Training & Services

Connect the Steering – Bridle Up

Could this be the month of July? We are already halfway through the year. I’ve been privileged to teach a couple of amazing One Day Clinics at Susan Rae’s place, the Lazy Susan Ranch, home of Storybrook Farms Pony Rides. Luckily, we still have the summer ahead of us and that means lots of time to work with and improve our mounts.

Last article, we ended by teaching the head down cue. I trust that you have spent sufficient time working on this seemingly simple lesson as it will benefit you in endless ways as you work with your horse. This is the starting point to retrain a halter-puller. A horse that pulls back while tied is a horse that has not been taught to give to pressure on its head. It’s the cue to drop and refocus the emotions while ground working your horse. Having a sure head-down cue is of great benefit when the farrier is doing his job as the horse will normally raise its head when it is going to struggle and dropping the head changes its mind. The list goes on and on.

Teaching the head-down cue to the point that you can demand it, is a must for taking the struggle out of putting on the bridle. If you have ever been frustrated when it comes to bridling your horse, hopefully I can give you some tips to solve the problems you face. If you can remember that bridling, just like any new piece you add, is just a test of how well you have taught the lesson before it. You can appreciate what the horse is telling you as you approach the teaching session.

As soon as I get done with the Round Pen Basics, I am going to start my bridle work from the ground. From the first ride, I will ride my horse in a plain snaffle bit so I do not spend a lot of time doing ground work in a halter. It takes many repetitions to develop the conditioned response to the reins, so I will do most of my ground training lessons connected to the bit. If I have a horse who really has issues about being bridled, I will take clips and hook the bit onto a rope halter. This way I can get the bit on easily and gain greater control over its head without having a fight. After I have established a soft response, bridling is usually a non-issue. 

That is the first step for bridling; teach the horse a fabulous head-down cue with the halter. For Step 2, I will take the horse into a safe enclosure so I don’t have to release the horse at the wrong time if it tries to pull away from me while bridling. I position myself on its left side about halfway down its neck, facing forward. The closer I am to the horse, the more awareness I have of which way he will move so I can stay with him. I will ask the horse to drop its head until I can lay my right arm from the elbow down along the top of its neck. This will be the arm I use to cue the head down whenever I feel the horse begin to lift its head.

Step 3 involves putting my hands all around his face and head without him lifting his head or trying to move away. Some bridling issues are no more than the horse being afraid of stuff going over the eyes or coming up on the opposite side. Don’t assume that because the horse has been bridled in the past that it has ever been properly sacked out around its head. Some people are tall enough that they just “force” the headstall on and call it good. Check that the horse is okay with your hands over the ears forward and backwards. I do not insist the horse let me work the inside of the ears to bridle them but this is the lesson I would use to teach that also. 

Then I can use the lead rope and pretend I am putting the bridle up over its eyes and ears. I want to be sure I can put my left hand on and around its muzzle. I will put my finger in the side of its mouth as if I am asking it to open for the bit. All the time I am working around the horse’s head, I am aware of any sign that it is thinking of raising its head. The right arm along the top of the neck feels for resistance. If I feel any upward pressure, everything else freezes while I apply downward pressure with my arm until I feel the horse drop its head. Then I proceed with what I was doing. If I keep getting resistance at the same spot, I will try to break it down into smaller chunks so the horse can get more right answers. If the horse pulls its head away, I will keep pressure on the lead until the horse stops moving away and drops its head back to the spot I want.

Don’t rush this stage of the training. When you get a good response, lead the horse around for a few seconds to let it sink in. Most of your bridling issues can be solved right here. You are also developing your timing for feeling the resistance and making the correction before it becomes anything major. Once you have taught this step, even if it takes an hour or so to get it really solid, you will never have to spend that kind of time again. You cannot demand what you haven’t taught but once you know the horse has a good understanding of what’s expected, you can be more insistent of the correct response.

Step 4 is the actual bridling. I hold the top of the headstall in my right hand while it is over the horse’s neck. I grab the left side of the headstall with my left hand and put the bit under the horse’s chin so that its nose is through the bridle. This allows me to keep the horse from putting its head too low or tucking its nose to avoid the bit. It also gives me more control over the face. My right hand will stay on the right side of the head until I’m sure the horse will not try to turn away to that side. If the horse insists on turning its face to the right, I can either follow it to that side or position the horse along a fence or building for now.

Very slowly (if I am working with a first timer or a problem bridler), I begin to position the bit with my left hand under the muzzle. I must be able to place my hand with the bit on the lips without the horse overreacting before I have any hopes of gently inserting it into the mouth. This will take patience and timing to keep the head down and in control. But “the slower you go, the faster you get it” and it is like the other lessons, you will never have to spend this much time again if you work it through the first time. Giving a release when the horse lets you just hold the bit against its lips a few times will also help to lower the anxiety. Baby steps cover more ground. 

When the horse accepts the bit against its muzzle, use the left thumb to open the mouth while the right hand lifts the headstall to raise the bit. Then the left hand holds the top of the headstall while the right hand tips the right ear forward and then the left to finish bridling the horse. Be careful not to bend the ear. Be very kind with the ears and you will not create another problem. Done correctly, bridling should not become an ordeal. 

Removing the bridle is just done in reverse. Drop the head; put your left hand on the nose to keep control of the head while using the right hand to slip the headstall slowly off the ears. Keep the head down while slipping the bit out carefully so the horse does not flip its head up and catch the bit on its teeth thus causing another problem connected to bridling. If the horse lifts its head as the headstall starts off the ears, just freeze or even pull it back on until the head drops.

Practice, practice, practice and this will be an enjoyable part of the day. Until next time, be safe and enjoy your horse…….Ann Kirk

For more information on Ann Kirk and her Sensible Horsemanship Programs, go to www.annkirk.com. If you have any questions you would like answered, please write to me at sensiblehorsemanship@gmail.com

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