The use of training aids – such as spurs, whips, draw reins and martingales – is a polarizing subject among decision makers of major equine associations and riders alike. Some say they are useful tools in the hands of an educated rider, while others assert they are abusive gadgets, designed to force a horse into submission or to compensate for a lack of skill.

The Controversy

Why do some riders use them, and others shun them?

Pro: Artificial aids “aid” riders in training effectively and safely. They are useful tools to influence and contain a 1,000lb animal or motivate one who’s unresponsive.

Con: These tools are bad for the industry. Spectators see them as abusive. They are a source of physical and emotional stress for the animal, and they stifle normal equine behaviour.

As a coach and trainer, in a sport where truth, tradition and emotions frequently collide, I’ve learned to sift through divisive issues by watching, reading the research, experimenting and asking lots of questions. By doing so, my opinion on artificial aids has changed somewhat over the years. So, based on my experience and equitation science, here’s how to use them, choose them and avoid the ways we might abuse them!

Natural aid: a cue or stimulus a rider uses to encourage a response in a horse, sent using parts of the body (hands, legs, seat).

Artificial aid: equipment used to back up or fortify a rider’s light, natural cue. Examples include spurs, whips, martingales, draw reins, and numerous variations, used in the quest to lift, lower or supple the neck, round the back, slow down the legs or speed them up.

Why and How to Choose Them

The first step, as the decision maker in the horse-human relationship, is to clearly define your performance expectations, outlining the boundaries in which you want your horse to move. For example, do you want your horse to produce a six- or 12-foot canter stride? How much bend do you want in his body on a curve? Do you want a short or long frame/outline? A long and low, or a raised neck?

You must consider what kind of “box” you are drawing around your horse. When your horse stays inside the box, without you having to hold him there, he has achieved self-carriage. This can only be accomplished when he has discovered, by trial and error, the perimeters of your expectations (“box”), having encountered your aids when he makes an unauthorized change. For example, if he speeds up, he’ll find rein contact. If he drifts to the inside, he’ll find your inside leg. If he loses rhythm, he’ll feel your leg pressure, sending him forward again. It’s crucial that your horse always finds release, or negative reinforcement, within the box. Negative reinforcement is the main way we train horses. We take away (negative) the irritating pressure to reward (reinforce) the behaviour we want.

Our goal is ultimately to use the lightest of natural aid pressures to signal the boundaries of the box. If and when a horse begins to ignore these light pressures, a rider may choose an artificial aid as a reminder.

The artificial aid you choose may depend on:

  • Which boundary of the box do you wish to fortify.
  • How much pressure it takes to motivate your horse.
  • What’s permitted in the schooling areas and show rings of your association.

Spurs fortify the back or sides of the box, supplying motivation via increased pressure if your “go forward” or “move over” signal is ignored.

Spurs can serve as a reaching assist for a rider or horse whose conformation makes it challenging to reach the right spot. Choose spurs permitted by your association (see chart). Note that variations in length affect reach – choose the right shank length to pinpoint your desired target (i.e. at the girth or behind the girth). The sharper the edge of the spur, the more your horse will feel it. Test the end on your hand first. Square heads or rowels will be sharper than blunt or ball tips. If your spur is resting on your horse instead of releasing and rewarding when your leg is in neutral, lower it on your boot or choose a shorter arm.

Whips/crops fortify the back of the box. A whip is used directly behind your leg to follow its cue. Technique is important. Instead of individual wallops, it’s more logical to your horse to tap continuously until he responds, then cease. By trial and error, horses figure out that only acceleration turns off the tapping. Using the whip without affecting the rein in your whip hand takes practice.

Choose a whip for schooling that is long enough to reach and lightweight enough for you to tap. Length and weight of whips in competition is determined by your association.

Martingales represent the top of the box. The horse elevates his head and encounters pressure. He lowers it into freedom (release from pressure). Running and standing martingales are the most common types.

Draw reins correspond to the front of the box. Riders choose draw reins to influence head carriage and frame/outline. They function differently according to the height at which they’re attached.

Low attachment: The goal of connecting draw reins to the girth, down by the horse’s elbows or between his front legs, is to give the horse an idea of how to work in a lower frame. This can be effective for a horse needing to lengthen and stretch the back, developing muscles for a stronger topline.

High attachment: Connected closer to the top of the saddle (upper billets or D rings), the draw reins serve to directly support, and run parallel to, the action of the rider’s hand. Used for the horse that tends to brace against the rider’s hand.

How to Use Them

When used correctly, spurs can serve as a reaching assist, helping the rider communicate more effectively with the horse.

Artificial aids are used to either amplify or replace a rider’s natural aids. Introduce training aids gradually. Horses are claustrophobic, panicking when feeling trapped. Start with the loosest setting or softest pressure and adjust incrementally.

1. Amplify

Used after the first cue, training aids motivate a horse when the ordinary natural aid doesn’t. Followed by negative reinforcement (freedom from pressure) this logical system, (light cue – stronger cue – artificial aid – reward) helps the horse locate the boundaries of the box.

Like an Invisible Fence for dogs, artificial aids repeat and amplify the first light signal. Hearing a signal as he approaches the boundary, the dog receives a “static correction” if he connects. Soon, all it takes is the signal to motivate that dog to stay within the perimeter.

Spurs turn up the volume of your leg signal, establishing boundaries your horse doesn’t want to lean on. Has your dull horse become quite content to rest on your leg signal as he would on the butt bar of a trailer? Self-carriage develops when your horse discovers freedom inside that box, whereas leaning on its limits is uncomfortable. If he responds promptly when you follow through with your spur, immediately lower your heel, softening your leg to send him the “thank you” message.

Draw reins amplify the rider’s hands, using a mechanical pulley action advantage. It takes some skill for riders to develop timely negative reinforcement with draw reins. (More on how not to use this equipment later).

2. Replace

An artificial aid may act in place of a natural cue.

Longe or dressage whips can add reach, not necessarily volume. Spurs can serve as a reaching assist to touch precisely the right spot. When longeing, side reins, chambons and other devices substitute for the hands of the rider, setting clear boundaries.

Martingales come in handy when a rider’s hands aren’t sensitive enough to provide a consistent box “roof”. They balance the human error. They are also useful when hands are busy – while roping, for example. Check the adjustment: when your horse is carrying himself in the desired topline, is the martingale strap slack?

Running martingales redirect bit pressure downward in lieu of the rider physically lowering their arms.

A chambon replaces rider influence on the longe. A horse encounters pressure on his poll when he elevates his neck. Pressure is released as soon as he lowers his neck.

Similarly, an over-check limits the extent the horse can lower his neck, replacing the riders reins pulling it up.

A horse can’t find the boundaries of a box when the boundaries keep moving. If you are not giving cues at the same place, in the same way and releasing at the right moment, you’re confusing your horse. Some training aids, indeed aid the horse by replacing unsteady signals. But, for the most part, artificial aids should be reserved for those who’ve developed independent use of the seat, legs and hands.

How Not to Abuse Them

Folks on both sides of the controversy meet in the middle when they agree that it’s not so much the equipment as much as careless operators of the equipment. Used incorrectly, training aids desensitize, confuse or stress our horses.

Researchers interviewed at a recent conference of equitation science agreed that horse people should rely less on tools of “force” or “relentless pressure”, but rather, learn to ride and communicate more consistently.

We’re careless operators when we…

  • Have poor timing. A common abuse of artificial aids is missing the moment by failing to release the pressure when the horse responds. Conversely, by relaxing the pressure when he hasn’t responded, we accidently reward the wrong behaviour.
  • Startle the horse. Megaphones are helpful to amplify and clarify instructions, or they can startle and intimidate. Surprise the horse with a spur jab before “asking” with the leg and you find yourself riding out a buck. The hasty fastening of a tight martingale may panic a horse and cause him to rear.
  • Trap or desensitize the horse. When a horse’s correct response isn’t reinforced with freedom (release), he becomes desensitized and stops trying to find the right answer. Learned helplessness is that apathetic state in which the horse feels trapped and without options. To continue to apply the aid becomes pointless and, thus, arguably cruel. Take whipping in racing – horses must wonder ‘what behaviour will turn off this sting?’ Studies have found while most horses are whipped in a race at some point, it seems that frequent whip use doesn’t lead to winning. Twenty-five per cent of winning horses are not whipped at all. While some racing associations mandate the use of cushioned, shock absorbing whips, we must ask: is the solution to alter the tool itself or the method? Whip rules dictate how many strides jockeys may strike a horse in a row. But is the rule fair if a horse can’t tie it to his acceleration response?
  • Depend on them for training. Draw reins, in particular, can be abused by holding a horse in place, achieving a headset through continuous, girdling pressure. Spur jabs can become the only aid a horse will react to with increased speed. Learning comes when the training wheels come off. Determine not to “babysit” your horse with nagging aids.