Ah, gadgets. What a can of worms that topic is. I’ve used my fair share of them in my life, although granted I haven’t touched any in a really long time and don’t particularly care to. But fear not, I’m not here to lecture anyone on the evils of draw reins or german martingales. I’m here to talk about what a struggle it is to try to fix a horse that has been over-gadgeted, or gadgeted incorrectly.
Draw reins especially are very common. More in h/j-land than in eventing or dressage, but you still see them a lot. It’s not even uncommon to see them on the racetrack. I’ve gotten more than one horse OTT that had the tell-tale “break at the 3rd vertebrae, duck the nose behind the vertical” signs of one that has spent time in draw reins. But all of them have paled in comparison to Henry.
When I first got him, anything more than the lightest feather touch of contact would send him practically nose to chest. To the point where sometimes I wondered if he could actually see the fence he was about to jump, it was so extreme. Of course, you can chunk the reins at a horse like that all you want, but that doesn’t fix the problem. Once one learns that the answer to contact is to come BTV, it’s a very hard thing to undo. Add on top of that a horse that’s really mouthy about the bit and fussy in general, and I had quite the issue. He didn’t like contact, he didn’t like pressure, and he was more than happy to go around BTV.
First I had to take the bit away completely and just get him more rideable in his body. Six months later I was able to add a bit back into the equation, and while it was for sure a thousand times better, his immediate reaction to contact was always to tuck his nose in. He thought that was the right answer, and how to make the pressure go away. We struggled with it for SO LONG… what contact we could manage was really a fake contact, he wasn’t truly in my hand. We could fake it enough to put in a fairly passable dressage test, but it wasn’t really correct.
To be honest, I never thought we would fix it. I never thought that tendency would go away, it was so deeply rooted in him. It really didn’t hit me until one day this past summer, when we were struggling with a few things in a lesson and his reaction was to come ABOVE the bit (like a normal damn horse, hallelujah)… he hasn’t ducked nose to chest in a while. In fact, if you didn’t know how he used to be, I don’t think you’d be able to tell by riding or watching him. We’ve finally made it to square 1.
NOW he can finally learn real contact. NOW he can really be ridden forward into the hand. NOW he can balance himself properly. NOW he is tremendously more rideable. Sure, he still hasn’t really mastered impulsion plus contact, not completely, but the BTV tendency is gone. He no longer seeks nose-to-chest as his safe refuge. He’s finally at the point where most horses start out… it only took 2.5 very long years. The struggle, it has been very very real.