Bridling And Un-Bridling

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Horse Master How To
“Heads Up” Teaching a horse to lower his head and accept the bit and bridle
By Julie Goodnight

In the Horse Master episode we named “Heads Up,” I help a horse learn that the bridling process doesn’t have to be a fearful event and teach his owner how to correct his head-butting behavior. This is a common problem—often times the horse is taught to toss his head and avoid the bit because he’s been knocked in the teeth or felt the bit being pulled from his mouth. It’s important to take your time each time you bridle and unbridle your horse so that he learns to relax and accept the bit with ease.

Read on to find out more about bridling and un-bridling your horse easily and without a fight. The show is part of a whole new series of episodes shot at my ranch. In the new shows, there’s help if your horse refuses to approach obstacles, if you’re a new rider and want help learning how to work with your new horse, if you’re horse shopping, if your horse won’t accept a bit and bridle without raising his head, and if you want help finding the proper bit for your well-trained horse. Here’s more about choosing a bit that will allow your horse to swallow and relax—helping you make precise rein cues without causing undue worry and pressure….

Bridling Without a Fight
If your horse is tossing his head or raising his head so that you can’t place the bit and bridle, it’s time for some training. I recommend using the “advance and retreat” method. First, approach your horse as if you were going through the motions of bridling–but without the bridle. Make sure your horse is not tied. Advance slowly until you reach the point that causes him to resist (toss or raise his head, etc.). When you see his resistance behavior, stop and don’t go on. 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 while watching for his relaxation signals. Do not try to hold his head or confine him, just advance until he resists, then hold that position. The worst thing you can do is to grab at his head or try to hold him still. That will reinforce his instinct to move away from your flighty movements. 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.

Your horse 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. Be patient and give him all the time he needs. He is not just being obstinate, this behavior probably started with an honest fear of being hurt.

The Importance of Patience When Un-bridling
Horses that throw their heads up in the air when un-bridling have learned to be fear being hit in the teeth with the bit. It may have only happened once, but getting a chunk of metal slammed into your teeth is enough to make you wince–and that’s all the horse is doing when he throws his head up in the air when you take the bridle off.

Hitting the horse in the teeth with the bit is usually done unknowingly by pulling the headstall over his ears and pulling the bit out of the horse’s mouth before he has had a chance to spit it out. It then slams into his teeth and gets stuck on his lower teeth, which hurts, so the horse throws his head up in the air, which in turn causes more pressure against his teeth, especially if the person pulls on the bridle at that time. It only has to happen once for the horse to learn to panic every time he is unbridled; then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the horse because every time he throws his head up, the bit hits his teeth.

When you unbridle a horse, you should gently pull the headstall over the ears while lifting up on it, and always hold that upward pressure (slight) until the horse lowers his head. As he drops his head, you slowly release the upward pressure and allow the horse to spit the bit out; at anytime the head comes up, lift up on the head stall again. Experienced trainers know that this is a critical process and spend whatever time it takes in the beginning to teach the horse to drop his head to spit the bit out, so he learns how to protect his teeth.

As you pull the headstall over his ears, lay your forearm on the horse’s neck behind the poll, so that if he raises his head, your hand moves with him and so that your arm is stabilized by the horse. If your arm is free-floating, you will end up jerking the bridle and bit around. Take all the time you need—always bridle and unbridle slowly. When the horse tenses at all, pause what you are doing, hold your ground (neither advancing nor retreating) and wait for the horse to relax (drop his head).

All of training is in the power and timing of the release; it cannot be overstated that the horse needs the release and it has to be instantaneously when the horse begins to respond (not once he has completely done it). In this case, you’ll only release the upward pressure on the bridle when he lowers his head; if you released the pressure while his head was up, you would be training him to raise his head. Move very slowly and wait patiently for him to lower his head and open his mouth to spit the bit out. If he is really clamped down on the bit, you can very gently jiggle the bit in his lips, but do not let it drop too low and take the chance of it hitting his teeth. Do not try and force him to open his mouth, just wait.

Proper Introductions and Training
I describe this process fully on my Bit Basics DVD available at www.JulieGoodnight.com. And for more precise answers to your bitting questions, check out Dale’s multi-part video series online with a link at www.JulieGoodnight.com and visit the Myler’s online bitting questionnaire and guide at: http://mylerbits.com/bitting_assistant.php
–Julie Goodnight

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.

My Horse Is Tossing And Shaking His Head

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Common Complaints
My horse is fussy with his head.

Help keep your horse from shaking his mane with these anti-head tossing tips from Julie Goodnight.

When you ride, does your horse fuss with his head, throwing his nose up in the air and tossing his mane? Does he root down on the reins, jerking you out of the saddle? Does he shake his head, grind his teeth and snarl his lips whenever you pick up the reins? Or worse, does he take off with you when you ask him to stop, running through the bridle no matter how much you pull?

If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and dangerous behavior then give you steps to take to help your horse to accept your hands and find relief on his mouth. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that’s happy and responsive to your aids.
The Reason
Tossing and shaking the head, rooting the reins, grinding teeth and snarling lips while being ridden are all indications that a horse has a great deal of anxiety about the bit and pressure put on it. Unless he tosses and shakes his head when you are not riding or when he is not bridled, it’s safe to assume that there is an external cause for his anxiety—either the bit or your hands.
Examining your horse’s mouth will reveal if there are wolf teeth present—these are nasty little shark-like teeth that can be razor sharp and may interfere with the bit and/or cut your horse’s lips; they should be pulled when your horse is young.
Also look in his mouth for evidence of scarring on the tongue and in the corners of his mouth. This could indicate previous abuse with a bit or evidence of an accident (like running off with the reins loose or getting a rein caught on something). The scars may be hyper-sensitive to the bit and could be the root of the problem.
Once you rule out physical issues, we have to look to training problems and how much quality education your horse has over the years. Has your horse ever been taught how to respond properly to pressure on the bit? Does he know how to give softly both laterally and vertically when he feels the lightest pressure? This has to be systematically taught to a horse—preferably before he is ever ridden. Sadly, this stage of training is frequently skipped and many horses, young and old are hopelessly confused about how to find the release.
If your horse never learned how to properly respond to the bit, he has been searching for a way to get a release of pressure and has mistakenly learned that the only way to get it’s to throw his head, root the reins or whatever antic works. If he can’t get a release by any means, he’ll digress into more fractious behavior or just shut down mentally and run through the pressure.
Many horses know perfectly well how to respond properly to pressure on the bit, but have become anxious and fractious because the rider has uneducated or unrelenting hands. Either the release on his mouth comes at inappropriate times or never comes at all, no matter how your horse performs. Your horse is working for the release; if it never comes, he loses his incentive to respond.
The bit can be a huge factor in creating or relieving anxiety for a horse. Many riders switch to a harsher bit because they want more control over their horse. If the cause of the problems is related to anxiety over the bit, going to a harsher bit will only make matters worse. Typically going to a milder bit will give better results.
Amazingly, most horses tolerate un-giving, uneducated and harsh hands from the rider—they cannot perform to their potential, but they take it—day in and day out. Other horses are too sensitive or too volatile to handle it and exhibit undesirable behavior ranging from head tossing to bucking, rearing or worse.
Whether your horse shows a minor amount of irritation and resistance from pressure on the bit or devolves into a head-tossing fit, there are some actions you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution
First, you have to rule out physical issues that may be causing your horse pain, unrelated to the rider’s hands. Have a vet thoroughly examine his mouth for teeth problems and/or scarring. If you find physical issues, they must be resolved or consideration given to alternative bridles, like the Bitless bridle, side pull or a mild hackamore.
If your horse shows no sign of physical problems, we have to look to his training and the rider’s hands. Either or both can be causing your problems. Your horse may need to go back to basics and learn the proper response to pressure on the bit. You’ll have to teach him to give laterally (to the side) and vertically (tucking his chin and flexing at the poll, with his face approaching vertical).
To teach him to give laterally, it’s best to start from the ground with your horse saddled and in a snaffle bridle. Slide your hand down one rein toward the bit about 1/3 of the distance from the pommel to his mouth (the other rein should be totally slack). Then slowly lift your hand up to the pommel of the saddle and lock your fist on the saddle so that he cannot pull on your arm and find a little release.
Wait until your horse bends his nose back toward your hand and voluntarily puts slack in the rein—then give him a big release and rub him on the neck and ask again. Work repeatedly on one side before switching to the other. When your horse gives softly as you slowly pick up the rein, bending his nose around before the pull comes on his mouth, he knows how to give laterally to pressure on one rein and you are ready to try it mounted (begin standing still).
Once your horse learns to give laterally on both sides, he can learn to give vertically by tucking his chin and breaking at the poll when he feels pressure on both reins. A trainer with skilled hands can teach this to your horse while mounted, but it’s best taught from the ground with the use of an elbow pull bitting rig. For information on how to use this bitting device, see the article on my website, http://www.juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=63 .
Most trained horses that have been confused by the rider’s hands and are acting out their frustration with problem behavior, will respond immediately to a rider with good hands. If your horse has been confused and ridden in a counter-productive way for some time, he may need time with the elbow-pull bitting rig to rehabilitate his training and recondition his muscles.
The critical factor for this type of horse is to retrain the rider to use her hands effectively and ride more often on a loose rein. Riders must learn to have giving hands that move rhythmically with your horse and adjust automatically with his head position. Until the rider is balanced with an independent seat and hands, she should ride on a loose rein.
By addressing the needs of your horse, teaching him the proper response to bit pressure and educating the rider, it will relieve your horse’s anxiety about the bit so he can happily perform his job. For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit www.juliegoodnight.com.