What to do when your horse fights taking the bit.
What to do when your horse fights taking the bit.
Does Your Horse Fear the Canter Cue?
At my clinics and during the TV show shoots, I often see horses that are fearful of the canter cue. Many riders are a little intimidated by the canter, so they tend to clench up on the reins at the moment the horse departs into the gait. Or, the rider is concerned about the horse going too fast, so she pulls up on the reins at the same time she is asking the horse to go more forward. Or sometimes, the rider’s hands are just not moving with the horse as he drops his head in each stride. No matter which of these riding errors occur, the horse can feel pain and quickly learn to fear the canter transition. Here’s why: At the very first stride of canter, and every stride thereafter, the horse’s head drops down as he lifts his hind legs off the ground. If the horse isn’t given a release when asked to canter, when he drops his head down, he hits the bit and in effect, he is punished for doing what you asked him to do. After a while, he is afraid of the canter cue and either throws his head in the air, runs off or both.
Some horses have been hurt so many times in the canter departure by the rider hitting him them in the mouth and slamming down on their backs, that they become emotional train wrecks when asked to canter. They throw their heads up in the air and run off; running in fear of the pain they are sure is coming. It’s a self-defeating behavior that soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for the horse because it causes the rider to stiffen and hold the reins tighter, which in turn causes the rider to hit the horse in the mouth and back. However, before starting on a training solution, you’ll have to rule out any physical cause for the problem, which is also very common in canter departure problems. It could be a saddle fit issue, a chiropractic issue or even lameness. Have your vet or another qualified professional examine your horse and saddle fit and once you have ruled out any physical cause, you can look to a training solution.
If I work with a horse that seems scared to move into the canter, here’s what I do: First, I work the horse at the walk to trot transition until I can trot on a totally loose rein with the horse’s head down and with him working at a slow, steady speed (if this is a problem, you’ll need to back up and work more at the trot with the exercises for slowing down you’ll find in my Training Library, http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php). Then I give my canter cue softly and in slow motion, (apply pressure with the outside leg, lift my inside hand slightly then push with my seat for the cue to canter as I make the kissing noise with my voice). Throughout the process, I leave the reins loose. If the horse throws his head up in the air and takes off, I let him go (so that he learns that he won’t be punished during the transition), then gently and slowly pick up on the inside rein to bring him gradually onto a large circle, which will discourage his speed (be careful not to get into the habit of turning your horse as soon as he begins to canter because it will teach him to drop his shoulder and come off the rail each time you cue him). I continue at the canter until the horse slows down and relaxes, then let him come back to a nice easy trot.
I repeat this exercise on a loose rein again and again until he learns to trust that his mouth will not be hurt in the upward transition to the canter and therefore loses his fear of the transition. Surprisingly, some horses will figure it out right away with the right rider, but if it’s an engrained pattern in both horse and rider, this problem can be difficult to overcome. It will help if the horse can learn the correct response from a skilled rider. This isn’t an easy problem to fix unless you have solid riding skills and confidence riding at speed.
If you need more help and a visual demonstration, check out my Canter with Confidence DVD and the Refinement and Collection edition, too (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827).
Once you have fixed the canter departure, and your horse is stepping smoothly into the canter, you can start thinking about collection. Before working on collection at the canter, you should be able to work your horse on a loose rein in an extended frame or on a short rein in a collected frame at the walk and trot, and have him maintain a steady speed, rhythm and frame.
You’ll need to have the ability to sit the trot and canter well and feel the rhythm of the gait in your seat and legs. You’ll need steady hands and to learn to use your reins in an alternating rhythm in timing with your seat and legs and your horse’s hind legs. If you can do all of this, you’re ready to work on collection once you’ve entered the canter gait. It will take time and patience for your horse to gain confidence in the canter departure and you’ll have to work to improve your riding at the same time. But if you work with patience and persistence, you’ll get there.
Coping with Fear
By Julie Goodnight
There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of horses. They’re big scary animals capable of spontaneous violent combustion at any moment. In fact, it’s a bit of an intelligence test really; you’d have to be a complete idiot to have no fear.
Fear is a natural emotion and it’s an important one too. Without fear, we’d be likely to do really stupid things that could result in serious injury or even death. Everyone is afraid of horses on some level and you should not feel badly about yourself if you are occasionally experiencing nervousness or fear around horses. But when fear begins to control what you do and do not do and it begins to impact your enjoyment of horses, it’s time to do something about it!
Fortunately, there are many things that you can do to get back in control of this emotion. I know dozens of people that have followed these important steps and have gone from paralyzing fear to achieving their dreams on horses.
First, it’s important to intellectualize the emotion—to understand your fear, its origins and the effects of the emotion on your mind and body. You may be suffering from post-traumatic fear, which occurs after and accident or an injury. Or you may be suffering from general anxiety—which is something we do to ourselves by creating the “what if” scenarios in our minds. It’s important to think through your emotions objectively and understand them.
With post-traumatic fear, your fear will tend to surface whenever you are doing something similar to what you were doing when you got hurt. This known as a “fear memory” and it is a normal reaction—don’t let it take you by surprise. Expect it and be ready for it by having a plan to keep your emotions in check. You cannot erase fear memories but you can train yourself to over-ride them.
General anxiety tends to affect us more as we age (we don’t bounce like we used to) and have more life pressures on us. What if I get hurt and can’t go to work? Who will pay the mortgage? Who will take the kids to soccer? What if I look stupid in front of all these people? General anxiety is something we do to ourselves—I call it mind pollution. The important thing to realize is that you can control what you think about and you can chose to think about more positive things. Have a plan for what you will think about, even if it is only reciting poetry or singing a son.
Once you have really explored your emotion, it is much easier to objectify it. Our mind, body and spirit are all interconnected and one affects the other. By intellectualizing and objectifying your fear, you’ll keep your mind engaged and that will help keep the fear in check. Also, if you can learn to control your body language and look confident, no matter how you really feel on the inside, then your emotions don’t stand a chance. If you can control your mind and your body, your emotions can’t control you.
It’s also important to develop a plan for building confidence—it won’t just happen on its own. Start by defining your comfort zone—that exact moment that you become uncomfortable and nervous. Go about your daily routine with your horse, paying extra close attention to your bio-feedback and find exactly where your comfort ends and where your nervousness begins.
Then you will stay within your comfort zone as long as it takes, until you are ready for a small challenge. Take small steps outside your comfort zone, always staying within your comfort zone whenever you need to build confidence. By taking small ventures outside your comfort zone and always returning to safety, you’ll gradually expand your comfort zone.
For instance, maybe you feel comfortable catching, leading, tying, grooming and cleaning your horse’s feet; but when you go to pick up your saddle off the rack, suddenly you feel the butterflies in your stomach—you have just left your comfort zone.
So you’ll head to the barn each day, catch, tie, groom, clean feet, then put your horse away. And you’ll do that every day until you are so sick and tired of grooming for no reason, that you are ready for a small challenge. Then your next step will be to saddle your horse—then unsaddle him and put him away. And you’ll do that every day until you are ready for another challenge.
Next, maybe you’ll go to the arena and longe him—then put him away. Your next step may be to mount and dismount; then walk once around the arena; then walk for 10 minutes, etc. Gradually, step by tiny step, you are expanding your comfort zone. Always give yourself permission to drop down below your comfort zone to build more confidence and remember—there is no time frame here. If it takes you a month or a year, who cares?
The important thing to remember is that you can control your emotions. It’ll take a little work on your part, but it can be done. I hear from people all the time that have gotten back to enjoying their horses by following these steps. For more information on coping with a fear of horses, check out my website (juliegoodnight.com) for more information about dealing with fear. I have a book, Ride with Confidence, and motivational audio CD, Building Confidence with Horses.
Question Category: Talk about Tack
Question: Our horse, a 12-year-old quarter horse, has started a bad habit. Recently we had our vet float his teeth and since then he fights taking the bit. He has thrown my daughter, her trainer, others and myself through the air when we try to hold his head. He eats fine and is fine once the bit and bridle go on. Any thoughts? We are not sure how to correct this behavior and don’t want to make it worse.
Donna Cowden, Mt. Pleasant, SC.
Answer: If your horse did not have a bridling problem before the teeth floating, he is probably just worried about his teeth getting hurt again. You need to desensitize him to being bridled again, just like a horse that has a bridling problem. I would recommend using the “advance and retreat” method.
First approach him as if you were going through the motions of bridling, but without the bridle. Make sure he is not tied. Advance slowly until you reach the point that causes him to resist- GO NO FURTHER, but hold that position quietly until he relaxes, then retreat (walk away a few steps for a moment).
Count to five and then approach again in the same way; advance and retreat repeatedly. Do not try to hold his head still or confine his head, just advance until he resists, then hold that position but try to be very still. The worst things you can do are grab at his head and try to hold him still. You should wait to retreat until there is some small sign of relaxation. That might just be when he stops throwing his head or it might be when he actually drops his head and takes a deep breath. Ideally, that is what you want him to do.
Repeat the advance and retreat many many times, advancing further as you can. He will learn that when he relaxes, the thing that causes him fear will go away. Then he will no longer be afraid of it. Gradually advance, but always retreat. Do not approach him with the bridle until you can rub all over his head and mouth with him relaxed. Then start all over with the bridle. This whole process could take one hour or one week.
The fact that you never had a problem before the floating makes me think that he will go back to his old ways sooner rather than later. Be patient and give him all the time he needs. He is not just being obstinate, this behavior started with an honest fear of being hurt. Good luck and let me know how it goes.
Trainer and Clinician
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