Friday, February 20, 2009

Halter types and about leaving them on

I guess my first note on halters is why rope over web halters. I use rope halters on all my horses for two reasons:

1. The knots on a rope halter provide pressure points that encourage the horse to release rather than lean on the halter and to move into whichever direction you're directing by "porcupining" the horse over from the opposite side through the use of the knots

2. Web halters are wide and thus provide the horse something to lean on; the thin rope of the rope halter encourages the horse instead to release to pressure - it is much harder to lean into something thin than something wide that can distribute the pressure

My second note on halters...leaving a halter on a horse is a pet peeve of mine because usually they present a danger - especially with foals! Horses can get caught up in a halter so easily. Horses are prey animals; if they get caught in something like a halter most are going to immediately become reactive and try to fight their way out, which can result in a broken leg - or worse!

So why do people leave the halters on their horses? Most people seem to leave the halters on to help them catch their horses. If you need to leave a halter on to catch your horse, your horse is telling you something! Start playing with your horse in such a way that your horse wants to work with you each day! Sometimes this takes a little time, particularly if you are just developing a relationship with a particular horse. However eventually, with time, it should come, your horse should want to work with you and should be excited to see you. I find the left-brain horses, the thinkers, can be particularly difficult to catch, however if you keep playing with them and earning that partnership, they do come around...every horse does if you put the time into it.

A horse that has been taught to think things through left-brained rather than react right-brained first (such as through Parelli Natural Horsemanship) will hopefully remain calm to think things through should they get caught up in a halter, but in that case you shouldn't need to leave a halter on in the first place! By that point you've likely established a pretty strong partnership with your horse and so therefore do not have any trouble catching him.

Another reason I sometimes see halters left on is to get foals or young horses accustomed to wearing a halter. First off, young horses aren't going to think the situation through when they get caught, they're going to react blindly. Second off, there are better ways of getting your foal accustomed to wearing a halter! Some people will even allow the foal to drag a leadrope around...aaah!!! There are much better ways of teaching your foal to release to pressure than to leave him in such a dangerous situation. Parelli's 7 games are one such way, for example.

My point though was just that hey it can be difficult to catch some horses sometimes...whether it be through your own fault or simply because your horse does not want to come in to play with you and you have not yet established a strong partnership with them (even if you are currently working on it) or even because your horse has bad past experiences with humans...but please please please do not leave the halter on if it can be at all helped!! In addition, if you are having trouble catching your horse, please take a step back and evaluate what you are doing to cause that horse to not want to be caught. If it's simply a matter of continuing to build a partnership with that horse and/or developing that horse to where it thinks positively of people, well then continue to plug away because you guys will get it...but if it's a horse you've had for years and who still doesn't like to be caught, maybe there is more that you can do to entice him to want to be with you, maybe there is something different in your program to change so as to further earn your horse's partnership. Keep in mind that how difficult it is to catch a horse can often also be a reflection of your prior session with that horse.

I do have horses in training (or whom I have just recently purchased) that periodically did, or will, go through phases (at the beginning) where they do not wish to be caught. They all come around eventually, as they start to enjoy our sessions and as we build that partnership. All my own horses that I've built solid partnerships with will often come running out of the hills to find me when I whistle - work towards that type of goal with your own horse! It's not all that hard for all of us to achieve. In extreme circumstances (ie, the severely abused horse or such), I can understand even having a (preferably breakaway) halter on a horse for a period of time - but those circumstances are rare for the average amateur horse owner. If you're leaving the halter on your horse - just take a moment to establish 'why' and see if you need to perhaps adjust your approach or focus on certain areas of your relationship with your horse.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Taking a bit of a break from the "problem" scenarios to touch a bit on the use of aids such as side reins. Thursday I watched as someone, alledgedly proficient in horse training, used side-reins on the two horses she brought into the arena. My first general impression of both these horses was that they were quite uptight: both tore around the arena, often pulling against their trainer's hands as they were longed on large circles. Side reins were eventually placed on both horses, one of which appeared to be a young horse likely just being started. The trainer was commenting on how the first horse, who looked to be more accomplished than his younger counterpart, was at times working off his hind and with a rounded, loose back. All I saw was a horse in a physical 'frame' (a false frame) but not at all loose and relaxed in a collected mental frame.

I do not follow the whole "push the horse forward with your legs, hold them back with your hands" theory. Instead I prefer to work a lot on mental collection in my horses, develop that partnership that enables me to be their herd leader and enables the horse to develop mentally and emotionally into a calm, relaxed partner. With mental and emotional collection, physical collection naturally follows with the right guidance and encouragement via patterns and exercises. The horse is working loose and relaxed and they start balancing themselves by working off the hind and lifting their back when ridden inside leg to outside hand. Their head comes down and vertical as they gain confidence and balance. In this fashion, collection comes naturally, as part of the emotional and mental collection that was earned in establishing a working partnership and as a result of physical conditioning and strength, and is not forced in any way, shape, or form. All that is necessary after this point then is to refine communication and thus gently refine that collection with the seat, legs, and hands - but not through "pushing and holding back". Of course though not everyone follows this philosophy, which is where devices such as side reins come in.

Side reins
Are meant to enable the rider to teach the horse to carry itself in a particular physical frame. The trouble with this device is that the horse is not necessarily mentally or emotionally collected and thus is not necessarily in the proper position to carry itself in that "correct" frame. People tend to focus so much on the physical aspect of the horse, neglecting the mental and emotional aspects. Well this is a 1,2oolb prey animal. Why would you ever attempt to force such an animal? Wouldn't it be better to simply earn that animal's partnership so that it naturally carries itself efficiently? I can attest that the latter is easier, more efficient, and actually quicker! Furthermore, a horse "in frame" is not necessarily a horse that is collected - it's a false frame. There is certainly room for side reins in a horse's education - in the right hands, with the right program, and at the right time, on the right horse. They should not be a tool that is depended on to achieve something, but they can be a tool for refinement.

Martingales and tie-downs
Users of both these devices will protest adamantly that neither restrict the horse when fitted properly, that they do not force the horse's head down. A properly-fitted martingale should, when the horse is standing relaxed, be loose enough to come up and even curve a bit beneath the horse's chin. The object of this device is to prevent the horse from raising it's head above a specific level. In my opinion, that is a form of force. I am certainly not against the use of running or standing martingales or tie-downs for such things as keeping your reins from dragging should you and your horse part ways on a course (running martingale), or on 'extreme' horses in 'extreme' circumstances (and in the right hands), however I strongly feel that if someone needs a martingale for a particular headset (*cringe* - and 'headset' should not be your goal!!!), that they should instead be at home working on their foundation and partnership with that horse. For example, working the horse back-to-front, their head will naturally drop. This especially applies to the barrel racers out there using tie-downs! If your horse is engaging from behind correctly, they will not be using the tie-down for balance, and if they are taught to be calm and collected mentally, their heads will naturally drop. Martingales and tie-downs might have their place in certain horses' training, but the goal should always be to develop the horse to the point where a martingale or tie-down is no longer necessary as a safety net.

After watching so many individuals abuse this tool, I'm nearly confident that no one knows how to use this tool correctly (yes, little sarcasm here). I've seen horses scarred and bleeding, I've seen riders kicking their horses with the spurs and raking those spurs up and down a horse's sides when the horse doesn't respond quick enough for their taste. If you need spurs to motivate your horse, get off! Spurs have no place in riding except at the higher levels, as a means of refining communication. If your horse is "lazy" earn her respect so that she wants to work with you and is motivated to do what you ask. Don't force her to move forward through the use of cruelty. Spurs should merely be a tool of refinement, an extension of the heel for quieter communication. At this level the rider rides with the spurs not touching the horse and only brushing the hairs of the horse's hide when communicating. Plain and simple. They're not to back up a leg aid (get off, do your groundwork so that your horse understands the meaning of pressure and also earn that respect), they are not a tool for motivation, and they are not meant for punishment. As one person so aptly put it, as it pertains to when to use spurs: "are you trying to get something to happen, or are you trying to get something better. A simple but clear division of intention."

I do use a carrot stick both on the ground and (in Level 2+) under-saddle. I have also used dressage whips under-saddle...but all as a mere extension of my arm. Whips are not meant for motivation (though they may be used to back up a leg aid) nor are they meant as punishment either. They should be merely an extension of your arm for clearer communication. For example, I had one mare whom I was starting who consistently dropped her shoulder and would travel sideways in an attempt at going off in the opposite direction. First off, I kept plugging away at our ground work so as to earn her partnership. Once that partnership is earned, your horse will do anything you ask - because she wants to! Second, I started carrying a dressage whip. When she dropped her shoulder, I'd wiggle the whip at her to indicate for her to move off of the pressure (just as we'd practised on the ground) and pick the shoulder up. I'd also wiggle the whip towards her hindquarters to back up my leg aid to have her push her hind end over and thus travel straight. I strongly believe that a strong foundation should be in place before a whip is picked up to back up an aid and that the whip should not be used to simply hit the horse but rather to signal to the horse, (via picking it up, wiggling, and finally touching, etc) in phases of pressure, what you desire. Neither should it be used as punishment or to "motivate" a horse. If your horse is not going over a jump, you need to earn her trust in your leadership (I know, the repetition is getting old for me too!) rather than beat her over that jump. Just because many of the professionals do it does not make it right for us to do treat our horses as such. These are supposedly our partners.

I cannot count how many times I see harsh bits, curbs and otherwise, in the hands of young kids, or even adults, in the name of "control". If you don't have control of your horse, the two of you are not working in partnership. Plain and simple. There are no problem horses, only problem riders. So if you don't have control, earn a partnership where you do have control because your horse is working in partnership with you! If your horse wants to work with you, you won't have to use a harsh bit to control that horse. If you're working in partnership with said horse, you won't lose control! That's why it's called a part-ner-ship. Bits should be used for refinement, never for control. Curb bits are a higher level of bit; at that level one should have full control and be able to ride that horse freestyle (nothing on the horse's head). Otherwise that individual should be downgrading to a simple, light snaffle (such as a double-jointed O-ring) and establishing a partnership and foundation (preferably on the ground first!). Get that foundation in; I don't know about anyone else, but I certainly wouldn't appreciate being "controlled" by my mouth. Those Tom Thumbs (no, they are NOT snaffles!) and twisted wire bits have absolutely NO place in the horse world.

There are a number of other devices out there: draw reins, Pessoa system, the list goes on - all designed with one purpose in mind: to control a 1,200lb prey animal, a bunny disguised as a horse. Hate to break it to anyone, but no amount of "aids" are going to control those 1,200lbs in an emergency situation. The horse will win. I am not saying that one should "eliminate" a horse's instincts (which would be impossible anyway), but if you earn a horse's partnership, any "issues" you had with said horse will evaporate and those instincts will be channeled and used to your advantage. You won't be worrying about controlling your horse because you will be working in partnership. Futhermore, if you build off the training scale where the horse becomes collected in both a physical AND mental sense, you will gain much control, where the horse is intimately following your guidance and is working from behind and is on the bit (which allows you solid communication). The ideal? Certainly. Not necessarily what happens every day. Impossible? Far from it. Besides, whatever happened to "do unto others as you'd have done unto you?" Society is falling apart, but we still owe it to our horses to consider their wants and needs and try our best to ensure they are happy. If you truly want to be safe and in control on the back of a horse, earn that partnership. It pays off rather quickly and makes a drastic difference. It really isn't fair to force our "partners"!

One last point: horses don't need aids. The horse doesn't need a tie-down, she doesn't need a martingale, and she certainly doesn't need a harsh bit. The rider does. You do. Or rather, you perceive you do. So this isn't a horse issue. This is a rider issue. Fix the rider - ie. the way the rider communicates with the horse - and the horse is also "fixed."

It IS possible, check out Mikey and Red Sun for one example. It is possible for the average horseman as well, as I can attest and prove with my own horses!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Herd bound

When I was riding my Quarab regularly he was a great partner, but take that horse out after not having been ridden for awhile and he wanted nothing to do with me. He'd spin, he'd rear, he'd take off in a mad bucking spree. I'd get on and immediately I could feel him ready to explode beneath me. At the sound of his first whinny, I'd tense up for what was to come. Of course, only minutes later, he'd explode like some wild bronc.

Horses are prey animals, and prey animals find security in large groups. In the wild, their survival depends on those large groups. Lone prey animals are easy prey to predators. So how can we expect our horse to follow us, alone, off somewhere on a trail ride or even in the arena, without first proving to her that we are a responsible leader, that her survival is guaranteed in our presence? If we don't have a solid partnership with our horse, there is no way in heck she is going to want to leave the security of her herd. Survival, to a horse, is absolutely vital. Therefore they will do whatever is necessary to ensure their survival. They will buck, rear, spin, kill both you and themselves - whatever it takes, to get back to that herd. No matter the bond we have with that horse, they have to trust that we will lead them safely and that we will ensure their survival.

""It's unreasonable to ask a horse not to be afraid. That's like my telling you to go into a bad area of town for a walk at two in the morning, and not be frightened."-John Lyons
Imagine yourself in a bad part of town (and to a horse, any area away from the safety of the herd can be a bad part of town). At night. By yourself. You're going to be spooking left, right and center, and you can bet your a** you're going to be moving along as fast as you can to get back to the safest area you know. If you have the choice, you probably won't even be leaving the house. Well, that's how your horse feels when you take him away from the herd. Now imagine yourself now with a big group of people, or even just with one really strong, bulky person. Not so scary anymore, eh? That's what you need to earn from your horse - that leadership where she can follow you anywhere, including away from the herd. Part of this is desensitization and so teaching a horse to be more confident in herself, but the larger part is having them have confidence that you can lead them safely.

So what do we do? Long-term, we need to earn that partnership with our horse. We need to earn their respect as well as their trust and their trust in our leadership. Once you've earned that trust, they will walk through fire with you, because they know you will keep them safe! It won't matter where you ride your horse because your horse will have utmost confidence in you. She won't mind leaving her equine buddies behind because she's going off with her "other" herd - you!

Short-term, you can help by making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy. Ask your horse to focus on you by having her work on patterns she knows. Ask her to move in circles, figure-eights, serpentines, ask her to perform turns on the forehand, hindquarter, sidepass, back-up...anything but forward movement. Forward movement (in this scenario) does not encourage a horse to think but instead allows them to become right-brained and reactive. Forward motion is a mechanism of flight and so by encouraging your horse to simply move forward, a) you allow her to push off her hind (her engine), which allows her limitless ways to try to get back to the herd because she can work off that hind, and b) you're allowing her to not have to think but simply move her feet forwards (which - in this case - requires no thought and all instinctive reaction). When she's by her buddies, get her to work! When she's away from them, allow her to rest. You can go through this multiple times in one session, rewarding her with rest each time she's facing away and/or is a distance away from her equine friends. Furthermore, take it a little step at a time. Gradually increase the distance between her and her horse buddies each session, working at a specific distance until she is comfortable before moving on to a larger distance. Lastly, don't be afraid to get off and play some games on the ground. The ground is usually safer and it allows your horse to follow you directly on the ground, rather than trying to follow your direction from somewhere behind, up on their back. Your horse won't "win" if you get off and neither will she perceive you as a poor leader for doing so when your gut tells you it's the right answer in that moment. In fact, you'll actually progress by stepping down out of the stirrup because a) everyone is safer, b) frustration diminishes, and c) your horse can follow your leadership easier. Safety first!! If you need to get off, get off.

Ultimately though, the key to this puzzle is to just really work on the partnership you have with your horse. A bond is great, but it is not enough for your horse to trust in your leadership. So get out there and start developing that partnership! If your horse truly trusts your leadership and wants to be with you, she is not going to worry about where the other horses are - she's going to be focused on you and content being in your presence.

My Quarab continues to remain a highly sensitive horse who has a strong need for the safety of a herd, he's not like his half-brother, who you could take out without a care in the world. So I don't take my Quarab out on a trail if I know we don't have a great partnership! If it's been all winter since we've really worked together, I can only expect that I have to earn my way back into his herd come spring. I build up that partnership (which takes little time at all) until I know he trusts in my leadership. When we're working off a solid partnership and are in perfect sync, then I take him out and we can enjoy the trails together alone without any worry!! When I earn that leadership status, that little horse is the best trail partner I could ever ask for. It's up to us though!