“Here we go.”
“… my teeth.”
“Walk on, but not too fast.”
“I can’t balance slow.”
“Why so fussy?”
“More rein, please.”
“I need to feel control.”
“I hate feeling controlled.”
“We need a different bit.”
“Don’t hold tight.”
“Don’t hurt me.”
“I’m so anxious.”
In the first draft of this essay, I used pronouns crediting the quotes to a horse or a human, but then took them off. Does it even matter who said what? Not when one of the most reactive animals on the planet is sitting on top of one of the most reactive animals on the planet. Both sides are passive-aggressive for as long as possible until the passive part wears thin and the aggressive part steps up.
The horse feels bit pressure on the bars of his jaw just being led to the mounting block. Then the rider blocks the rein while pulling the horse to one side before putting weight in the saddle. The horse’s balance is challenged and he wants to walk to rebalance and get rid of some anxiety. Walking is a calming signal saying the horse is no threat.
The rider corrects the horse, backing by pulling the reins, and the horse feels more anxious and tosses his head. Then the rider shortens the reins and the horse gets tense. The rider loses confidence in the horse, not noticing who caused the problem. The rider thinks they can leverage the horse’s body by controlling the fragile jaw, but soon the rider’s arms are as tense as the horse’s neck. The shorter the reins, the more air is cut off in the horse’s throat. The thing that makes a horse anxious, gives the rider false confidence. The thing about false confidence is that it’s a lie we tell ourselves. Lies are the opposite of trust.
A fussy horse is sending a message that they need a kinder bit and softer hands. Is it disobedience to say something hurts? No bad intent, the most common pain riders cause horses is done thoughtlessly. The most vulnerable volunteer a horse offers a rider is often taken for granted. The thing that riders forget and horses never will? Bits are Metal On Bone.
But the rider is frustrated, perhaps railbirds suggest they get a stronger bit. The new bit that makes a horse appear calm might actually be shutting the horse down. Quiet doesn’t necessarily mean happy. Why would anyone ever think that the thing that caused the problem in the first place, used in a stronger way, would ever possibly be the thing that would resolve the problem? When has more pain ever resolved pain?
A good rule of thumb is if the rider doesn’t think they pull the reins, they simply aren’t aware they pull. The rider who knows they pull when they don’t mean to is learning to be flexible and elastic, the quality we hope for in horses and riders.
Gaining awareness of our hands will always be the greatest challenge for riders. We are primates; we use our hands for everything. It’s against our nature to keep them at rest. The unconscious pulling we do with the lead rope on the ground, transfers unbidden to the saddle where the rider is the most vulnerable. But we rarely notice our shortcomings because riders are looking at their horses for shortcomings.
Even more counter-intuitive, if the horse did bolt, the correct response from the rider is to pull their legs off and extend their hands forward. Consider the chance that a rider might be able to do this amid the chaos the next time someone suggests a horse should be trained to act against his flight response.
So, the rider goes to a bitless bridle. It’s a good first step but many bitless bridles use leverage and pressure that can be as firm as a bit. And harsh hands will still make the horse anxious. However the rider pulls, the horse will still resist but now it’s a new set of contradictions. Now the rider feels vulnerable, even naked, without a bit, but the horse is quieter, maybe stretching their neck and striding out. The rider will need more courage but the horse needs less. In other words, the thing that scares riders, actually makes horses calmer. Is it a different kind of “leadership” if the rider is the one who works harder?
Bit anxiety or hand awareness is a chicken and egg problem. It doesn’t matter what came first or who started it. It boils down to involuntary instinct on both sides. Does this horse and rider conversation seems confusing, contrary to common sense, and totally twisted from what the rider meant? Horses agree, they know our confusion but the horse feels the reality of the threat more than the intent of the rider to be kind.
There is a simple solution. It’s leaving the horse’s mouth out of the conversation. It’s the process used with head-shy horses in rehab. Let the horse’s mouth rest. Let the rider’s hands stay at peace. Use a neck ring. Horses will halt intuitively and riders are often surprised at how quickly their horses respond to the cues from the rider’s legs and seat once the horse’s mouth stops hurting. It occurs to the rider, and they finally understand, that bits are a constant threat to horses.
It’s true riders can’t compete in a neck ring, and yes, there are certain times a rider might think they need a bridle, if only to soothe other riders or a list of rules. Needing it sometimes, or eventually, doesn’t mean a bit must be used constantly.
Start here: can you commit to not picking up the reins for twenty minutes of warm-up every ride? Can the horse have a neck ring, seven feet of cheap rope, for their comfort and confidence? Can the rider use the neck ring to train their own hands? Can we learn to ride body to body instead of hand to mouth?
Here is the most perversely counterintuitive part. The horse shows us a greater level of trust by allowing a bit in his mouth than the trust a rider shows by needing a bit in his horse’s mouth. The horse trusts us more than we trust them. How should a rider value that trust?
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward. Scheduling clinics for the fall in the Midwest and Eastern states now.
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.