Halter Fit

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The Right Fit 

Is your horse’s halter too snug or too loose? Does it hang down around his nose or squeeze his face, rubbing the hair away? Do you fit a rope halter the same as a webbed halter? How do you know if you horse’s halter fits or what size halter he should wear? These are all legitimate questions and it is important to have a halter that fits your horse just right—for his comfort and his safety.
Whether you use a rope halter, nylon or leather halter, the fit should be the same. The cheek rings of the webbed halter and the cheek knots of the rope halter should sit about one finger’s width below the bottom of the cheek bone. If the noseband gets much lower, it could cause damage to the sensitive cartilage of the nose. The noseband should not fit snugly, but should not be so loose that he could get a hoof stuck in there when he scratches his face with his foot. You should have at least two finger’s width between the noseband and your horse’s jaw. 

Usually halters come in basic sizes: yearling, small horse (cob size), regular horse (most horses fit into this category), large horse (Warmblood or draft crosses), draft and mule. The average horse typically wears a regular horse size; if your horse’s head is very small and dished, he may need a small horse size, but keep in mind that you do not want the halter to be tight and uncomfortable for your horse.

Rope halters can be a little trickier to fit correctly on the horse. When you put the rope halter on, be sure to pull the throat knot all the way up to the horse’s throat, then tie it off. This should place the cheek knots just below the cheek bones and keep the upper piece above his jowl—not going across it. If there is too much room in the noseband because your horse has a very refined head, you can loosen the fiador knot under the chin and work it up to tighten the noseband. Or you can use electrical tape to tape around the fiador knot to make the noseband smaller.

Turning out horse in halters is not recommended because of the chance of your horse getting hung up on something. Horses should never be turned loose with a rope halter on because it is easier for them to get hung up and they will not break. If a horse must be turned out with a halter on, make sure that is has a leather breakaway strap at the top so your horse can break safely away if he gets snagged.

Finally, when you trailer your horse, make sure he is in a breakaway halter and never trailer a horse in a rope halter. If your horse falls and or you are in a wreck, you want him to break free. Most halters made for trailering are made of leather because they are more breakable. Most rope halters are made with climbing rope which is not breakable for the horse. Also, you want your horse to be as comfortable as possible in the trailer and not pulling against the rope halter when he gets off balance.

For more information on this and many other important topics, please check out the archived articles on my website.
–Julie Goodnight, juliegoodnight.com


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Disengagement of the hindquarters occurs when your horse crosses his hind legs. Your horse’s “motor” is in his hind end. So, when his hind legs cross, the engine is in neutral; your horse stops forward impulsion. Disengagement also encourages your horse to have a submissive attitude. You’re taking away his flight response. Disengagement is a natural, voluntary behavior for horses and it signals contrition. In natural settings, it’s only seen in neo-natal foals.

Use disengagement as a tool to refocus your horse and stop his forward impulsion. You should be able to disengage your horse from the ground and from the saddle—both are easy to do. Simply drive your horse forward then tip his nose up and to the inside as he steps up under himself with his inside hind leg. Disengagement is thoroughly explained in articles and on instructional videos available at www.JulieGoodnight.com <http://www.JulieGoodnight.com> .

The one-rein stop is an example of how you might disengage a horse from the saddle. Horses actually stop better off one rein than two, because when you pull on two reins to stop, the horse braces his neck, leans into the bit and may even run through the bridle. He can’t lean on one rein, and he can’t lean when his neck is bent.
By lifting one rein, toward your belly button or opposite shoulder, you lift your horse’s nose and shoulder as he crosses his hind legs. You’ll know when your horse disengages because you’ll feel his legs cross—his back will feel very crooked underneath you. As soon as your horse begins to disengage—or even slow down—release the rein to reward his response. You should be using less of a rein aid every time you ask for the one-rein stop. Try to alternate between using the right and left rein, so your horse is working balanced on both sides of his body.
You can also require your horse to continue moving forward while he brings his inside hind leg underneath his belly—like when you leg-yield, two-track, side pass or turn on the forehand, from the ground or in the saddle. This is much more difficult for your horse than walking straight, so don’t ask too much of your horse and make him resent the movements.
My groundwork and riding videos—especially Lead Line Leadership and GPR Volume 5 Refinement and Collection—explain the specific aids required to cue your horse for disengagement and lateral movements and shows a series of progressive exercises to develop the horse and rider/handler.

Does Your Bit Fit?

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Check Your Bit Fit
Most riders either inherit a bit when they purchase a horse or do their best to pick one off the shelf. But how many riders actually check the fit of their horses’ bits and know for sure if they have the right ones for their horses? Your horse’s mouth size and conformation, his level of training, and the rider’s ability all determine which bit you should use.

A bit can be too narrow or too wide in the mouthpiece—meaning it may not be functioning correctly or may make your horse uncomfortable. Most bits are sold in a 5” size. But if you measure your horse’s mouth from the corners of his lips, you might be surprised to find out he’d be more comfortable in a 4 ¾” or 5 1/8” bit. I use a simple and easy measuring device called, “Bit Fit” that will show you the exact width of your horse’s mouth. 

You’ll also need to check where the bit lays in your horse’s mouth to see if your bridle is adjusted correctly. If the bit is too high (causing wrinkles in the corners of his mouth), he’ll  feel  constant pressure and will have difficulty responding to light aids. If the bit hangs too low, it may hit his teeth and flop around in his mouth. I like the bit to touch the corners of my horse’s lips, but without showing any wrinkles. This way, he’ll hold the bit the way he wants in his mouth and respond to the lightest movement of the reins. A young horse will need to wear the bit high in his mouth until he no longer tries to put his tongue over the bit—a terrible habit that can be prevented early in the horse’s training.

The horse’s level of training as well as the rider’s is also a consideration in bit fit. As a horse progresses in his training, the bit can drop lower in his mouth and he can tolerate a stronger bit because you’ll be using less rein pressure to get him to respond. Even a very well-trained horse that’s used to a more advanced bit will need something mild in his mouth if he is to tolerate the hands of a less skilled rider.

Remember, the mildest bit in the wrong hands can be inhumane and the most severe bit in the right hands can be mild. Going to a stronger bit will never fix a training problem but may make it worse, while switching to a milder bit can often resolve issues with your horse. Many, if not most training issues with horses stem from anxiety about their mouths, so having the right bit’s important.

Save Your Horse’s Mouth, Stop With Your Seat

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Save Your Horse’s Mouth, Stop with Your Seat
You probably learned to “kick to go” and “pull to whoa” from the very start of your riding career. While this simplistic view of communicating with your horse may get you through the first few rides, you want to learn some finesse.  While all the natural aids are important to master— seat, legs, hands and voice—your horse will feel your seat aids first. When you make sure that you’re using your seat correctly, you won’t have to pull so hard to make your horse whoa. Your refined and combined cues will save your horses mouth and ensure your horse gets your message as soon as possible.

No horse wants you to pull on the reins. Even with the lightest touch, your backwards rein cue means your horse feels metal in his mouth. What’s more, most horses want to stop; they’re fundamentally lazy and usually don’t need tons of rein pressure to stop. Your horse will be glad to stop when he feels your seat cue and before he feels pressure from the reins and bit. Sadly, most horses don’t know their riders want to stop until they feel a pull on their mouths. They haven’t been given the gift of a gentler aid given before a panicked pull on the reins. Learn to cue your horse in a sequence so he can learn to stop with subtle cues. Before you pull on the reins, make sure to say “whoa” and sit down on your pockets. This sequence—providing voice and seat aids before rein aids—will save your horse’s mouth and make him a happier, more willing partner.

When you are in a balanced position on your horse, you are positioned directly over his center of gravity. He can feel your two seat bones pressing into the very sensitive part of his back. He can also feel your center of gravity in synchronization with his. To ask your horse to stop using your seat aid, simply exhale, drop your shoulders down toward your hips and feel your two seat bones push down and forward into his back. Your center of gravity shifts toward your  horse’s hind end. As you sit down, your legs will naturally relax and move off the horse’s sides. This seat/weight cue is very easy for your horse to feel. When he has the option to respond to your stopping cue before he feels you pull on his mouth, he’ll happily and promptly stop.

Don’t hesitate to use your reins as reinforcements to your seat aid if your horse doesn’t respond right away. Continue to cue your horse with your seat before the reins and he’ll eventually figure out your new sequence of cues. Keep repeating until you see a difference. In my five-DVD series on riding, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, there are comprehensive explanations and demonstrations of how to ride in balance and rhythm with the horse, how to use your natural aids for soft and subtle communication and advanced skills such as canter, lead changes, collection and lateral movements.

Showing Affection To Horses

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Showing Affection to Horses
Before you start smooching on your horse, it may be useful to understand how horses show affection to each other. Mutual grooming (a.k.a. allo-grooming) is the primary affectionate behavior of horses that isn’t related to reproduction. Mutual grooming is a social, care-giving behavior. Young or adult horses that are buddies in the herd often show their affection by nibbling on one another’s withers and backs. Horses stand facing each other—close at the shoulder—to simultaneously groom each other in the areas hardest to reach alone: the crest of the neck, the withers, along the back, croup and dock of the tail.

When you want to show affection to your horse, stroke him with a massaging motion. Start along the crest of the neck and withers. This calms him and is proven to slow his heart rate and release soothing chemicals in his brain. It’s best to avoid kissing your horse on the lips. Being lip to lip is the same as biting for horses. It has a stimulating effect. You’ll see horses lip to lip when they’re fighting or aggressively playing.

Foals especially love to mutual groom and they love to be rubbed and have close bodily contact. Be careful you do not instill bad habits in your youngster by letting him move into your space to demand grooming; these habits won’t be so cute when he weighs 1,000 pounds. The dominant horse most likely begins any grooming session and he ends it by biting. So it’s best not to ever let a horse groom you back, since you don’t want him to become dominant. He’ll try to dominate by moving into your space, putting his mouth on you, and controlling your actions.

During the winter, or whenever you’ll have less riding time, it’s a good time to do more ground work with your horse to establish a strong bond and learn more about behavior and your leadership of the horse. Check out my Complete Groundwork Package, including my DVDs on behavior and ground training exercises plus the training equipment you’ll need.

Coordinated Grooming

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Coordinated Grooming
Grooming is a great time to get some exercise and develop the bi-lateral coordination and symmetrical strength that you need to become a better rider. Many riders have a strong dominant side—which can mean that the horses they ride also have a strong and weak side or direction. Strengthen right and left by grooming with both hands at once—you’ll strengthen both arms and make sure you can cue your horse with symmetrical strength.  

Start with duplicate brushes: two curry combs, two stiff brushes and two soft brushes. Put a currycomb in each hand and start your normal grooming technique, using both hands in a “wax on, wax off” motion. If you normally make circles with the currycomb, make the same circles with both hands, starting with circling both hands inward then both hands outward. You’ll repeat the two-handed process with all your grooming tools.  

Pick up your stiff brushes and repeat the process, using both hands equally as you flick the dirt out of your horse’s coat from his ears to his tail. Finally, you’ll use the soft brushes to bring the shine out in your horse, nose to tail. If you are right handed, make sure you use your left arm at least as much, if not more than the right; and visa-versa.

Double grooming will help you build strength on both sides of your body and will develop your coordination as well, making you more ambidextrous in the saddle. The added benefit is that your horse will get twice as much grooming and his coat will gleam. For more strength-building exercises, check out www.JulieGoodnight.com for volume three in the five DVD riding series, Perfect Practice: Exercises to Improve Your Riding.

Confidence Boost, Overcoming Fear

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Fear Not
Fear is a normal emotion to have around horses; it’s what keeps you from doing something that could be deadly. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid at times; but fear is a negative attribute when it impacts your enjoyment or controls your actions.

If you ever feel fear, remember three simple, calming steps: keep your eyes focused, breathe deeply (abdominal breathing) and control your body language. If you can keep your eyes up and active, looking around and taking in information, you can actually prevent other symptoms of fear (dry mouth, butterflies, increased heart rate—you know the drill) from occurring. When your fear doesn’t escalate, your horse will continue to view you as the leader, so he won’t become fearful, too.

Deep abdominal breathing eliminates breath holding and shallow breathing—movements your horse easily associates with fear. Inhale deeply, filling your lungs from the bottom all the way to the top, then exhaling fully, emptying every last bit of air, from the top of your lungs to the very bottom.

Finally, controlling your body language gives your horse more confidence in your ability and helps you over-ride the emotion of fear. Adopt a confident posture, no matter how you really feel. Stand with your shoulders up, hands on your hips, eyes looking around, with a posture that says, “Give me more!”

Your mind, body and spirit  are all interconnected. If you allow your emotions to take control, your mind and body will succumb; if you control your mind (using your eyes and breathing) and control your body language, your emotions don’t stand a chance.

Pronation And Riding Position For A Pain-Free Ride

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Disjointed Riders
Do you suffer from leg, knee and ankle pain or numbness while riding? As you ride, your legs are spread in an unnatural position, causing pressure on your ankle, knee and hip joints. If you’re experiencing pain, it’s probably because you have uneven pressure on your foot–all your weight is resting on your little toe and all your joints become misaligned.

To alleviate these uncomfortable problems, simply pronate your ankles. Pronation occurs when you flex your ankle inward and let your toes flex outward and slightly up. With this simple switch, you’ll distribute weight evenly across the bottom of your foot. You’ll also bring your bones—from ankle to knee–back into a natural, pain-free alignment.

Have you noticed that most stirrup bottoms aren’t parallel to the ground? That’s the same angle your ankle should make when you pronate. The weight in the stirrup will balance across the ball of your foot, the stirrup leather will wrap around your shin and your calf will come closer to the horse, making you more secure in the saddle and giving you a closer contact with your leg for subtle cueing.         

As a competitive rider, you’ll pronate more or less depending on your discipline. Trail riders can bend as much as they please to stay comfortable during long rides. Dressage riders aren’t encouraged to pronate much because their legs must stay loose and rhythmic. Pronation means your leg will have less movement and stay in a fixed position (important for all equitation competitors). Hunt seat riding requires the greatest amount of pronation because you’ll need close contact and greater security in the saddle when prepping for fences. Riders in Western disciplines need a medium amount of pronation–just enough to keep joints aligned, your foot balanced and to give you security in the saddle.