The UPHA has provided guidelines to owners and trainers of Saddle Seat horses, requesting that any sale videos and photos be devoid of action devices. The reason is not because they are abusive or harmful, but rather that they are misunderstood by the general horse public, and that misunderstanding has led to many incorrect assumptions and rumors.
Action devices can be wonderful tools when used correctly, but they can also have potential negative side effects if they aren’t used in the right way or for the right reasons. Some of the possible negative results include mixing up a horse’s gaits, causing timing problems at the trot, muscle strain, creating a “shackled” look, and pastern rubs. All of these things can be avoided if they are used correctly and thoughtfully. So what are some of the good things they can do?
Range of Motion
In my opinion, the best reason to use any kind of action device is to maximize the range of motion (ROM) in a horse’s joints. Range of motion is how far you can move your joints in different directions. These types of exercises help the horse move each joint through its full range of motion. Movement can help keep joints flexible, reduce pain, and improve balance and strength. Stretchies are excellent for ROM work, as they encourage the horse to move beyond their normal level of motion (and one reason I don’t like seeing ads or videos of horses wearing them, because they can greatly exaggerate a horse’s way of going). The photo on the right shows a horse with and without stretchies, and you can see how they help the horse move through her full range of motion.
Chains on the pasterns can also encourage a horse to lift or reach more with each stride; however, I’ve found that the effect wears off after a short period of time. I like to use chains to warm a horse up and get them moving their joints, but then will remove them afterwards since they lose their benefit and will instead start affecting timing.
Here is a link to some interesting research done by Dr. Hilary Clayton for the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ “Focus on the Sport Horse” conference in July, 2014 regarding the use of chains and other methods of increasing range of motion as a therapeutic treatment.
If you have a horse with “off” timing (for example, strikes the ground with the hind feet ahead of the forefeet at the trot), a pair of chains on the hind pasterns might help even out the timing. Worn enough, the muscle memory will take over and the horse’s timing will gradually change. However, the opposite is also true – if your horse has a perfectly timed trot and you frequently put chains on it, you might negatively affect the timing and end up with a four-beat trot.
Chains can also be useful if you’re considering shoeing changes to improve timing, but aren’t sure what to do. Usually chains on the front feet act similarly to lowering the angle or adding lead – the front feet will have a slightly longer hang time in the air and the flight path of the hoof will change. Depending on where the hoof goes (either more towards the elbow or with more forward reach) can help you decide how to weight the shoe. My horse tends to travel to his elbows when he wears chains in front, so when I want to add lead, it goes in his heels to help keep his stride more open. Usually the motion will follow the weight – heel weight will open a stride, where toe weight will close it. But every horse is different.
Stretchies can also affect timing, since they GREATLY increase the amount of time the front feet are in the air, so don’t use them every workout or for extended periods of time. While they provide a great muscle workout, they can ruin a lovely trot fairly quickly. In addition, some horses will alter their way of going to avoid pulling on them, which can become habit even when they are off. So if your horse trots “around” them, don’t use them.
That said, ALL action devices can provide more a workout for the horse. The muscles used to lift the foot and propel the horse forward have to work harder to do their job, so don’t overdo it! Normally, my horse will wear stretchies in the warm up for maybe one workout a week, chains all around for warm up when I ride, and chains behind for the full workout on driving or long lining days (he has weak stifles). I’ve seen some people use stretchies on the hind end, but in my opinion, they work the wrong set of muscles too hard. They work the “lifting” muscles, not the “pushing” muscles (i.e. quads vs. glutes), so the horse ends up with a very off-timed trot where the hind end cannot keep up with the front end.
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