By: Ann Kirk
Spring is here. The season is showing signs of new life and fresh promises are becoming more obvious all the time. Getting those mounts ready for riding is right around the corner. There is still plenty of time to improve areas of training before closing opening the gates and heading out on the trails. So let’s learn more about bridle control.
Because I am a teacher, I am extremely aware of details when I observe people with their horses. I am always watching to see what I can learn and going over how I could teach a person to connect more efficiently with the horse. I like to stand by the in-gates at shows or wander through saddling trail riders and observe people with their horses in this “backstage” environment. I listen to the people as they discuss the classes or upcoming ride. I hear the hopes (or fears) concerning their horse’s performance when the gate is opened and they must enter or leave the arena area.
It is a little shocking how many riders act as if they are being taken captive by the horse and hope they can survive the ordeal. They must enter the arena or trail in just the right order. There is dread that someone else might loose control of their horse and cause a wreck. A change of direction appears to cause great anxiety for it changes the following horse into the leading horse and on it goes…. Is a horse considered a broke horse when they charge out of the arena or down a bank, won’t stand still when others leave, can’t have a ribbon hung on their bridle and all the other little displays seen and accepted by many as just part of the package when you own a horse? But, safety becomes the issue and people are asking how to enjoy the trail or the rail without getting hurt.
I would like you to know that you don’t have to settle for being the reactive half of your partnership. Horses are very teachable and you don’t have to be a professional trainer (in most cases) to fix your horse’s problem areas. But it will take a commitment to teach the lessons so when you need control over the shoulder or the hip or the head, you can demand it without risking a bigger wreck. If I can’t demand it, I haven’t really taught it. Horses are always learning and we are always teaching so why not choose to teach something we want them to learn that will benefit us later.
The first step to gaining control is connecting the steering to the hips. Why the hips? The hips are the engine or driving force of the horse. When a horse is going to bolt or rear or buck or even shy in most cases, they will power off the hip which is set behind them. So, if I can move the hips right and left with the reins, I have a control that will avert most unwanted behaviors. Why use the reins instead of the legs to move the hips? I cannot reinforce leg cues or voice commands when my horse is excited. No matter how much work I do with my legs when the horse is quiet, the legs will excite him more if he is already scared. But the bridle, when taught correctly, is a very clear, direct signal and the horse will respond and relax when you resort to the reins for control. This, in turn allows you to be more relaxed because you have the security of knowing you can control your horse. And that produces confidence in you and in your horse.
I am not talking about a one-rein stop where you pick up on the rein and have the horse quit moving its feet and flex its head around to its side. I do not teach my horses to flex their head to the side without moving their feet. I used to do it but not anymore. If you do it well, you disconnect the head from the body. You can have a very soft response to the bit but no feet control. This produces the horse that “leaks” out his shoulder while giving his nose or that can trot or run dead ahead with his nose in your hip pocket. So I connect the reins to the feet first and develop the softness later through repetitions.
Start by putting the bridle on your horse and take it to an area where you don’t have to constantly be picking its head out of the grass or fussing with it trying to leave. Have a whip or cue stick of some kind to teach the go-forward cue when you get to that part. Be sure your reins are long enough so as not to contact the off side while working. I prefer a long continuous rope rein that stays on the neck and is comfortable on my hands. If you find your reins to be too short, you can attach a lead rope to one side and unhook your rein from that side to use on the other side.
Stand facing your horse’s left ribcage as if you were going to hop on bareback. Pet the horse until he is standing quietly. Take hold of the left rein about 18-24 inches from the bit with your left hand so your little finger is closest to the horse’s bit. Use your whole hand to grab the rein as it may take a firm pull at first to move the head towards the hip. When you are ready, take your hand with the rein towards the point of the left hip. You want the horse to step its hip to the right while pivoting on the front legs. When the hip steps over, release the rein and praise him. Don’t worry about how hard the horse pulls in the beginning, still release when he pivots his hip over 1 or 2 steps. Do 2 reps on the left, then go to the right and repeat the sequence. Continue switching sides until the horse responds lightly to the rein by stepping the hips in the required direction. Switching sides will minimize soreness in the neck and train both sides evenly.
If your horse has been taught to flex its head to the side, just step closer to the hip and wait for him to figure out that he now must move to get the release. If it seems to take too long, you can tap him on the hip to encourage movement but only release when the front end stops and the hip steps over. Don’t over flex his head while waiting for him to figure it out. Also don’t use your hand on his ribs to cue him to move. This could give you a false sense of hip control that is not actually connecting the reins to the hips. When you need the connection for control, it won’t be there. Be sure to release when the hip steps over, not when he is stopped with his head to the side. If the horse continues to move his front feet, you must bring the nose up tighter towards the hip to stop the front shoulder. If the horse moves again right away when you release, just pick up the same rein and disengage the hip again. Repeat until he stands when you release.
Again, don’t worry if you have to pull firmly to move your horse’s nose towards the hip. The repetitions will produce the anticipation for the release and he will soften as he quickens his response to get the release. As he learns what you want, you can also do a partial release when the hip steps, then immediately ask again and again until you feel more softness in the rein as he steps over.
When he is good at the stand still, use your cue stick or whip to have him move forward. Walk beside him 3-5 steps and step into his hip with the rein to disengage his hip and change directions. You can work this exercise for long periods of time and it will just get him softer and more responsive for the next step. When this part is soft and connected, it can be used in a multitude of ways but more on that later.
We will stop there for now. I will explain more about the go-forward cue next month and another step for connecting the steering for better control. Until then, be safe and enjoy your horse…Ann.
For more information on Ann Kirk and her Sensible Horsemanship Program, go to www.annkirk.com.