We’ve just returned from an incredible 4-day ranch-riding clinic at the C Lazy U Ranch and soon I am headed to Spanaway, Washington, for my last 2-day horsemanship clinic of the year, then I get to go back to C Lazy U for the riding and yoga retreat (treat is the operative word!). Soon we will be releasing my 2016 clinic schedule, but you can always check my website for details on my full clinic and expo schedule.
I am also excited to be going to Amarillo, Texas, in October for the CHA International Conference and to visit the AQHA Hall of Fame; to Springfield MA, in November for Equine Affaire; then on to Las Vegas with the good folks from Cosequin for the equine vet tech conference, held in conjunction with the AAEP conference and the National Finals Rodeo (this is the time of year that Sin City becomes Cowboy Central).
We’ll be doing our fall TV shoot at the Grove River Ranch in Georgia the first week of November. I’m excited to head south to my old neck of the woods! This is a gorgeous facility and a place where you can trailer in to stay at their cabin, fish and ride!
The fall is always busy for me but I still manage to get some good riding time on my horses. Dually, my number one horse (and the most high-maintenance horse we own) is fully recovered from his near fatal bout with Colitis in the spring. In fact, he’s gotten a little cocky and full of himself—a good sign that he is feeling better but also a sign that we need to get back to more structured training. It’s back to school time for Dually!
Eddie’s Pick is my junior horse and he would love to step into the number one spot. He comes off the renowned 6666 Ranch, by their World Champion stallion, Sixes Pick. Eddie, a handsome reflection of his daddy, is one of the most eager-to-please and hardworking horses I have ever ridden. Now, as a 6 year old, he has matured physically and mentally (especially the latter) and is becoming a good working partner for me. I don’t know that he could ever fully replace Dually—those are some BIG shoes to fill—but he is sure giving Dually a run for his money!
Although I was sad to say goodbye to summer, I love the fall and getting back on the road and working with horses, and their humans, is very rewarding for me. I enjoy getting to know all the horses I meet, even the naughty ones. Maybe especially the naughty ones—helping horses and their humans get along better is a fun challenge to embrace. I hope to see you on the road this fall and together we will talk horses!
Bitless or Bridle-less? To me, there’s a big difference. Often when I write about riding my horses bridle-less, people confuse it with the issue of riding bitless. To me, they are totally different subjects.
At expos and clinics, I am often asked, “Is it okay for me to ride my horse bitless?” It is presumed in this circumstance that you will use headgear of some sort– be it a rope halter, side-pull, hackamore or bitless bridle.
When I talk about riding bridle-less, I am referring to what I personally feel is the ultimate bond with my horse—to be able to ride complex maneuvers and patterns with nothing on his head and no reins or physical control of the head and no way to physically restrain the horse.
To answer the question of whether or not you should ride your horse bit-less (with some other form of headgear), I would ask you three simple questions: Do you ever have trouble stopping or turning your horse? Is your horse ever disobedient? Does your horse ever spook and bolt? If the answer to any of these question is yes, then personally, I would not want to be riding that horse bitless.
Truth is, most well-trained horses will work just fine bitless. Many horses actually work better bitless—with a rope halter, hackamore or bitless bridle for control–because they do not have the added stress of a rider who is inarticulate or unskilled with her hands or the harsh pressure of a totally inappropriate bit, both of which happen a lot more often than you might think.
There are many good reasons to ride a horse in some sort of bitless headgear—from dental issues to scarring on the tongue; from a young green horse to a sensitive horse with a heavy-handed rider. As long as you have adequate control of your horse at all times, there’s certainly nothing wrong with going bitless.
Limitations may come into play when you are training a horse without a bit, when you ask for more difficult things like collection, jumping, rollbacks, etc. The more difficult it is for the horse to comply with your request, the more likely he will be to ignore the pressure on his nose. He may well make the decision that he’d rather live with the pressure on his nose than do the more difficult thing that you are asking.
The bit is one tool that riders use to allow you to put enough pressure on the horse to motivate him to do things he isn’t otherwise motivated to do. Sort of like a person being willing to work overtime if he makes time-and-a-half, a horse is more motivated to do hard stuff in order to avoid pressure on the bit.
For myself, my ultimate goal with my horse is to be so bonded, so in-sync with, so in-control of him that I don’t need any head gear at all. When my horse is so obedient that he says, “Yes sir Captain! Your wish is my command,” and he listens intently to my body position and gestures for cues as to the direction and speed of the course I have chartered for us, it is truly an accomplishment.
This is not a relationship that develops overnight; however, with a horse that is already well-trained, experienced and willing, it can be accomplished quickly, if the rider has enough skill. A horse that is responsive, compliant, willing and eager to please, that is finished in his cues, can perform complex maneuvers, has a good work ethic and is respectful of authority, is years in the making and usually involves a bit and a skilled rider.
Once I start riding a horse bridle-less, I still constantly revert to riding with the bridle, to reinforce as needed to keep my horse honest, sharp in his responses and to develop new skills.
The bit, or more accurately, the rider’s hands, can be the cause of many, many training problems. The wrong bit in a horse’s mouth can cause problems as well and the right bit can resolve lots of problems, as you may have seen on many episodes of Horse Master. A bit cannot train a horse, only a skilled rider can; but it can sure cause a lot of problems.
On the other hand, the bit is a communication tool that when used properly— not as a cue, but as reinforcement of a cue and only as needed—can assist the rider in developing the performance and cooperation of the horse. To me, the bit allows us to develop a fine line of communication between horse and rider—so fine that the horse can perform incredible maneuvers, cued only from the rider’s seat, legs and gestures and without the need of any type of bridle.
Enjoy the ride,
PS- I always enjoy your comments here in my blog– thank you for contributing to an interesting discussion!
To me, this is not a simple yes-or-no, black-or-white answer. Just as there are many good reasons not to shoe your horse, there are many reasons why you might want to shoe. There are few things with horses that are absolute—always this way or never that way.
I am generally suspicious when someone takes an unmovable stance on an issue. I worry that such an outlook may indicate a closed mind and an unwillingness to consider other points of view. I love to keep learning and to do that, you have to have an open mind to listen, consider and relate what you hear to what you already know. Having a firm stance can be a very slippery slope when it comes to horses. If you ever think you have all the answers, a horse will come along and prove you wrong. Usually, they’ll prove you wrong in some kind of humiliating way.
The Barefoot Reasoning: There are many compelling arguments not to put steel shoes on a horse’s feet. The hoof naturally expands when the horse’s weight comes down on it, increasing circulation in the hoof, pumping blood up the leg and acting as a shock absorber. The rigidity of a metal horseshoe inhibits this natural expansion and may decrease the circulation of blood in the foot and limb.
Also, horses that are shod are more prone to injuring to themselves and others when the hard shoe comes into contact with soft flesh. Unshod horses have better traction in many slick conditions and the hoof tends to be healthier. Putting holes in the hoof wall is not without risk and should never be taken lightly or done for no reason. Leaving horses shod indefinitely can lead to weakened and misshapen hoofs and even lameness.
There are many excellent arguments for leaving a horse barefoot, not the least of which is the monetary cost of having a horse shod!
Yes to Shoes: There are also many good arguments for putting shoes on your horse, if shoes are needed. Therapeutic shoeing is perhaps one of the most compelling reasons. There are many conditions that a farrier can treat with shoes that can make the horse more comfortable and prolong his useful working life. Navicular disease, severe laminitis, thin-walled hooves, foot-related lameness, under-run heels, arthritis, bruising, stabilizing cracks, injuries and conformation flaws, just to name a few.
Depending on the workload of an individual horse and the terrain and/or surface he is ridden on, he may or may not need shoes. Often horses that are ridden hard every day in abrasive or rocky conditions will simply wear their feet down faster than they grow. Hoof boots can help, but they aren’t an answer to every shoeing need. Shoeing can prevent foot soreness and stone bruising, enhance performance (such as sliders on a reining horse) and help improve traction when specialized shoes are used (like borium or cogs).
Hoof Boot It: Using hoof boots can be a great mitigating factor to keep your horse barefoot but still ride him hard in rugged terrain or to give the hoof time to toughen-up. Hoof boots might allow you to keep your horse barefoot, or make him more comfortable when his feet get sore, and generally they provide good traction on rocky or slick terrain. But there are some disadvantages too. Hoof boots can be difficult to fit, hard to put on, yet somehow they manage to come off at the worst possible moment. Some hoof boots will allow mud and debris to sneak inside, which can cause irritation and discomfort to the horse, just like gravel inside your shoe would. If you choose to use boots, read the reviews and choose a pair that doesn’t collect dirt.
For performance horses, hoof boots are generally too bulky and clunky for the horse to make difficult athletic maneuvers. It’s like expecting a ballet dancer to perform in hiking boots. It’s not that there is anything wrong or bad about hiking boots, in and of themselves, but they are not the footwear of choice for all activities. Again, there is rarely one right answer when it comes to horses.
All Things Considered: For me, making the decision to shoe a horse or leave him barefoot is never taken lightly and always in consideration of the individual horse, his workload and his unique needs. Individual factors include foot health and strength, the terrain he will be ridden in, how often and how hard he is ridden, the type of work he is doing (trail or arena, performance or pleasure) and what is at stake if he gets foot sore or a stone bruise and has to be laid-off to recover.
In my barn, we have horses that are barefoot, horses that are shod with front shoes only (the front feet carry more weight), horses that are shod with hind shoes only (sliders for our competition horses), and horses that are shod all the way around. All of our horses go at least half the year without shoes (some for the entire year), to help improve hoof health and to give them better traction in the ice and snow.
Horses can be conditioned to go barefoot all the time, but it takes about a year to grow a new hoof and to toughen up the feet enough to endure hard work every day on hard ground. Sometimes it’s hard to sacrifice the time off or a lesser workload that toughening of the feet requires. Although there is nothing natural about putting shoes on horses, there is also nothing natural about putting a heavy rider and gear on their back and forcing them to go into terrain where they would not voluntarily go.
There are many parts of the country where the ground surface is very conducive to horses being barefoot and there are some places where it is not—like where I live. I always say, there is a reason why they call it the Rocky Mountains. But still, even living here in the Rockies, I have some horses that can stay barefoot with heavy workloads, and some that get foot sore easily, even riding in the arena. There are some areas that we trail ride that are so rocky that even shod horses can get foot sore on long, multi-day rides, and terrain where getting off to retrieve a hoof boot that has fallen off would be downright dangerous.
To me, the bottom line is that I would never choose to shoe a horse if it weren’t important–considering all of the factors and options. I never take putting holes in the hoof wall or the rigidity of steel shoes lightly. I do, however, consider all the factors, the pros and cons of both shoeing and barefoot, each individual horse’s situation, and his overall health and well-being before deciding to shoe or not to shoe.
As usual, when it comes to horses, there is no one right answer, and whenever I hear someone saying ‘never’ or ‘always,’ it gives me pause for thought. To me, keeping an open mind and considering other points of view allows me to learn more and grow.
Like most horse trainers, when it comes to my barn, I run a tight ship and I like things very orderly and very systematic. Even though my barn is totally private—no outside horses for training, no boarders, no clients—for my horses and my staff, I have high expectations.
Rules for Horses:
Having happy, well-behaved horses is a high priority for me. The health and care of our horses is the absolute highest priority in my barn and, honestly, they have it pretty good. They have a clean, comfortable place to sleep every night and all the high quality food and supplements they can manage. They get to frolic in the fields all day with their friends and are only subject to forced exercise, with their own personal trainer, five days a week. In exchange for this country club treatment, there are certain things I expect in return.
Good manners from my horses are of utmost importance. Waiting politely and patiently for their room service to be delivered is a minimum expectation of mine. It’s okay if they are happy to see their food delivered and enthusiastic about its arrival, but crowding, demanding, stomping and aggression are not tolerated. If you deliver the food when a horse is acting poorly, you reinforce that behavior. Instead, our horses know that they will only receive their food when they are acting politely. Please and thank you gets you more. At our place, the feeders are under strict orders not to feed any horse that is displaying aggressive or unwanted behavior. When the feeders are approaching the pens or stalls with feed, the horses are expected to back up and wait patiently and politely for their food. If we have a horse that is displaying aggressive behavior, we will use a stick or rope to wave at the horse and back him away from the food. Once the horse has backed-off and is showing respectful behavior, we will drop the feed in and walk away. This ensures that the horse does not think he is taking away the food from you and keeps him in a subordinate frame of mind.
When I approach my horses, whether in the stall or in the field, I expect to be greeted by a happy horse, eager to see me and eager to be haltered and led away. Of course, I cannot force this kind of emotion from the horse, but I can create the conditions that make them feel that way. My horses know what follows being haltered and led away is our undivided attention, a pleasant and thorough grooming and a training session during which there will be lots of praise and acknowledgement of their efforts, followed by another nice rubdown. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Since our horses are happy to be with us and comfortable with our leadership, they walk quietly beside and behind us, matching us step-for-step. They ground-tie whenever and wherever asked and they do not act like they are caught or restrained and trying to escape—they want to hang out with us. This kind of willingness does not come for free—you have to earn it by being a confident leader, setting boundaries and trusting your horse.
I expect my horses to stand quietly and patiently when tied, no matter how long it might be. Our horses spend lots of time at the hitching rail and it is actually a very comfortable and content place for them. We keep them in the shade when it is hot and in the sun when it is cold and we make sure there are no flies to bother them. Just like little kids have to learn to sit quietly at their desks when they go to kindergarten, horses have to learn to stand tied by being tied often and for long durations. We start our yearlings learning to stand tied by getting them out with the mature working horses and letting them find their place at the hitching rail. Horses will learn by watching other horses—be it good or bad. So make sure there are always good role models present.
Finally, I expect my horses to try hard and put forth their best effort when I ask them to. I am not overly demanding, but I do ask for their best effort at times. I nurture the try in my horses by having high expectations and most importantly, by acknowledging their effort. If you can notice when your horse is trying, and reward it by letting him rest, leaving him alone, and offering your praise, he will work hard to please you. Who amongst us doesn’t want to be acknowledged for our efforts? If you miss the try in your horse and keep pounding away at him, even when he has put out his greatest effort, he will soon quit trying. On the other hand, I am ever vigilant for when my horse is cheating or trying to get away with something—and that gets my acknowledgement too. Praise is important, but so is admonishment when it is deserved. Your horse will rise to your level of expectation—be it high or low.
Rules for People and the Place:
Just as I have high expectations for my horses, I also have high expectations for my staff and anyone who enters my barn and has reason to handle my horses. I am so very fortunate to have awesome people working with me—they take as good care of my horses as I do. Knowing that I can leave town (as I do 130 nights a year) and never have any concern about the horses is quite a luxury!
Everyone in my barn knows that the horses are the number one priority—their health, their well-being and their comfort. I expect my staff to be highly observant of the horses—their mood, their appetite, their level of alertness. I expect each horse gets a stem-to-stern inspection every morning, looking over every square inch of his body for any scrapes, bumps or swelling. Observations are made on how much the horse did or didn’t eat, and whether or not his stall looks like he had a normal night. Each horse behaves differently in his stall at night and you should know what his stall normally looks like in the morning and it will tell you if there was a problem during the night.
Communication is a key component of a well-run barn, especially when more than one person manages the horses. We have a big white board front and center in the barn and all details get written down. Everyone knows to check the white board first and foremost when they arrive, to get updates on what went on and/or what needs to be done. Any boo-boos are noted, any changes in feed, or medicine given or any tasks that need doing. Good communication between all of the people involved is paramount—not only do you have to look for any notes, you have to acknowledge that you saw it and also be forthcoming with any information you might need to share.
Having a clean and orderly barn is extremely important to me. Not just cleaning the stalls every morning, but also picking up manure in the arenas, turnout pens and hitching rails. Our manure gets spread every day to help keep the flies at bay and to recycle the manure back into the fields.
I expect the barnyard to be raked and the aisle-way to be blown off. I’ll admit that my need for a neat and clean barnyard borders on obsessive-compulsion, but it makes me happy to walk into a beautiful barn. I gave up the tedious task of raking the barnyard in a herring-bone pattern a long time ago when I finally realized I had better things to do with my time and that no one else really cared. But a raked barnyard still pleases me.
I also expect an un-cluttered barn and for things to be put away in their rightful place. It’s amazing how junk accumulates in a barn if you let it. I travel a lot to different barns around the country and the junk and clutter, or lack thereof, is always something I notice. To me, it is important that the aisle-ways are free of obstacles and that we all know exactly where things are. I have learned to let go of silly things like making sure all of the halters and lead ropes are hung on each hook exactly the same way, but I do expect that the blankets are all folded and removed in a specific way, so that the next person doesn’t have to refold it before putting it on. Not all obsession are silly.
I expect the tack to be cleaned, the bits to be rinsed and the bridles be wiped down, each time they are used. While some might think this borders on OCD, I have a huge investment in my equipment and taking good care of it is important to me. But not just the tack—the horses too. Nothing erks me more than to see a horse put away with sweat marks on him; if we’ve made him sweaty, the least we can do is get him cleaned up and comfortable before putting him away.
Certainly not all horse trainers are highly particular and bordering on anal, but I have noticed that it is a common trait of our breed. Horses are not simple animals and riding is not a simple or easy sport. The people that are drawn to these animals and to this sport tend to be ones that embrace a challenge and have high personal standards as well as high expectations of others. When these qualities are absent, things fall apart rapidly with horses.
Horses thrive when there is a strong sense of order and sameness—it makes them feel safe and content. This is a luxury for a prey animal, who never knows what danger lurks around the corner. A sense of order is important to me too, so I guess that’s why I get along well with horses and why horses bring out the best in me.
Enjoy the ride,
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