Side Reins Help Grade 1 Winner Express Train Focus, Strengthen On The Way To The Starting Gates – Horse Racing News

This stock image shows a horse lunging with side reins

All eyes were on Express Train in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday as he held off a late-charging Warrant to give trainer John Shirreffs his first win in the Big ‘Cap. Eagle-eyed viewers of the TVG coverage of the day’s stakes races may also have noticed something interesting before the race, as the 5-year-old headed to the paddock.

While most horses approach the saddled enclosure wearing only a bridle and halter, Express Train had a schooling pad and a pair of straps running from each side of the pad to his bit. Sport horse participants may recognize these as side reins, which come in many forms, often made of leather with some length of elastic and attached to a surcingle or saddle girth.

Shirreffs said Express Train isn’t the first of his horses to wear side reins on the way to the paddock, and he finds they have a couple of benefits for this particular horse. For one thing, they mimic the rein contact a rider will have when one is aboard, which Shirreffs feels helps Express Train focus.

“I use those because he doesn’t really like a lip chain on him,” Shirreffs said. “He can get to playing and jumping around quite a bit. I put the side reins on, and it gives him a sense of control. When the rider gets on and picks up the reins, he calms down.

“I do it with a lot of horses who want to play too much.”

Of course, a groom walking with a horse in hand will often have a shank clipped to one side of the bit, but that provides one-sided directional control and could still allow a determined horse to wheel his hind end to hop and play. The dual-sided contact of the side reins seems to help Express Train focus forward as he awaits instruction.

Shirreffs said side reins also accomplish something similar in his racehorses that they can for dressage horses. For sport horses, they’re most often used on a non-mounted horse who is being lunged or long lined to change the shape of a horse’s stride by stretching and strengthening the back and hind end.

“That’s the one thing racehorses don’t get enough – they’re not collected and riders don’t use their legs to engage the hind end very well, so obviously this helps,” said Shirreffs.

Express Train and Victor Espinoza winning the Santa Anita Handicap

In the sport horse world, side reins are not without controversy. Like any piece of equipment, they can become harsh in rough or inexperienced hands. They should be gradually introduced and adjusted carefully so a horse isn’t surprised or panicked by the sudden presentation of pressure on the bit. According to FEI dressage competitor Lisa Zinger, writing for Practical Horseman, side reins should not be used as shortcuts to force a horse’s head down or his nose back, but rather should gently teach the horse how to relax into a rein that has some tautness or “contact” in it. This will encourage a horse to develop the muscles over their topline and stretch through their back and neck.

Shirreffs has found, when he’s able to lunge a horse, that adding a side rein on the horse’s outside will help straighten the horse’s body because it can offset the one-sidedness of the lunge line.

“They collect themselves a little better and it strengthens their topline,” he said.

Trainers and riders of horses on the track are bringing over principles and practices from the sport horse (and particularly the dressage) worlds into race training. Shirreffs said he has found some of those beneficial principles, and tries to employ them with exercise riders where possible.

“As far as training is concerned, I always tell the riders that as a horse pushes off with his hind legs, you need to just go down a little bit so he learns to extend off his hind legs, rather than to be in front of him and trying to get him to put his front feet down fast,” he said.

In dressage, riders usually refer to this as having the horse “in front of the [rider’s] leg,” meaning the horse’s momentum is coming from the hind end pushing the front half of the body forward, rather than the front end dropping down and pulling the back half along passively. For that type of riding, this is thought to produce a longer, more fluid stride and a more efficient use of the body.

Shirreffs said he’s not sure whether he thinks this kind of cross-training will become more commonly accepted with time, but a lot will depend on the background of the people on the racetrack.

“It all depends upon the riders that are available, because it’s something that’s difficult to teach a rider, especially when they’re used to galloping horses,” he said. “They’re used to taking ahold of horses as they gallop around there. It’s hard to tell them, ‘You should push them.’ It’s a difficult concept for people to get.

“It’s funny because I think one of the things riders don’t realize is they can reward horses just by relaxing a little bit on the horse. Racehorses are big, strong, tough, and they’re taught to pull. Obviously jockeys have very little use of their legs other than to stay on. The only thing they really have contact with the horse is their ankles. It’s always the mouth. I always try to tell my riders, when the horse relaxes, relax your arms so there’s a connection between, I did something right and I’m getting rewarded for it… pretty soon the horse is going to figure out his reward comes from not pulling so hard.”

Express Train is doing well after his effort on Saturday, Shirreffs said on Monday afternoon. At five years old, the horse has achieved a level of fitness and physical maturity that makes Shirreffs’ job a bit easier. Ideally, a horse would go into a race on a fitness high but may lose some ground after a big effort; Express Train has a stage where Shirreffs said those peaks and valleys are much smoother, and it’s more about maintaining fitness than building it back up.

“He’s feeling very well,” Shirreffs said. “If you look at his past performance, he has run not every month but pretty close, every five weeks or somewhere in there. Now he comes out of his races almost as well as he went into his race.”

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