Tools of the Trade—The Use of Artificial Training Tools

What is an artificial training tool? Look it up and you’ll get a vague description that varies between disciplines, barns, and trainers. From traditional tack seen in the hunter and jumper rings like martingales to those only allowed outside the show ring such as draw reins, these types of tack are commonly seen in use for a reason—they are great tools for training horses.

Although the definition is blurry, the use of training tools has strong opinions on either side—some riders love them, while some despise them. To clear the air, we took a look at the concerns over using artificial training aids in the competitive hunter/jumper circuit and the benefits and disadvantages of such tools.

What are they?
With no real definition of what artificial training aids are, it can be hard to pinpoint if a piece of tack is considered one. Those prohibited from the show ring like draw reins, neck stretchers, and chambons, to name a few, are quite commonly thought of as additional tools to enhance a horse’s performance. But the classic addition to a show hunter’s attire, a martingale, is also considered artificial despite the rarity of a horse showing over fences without one.

Meredith O’Connell, trainer at Madison Show Stables in Merrimac, MA, keeps it simple when distinguishing tools from tack, “I consider artificial training tools anything other than a bridle, girth, and saddle.” As for the misconception about martingales, owner and trainer of Victory Stables in Stoughton, MA, June Gillis-Ahern explains it as confusion due to the permitted use of them while showing, “Because of the allowance and acceptance of martingales in the hunter, jumper, and equitation rings, those are commonly seen as standard tack for horses that are jumping.”

Despite the controversy surrounding the topic, the use of tools can be highly beneficial to the training of a horse when used correctly. Most often, artificial training aids are used while lunging or under saddle on the flat and, most importantly, with educated hands.

“Using artificial training tools can help the horse get a feel of stretching forward into the bridle,” explains O’Connell, highlighting the advantages of using such tools. “I personally use draw reins frequently with a snaffle to flat my horses. I never, ever use them to ‘crank’ the horse’s head in—they are a tool, not a crutch, and are designed to guide and encourage the horse to stretch his neck and back.”

Along with correct use of each training tool, O’Connell stresses safety and education while using them, especially while over fences, specifically suggesting riding with a trainer. “I will occasionally jump lower fences and low exercises with draw reins, putting them through the throat latch and unbuckling the bite of the reins for safety. But this should only be done with educated hands with a trainer.”

So why, if these tools are so beneficial, are so many trainers and riders against them? “They are very useful tools only if used properly. The disadvantages to using artificial training tools are the obvious—improper use, unforgiving hands, overuse, and abuse. These can happen in uneducated or impatient hands,” explains O’Connell. “You do see some riders abusing these tools and unfortunately those are the riders that give them a bad rap. For example, often I see martingales adjusted too tightly, prohibiting the horse from being able to use its head, neck, and back over fences—especially in a predicament.”

“I think it really comes down to the rider and the horse,” adds Gillis-ahern. “I understand there can be benefits, but anything that is done too much or without proper understanding by the rider and the horse is not going to be productive.”

Questioning Use
A topic often brought up about artificial training tools is the disagreement about their use. Aside from martingales, it is becoming the norm to see horse’s schooling in training tools before entering the ring, raising the question; are too many trainers and riders using these tools? “I do not think artificial training tools are overused in the hunter/jumper community,” says O’Connell firmly. Noting a change in the industry in the past few years, Gillis-ahern agrees, “I feel that there has been a shift away from the overuse of things that are used for head set. You’re even seeing more and more hunters go without standing martingales.”

Running alongside the question about too many trainers using tools is the concern about their overuse as a shortcut in training or threatening the welfare of the horse. “I’m definitely of the belief that the occasional use of an artificial aid to address a certain issue is fine,” says Gillis-Ahern who has trained and sold ponies all over the country. “I would follow that up by saying overuse, overdoing, or forcing an issue is likely to create tension, confusion, resistance, and not the desired result of a soft, supple, willing horse.” O’Connell agrees, “Any artificial training tool, in my opinion, should not be used every day, every ride.” Also noting that these tools should be used correctly in addition to in moderation, she adds, “[Draw reins, martingales, and lunging systems] can be detrimental to the horse, causing problems physically and mentally, if they aren’t used properly. They can be great in your toolbox if used as they are intended.”

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