Ask the Horse Trainer: Getting my horse on the bit

Ask the Horse Trainer: Getting my horse on the bit
Topic_Info: getting my horse on the bit
Location: Australia

I go to pony club on a 15yr old Appy mare and I been riding since I was 7 now I am almost 18. and every time I go to these shows I never get anywhere as my horse will not go on the bit. She can do it in a walk to trot but not neatly and not in canter. everyone else has a Pelham bit with a double bridle they all tell me to use one but I want to know if it would work I'm always soft and caring towards my horses and I know Pelham bits are hard on them but I want to know if it would work with practice.

Thanks for writing! Many times people work with horses to try to create an outward appearance of what the person visualizes as the "ideal" look in how their horse bends, engages, or uses his body. Everything physical you see your horse doing with its body is a reflection of what it is feeling on the inside. The easy fix is to use stronger or more severe training aids to get the "look" a person would like to see in his horse, but over time this creates resistance in the horse. The person then needs to use harsher aids to get the same "job" done.

Let me put this into people's terms. Let's say you were stressed about your job. Every day you woke up with a certain amount of tension in your body day after day because of the consistent stress. You have a friend who is a masseuse who can see your body is compensating because of the tightness caused by your stress at work. Your friend could physically work on your body, and you might relax by the end of the massage. You might have even loosened up in some of your tight spots (your neck, lower back, etc.). But if you went home that evening and started thinking about work and feeling the emotional turmoil caused by your job, how fast do you think your muscles would reflexively tighten up in the areas that had just a few hours before been relaxed? Now let's imagine instead of your friend giving you a massage, your boss called you in to acknowledge what a great employee you were. Your boss had noticed your job was quite stressful, and she wanted to discuss how she could lessen your workload to decrease your stress. In each of the scenarios you could perhaps relax and release some of the emotional tension, which would then relax what you were physically feeling, but one of these ways might offer you a more long-term and influential change.

The same goes for when we work with our horses. We can use different bits, aids, "training devices," etc. to attempt to change the way our horse is physically moving or carrying herself. I would offer instead for you to work towards influencing your horse's emotional and mental status that will then be reflected in her outward movement. The act of "relaxing the poll" is one of many behaviors we would like to see in our horses.

But let's step back to when you first greet your horse. Was she relaxed then? Keep in mind there is a difference between a relaxed horse and a tolerant horse. Horses can "deal" with things for a long time that might be disturbing them until one day "out of the blue" they blow up or have a meltdown. First, does she live in a "happy place" or does she struggle to live in a stall or find her rightful place among the other horses? Does she have plenty of "free time" during each day to move about a large paddock or field? Is there tension in her before you arrive? Is she happy and relaxed when greeting you? If tension has already developed by this point, I would say this is where the outward "resistance" has started.

If she is relaxed from when you first approach her, will she voluntarily come to you from a distance of 20 or even 50 feet? Do you have to catch her or go to her? If she's in a stall, will she turn to face you and walk to you, or do you have to go to her? If she comes on her own willingly, can you notice if there is a certain point during your grooming and tacking up that starts to indicate or initiate discomfort in her? Does she paw, fuss, breath inconsistently, etc., or do anything but stand quietly?

Example: A horse came to us with the explanation that she had terribly sensitive skin and the previous owner's instructions were to use only the softest brushes on him and to use them in a light manner. If you used a curry comb or hard brush, the horse would pin his ears, shake his head, bite at the air, paw and show an overall discomfort. We quickly noticed that if you groomed him after a ride, he would stand completely relaxed and half asleep no matter the severity of the grooming tool. His outward physical appearance of anxiety towards grooming was really a reflection of his anticipation of the upcoming ride. As soon as the ride was over, he could relax mentally and emotionally and therefore stand quietly for his brush down. We changed how he felt about being ridden and now he stands peacefully for grooming before and after a ride.

Will, she ground tie and stand without fussing as you groom and then tack her up? Does she stay relaxed until you step in the saddle? Can you start to recognize subtle areas of resistance when you lift your right rein and ask her to think, look, and step to the right? If you ask her to halt, does she offer to halt by shifting her weight onto her hindquarters to stand square and relaxed, or does she try to push through the bit forcing you to "hold her" to maintain the halt with her weight on the forehand?

When riding, all of these little areas influence the quality of your ride when asking for more difficult movements. That's why we talk about "back to basics." If you are having a lack of clarity and communication between you and your horse while doing the "small" tasks, you have not created enough relationship to ask more difficult maneuvers of your horse. The true quality ride comes from recognizing the almost undetected communication between horse and rider in order to create a two-way conversation to create the ideal fluidity in a ride.

You might need to step back and offer your horse a "clean slate" with no expectations as to what she may have been able to do or had accomplished in the past and revisit some of the "basics" when riding. As she regains confidence in you as her partner first with your groundwork and then during the ride, her trust will increase which will cause her mental, emotional, and physical availability to try what you are asking when you ask for more difficult movements and collection.

Finding a "safe" place such as a round pen and starting while working her from the ground you're going to need to re-establish clear communication using effective "tools" that you will eventually transfer over to using when you are riding. You may work at liberty (with your horse loose) and/or you may work with your horse on the lead rope (using the rope as if it were like a rein when you ride.) When you do something, it must MEAN something to your horse. If you are hopeful (meaning you ask something and then wait and see if your horse eventually addresses you after she has quietly tuned you out) when you communicate with her and allow for her to ignore or "take advantage" of you on the ground, the same behavior will continue in the saddle.

You'll need to be able to "break down" asking your horse to first look (literally) at different "things" without moving. This is asking for a mental commitment. She'll need to learn that ignoring or tuning you out when you're specific, doesn't work and that her must address you mentally. Then you'll need her to understand to "mimic" your energy so that as you increase or decrease your energy so should he. If she can first mentally address, and then physically "softly" move towards what you've presented, you're on the right track for creating a quality ride.

Too many people are unclear in what, where, and how they communicate with their horse. They "challenge" the horse into guessing what they want; reprimanding the horse every time she can't figure it out. Or they present the same manner of communication repetitiously driving the horse bonkers until she accidentally figures out what the person is asking. The more the horse has to "guess" at what the person wants, the more they tune out the person's aids or communication.

The more specific YOU can mentally be in presenting literally one-step-at-a-time scenarios, the more your horse can "get it right." The more she realizes she can be successful when addressing you, the more she'll want to participate and offer you. One quality step will turn into three and then 10 and then eventually a whole circle and then the entire ride. But it takes clarity and awareness every single moment you interact with her in order to "help" your horse find the right answer, rather than forcing her to guess. The more clear your communication is, the more your horse will respect your aids, the less effort it will take from you to get her to happily participate.

Good Luck,

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