Expert advice from HORSE magazine on backing a two-year-old and the correct use of side reins

Q: I own a two-year-old Arab gelding and have been loose schooling him in a lungeing roller, half bridle and side-reins for about a week. A girl on my yard has said he is too young to be wearing side-reins as they are too restricting on his mouth. I am breaking him in with the help of a friend who has broken her own horses before. Should I stop using the side-reins?

Claire Lilley BHSII replies: Side-reins are an important part of a young horse’s training as they help them to learn to accept a contact before having a rider on their back.

However, I wouldn’t advise introducing side-reins until your horse is at least three years old. At the moment his bones are still soft and you don’t want to force him into an outline.

If your gelding is mature for his age – ie happily accepting the work you are doing with him and not tense or anxious – I would continue the loose schooling but without the side-reins. This will allow your gelding to find his own balance around the arena. If he is tense or worried I would give him a break and spend more time handling him and gaining his confidence before trying again.

If he is mature you could also lunge him a couple of times a week for short periods (a few minutes each side) on a very large circle. Move the circle around the school by walking yourself to begin with, before fixing on the spot.

Introducing side reins

When your horse is ready to work with side-reins introduce them gradually. They should be fitted long to a mild bit (such as a rubber snaffle), which will introduce him to a light contact on the bit and get him used to wearing the equipment. They need to be long enough so they don’t restrict him in any way. This will avoid tension in his back and neck and prevent him tensing his jaw against the bit. He just needs to feel the weight of the reins and no more.

A lunge cavesson is best for lungeing but if you don’t have one you can use a correctly-fitted cavesson noseband on his bridle. It’s a good idea to seek advice from your more experienced friend if she has been successful in training her own horses.

Teaching him to lead from both the lunge cavesson and the bit is a good idea. Should he begin to assert himself, attach your lungeline tothe bit to give you more control. He must trust you but learn he can’t boss you about. If respect is established between you at this stage, you will have a very nice, well-behaved horse to ride in the future.

Plan your training

Start with two loose schooling sessions and two lungeing sessions per week of about 10 minutes duration each – young horses get tired quickly, so keep the sessions short.

On the other days improve his handling around the stable, ie grooming, having his feet picked out, wearing a rug for a while. Give him days off as he needs to let his training sink in. Then he will be keen to learn again the next day.

At two a horse needs to learn basic things without too much pressure. At about two-and-a-half he should cope with slightly longer sessions and slightly shorter side-reins.

When he’s three and physically more mature he should be able to cope with lungeing with side-reins so he works in a rounded outline with his head vertical or slightly in front of the vertical.

Include a warm up and cool down period in the session where the side-reins are not attached and he can stretch down.

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