Expectations…what do you expect from your horse?  A blue ribbon at a show, a wonderful trail ride in the forest or a safe and reliable horse that even a small child can ride?

Regardless of whether you are training your horse for the show ring or for pleasure riding training your horse should be gradual and progressive.  In order to obtain the ability of the horse to perform physically and in comfort as well as develop a healthy mental attitude one must commit time and effort to the endeavor.

Horses are generally couch potatoes.  Unless they are very young foals they tend to spend the majority of their time quietly grazing their pasture without exerting much effort. Although they may look incredibly strong they are not fit for work unless they are involved in regular exercise.  Horses that are ridden once or twice a week, or once or twice a month are going to fatigue quickly.  Physical harm involving ligaments, tendons, muscles  and skeleton can easily occur with the horse that is unfit.  Additionally, mentally a horse can become despondent or show it’s fatigue or discomfort with bad behavior.

What amazes me is the number of people that will speak up during lessons about their own fatigue or soreness and yet think nothing of how hard or long the unfit horse is ridden.   

For over four decades I have worked with people in helping them train their horses. I try to give each student 100% when working with them and their horse. However,  this  is an area of  frustration I meet on a weekly basis.  no matter how much I give during a training session I cannot do the best for the horse or the student because week after week, month after month and sometimes even year after year very little if anything is done with the horse between training sessions. I  explain how the learning process develops and what has to be done. I like to ask that horses in training are worked with 5 days a week, but,  I know some people have very little time so I ask that a minimum of 3 times a week is set aside for the horses well being.  Most of the time the intent is good but somehow they just do not manage to fit it into their day.  I do realize that life happens to us all, and can understand the occasional difficulty in practice, but if it’s constant and continual we have a problem.

In these situations horses do not develop, improve or advance.  The rider does not develop, improve or advance.  It leads to frustration for all parties involved.  Sometimes I have a student who totally understands he/she cannot expect improvement without the work and will not ask too much of the horse or expect to be moving forward at that point.  I can accept that.  The lesson is then a review and a reinforcement of the previous information.  However, when a student takes it out on me or the horse is when I have a problem.  If a student abuses a horse I will step in and stop it and if necessary end the session.  If I lose that person I feel sorry I can’t help the horse, but I won’t let them hurt the horse.  If they abuse me I also stop it.

Students, this is team work  between student, horse and trainer.  If one of us falls short results will be less than optimal. You payed for the horse, the care, the tack and the training, now it takes commitment to the process to become one with your horse.   My suggestion is to treat your practice riding as though it were any other appointment you make.  Put it on your schedule, block out that time for you and your horse.  I assure you the results will amaze and motivate you.  Once you get on a regular schedule it will be habitual.  Give it a try – the sky will be the limit!

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Doing the Right Thing

I don’t sell horses, I don’t trade, I don’t give them away. My horses are my friends, they are part of my very being. If they cannot work due to lameness or disease they simply stay with me until they leave this life. I am honored to take care of them and joyed to enjoy my time with them whether they can work or not. They are not used cars, they are beautiful beings. So when I tell you this story you’ll understand the difficulty of my decision.

Horses bring so much joy to those of us fortunate enough to have them in our lives. And in turn, I’d like to think that most horse owners also want our horses to be content and enjoy life. Allowing the horse to be a horse is a great way to start. Time to graze, a herd to socialize with, shelter from the elements are so important to the horse’s mental and physical well-being. These basic needs are obvious, but going beyond the obvious is something not all horsemen do. What may not be obvious is whether or not your horse enjoys his time with you, whether he likes his required “job,” or whether he is compatible with his pasture mates. Simply because a horse can do something does not mean he should.

aceI recently made a very difficult decision to let a horse go back to his original owner. Ace came to live with me through a student four years ago. When the student decided to move on to another horse and no longer wished to care for him, he was offered to me.

I thought he would be a great lesson horse for my students without their own to learn on. I was wrong. He is a very bright, athletic horse. His mind is active and he is easily stimulated, which is what he loves. As time went on I started to see signs of his dislike for his work. Using him for beginners means lunge line lessons, very slow work, and for him it was very boring work. He has never been used more than 5 days a week, and generally 3; only an hour each time. He certainly is not overworked. His riders all adore him, but he is quite simply bored! He was previously an endurance horse, and going around in circles is just not his cup of tea. At times he would express that displeasure in very clear terms.

For quite a while I kept thinking that it wasn’t too much to ask of him in trade for the very cushy and pampered life I give to him. But in my heart, I’ve been troubled by his unhappiness. If he were happy living here I would have happily allowed him live a life of leisure. But he also does not fit in with the herd. When I look at him, I see a horse who just is not where he’s meant to be.

Still, I held back, since I know that some of my students truly will be sad to lose him. But the universe again stepped in, and I finally was led to the decision to talk to his original owner about taking him back. I was so pleased at her instant enthusiasm to do so. She originally had to give him up due to life circumstance, but always has missed him. She adores him and expressed the desire to do some endurance with him again, which I do think he will come alive and enjoy.

So, my lovely, beautiful Ace will be leaving soon. Laura will be smiling in anticipation and I am heavy in heart. But it’s the right thing to do. As much as I wanted to see Ace happy here, it was not going to happen. The wonderful thing is he will go back to live with one of his old pasture mates that he enjoyed. Laura and I have an agreement that if she ever needs to let him go again, he has a home waiting for him back with me.

If we are going to use horses for our pleasure, they should be happy with their life… but in this case doing the right thing is bittersweet.

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Stop Hurting Your Horse!

spy-kissedTwenty-five years ago I attended a John Lyons clinic where he said something that has stayed with me throughout all of my own training, the training of horses, and my teachings to my students. He said, “There are two rules in all training of horses: one, the horse should never be hurt and two, the rider should never be hurt.”

Throughout the years I have witnessed both. Generally, if a rider gets hurt, it’s through a mistake of their own. Horses are not out to hurt us, but they are large and can be very quick when they are motivated to protect themselves. Sometimes a rider is just in the wrong place at the wrong time or we don’t read the situation properly and we get hurt. Just today I read about another knowledgeable horseman who was killed while leading a horse out to pasture. She had put the lead rope on her shoulder. The horse took off running as the rope went around her neck and she was dragged 250 ft. So very tragic. According to the article the farm where she worked did not use this practice and it was perhaps a moment of distraction where she was not focused. It cost her her life. Was it the horse’s fault? Absolutely not. He was being a horse: something startled him and he bolted. Should he be punished? Of course not! Tragic and sad, but the horse did not intentionally set out to do harm. Horses never do; they simply react.

It’s our choice to take the risk of getting hurt when we work with a horse, but the horse does not have that choice. He is under the control of the rider/handler. When someone is hurting their horse – for example, kicking the horse’s sides or yanking on their horse’s mouth, the most common thing I hear them say is, “he makes me mad!” What??? Suddenly, the horse has an agenda? No, he does not. Horses are NOT humans; they do not think like humans. They are simply responding or not responding as a result of something we are either doing or not doing. It’s really that simple. The horse may have had a previous experience that was not pleasant. They never will forget, and in a similar situation may revert back to that experience and react in self-protection.

One mistake many people make is humanizing the horse. People will say, “but he knows it’s me!” Yes, he does, but remember, horses live in the moment and are conditioned-response animals. A condition is placed upon them and in that moment they will react out of instinct unless the handler/rider is aware and reacts to assure the horse is focused on them and trusts them to guide them. Slapping, kicking, and yanking is not convincing a horse to trust you.

A young student of mine, a beginner, was trying to guide her horse around the arena. The horse was just meandering around, stopping constantly. I could see that her aids were inconsistent – she pulled and fidgeted with her reins, her legs didn’t relax after she asked the horse to move, her posture was slouched, etc. We had several discussions on how to show her horse what she needed from him, but she was still doing the exact same thing. Finally she got frustrated. She suddenly took both reins and yanked them… hard! I was in the arena and a second from making her dismount. But I realize why it happened. Frustration turns to anger. It’s also because she humanized her horse. Her horse wasn’t trying make her mad; he was probably as frustrated as she was. He was receiving so many conflicting instructions, he simply gave up on listening. Thankfully, he was gentle enough not to react violently – he could have bucked her off instead! I will not allow horses to be abused and she received the message loud and clear! She felt badly and later apologized. It was the horse who needed the apology, not me, but horses don’t understand apologies. Our mistakes will be remembered.

Horses are not machines. They cannot be programmed and left to run by themselves. Creating a partnership with a horse requires stride by stride communication and connection. Any horse would rather be out in pasture with their pasture mates than carrying a human around on their back doing what probably seems like insane movements. How many horses would volunteer to run barrels, ride circles, jump courses, go around an arena hundreds of times in an exact posture that the human requests instead of grazing and enjoying what they naturally are intended to do? I think the count would be small. That’s not to say horses do not enjoy working with us sometimes. I’ve known several horses in my life that are so very willing and seem to shine when working. I have to believe it’s because their well-being comes first in my training. It’s never how perfect something is, it’s the “try,” the “intent,” that I reward my horses for. If I myself never made a mistake, maybe I would expect perfection, but that is not a reality. Putting myself in the horse’s place, I would not appreciate someone who only criticized me for my errors without praising my accomplishments. I would rebel. I would certainly react in self-protection if I were being hurt. I would not trust that person again.

The surprising thing is, most of the people I encounter hurting their horses in frustration are truly in love with their horse. Perhaps they are displaying a flaw in their own being. Instead of reacting with anger when a horse is not responding properly, we should look at it as a learning opportunity. We should evaluate ourselves as well as the horse. I doubt any of us are free of making mistakes, so why should we expect the horse to be? You’re training your horse with every ride, and problems occur when we are not teaching properly. Please think about the harm you are doing to your horse and your relationship when you purposely hurt your horse. It’s not what you want in the end, and it definitely is not what will bring you success. If you have anger issues then as a trainer once said to a former colleague of mine, “jump off your horse and go punch a tree instead.” Good advice! Do what you have to control your anger, just please… STOP HURTING YOUR HORSE!

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Unmounted Horse Safety

Vet working on horse

Vets and farriers have to get into a precarious position while working on a horse. Proper horse handling can help keep your vet or farrier safe.

Working with horses daily for the majority of my life has taught me many things. One of the most important is the issue of safety. Surprisingly, this is sometimes less of an issue when we’re around horses that are nervous, high strung, or otherwise unruly. In those cases we use caution and awareness, and we generally don’t get hurt. But when we’re working with horses that are quiet, relaxed, “solid citizens,” we sometimes get complacent – especially with horses we know and trust. This is often when we get injured.

This was not the case last evening when I was trying new boots on a horse. EZ was in his stall, happily munching hay. I was focused, and I was positioned properly. But as I was fitting the boot on, another horse made a sudden loud banging noise on the wall and startled EZ. There was no warning, no second or two to protect myself, when he jumped into me, slamming me into the wall and to the floor. I am so grateful that he stopped with a hoof that was inches from my face. My arm was bruised, but my head was fine. I was a bit dazed, but recovered quickly. Could I have put him on cross-ties instead of fitting boots in the stall? Absolutely. But that would not have been a guarantee of safety; in fact it might have been worse since he would not have been able to do what nature tells him to do: run.

The same day, I was standing at the head of another horse, Ace, to adjust his bridle. Something behind him startled him and he leapt forward. Again, I was fortunate, because instead of running over me as he could have done, he stopped. Thank you, Ace!

Another time I was simply fastening the buckles on a horse’s blanket when she shied and ended up jumping into me knocking me back against a wall. When I landed face down in the stall she stepped backwards onto my foot. Painful and frightening. She eventually stepped off my leg and I crawled out on my belly.

My point here is that accidents can happen anytime, and are often beyond our control. Horses are horses and they sometimes do unpredictable things. However, I often see people around horses doing incredibly dangerous things. Why would anyone put themselves at additional risk through carelessness? Just recently I saw Facebook posts showing a woman sitting with her bare feet touching her horse’s front hooves, a man cleaning a hind hoof squatting down with the hoof level with his face, someone allowing their 3 year old to lead a horse by himself, and two young girls diving into a pond off their horse’s back. No helmets, no protection. Once I saw a 2 year old walk under the belly of a horse, and the mother saw no harm in it. I once witnessed a groom at a show, lying on his side sanding a horse’s feet. Even the most settled horse is still first a prey animal and a flight animal. One never knows when a horse will mentally “return to the wild” and defend him/herself the way they were intended – which is often violently quick, and with tremendous power. If you are in the path of that power you could be seriously hurt, or worse.

As horsepeople, we understand the inherent risks. But to become careless is just plain foolish. Horses don’t intend on hurting us, but they do react to a stimulus. We don’t have to be paranoid, but we should always keep in mind the nature of the horse, and act appropriately for safety.

Think about safety the next time you’re handling a horse for your vet or farrier. Often a horse is nervous or distracted, while the vet or farrier is in a precarious position. I have seen people obliviously chatting away not paying any attention to the horse’s body language or how they are positioning the horse. I’ve known people who will even groom their horse while the farrier is trying to work. There are things you can do to help keep your vet or farrier safe. For example: if the vet is doing an exam on a hind limb, turn your horse’s head towards the side the vet is on. If the horse were to threaten to kick and you pulled the horse towards the vet, the hindquarter would move away from the vet. (If you had the head turned away from the vet and the horse went to kick, he would be coming toward the vet – not safe!) Little things like that can help everyone stay safe, as well as just being aware of your horse’s body language so you can warn the vet or farrier when they’re in a position where they cannot see or feel when the horse is warning them.

People aren’t the only ones who get injured because of our carelessness; our horses do too. The animals we love are often put in harm’s way because we aren’t paying attention. It’s easy to be distracted when other people are in the barn. I understand wanting to socialize, but the focus should be on the horse and socializing later. Don’t leave a horse untied with a halter or bridle on – they might stick their heads in places where the headstall can snag, causing them to panic and pull back. Equipment may break, but that’s repairable. A horse’s mouth can be damaged, neck and back muscles pulled, and/or spinal damage may be done. Be careful leading your horse through a gate. Riders often open the gate wide enough for themselves, forgetting that their horse is much wider. The horse does not know the danger lurking and needs his human partner to take care of his wellbeing.

There are no guarantees when handling horses – accidents do happen. But we owe it to ourselves and to our horses to focus and make choices that will keep everyone safe as possible. Horses’ body language can be very clear in warning us of potential danger but we won’t know that if we don’t pay close attention.

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When Horses Shy: How to Give Your Horse Confidence

You’re walking along a beautiful trail; your horse is happy, relaxed; all is serene – suddenly, you find yourself in a spin that would do any reining horse proud, followed by a mad gallop! Yikes! One might think a bear had come out from behind a tree! So why did your horse go from complete relaxation to total panic?

Why horses shy or spook

herd of horses

If the leader flees the entire herd will follow suit. Photo credit: Mike Kamermans

The first step to making sense of it is to understand who the horse is and what is in his nature. First and foremost he is a prey animal. Secondly, he is a flight animal. Third, he is a herd animal. No matter how much training a horse has, his instincts and natural behavior will always be there. In the wild, horses’ survival depends upon their ability to see, hear, and smell danger. They must respond immediately to survive nature’s predators. The gift of flight is their tool for survival.

Being a herd animal, the horse needs a leader. Have you ever seen a herd of horses peacefully grazing when suddenly one horse picks up his head and without hesitation spins around and gallops off? You can be assured if the leader flees the entire herd will follow suit before even checking to see why they’re running. The leader guides the herd.

The horse looks to the rider

While handling and riding the horse we strive to become his leader. Through ground work we teach the horse to follow us, to move his legs forward, laterally, and back. We teach him to focus on us through laterally giving at the pole, the jaw, and the wither. We should not have a problem with him shying at this point, right? No, it’s not that simple!

Even a focused horse can be startled when suddenly a squirrel jumps down from a tree as you pass. It’s a sudden movement that causes his natural instincts to kick in. No matter how much “desensitizing” is done, I have not seen many horses who don’t react at a sudden unseen object. How violently he shies depends on you, the rider. Your body language, your reaction, your timing, and his trust in you all play an important role in how quickly the horse will regain his composure.

Bluntly said, you cannot lie to a horse! You can put on a brave face, but he feels and sees your truth. If you become tense he will absolutely know that, indeed, this is something to be frightened of. If you are unable to react quickly and guide him quietly forward by asking for his focus through laterally giving, by properly asking him to move forward from your legs, and by sitting softly in a balanced manner, then he will take matters into his own hands. You have inadvertently deserted him as his leader, and he will believe he must watch out for himself.

In the same situation, if you are able to react quickly and confidently, he might just take a few steps sideways or scooted forward a moment, then refocus on you and realize he is being guided by you. We should not expect to change the nature of the horse, but rather to give the horse confidence in our leadership.

I realize this is easier said than done: a shying horse can be frightening to the rider, and if the pattern continues, it can become a vicious cycle that’s tough to break. But after working with many riders with fear issues, I do believe that, with guidance, a committed rider can and will work through this. One of my students who deals with fear is constantly saying to her horse, “you’re ok, you’re ok.” I chuckle because what she really means is “I’m ok, I’m ok.” The words don’t help the horse because her voice and her body are full of tension. The horse listens to body language.

Leading by example

So how do you overcome fear and become a confident leader for your horse? I believe understanding your role with the horse first from the ground cannot be understated. Ground work is invaluable as a first step. If he doesn’t follow and trust you from the ground it will not be any better once mounted. There are many methods of ground work and I do not condone bullying in any way. On the surface, you might get the response you’re looking for, but he will neither want to be with you nor will he trust you.

Once mounted it is important to learn how to sit in a balanced seat without gripping. Your journey to developing confidence starts by learning the correct use of legs, seat, and hands, and becoming proficient in your ability to use them independently or all at the same time. Confidence, in turn, allows you to react, allows you to stay soft in your body, and ultimately allows you to guide your horse and pass that confidence on to him.

Many years ago I was riding a horse on a small, narrow country road. There was no breakdown lane, only a deep ditch. I heard the unsettling noise of a tractor trailer truck coming in our direction. They were not allowed on the road so it was not a normal occurrence. I had nowhere to find safety, and he was fast approaching. The horse I was riding was young, skittish, and prone to bolting. I felt the panic rising in me, and then the voice of my instructor came to me saying, “If you relax, breath deep, and trust him to follow you, you’ll get a much better result.” Believe me, relaxing with a huge, noisy truck coming within a few feet of us was not at all what I was thinking, but I did it! As he got closer I put my hand on my horse’s neck, stroked him and breathed really deep. I put my calves on and asked him to keep walking. I asked him to give to the bit. He did nothing! He tensed a bit but did not do his normal spin and bolt (to which I had been subjected so many times). Since this is a “family blog” I will not say what I was muttering to the driver after the fact! He never slowed down or moved over one bit. Scary, and thankfully, I never had to repeat such an atrocious incident, but it made me a believer in the power of leadership through body language. I think I knew it was do or die! The ability to change my own normal reactions became easier each time, and it can for you too, with practice, patience, and understanding technique and horse behavior.

Becoming a rider instead of a passenger takes study and practice. It is not generally a quick endeavor, but in the end the rewards far exceed the efforts.

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Dragons in the Bushes: Overcoming Fear of Riding

Over the 40 years that I have had the privilege of teaching horsemanship, I find the number one obstacle that deprives riders of both progress and pleasure is fear. Fear of riding horses does not discriminate, nor does it have boundaries. Equestrians of all ages, levels, and disciplines can find themselves afflicted with fear.

rider falling off

Fear can develop after a mishap, but sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a specific cause or origin. (photo credit: Andrew Pescod)

Although fear can often develop after a mishap where the rider was injured or frightened, it may also develop without a specific cause or origin. No matter how it started, once fear is present, it seems to have a mind of its own. As it begins to grow and spread, fear can affect your ability to guide and direct your horse. You are the horse’s leader; if the leader is frightened then the horse will follow your lead. The very presence of fear will transfer through your body language to the horse, and the horse will react accordingly, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break.

Fear causes many horse lovers to give up on their passion for riding. It can leave you feeling incompetent and vulnerable. It takes away the joy you once found on horseback. Fear is often the reason horses are sold or become “pasture ornaments.”

Is there alternative to “putting up your boots”? Yes, you can overcome fear! Through my own personal experience, and in guiding my students, I have found overcoming fear to be entirely possible. I would like to offer a realistic approach to facing the fear that holds so many riders back. If you begin to understand how horses think, learn to read your horse’s body language, and increase your skill level as a rider, you can develop the confidence necessary to become a leader to your horse, and reverse the cycle of fear.

Understanding the equine mind

If you understand how a horse thinks, what instincts are necessary for his survival, and how a horse silently communicates through body language, it will begin to open the door to greater confidence and better communication. There are many books written on horses’ instincts, behavior, and language, but I must warn you that there are vast differences in interpretation of the horse’s mind among authors. I believe horses are always your best teachers, so studying how horses behave in a herd can tell you a great many things. Robert Vavra’s book Such Is the Real Nature of Horses is a wonderful study of horses in the wild. Of course, the photography is amazing, but Mr. Vavra has excellent insight to what he photographs. Mark Rashid has also written wonderful books. Two of my favorites are Horses Never Lie and Considering the Horse.

There are three of aspects of the horse’s mind that are always an influence in every reaction the horse has:

  1. The horse is a herd animal. In the herd the horse has a leader. This leader guides the herd, and the herd follows the body language of the leader. If the leader reacts to an unknown potential danger, the herd will follow suit. Without a leader every horse will take care of himself. If you, the rider, are not a confident leader and a situation of concern arises, your horse will instinctively take over in order to survive. Simply put, one of you must lead! This is why learning how to become a good leader is such an essential part of riding.
  2. The horse is a prey animal, and must protect himself from the unknown. Knowing this, it’s easy to understand why horses are constantly looking for “dragons in the bushes.” In nature, horses will generally graze in areas that allow for observation of their surroundings. Being oblivious of their environment could put them at risk as prey to a predator, so it is clear why horses are always interested in the slightest movement or strange sound.
  3. The horse’s gift of survival is flight. His primary defense is creating distance from the object of concern. If your horse does not have confidence in your guidance as you are riding or handling him, he will instinctively want to flee from an object of potential danger.

Knowing how the horse thinks helps us see the importance of leadership and correct guidance through your body language (aids). But how can you transform from “vulnerable passenger” to “fearless leader”? You’ve got to learn your horse’s language.

Understanding body language

Your horse is reading your body language, and it’s just as important to learn to read his. Understanding your horse’s silent communication will help you to read his awareness and reactions. I like to focus on four basic areas of body language:

  1. The ears are amazing in their telltale positions. They are like radar! If the ears of the horse are positioned forward we know that he is noticing or “looking” at what is in front of him. If his ears are gently (not pinned), back he is noticing what’s behind him, including the rider. Pinned ears express anger and imminent reaction accordingly. I am most comfortable when a horse will flick one ear towards me and one ear in front or both back to me and perhaps a flicker in front for brief seconds. It shows me that the horse is aware and alert, yet willing to focus on me, his leader.
  2. From the saddle we can also notice the position of the neck. Is the neck relaxed, comfortably positioned in balance or is it raised with tense muscles? Nature has provided the horse with a valuable tool of survival by positioning his neck to see far beyond his immediate surroundings! A raised tense neck is telling us something is worrying the horse. Will you be there to guide the horse’s confidence to you?
  3. The eyes are more difficult to notice under saddle, but are clear signals from the ground. Horses have both binocular and monocular vision, meaning they can use their eyes either together, or independently. This gives them the ability to see objects behind, beside and in front of them at the same time! When a horse is “with you,” you will notice a flicker of focus looking towards you, albeit briefly. Remember, their focus is only about 3 seconds — another tool for survival.
  4. And finally, the mouth is an indication of tension or relaxation. If the jaw is relaxed, if the horse is perhaps softly working the bit, (not chomping on it), if he allows his tongue to occasionally lick it, these are indications of comfort.

It takes observation, constant awareness, and time to learn the subtleness of a horse’s body language. By understanding how your horse thinks and being careful not to humanize the situation, your reactions will be more appropriate and effective, and your confidence level will improve. Being able to read your horse is vital for the third piece of the puzzle: communicating effectively.

Developing your skill as a rider

To successfully combat your fear, you must also develop your skill as a rider. No matter how well you understand equine behavior, and how accurately you can read your horse’s body language, you must be able to communicate effectively, confidently, and appropriately with your horse to break the cycle of fear. Developing an independent seat, correct body position, and the appropriate use of the aids are necessary for feeling secure in the saddle and being able to give your horse the leadership he needs to feel secure as well. Though there are many books written about riding, there’s no replacement for in-person instruction. Especially for riders dealing with fear, finding the right instructor is important. Your instructor should have the right skills and qualifications for your discipline, and must also be someone you feel able to trust. Once you have found a possible instructor, either through recommendations or advertising, I suggest asking to observe a lesson. This will allow you the opportunity to see if the instructors’ approach and theory is right for you.

Just like training a horse, the process of rebuilding your own confidence is gradual and incremental. It can seem like an uphill battle at times, but a mountain does not have to be conquered in a day. Determination combined with knowledge of the mental and physical communication, as well as natural behavior and instincts of the horse will help you to finally re-experience the joy you once found in riding your horse.

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Cavesson fads and fashions – resist the pressure!

In the 1970s, cavessons created for the purpose of closing a horse’s mouth (flash, figure 8, crank, etc) became popular, and since they seemed effective, I, like most, followed without question. But a few years later, a well-respected equine dentist, Ron Ross, visited my barn in Connecticut, and changed the way I thought. Ron was always willing to help educate his clients on the finer points of the equine mouth. He explained that in order for the lower salivary glands to operate effectively, a horse must “work” his lower jaw. The bit alone makes it difficult for the mouth to do this properly, and strappings on the cavesson only amplify the restriction.

horse wearing flash noseband

Cavessons designed to clamp the mouth shut can cause unnecessary harm and tend to mask problems rather than solve them.

Cavessons can have other negative effects too: if the noseband straps are adjusted a bit low and snug (as many are), the nostrils are no longer free to expand, and natural breathing is restricted. A low noseband might also apply constant pressure to the bridge of the nose.

Even though the damage they cause is well understood, these cavessons are so pervasive that many people use them simply because everyone else is. Many people don’t even realize their purpose. They might just like the look of a flash noseband, or they didn’t give much thought to the type of cavesson when bridle shopping (it can be hard to find a plain noseband these days!). Others think they need it to solve a problem.

Understanding the goal

Even for someone who aspires to “natural horsemanship,” most of what we do while riding or training horses cannot be considered “natural.” Putting saddles, bridles, bits, and other tack on a horse is undeniably “human.” But we can begin to bridge the gap between the horse’s nature and our own unnatural interventions by studying equine behavior, instincts, and habits.

We know that horses naturally need and want a leader, and our goal in training should be to become the kind of leader the horse needs. In training horses, we should aspire to a quiet, steady contact with the bit. Forcing a mouth shut through the use of flash, crank, or figure 8 cavessons is no substitute for correct training.

Finding the real problem

Instead of jumping to a new piece of equipment to correct a problem, it’s important to understand why horses chomp or gape their mouths. In the case of a young horse just being started, it will take time to accept cold, cumbersome metal in his mouth. Or a horse may need dental work. The bit may be the wrong size, diameter, or type to fit a particular mouth conformation. Some breeds, for example, tend to have lower pallets than others. The ever-popular loose ring snaffle can easily pinch tender lips if not properly fitted. Riders’ hands are another possible culprit: unsteady or aggressive hands can easily cause a horse to avoid contact through gaping. A less obvious cause could be an ill-fitting saddle, back soreness, feet or leg discomfort – all of which can also show up in busy mouths. Understanding that gaping is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself, is critical. One can only begin to fix a problem after you know what’s causing it.

Pressure and release: the keys to horse behavior

Horses demonstrate their intentions through body language. They have an entire language derived from the application of pressure. The important factor in herd communication is that pressure begins mildly, and is only accelerated to accomplish the point if the milder pressure has failed. Once the point is made, pressure is released. Horses understand instinctively to move away from pressure; what they do not understand is constant pressure without relief. If the pressure is there whether they respond or not, there is no reprieve. A horse can learn to accept constant pressure (such as from a cavesson designed to clamp their mouth shut) if they have no other choice, but it damages or destroys the harmony between the horse and rider.

If you can make your horse more comfortable and therefore more content by not using devices that cause unnecessary pain or pressure, I can’t help but think we will all win! Your horse’s care and well-being are ultimately your responsibility. We tend to follow our mentors without question, yet questioning is a positive approach which enables us to make the correct choices for our horses. When in doubt, listen to your horse. He’s always the best teacher.

For an excellent explanation of how different types of cavessons work and the effect they have on the horse’s mouth, see sustainabledressage.net.

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