Open Letter to "Practical Horseman"

“If I didn’t have the pulley rein…”  - Stephanie Simmonds, Practical Horseman, March 2011

…uh, you’d have to learn to ride? 


These days I seem to read your publication mainly as an exercise in voluntary frustration.  Until now, I have never felt the overwhelming need to respond to any of the many asinine articles I find there for two simple reasons:  

1. Who has that kind of time?  Nearly every article in your magazine contains something ridiculous or just plain offensive, and people need to sleep and eat; and

2.  It would be a futile effort, as I know my voice is one among a minority of riders out there who genuinely care about good horsemanship, not just ribbons. 

Honestly, I don’t know why I continue to subscribe.  I suppose it’s more akin to rubbernecking a car wreck on the highway.  I read your magazine much in the same way some people read the “National Enquirer”—for the shock value and a few laughs.

I’ve monthly combated the urge to write a strongly worded letter to the Editor.  But now I reluctantly write this letter, knowing in advance it is an exercise in futility, and that next month’s edition will be filled with the same sort of crap that fills all of them.  

Case in point:  “The Pulley Rein: Not just for Emergency Stops.” 

Excuse my language but, are you fucking kidding me?

I couldn't even read the rest of the edition, it looked so scary.  This article alone is just so shocking I can’t bring myself to fathom what other horrors it might contain. 

I mean, I’ve come to expect your sycophantic ass-kissing of celebrity trainers like George Morris over the years.  I may not agree with all of it, but at least I can brace myself when I open to the “Jumping Clinic” section because I already expect I’ll find him fawning over some ass-in-the-air, draped-over-the-neck rider catching her inverted horse in the mouth with a beginner’s crest release, while obsessing over her degree of fashion-savvy.  Sure, the advice he should be giving is that she should be at home jumping cross-rails or on a longe learning to ride properly.  But, I guess when you create the rules and actively set the standards for the rest of the H/J world, you also get to be the final judge, even if the finished product is a disgrace.  By now I’m well accustomed to the stupid articles these “riding elite” produce and the blatant idol-worship your magazine flogs.

But then, suddenly, a person called Stephanie Simmonds* gets a glossy six-page spread wherein she can expound her questionable practices and wreak havoc among those who are apt to take anything they find in print as gospel.  While I should applaud you for finding a less well-known trainer to offer advice to riders for a change, this latest article may have been the most absurd thing I have ever read there.  I’m left wondering if “Practical Horseman” has recently held a contest where, by some kind of lottery, a trainer is selected at random to peddle any pet theory or technique regardless of actual merit?  What’s next, a reality show?

The “pulley rein,” as it has been known at least since Gordon Wright and George Morris** so carelessly included it in their manuals on equitation, has been a mainstay of inept riding for so long it seems no one has thought twice about its effects or the implications of its use as a means of basic control.  Sure, if you’re headed for a cliff or into the path of an oncoming semi, by all means, go for the pulley rein.  If you’re in mortal danger, you can spare the formality of correct riding and give your out-of-control horse a good sock in the chops; you get a pass for that one. 

But I’m disturbed by the fact that any riders think that they can and should use this for general riding and even suggest ways to hide it from a hunter judge.  Really kids, should things be getting that out of control in the hunter ring?  (Not to mention, isn't the fact that it needs to be hidden kind of an admission that it's wrong?) 

I'm wondering, just how commonplace has this kind of substitute for actual training become?  And just how incompetent are so many of our judges that they can’t see this a mile away, no matter how “subtle” (a relative term in this instance.)  I’ll chalk it up as further proof that our selection criteria for judges are seriously flawed, for one thing (but that’s a rant for a whole other time.)  The point is, when the standards are so low, how can we expect the riding to be any better?  And when I say low, I mean this method is trawling the bottom of the training toilet; it’s right down there with medieval bits, restrictive draw reins and rollkur. 

Here’s an idea!:  Don’t drag your poor horse to shows or jump him around courses until you’ve trained him (and yourself) so you can make it around without resorting to emergency measures in front of every fence and around every turn.  Unless death or major injury is imminent, the pulley rein is out of bounds.  And if disaster is that close at hand around every turn or at every jump, you might want to have a think about finding a better trainer before you get yourself killed.

Both the Wright and Morris books demonstrate a tenuous-at-best grasp on the effects and usage of the Five Rein Aids.  The “pulley rein” is not—and will never be—among those proper five.  It’s nothing but a bastardized form of a rein effect known as “the direct rein of opposition,” only much, much stronger and more damaging.  The author of this sad article is clearly ignorant of the effects this rein has on the horse’s positioning, movement, balance and the parts of the mouth it rather brutally affects.  All of these factors have consequences that need to be taken into account any time an aid is used.

As an example of such a consequence, the pulley rein produces an unbalancing “handbrake turn” effect on the horse which causes a rotation in the horse’s hindquarters in the opposite direction of the rein aid, which must then be countered with stronger opposing leg and hand aids.  It is never an appropriate aid for turning at speed.  Neither should it ever be used for “slowing” a horse, as any necessary pace reduction (or if we want to get fancy, how about some collection?) can be accomplished with any combination of seat, weight and voice aids, and finally, should those prove inadequate, a correct use of  “the direct rein of opposition,” which, let me reiterate, is NEVER a forward turning rein—the only turning it is appropriate for is a turn on the forehand. 

If, after applying all of those aids, you still can’t adjust the horse’s speed or degree of collection, guess what?  You have no business calling yourself a trainer and certainly no business jumping courses yet.   Go back to the beginning and learn how to use and coordinate the aids correctly and then ride and train your horses properly for the job at hand.  You don’t get to just grab a fistful of mouth and start pulling when things go horribly wrong.  You certainly don’t get to do that and then call yourself a trainer and hand out advice to others.

If you want to do your readers a favor, try doing a series on the correct use of the traditional Five Rein Aids, not misinterpreted as they appear in the Wright/Morris manuals, but as they are described and applied in the classical literature.  But then, I may be overestimating your readership; such academic treatment of the arts of riding might be a bit above the pay grade of an audience generally more interested in celebrity trainers, quick fixes and the fastest route to the ribbons. 

So much about this article has exasperated me with its mind-numbing ignorance that I won’t bother to go on and refute each offensive point, or I’d end up writing this from the padded cell of a mental institution.  To put it bluntly, this article is complete crap and it should be considered criminal to waste six whole pages of a magazine (I mean, think of the trees!) on passing this off as an appropriate riding and training method, especially as your readers presumably subscribe because they wish to learn good horsemanship.  But I could be missing something here:  Maybe there’s a difference between being a “good” horseman, and being a “practical” one?

*apparently, she's not the only misguided one out there--a quick google search coughs up these dubious advocates.

**in fairness, their books DO say the pulley rein is just for emergency stops--i don't think they intended for people to take it to this extreme, but if people are openly using this in the show ring at the big shows and WINNING, and getting spreads about it in magazines, maybe it's time to take a little responsibility for what we put out there and try to correct any misunderstandings, hmm mr. morris...?