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!

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