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...? 



  1. Yuck - I stopped subscribing to PH for those reasons a long time ago. Maybe they might want to focus on teaching their readers the basics that underly good riding and good equitation - consideration for the horse and training based on the fundamentals needed to produce a horse that's soft in the bridle, responsive and in self-carriage - but wait . . . that might delay getting into the show ring and collecting ribbons. There's a reason many hunters and jumpers pull like freight trains. And don't get me started on the misuse of draw reins and spurs . . .

  2. Amen! You can sure say it like it is.
    Too bad the mag has degraded so badly. I stopped readership so long ago, as the articles contradicted themselves...crap shoot and never progressed.

  3. Uh maybe I didn't get the memo but isn't the Pulley Rein supposed to be used for an emergency situation? At least that's the way it was taught to me (and there are those who question its value in emergency situations)...

    When I first looked at this article, I thought it was one of those safety-related sort of things (which aren't necessarily a bad thing) but when it went on to talk about using it for slowing down and turning, it made me pause.

    WTF? To me, this is no substitute for proper use of the rein aids and using your seat and legs. If your horse speeds up or is getting off course in turns, then you need to work with your horse more and fix those problems.

    Finally, this version of the "Pulley Rein" seems to be some sort of a substitute for normal rein aids...or am I just confused?

    Slowing down aid? What about half-halts and all that sort of thing? At least that's how I slow my horse down...(if you have a runaway horse, that's a whole other thing).

    In any event, this is just plain confusing and guaranteed to cause some major issues for a beginning rider. know, Col. Chamberlain's book on equitation is easy to find on the second-hand market (or the cavalry manual that he developed for the Cavlary School at Ft. Riley)- that would be a better investment in time than reading junk like this.

  4. Now tell us what you really think lol!

    Same gripes with Dressage Today, with an added elitist factor - although I hear that back in the day (before my dressage time) that wasn't the case.

    No substitute for time in the saddle, hard work, good (classical) instruction and patience... and there are no shortcuts!

    Thanks for sharing :)

  5. Oh hell yeah!!! Very well said.Too bad you can't put up a billboard en route to Florida each winter!

  6. Oh this just makes me feel so sad! How are the horses ever going to get a break when popular publications are not paying attention to what is and isn't good for the horse.

    It's no wonder the rate of improvement on conditions for the horse progresses so slowly. Edducation is supposed to be the key but how can it be if what's out there is not responible material.

  7. Well it had to be said sooner or later. I'm tired of everybody and his brother being a "top trainer" who knows nothing of what they're talking about. I don't know where they learn all these new and improved methods and how they get away with teaching them.

    You would think a magazine should at least research or "know" what is right or wrong before they do an eight page glossy on certain methods of training.

    Those of us who know better just shake our heads and move on but I feel sorry for the beginners. How are they ever going to learn how to ride properly when there are so many "trainers" out there spouting this crap as gospel.

  8. You're a top trainer in my book! Thanks for addressing this. I don't take any of the equine magazines - I just can't take the crap that I read there (and see, even in the advertisements with photos).

    I was always taught that the pulley rein was a last resort - and the emergency dismount came before that!

  9. kate- yeah, it was a gift subscription, so i was trying to be cool about it :-\ and i'm with you on the misuse of spurs and drawreins.

    dom - thanks!

    allhorsestuff - yeah, i gave up a long time ago too, but just can't seems to stop myself from looking at the trainwreck :-(

    adam - you are totally right, pulley rein is supposed to be only for emergencies, but i guess everything is an emergency when you don't know how to ride! i agree, the half-halt would be the better method for handing the situations described in the article. i'll have to look for the book you recommended - don't think i have it. i do have the french cavalry manual and it has some great info...

    calm, forward, straight - i agree about dressage today. same deal. i love how elitist they are without realizing how much they actually suck!

    luvmytbs - that would be great! time to start taking up a collection? ;-)

    rising rainbow - that's what kills me - not one word about what this will do to the horses. none of these articles talk about sympathy or feel - it's as matter-of-fact as the drivers manual in your glovebox.

    GHM - everyone's an expert :-\ yeah, right. you do have to wonder where the editor and staff were during this process?

    billie - thanks! i'm trying, but it's not as easy as it looks in the magazines! ;-) and i agree about the advertisements - just as sickening as the articles. especially the ones about how your horse is stressed and sick and now has ulcers, but with this medication, you don't have to stop stressing him - go out and show anyway!

    i was taught emergency dismount at the beginning too, and it has saved my ass plenty of times!

  10. If I were King...

    I would create some sort of magazine aimed at the plain folk who want to learn dresage so they can be better riders. Put in a lot of nuts-and-bolts features, explain why each move is done and how it affects the horse. Also put in stuff about dealing with real-world horse issues in relation to dressage. Finally, put in some stuff about how dresage moves can save your butt out on the trail and in other riding situations (not a sure-cure but maybe it will give a rider a few more tools that might make a difference).

    Finally, in each issue I would prints the following message in large red bold-face type:


    Think this publication would succeed? :-)

  11. well, i would subscribe to something like that! but not sure the rest of the horse community is ready for the truth :-( but may be worth a try, and it could be fun!

  12. When I was riding, my trainer explained about the pulley rein because I was gallivanting around on a Morgan who liked to take off on a trail near a major highway. It was a description, short show and tell and a half hour of why this is absolutely the LAST resort to save both our lives. Never did need to use it. I remember her lecture better than how to do it!

  13. Horses For Life is pretty good - online only, but you know you won't see anything hideous in there.

  14. oak in the seed - sounds like you had a rare good trainer! i can recall only 2 times i've had to use the pulley rein and both were occasions involving horses being ridden out and trying to run off home through traffic. but 99% of the time i've been able to manage even those hairy situations without it.... it really should be the absolute last resort.

    billie- it sounds interesting, i'll give it a look. thanks!

  15. I haven't read that magazine and now I won't start to. Just got over getting quite annoyed at Equus, thank you very much.

    It's sad to know how very many poor riders there are out there. I caught some of the cowboy race at Horse World Expo last weekend and was appalled at the riding I saw there.

  16. smazourek - yeah, you're not missing much. and equus has been going downhill fast lately too :-\ i know magazines are in trouble these days, but... i'd love to know what it was that bothered you :-)

    and i'm finding myself less and less inclined to go to those kinds of shows. i usually end up either feeling disgusted or biting my tongue the whole time and resisting the urge to pull people right off their poor horses.

    oak in the seed - thanks! (more like ranting in this case ;-) we'll see how much practical horseman likes it - i sent a slightly less obnoxious version to them last night. probably shouldn't have bothered, but i couldn't resist!

  17. I used a pulley-rein stop on a bolting horse and he lost his footing and fell on me. He was going down a slight bank at the time. STOOPID ME! I'll never try that one again. I couldn't use my knee for three months.

  18. fantastyk voyager - wow, that sounds awful! but a good lesson for all of us - the pulley rein can definitely unbalance a horse with dangerous consequences. so sorry you had to go through that. hope you're better now.

    ps - for some reason your comment never came through on my e-mail, so i didn't see it until today - so sorry :-(


I enjoy reading all your comments and welcome discussion and debate. I do my best to answer most comments in a timely manner, but this may not always be possible. I will publish all comments providing they are relevant to the subject.

Thank you for reading. We look forward to hearing from you.

Copyright © J.M. Elliott 2008-2018. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.