. It also can slide a small amount laterally within the horse’s mouth. All these qualities give the snaffle bit a great deal of nuance.

What it can do when it is used incorrectly: The snaffle bit can be used as an instrument of pain when it is yanked on, jerked back against the horse’s jaw or corners of the mouth, or used as a handle to maintain the rider’s position or the horse’s head position.

Curb bit

What it is supposed to do: to create flexion through the poll and throat latch. That’s it. That’s all its supposed to do. Nothing else. This does help with upper-level collection, but only if the curb is used properly. The contact on the curb rein is supposed to be minimal. Almost nothing. The curb has a port, a lever, and a chain that work as a lever to ask the horse to tilt his chin ever-so-slightly in the direction of his chest.

What it can do when it is used incorrectly: When the curb rein has sustained or significant contact on the horse’s mouth, the lever action forces the horse to bring his chin toward his chest, drop his poll, and often open his mouth to try to relieve the pain and lever action being exerted on his tongue and jaw bone. The pressure can be great enough to stop the blood flow in the tongue and turn the tongue blue. This is always wrong.

*If you have a dressage curb bit at home, and want to know more, get a trusted friend to help you with this experiment: take the double bridle with the curb bit attached. Put your forearm against the port of the curb and tighten up the curb chain. Now let your friend pull on the curb reins. You will have a new understanding of the strength of this equipment after that experience.


Photo (C) Morgane Schmidt.

What it is supposed to do: to quicken the hind leg on the side the whip is on and to pick up a specific leg. Also it can be used to allow the rider to increase the strength of the leg aid without being violent or exerting all the strength in the rider’s body to get a reaction. The whip is only supposed to be used in the rhythm of the leg of the horse that it is effecting, or in the rhythm of the leg of the rider it is assisting. The intensity of the use of the whip should range from a light touch to a firm tap. The horse should never fear the whip.

What it can do when it is used incorrectly: Unfortunately, often due to a lack of knowledge, most often the whip is incorrectly used to cause fear and pain and is never introduced as meaning “to do something specific.” This is wrong. Also, the whip is frequently used at a point of frustration and is used way too hard and way too often, with little to no gradation of intensity.


What it is supposed to do: allow the rider to increase the strength of the leg aid without having to resort to using the greatest amount of strength in the rider’s body or using violent aids to attempt to get a response. The spur is meant to allow the rider to give a more correct aid because the rider isn’t using all the strength in their body to create an effect. It is not meant to be used at full force to create pain. In other words, one should be able to wear spurs while riding and never touch the horse’s side with them. The correct use of the spur used to be a requirement of the rider’s education.

What it can do when it is used incorrectly: the spur should never be shoved into the horse’s side and held there. It should never be used with so much strength that the horse loses hair or skin at the site the spur can reach. If the rider is at the point of using all the strength in their body AND the spur, there are much greater problems in the training.

Draw reins

What it is supposed to do: to limit how high a horse can raise its head and neck so that the rider can continue to give smaller aids with greater effect instead of becoming rougher and sharper with the use of the bit to get the same effect. The correct use of the draw rein leaves the draw rein OFF contact, except in the moment the horse raises its head. The rider’s correct suppling aids and correct contact ask the horse to soften again. The draw rein just simply limited how high the head can get so the rider can react with normal aids, not large or extreme aids. The use of the running martingale is almost exactly the same.

What it can do when it is used incorrectly: When the draw rain (or martingale) is used to hold the horse’s head down or to force the horse in to a tight, short neck position (like a shrimp tail), the draw rein is no longer helping the horse understand what is being asked of it. The equipment is only harming the animal’s body and understanding. When the draw rein is used to hold the horse’s head down (instead of the rider being responsible for the suppling and half-halt aids required to create a creative contact), the neck and back of the horse becomes malformed with muscles the lift the horses head up and against the rider’s hands. When the draw rein is used to force the horse into a short, tight frame, it causes a great deal of pain and fear and takes away the balance of the horse. Once again, this is incorrect.

Side reins

Photo (C) Morgane Schmidt.

What it is supposed to do: teach the horse how to accept the contact on the bit and carry his neck and back in a rounded position that builds the muscle structure necessary for the horse to be better capable of carrying a rider. These should ONLY be used when lunging.

What it can do when it is used incorrectly: The side reins, the draw reins, and the martingale all have similar dangers. The side reins must be adjusted with knowledge. If they are too long, they have no effect and can actually make the horse afraid of the contact. When they are too short, they do the same things that too short draw reins do.


Photo (C) Morgane Schmidt.

What it is supposed to do: to protect the horse’s mandibular (jaw) joint soft tissue from stretching and tearing in the event that the horse pulls too hard on the rider’s hand and opens its mouth excessively wide (this is not always the rider’s fault- think when a horse spooks hard and shies or runs, or trips hard). Also, the noseband is meant to stabilize the mouth and bit connection by limiting the amount of violent or excessive movement of the bit by the horse. Ultimately, the noseband (when used correctly) helps make the contact and the bit pressure more meaningful and consistent.

What it can do when it is used incorrectly: When the noseband is too loose, it has no positive effect. It does nothing. THE NOSEBAND IS NOT MEANT TO HOLD THE HORSE’S MOUTH SHUT. When it is too tight, it hurts. But also, it stops the horse from being able to make purposeful movements of the jaw and tongue. The rules for dressage competition tell us that you must be able to slide 2 fingers between the noseband and the horse’s head. Beyond that there may be need of further adjustments. This is why we have different types of nosebands. They have different effects on the horse’s jaw and mouth to HELP STABILIZE THE CONNECTION WITH THE BIT.

In order to train and ride horses, we must have knowledge and understanding of what our equipment is meant to do. Like any other tool, the equipment we use to train horses only works when we know how to use it. Also like any other tool, equipment is destructive when it is used by uneducated hands, or with ill intent. While it is appropriate to choose to not use a piece of equipment until one has mastered the skills necessary to use it, condemning all use of that same equipment in capable and empathetic hands is inappropriate. When used in educated and empathetic training, these pieces of equipment promote acceptance of the aids and education of the animal. As with any tool, all of these objects can cause great pain and misunderstanding. Education and empathy for the animal is absolutely necessary in riding and training. And remember “limited knowledge is limited judgement”.

Remember: Limited knowledge is limited judgment.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.