Pulling On The Rein

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Question:
I have been riding for eight months at a stable and am taking classes once-twice a week as well as clinics. I bought a horse from the stables I go to, he is a twelve year old Arab and a very forgiving horse. I bought him in June and I would say the last two months he has started to pull on the bit. I am finding this very very frustrating. My teacher is a very good trainer as well as a teacher. It is a very busy stable…. I guess what I am trying to say I kind of feel bad about looking to someone else for an answer. Just this weekend she told me to try a softer bit, and there was no pulling. I went out the next day to ride and he started to pull again. At first we maybe thought when he is getting tired he pulls, but it can be ten minutes into the ride and he starts to pull again. I thought maybe it could be his teeth but when she bought him she had had his teeth checked and they were fine. Would you please be able to give me advice into what else I could try? I am going into a show this weekend and with him pulling on the bit causes me to not enjoy my ride.

Sincerely,

Lori

Answer:

Pulling on the bit, rooting the reins and head tossing are always caused by the same thing: the rider. This is not a human with a horse problem, but rather a horse with a human problem; and a very common one at that, so don’t feel too badly.

The reason why he did not do this for the first few months you had him is that he tolerated the unrelenting and unfeeling contact on his mouth (or it wasn’t as bad at first). At some point he reached his limit and began to pull against your contact, begging and pleading for a release and undoubtedly it worked to his advantage and he got some rein away from you, even if only for a brief second, thus rewarding his behavior.

The first thing to fix is you. Talk this over with your instructor and she should be able to teach you how and when to release the contact. Even if you are riding English, in my opinion you should not be riding on direct contact until you are much more advanced in your riding. You would never want to ride with direct contact out on the trail, because you want your horse to be calm and relaxed and be able to use his head naturally to balance.

Although the rider inadvertently trains a horse to lean on the bit, root the reins or toss his head, once the problem behavior begins, it is challenging to correct it without making the problem worse. The first thing to always to ask yourself with any riding problem is, “what am I doing that is causing my horse to act this way?” Chances are you are holding too tight a contact for no reason. But you cannot release at that moment when he pulls because then you are rewarding his behavior.

The first thing I would do on a horse that has learned this defensive behavior, is make sure I was riding him on a totally loose rein and only taking contact momentarily when I had to cue him to turn or stop, with an instantaneous and dramatic release. He will probably do some experimenting by pulling his head down very low to see just how much rein he has and I will let him drag his nose on the ground if he wants (if I do not give him anything to pull against, it is a fruitless behavior). When he does root or pull on a shorter rein (which he will because this has become engrained learned behavior), I lock my hand on the rein, or even lock my hand against the pommel, so that he roots into a very fixed rein and hits himself in the mouth. If he does not get any release and instead punishes himself when he pulls, he’ll quit; but only if the rider holds up her end of the bargain: to not hang on his mouth. As with all horse training, how effective you are as a trainer depends on how quickly you can either correct or reward (release) the horse. To correct this behavior, the correction (the bump he gives himself in the mouth) has to be instantaneous with the pull. By the time you’ve thought about what to do, it is probably too late to be effective. Timing is everything for a horse. You have a 3 second window of opportunity to reward or correct, but the optimal time is half a second. If the correction comes that quickly, his behavior will be eliminated almost immediately. And if he is rewarded by not having constant static pressure on his mouth when he is doing his job, he’ll turn back into the solid citizen that he was when you got him.

If you can change your way of riding and have more awareness is your hands, your horse will change right away.

Good luck.

Loose Reins VS Slight Contact

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Dear Julie,
I work part-time for the Forest Service at a horse campground. If often hear trail riders who come to the campground say they’ve been told to ride with very loose rein. They have their reins hanging down so low that if a horse got spooked and took off, there’s no chance that they could gather their reins fast enough–it would be like reeling in a catfish that’s 60 yards out. I keep my reins loose enough to have contact on the mouth. I know I learned that somewhere and I thought it was from you. So what do you think? Slight contact or loose as a goose?
Loosey Goosey

Dear Loosey Goosey,
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle—not too tight and not too loose. I prefer that my students ride with a loose rein, especially when I want my horse to be relaxed—such as when trail riding. However, the reins should not be so long that they put you at risk. As I say in my clinics, too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

I like to see a small drape in the reins for casual riding. I think all horses should tolerate working on contact and also on a loose rein, depending on what you are asking of the horse. In most training sessions I do with my horse, we’ll start working on a loose rein—keeping a slow and steady cadence, then we’ll work on-contact in a collected frame and we’ll also work in a collected frame but on a loose rein (the horse comes off the contact instead of on it).

As you know, most horse’s problems are caused by the rider. Too much contact is a big culprit. Most people are holding the reins with meaningless contact and every time the horse tries to relax and drop his head, he hits the bit and his head pops up. This causes irritation and tension in a horse (not to mention pain), so he tends to speed up, and the rider holds the reins tighter and the downward spiral continues. Eventually the horse cannot take it anymore and he blows up and gets labeled as a “bad” horse.

We want the horse to drop his head low so you have to have a pretty loose rein to accommodate that, by dropping your hands feeding out rein as his head lowers. But too much of a good think is a bad thing and if the horse spooked on a really loose rein, you would be off balance trying to pick the reins up in time and in the critical time you lost gathering up the reins your horse may already be in a full speed bolt—with or without you.

Personally, I’d rather see people err on the side of a loose rein, than to see the horse punished for the rider’s lack of skill or awareness. There are times when I have my reins very draped–but usually my horse’s head is down very low and I am in a stable and secure situation. While riding out on the trail, it is prudent to not drape your reins too much but be aware of your horse’s comfort and let him lower his head and relax, leaving just a small drape in the reins.

Fear Of Tight Trail Obstacle

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Question:
When I have to negotiate around a trail obstacle into tight places with trees and low limbs, my mare gets very nervous. She barges through, and it’s hard to hold back and maneuver through. She’s normally not a spooky horse and is a good trail horse. How can I get her to relax and not get hurt in the process?

Answer:
This is a great question and one that you need to address quickly for your and your horse’s safety.

All horses are naturally claustrophobic to some degree. Their ingrained fear of tight places helps them survive in the wild. They don’t want to be in tight places or any situation they can’t run from quickly.

Therefore, we must train our horses to accept tight places and to trust us to decide where it’s safe for them to be.

A Natural Fear
You can see horses with the worst cases of claustrophobia panic in horse trailers. If a horse is truly claustrophobic, he may load into the trailer easily, then become alarmed and try to crawl out through any opening (emergency escapes, windows, etc.).

You may also see horses with this fear rush through gates or speed through their stall entrances. Panic takes over, and they suddenly have no ground manners. If they’re allowed to rush through consistently, their fear leads to dangerous behavior.

Keep in mind that there’s a broad range of reactions to being in tight places. Some horses may be fearful but quickly get used to tight areas, while others may become extremely panicked in any tight area.

If your mare is panicky or rushing anywhere besides your tricky trail scene, she may take longer to train — the fear may have become more of a learned reaction. If she’s only having trouble on the trail, your training plan shouldn’t take too long.

For either situation, the training process is the same.

Correct Disobedience
Think of your mare’s problem as a disobedience problem, as well as a claustrophobic issue. She might be fearful, but if you coddle her and try to relax her instead of correcting her disobedience, you won’t help the problem.

Your mare should move at the speed and in the direction you choose at all times. When she’s rushing through, she’s making her own decisions and not listening for your cues.

You need to address this behavior. It’s dangerous for your mare to speed through tight places or areas with tricky footing.

If I came to a tight space on a trail and didn’t trust the horse I was riding to listen and go slowly, I’d probably choose to dismount and lead the horse through. I don’t want to risk hurting my knees or hitting my head if the horse rushes through while I’m on horseback.

However, being on the ground isn’t always a safe place to be, either. If you lead your mare, stay to the side and well out of her way, in case she panics. You don’t want her to run over you.

Before you ride your mare through that tricky patch of trail again, schedule some training sessions at home to avoid any unsafe moves.

From the Ground
To work on this disobedience problem, you’ll first work from the ground to help build your mare’s confidence and remind her that you’re present and in charge.

Look for tight obstacles around your barnyard, or create some of your own. You may pile brush close together. Here at my ranch, I like to lead young horses in and around the pines that grow around our barn.

If you’re close to a trail, lead your mare around the natural obstacles you’re having trouble with.

Before you begin: Outfit your mare in a rope halter and long training lead.
Step 1. Approach the obstacle. Walk your mare up to the tight opening, and stop. Make her stand. When she stands still, pet on her, and tell her she’s a good girl. Move forward toward the obstacle one step at a time. Stop and praise her at every stage.
Step 2. Correct her. When your mare’s shoulders reach the tightest spot, she might become worried and get ready to rush through. This is the critical moment. If she rushes through without you prompting her for a step, say “whoa,” and correct her by snapping the lead rope and backing her up.
Step 3. Regain your authority. Use enough pressure to stop your mare in her tracks. You don’t want to apply so much pressure that you start a fight. However, you need to regain your authority, stop her rushing behavior, and let her know she must obey, go at your pace, and walk through the tight space one step at a time on your command. Under no circumstances can she rush through without your permission.
Step 4. Practice. Practice around your barnyard or local trails every day until your mare seems calmer and is obeying. You may only work from the ground 10 to 15 minutes a day or until she walks through the tight space, one step at a time, without rushing.
Step 5. Invest in the training. If you can’t work every day, practice at least twice a week — and don’t ride your mare through tight spaces until your training feels improved. You need to invest in the training to correct the problem. Just going out on the trail and trying it again probably won’t work.

From the Saddle
When you’re ready, ask a friend to take a training ride with you. Make sure your buddy knows that you may need to stop and work your mare from the ground, and make sure you both have time to work as you go.

A few safety notes: At first, choose a tight obstacle that isn’t as demanding or unsafe as where the problem began. Make sure you have ample room to back up and room to move through on either side of the obstacle.

When you progress to riding with a group, make sure the leaders know to stop and wait for you to get through any tight areas before moving the whole herd down the trail.

Before you begin: Outfit your mare with a rope halter and training lead; have your trail tack at hand.

Step 1. Walk her. Walk your mare through the tough spots.
Step 2. Tack up. Tack up your mare in your usual trail-riding gear, applying the bridle over the halter. Attach the training lead, coil the extra length, and tie the coil to your saddle’s front latigos. Then, if you need to lead your mare, you can use the halter and lead, rather than the bridle, for safety.
Step 3. Mount up. Mount up, and walk your mare in the open to warm her up and relax her.
Step 3. Approach the obstacle. Head toward the first obstacle, and repeat the procedure you followed from the ground. That is, walk your mare to the tight place, then stop. Praise her for standing still. Take one step, stop, and praise.
Step 4. Correct her. Keep walking through one step at a time. If your mare rushes, correct her, and back her up.

For more information, see Julie Goodnight’s new book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, available from HorseBooksEtc.com. Also, watch the Horse Master,television show, which airs Monday and Saturday nights on RFD-TV. Check your local listings.