A Nice Middle Ground

The hardest people to teach are the ones who adhere to a tradition or system. Not all traditions are all good or all bad – but an open mind makes the best deal for the horse. Some traditions prove effective over time, while pieces of it come into question as we learn more about horses bodies and minds. Some people are still unwilling to change their ideas even when disproven with data and hard scientific research. Just because it’s been done a certain way for a long time, doesn’t mean it can’t be changed.

That being said, you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water. I let the health and well-being of my horses over time be my guide, with an eye out for new research toward best practices for care, keeping, and training.

On the other hand, it’s hard to teach people who don’t have a guidepost and are swayed by every YouTube horse trainer and magazine article, because they don’t have an understanding of basic principles. As with everything, there is a nice middle ground – open minded to new ideas, even if they contradict the ones you spent a lot of time building, but steadfast in principle – as with everything, doing what’s best for the horse.

Engage Your Core!

Engage your core!

How often have we all heard that? These vague instructions often lead riders to tense their midsection, leading to a tight back and a seat that can’t follow. This has the opposite effect as desired, and can create tense arms and hands, leading to further contact issues.

This does not mean you don’t want to use your core, however. But using your core is more about being in a position that allows for core engagement, with a neutral pelvis and soft lower back. This position allows for your core to do its job and to absorb and follow the horse’s motion.

I frequently find being in this position allows riders who were previously working their tails off to maintain a horse’s movement suddenly are able to breathe better and work less hard. This is because they can then allow the horse to do the work, and their bodies can follow and absorb motion instead of inhibit or block it.

It’s Not About Being Caught, It’s About Feeling Good Being Caught

When a horse has learned how to avoid and escape, teaching them usually entails them trying what works for a while. They’ll try what always works, and when those things don’t work, they may try them harder. You might think they’re being stubborn, obstinate, impossible to teach, etc, but they are doing exactly what they’ve been taught. It takes significantly more time to teach a horse something new when they have very ingrained habits of avoidance.

This horse probably has never felt good about being caught. He’s been roped to get caught, given treats to be caught, cornered to be caught, but never caught with him feeling good and participating. After many years of this, he’s both nervous about the whole ordeal but has very set ideas about how it should go.

He’ll let me approach the left side of his neck, but the worry causes him to turn his head to the right. When I ask him to draw toward me, he feels very worried, and tries to put me back where he’s the most comfortable.

Today, we’ve worked on just getting him to think about being caught a little differently. I asked him to draw and relax with me in some scary spots. He did really well, and was feeling a whole lot better about being caught by the time we were done.

Sometimes, it takes more repetitions of a good thing than the bad things – and for horses with a long history of bad experiences, that can take some time.

It’s Not About Being Caught, It’s About Feeling Good Being Caught

When a horse has learned how to avoid and escape, teaching them usually entails them trying what works for a while. They’ll try what always works, and when those things don’t work, they may try them harder. You might think they’re being stubborn, obstinate, impossible to teach, etc, but they are doing exactly what they’ve been taught. It takes significantly more time to teach a horse something new when they have very ingrained habits of avoidance.

This horse probably has never felt good about being caught. He’s been roped to get caught, given treats to be caught, cornered to be caught, but never caught with him feeling good and participating. After many years of this, he’s both nervous about the whole ordeal but has very set ideas about how it should go.

He’ll let me approach the left side of his neck, but the worry causes him to turn his head to the right. When I ask him to draw toward me, he feels very worried, and tries to put me back where he’s the most comfortable.

Today, we’ve worked on just getting him to think about being caught a little differently. I asked him to draw and relax with me in some scary spots. He did really well, and was feeling a whole lot better about being caught by the time we were done.

Sometimes, it takes more repetitions of a good thing than the bad things – and for horses with a long history of bad experiences, that can take some time.

It’s Not About Being Caught, It’s About Feeling Good Being Caught

When a horse has learned how to avoid and escape, teaching them usually entails them trying what works for a while. They’ll try what always works, and when those things don’t work, they may try them harder. You might think they’re being stubborn, obstinate, impossible to teach, etc, but they are doing exactly what they’ve been taught. It takes significantly more time to teach a horse something new when they have very ingrained habits of avoidance.

This horse probably has never felt good about being caught. He’s been roped to get caught, given treats to be caught, cornered to be caught, but never caught with him feeling good and participating. After many years of this, he’s both nervous about the whole ordeal but has very set ideas about how it should go.

He’ll let me approach the left side of his neck, but the worry causes him to turn his head to the right. When I ask him to draw toward me, he feels very worried, and tries to put me back where he’s the most comfortable.

Today, we’ve worked on just getting him to think about being caught a little differently. I asked him to draw and relax with me in some scary spots. He did really well, and was feeling a whole lot better about being caught by the time we were done.

Sometimes, it takes more repetitions of a good thing than the bad things – and for horses with a long history of bad experiences, that can take some time.

On The Bit?

I remember taking a dressage lesson on my quarter horse years ago. She had some issues that were difficult to work with, and her conformation doesn’t lend itself to using her back easily. I was nervous to be riding in front of other trainers, and my mare was fussy. The well known instructor constantly said to me, “she needs to get on the bit. She’s not on the bit. She’s got her head in the air and she needs to get her head down.”

Tell me something I don’t know! The thing is, if a horse has tightness, crookedness and other issues that cause them to go around inverted, just “putting them on the bit” is not only unhelpful, it isn’t possible. This type of thinking leads to frustrated riders getting into pulling matches with their horses mouths, and if you do succeed at getting their head down, you do so at the detriment of their body. If they have physical tightness or weakness, they will not use their backs correctly until you address those issues first.

Before you can collect, you have to be able to loosen, then strengthen. Having a nice round frame is a great goal, but stop worrying about where your horses’ head is when you are doing the important work I think of as physical therapy.

Softness in the Little Things

The way you do every day tasks with your horse matters

How do you get your horse responding softly in a snaffle? By asking for softness in every interaction, be it with your hand when you touch, or lead rope and halter when you handle.

A horse carries the feel from one to the other. If they drag on your lead rope, if you push and pull on them, then it only makes sense to them to push and pull on your hands, resist your legs, and brace against you.

There are so many opportunities to work on getting your horse to soften and feel good about your interactions together. When I feed, I ask my horses to step back and soften before I put their feed bags on, as if I were bridling.

When I halter, I ask them to lower their heads and tip their noses toward me.

When I lead, I ask them to leave slack in the rope and follow the feel of the rope, to engage in a conversation with me, instead of wallowing around behind me.

In this way, by the time I swing a leg over, their minds are already geared toward a soft response, and a meaningful engagement.

Bitting Up for Control

I frequently get asked what type of bit to use for a horse with “no brakes.” Firstly, it’s important to recognize that a horse not responding to the bit has either a misunderstanding of the bit, or is struggling with the mechanics of the bit- in other words, the bits mechanics are confusing (see my post on the Tom Thumb). If you find your horse needs a different or more severe bit to slow down, maintain control, or collect, very likely the horse is missing the basics.

A bit can be a wonderful tool to communicate, but it can cause pain, discomfort and confusion easily. The same is possible in hackamores, mechanical hackamores, and bit less bridles. I love my snaffle and French link bits because they allow me direct access to the horses’ jaw, where with education, they learn the feel of the bit means to soften and loosen their jaw.

Sometimes people say a horse is soft in one bit but not another. There is quite the difference between a soft response, signifying understanding and lack of tension; and a pain avoidance response. When we go to the bigger bit for control, we are relying directly on pain and discomfort to control the horse. This can work for a time, but eventually, when panic sets in, adrenaline blocks the pain response, and this type of control becomes unreliable. You are, in effect, riding on borrowed time.

A horse can become accustomed to quite a bit of pressure, and learn to lean on a lot of equipment as well. The horses I grew up riding ran through the two bits of a double bridle easily, and required big, muscly men to bring them back under control. Rest assured nobody is having fun here.

When a horse truly understands the meaning of the bit, with a good feeling for the basics, more leverage is not needed. If you’ve come to accept your horse doesn’t have good basics and you need that control for the trail, my question is this – would you take a vehicle for a highway drive without correct wiring? Me either.

So to answer the question, what type of bit would you ride a horse with no brakes in? I would fix the brakes, and ride in a snaffle.

Softness Is In Your Seat

If you go to a lot of clinics, it’s easy to spot people who are teaching who ride very poorly.

Every imbalance on the rider’s part is felt by the horse, causing them to have to support us by bracing or getting imbalanced themselves. You can have the softest intent, but if your shoulders are tight, or elbows taking flight, the mechanics here are going to create a brace. If you ride in a chair seat, it’s going to be very difficult for the horse to round their back, because the riders tailbone is creating a situation wherein lifting the back is near impossible. The inside intent and the mechanical ability need to match, at least as much as you are physically able.

We owe it to our horses to be the best we can be. Riding well is hard, and takes a lifetime of observation and work. Do I have a perfect seat? No way. But it’s something I’ve strived toward all my riding life, and I understand that every one of my riding faults creates more hardship for the horse.

More Exposure, More Fear?

Why does more exposure not necessarily make the horse more accepting?

I was asked about a horse who is petrified of the barn pig. This pig, roaming about, doing her pigly business, has a horse in perpetual fear. His fear has worsened, not improved, over the time the pig has been roaming around. So why does more exposure not relieve his fear?

It has to do with stress. The horse sees the pig and feels fear. The next time the horse sees the pig, he feels even more fear. Pretty soon, the triggers that cause fear happen sooner, and last longer. After some time, the horse is living in constant fear of the pig- just waiting for the next time she creeps around.

You’ve probably experienced something like this yourself, with some stressful situation you have to keep going to, say, a bad job. One day at work leaves you feeling stressed. The next day as you drive to work, you are stressed just waiting for what’s coming. Soon, you can’t relax when you get home, because you know you have to go back tomorrow. Is work stressful every day? Maybe, but maybe your brain is full of cortisol which is conditioning this stress response without relief.

So how do we lessen the horses fear of pigs? Short, controlled exposures with positive outcomes. It’s much easier when you set things up to create curiosity. I like for my horses to spend time following behind livestock, without the livestock turning to face them at first.