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Bits- NOT the quick fix... A few thoughts..

This was a recent question from a new client... all too often people seem to look for a "mechanical" band for an issue rather than address the issue in itself...


My 15 year old QH has a hard mouth. I currently ride him with a full cheek snaffle twist and with a standing martingale. But sometimes he outs his head down and tries to yank me down. I don't know what to do. Many people have suggested a harsher bit or spurs but I really don't know. What should I do? I need more control.


Thank you for writing, hopefully I can offer some alternative ideas and suggestions from what you might be thinking. Too many times our horses tolerate what we ask of them, but as we increase the intensity or performance levels, they start to show signs of stress, worry, insecurity, fear or "acting out" in dangerous or unwanted behavior. Most of their behaviors are seen as "suddenly" appearing, which is wrong. Many times horses attempt to communicate in many shapes, ways and forms when they are having a problem. Too many times people ignore their horse's pleas for help and guidance, forcing the horse to comply physically while he is mentally and emotionally stressed out.

Imagine if you were being taught something new by someone. If you had some concern or worry about, and they just kept telling you "it'll be fine" and you went along trusting them. Then what if "it" didn't turn out to be fine and you reached of point of being completely worried for your safety. What would you do to get them to believe you could no longer "tolerate" what they'd been telling you? You would do whatever it took to get them to believe you were REALLY having a problem. It is no different with our horses.

Too many times people are satisfied with "good enough" or "close enough" because they get so focused on the end goal, instead of the quality of the ride that will allow them to achieve the end goal. If the ride quality at ALL times is good, then the end performance will be the ideal without having unnecessary stress for either the rider or horse.

Most "run away" horses or horses that do not stop when we would like them to, do so because something is scaring them or making them emotionally uncomfortable and therefore they respond by physically trying to get "away." The only natural defense a horse has to protect themself is to run. The tack and equipment you use are only addressing the symptom (the not stopping) not the issue (your horse being mentally available to listen to your aids from the saddle.) The stronger and more severe equipment you put on your horse will only create more stress and worry in him. It may temporarily appear to be an easy and quick fix that will force him to contain his frustrated or worried feelings until the day he finally is pushed to his limit and he explodes. By only addressing the equipment used and it's effectiveness will only delay your lack of controllability in your horse for a short period (like putting a band-aid on a wound that requires stitches.) I would say you need to go back and assess the clarity of your aids and the mental and emotional availability of your horse in order to create clear two way communication.

Break his "running away" down into steps. You might ask yourself these questions: When does he start to get strong when you ride? What kind of bit and other equipment do you currently use on him and why? Does it fit him correctly and is it effective? How soft and responsive is he towards your aids during your sessions when not running barrels? How effective are your aids? Does he respond worried if he is distracted, leaving his barn mates, riding in a group, etc.?

My guess is that he probably shows you signs of panic before he actually takes off. If you try to address this while it's happening, you are merely responding to his panicked reaction. You need to be able to recognize and RESPECT his behavior before or even when he STARTS to get panicked and be able to intercept his thoughts of running by offering him a better alternative. Keep in mind he will not listen to your aids unless they are both clear and effective.

Number one: The bit stops your horse. It does not ever stop your horse. His mental availability and respect of your aids is what allows him to physical stop.

Number two: Would you get into a car if you knew the steering or brakes only sometimes worked? If you wouldn't do that, then WHY would you not make it a number one priority to address steering and brakes when riding a thousand pound animal that has his own ideas and emotions about life?

Number three: Most horses have what I call a teenager attitude towards people. When someone offers the horse something most horses respond with a "Why should I?" attitude. Instead, our goal is create a mental availability in our horses in order to have them offer "What can I do to make this work?"

Number four: Most people are reactive riders. They wait and see being "hopeful" about how their horse might respond. Then they decide if they like or dislike what their horse is offering. Instead you must TAKE YOUR HORSE FOR THE RIDE rather than going along for the ride. You need to tell your horse AHEAD of time what you are going to ask of him instead of hoping he'll figure it out.

Number five: Horses and people are "patternized" beings. They get very comfortable with what they know and as soon as something different is presented they fall apart. How often do you change your routine of when you catch horse, where you groom and tack him up, when you ride him, what you ask of him throughout a ride, etc. Your horse should be available to try and do whatever you make ask of him at any time, anywhere.

So even though your horse has been ridden for years you may have to go back to some of the basics and re-evaluate you and your horse. In your case I would gather that there is general lack of clear communication between you and your horse. There are many ways to break down his lack of willingness to lope at various speeds. Because he is currently confident that when asked to lope it must be at a full out speed, that is all he thinks he needs to offer you. You are going to have to be able to influence his brain with alternative ideas, clarify how and what aids you use, and help him start to gain confidence when he mentally addresses you so that he can then offer alternative physical responses, rather than the current conditioned brainless responses.

First look at yourself, you will need to evaluate how you are using what aids, when, why and with how much pressure and then break down exactly when your horse mentally "tunes you out." Remember that a horse can feel a fly land on his skin, if you are creating a lot of "activity" with your aids and not getting a response, your horse is tuning you out.

Many horses are what I call "shut down" (mentally unavailable) due to boredom and routine rides. It will take a lot of creativity to create interest in your horse so that he will begin to enjoy participating in the ride rather than tolerating the ride. You will also have to establish black and white lines that clarify which of his reactions to your aids and what behaviors will be acceptable and those that are not. The faster you can catch an unwanted response, the faster he can "let it go" and try another response.

The faster you acknowledge that he achieved your "ideal" response, (giving him a break, move on to something else, etc.,) the more confidence he will have to increase his level of mental availability and physical performance. As you increase your own awareness and thought process you will begin to be able to pin point where and when you need to do something different in order to get an alternative response from your horse.

Also you need to become aware if your horse only has a hard time slowing at the lope, or perhaps you may not have noticed, but I would guess, that asking him to perform various energy levels within the walk, jog/trot, he probably also has a difficult time doing- this only becomes worse the faster he moves, which is why at a lope he feels slightly out of control.

Many times when working on a repeated exercise, horses try to please us by trying to do what is "right" ahead of when we have asked them. In reining your horse probably has been conditioned to perform the pattern, rather than waiting for specific cues or direction from you. You need to have his mind available at all times to consider what you are asking, even if in the middle of a pattern. If you can influence his mind, then you can change his outward actions. The more he realizes you are helping him throughout the ride, rather than fighting to control his speed, the more sensitive he will be to listening to your aids.

Last but not least. Keep in mind that race horses run their fastest when they are straight... Mentally many horses are way ahead of where there are physically moving, so if your horse is moving too fast, offer him a circle, turn or specific task that will act as something to get his brain to slow down, and tune back in to where he currently is at. You can slowly make the task more specific, until he offers to slow down... then continue on with your ride as if nothing interrupted you... Soon it'll only take one rein about to offer him a circle, turn, etc. and he'll slow down... Again, check your body language... If your weight is forward, similar to that of a jockey, you are offering your horse to run faster... If you weight is back in the saddle you are offering him to slow down...

With patience and clarity you will start in small steps (literally) to begin creating the opportunity for a two way conversation. This will allow both you and your horse to gain confidence in the other which will then lead to a trusting and fulfilling partnership that will allow you to both enjoy a quality ride. Remember, when your horse shows signs of rushing, nervousness, concern, worry or stress he is not trying to act naughty, rather he is asking for your help.


1 comment:

  1. Samantha,

    What a wonderful explanation to a common problem we face with our horses. It isn't necessarily the behavior that is the problem, but what is causing the behavior? There is a reason our horses behave certain ways and it is our job to be the best owners and riders we can to our horses.


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