Wednesday, November 26, 2008

If the horse is leaning on the bit, it's already over!

For a while now, in fact quite a few years, I have pretty much known how to make most horses feel ok while I am on the ground with them. But the big challenge for me has been how to do it while they are being ridden. I have searched and searched, asked and asked, watched trainers who I really like, even looked in books, but I have never been able to really pinpoint what the actual key is to to the mind of the ridden horse.

I have had a few theories along the way - things like how we feel, what we take to the horse in terms of our confidence (or fear) and so on. I thought I was on to something when I saw the effect on some horses of relaxing the poll. But then I saw that horses can do that and still be tight physically, and in their minds - relaxing the poll kind of disarms the horse but it doesn't actually get the change I want, and also the overbending issue really is wrong.

I have watched people ride their horses round and round saying things like, 'there we are, that part was good', meanwhile on the rest of the circuit the horse practises a load of stuff you don't want it to do. That's what I'm seeing now as 'pot luck' horsemanship, because now I am convinced that training the horse and how the horse feels, should and can be, completely in our hands (good sort of a pun there I'd say).

So, how to do it, that's the question? Well, the first thing to take on board is that it's no quick fix, it's not a patch up job. What it is is a deconstruct and rebuild job, or if it's a young horse, it's a 'get it right from the start' job. And yes, it's all about our hands and the horse's mouth. Of course this is all assuming you have some kind of working relationship with your horse, and I mean by that I guess, some kind of idea that the horse is there ready to work for you. After that, well, I'm not going into the details here, but just to say we have changed a horse around that we were on the verge of telling the owner, we couldn't do. It's about getting the horse's mouth right, and getting the horse in balance - that's the secret. And, it feels good for the human too!


  1. what about bitless bridles?

  2. Nah Ziggi, not really. As far as I can see relaxation in the horse begins with the tongue and jaw, and if you want to have a say in that you need to be in there.

  3. That's interesting. Since you came here for the last clinic I've been playing around with relaxation of the jaw in a couple of the polo ponies.

    One has been extraordinarily accommodating and transformed in just a couple of days. The other is proving a little more tricky and it's taking way more pressure than I'm happy with, but I suspect her back is bothering her at the moment so we'll give her some time off and try again later.

    The one that has "got it" has quite a changed attitude to pretty much everything and is really enjoying work now whereas it felt like he just went through the motions before.

    But then every time I think I've got "the answer" something else comes up that also helps!

    My dressage horse has suddenly worked out that forwards is fun, and she's done that since I've started using clicker under saddle.

    So, I guess what I think is that it is a package, of which relaxation of the jaw is a great starting point, and then the clearer you can be with your cues, the better. For this horse the clicker made it very clear when she'd got the right answer to what I was asking. It is almost like it gave her the confidence to make the effort.

    The polo pony didn't need that help. For him, relaxation of the jaw was all he needed to start using himself properly, as the cues were already well established.

    Playing with horses is such fun!

  4. I think riding in a halter or a gentle bitless bridle is really good news for the human and the horse at a certain point in the human's training because you can do less things wrong with your hands there. Certainly until a year or so back I don't think my hands had enough independence that I could really be trusted with a bit- I'm sure I would just have ended up teaching the horse that anything but the broadest communication I was putting through that rein was meaningless or that I needed them to lean on the bit to support me.

    Learning on the lunge and working on one-rein and a halter where I had to learn to quit pulling and only actually use the rein when I needed it were really useful to set me up to the place where I was ready to start working more with the bridle.

    I quite agree that people get hung up on riding bitless, but I think that there is a place for it in terms of rider development, to help the human to get to the place where the horse needs them to be.

    I'm still working on this stuff and it does make a huge difference though- once I work past the layer of resistance that I still find ( probably because my hands aren't yet as good as they need to be but maybe because I notice it more now ) it's amazing just how easy everything becomes.

  5. Do you get your information straight from the horse's mouth?

    It all sounds sort of hand to mouth...
    most of us know what that's like.

  6. June - that's interesting about the moth isn't it. We're kind of making it our focus for a while, with a few different horses, to see if we can find a strong pattern. And I know I have a tendency to look for 'holy grails' in life, but we are by no means the first to end up here.

    Glenatron - Interestingly quite a few people agree with you about not letting people use a bit until they can sit without using the reins to help them balance. It's always been a bit of a thing of mine that sometimes, people have to do things to learn. So I'm a little bit wary of saying, no, you can't try that because you're not good enough.
    But also, that's quite a different reason for using a bitless, than because people think bits are inherently wrong.

    Donn - you are so right - you do get information straight from the horses mouth, totally. You can feel the relaxation and the tension, and help the horse accordingly.