How to discover your rhythm and keep up with your horse
We all have heard riding instructors say to ‘get out of our horse’s way’. This can mean many things, from soft hands to quite legs and especially an independent seat that moves fluidly with horse’s movement without disturbing – well, the rhythm.
What is Rhythm?
Rhythm is the regularity of the footfall. Easy as that.
a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound.
Throughout much of our day – whether gardening, tidying up or grooming a horse – we human spend with some pushing or pulling motion, engaging arms and shoulders. In addition, human nature is that we tend to want to do too much….with our hands, our arms, our shoulders. Humans are bipeds and have no real need for rhythm unless we jog or run. We can spend days, weeks and months without rhythm and “never miss a beat”, happily stiffening our body into whatever works for our daily work environment (think cubicle) and paddling, pushing, pulling our way through life. This rigidness prevents us from moving freely with the rhythm of the horse.
Humans are bipeds and have no real need for rhythm unless we jog or run. We can spend days, weeks and months without it and “never miss a beat”…
Our horses, however, are quadrupeds built for speed and stamina and for moving over vast stretches of steppe. Rhythm is their default mode.
When training the young horse, our aim is to
not to disturb their natural rhythm and
let the horse grow into a natural movement under the weight of the rider, which – again – means relaxed, rhythmic, balanced movement.
Become a rhythm pro by watching this very nice video
RIDE TO MUSIC
Once you are hooked on rhythm – and you will be – enjoy every minute in the saddle as an exercise in rhythm awareness. If you horse is relaxed, supple, sound and strong enough and you have not ‘taken the forward’ out of him, he will move happily in a steady beat. That is an indicator that a lot in your riding and training is going well.
First, focus on the Rhythm by making sure you and your horse are relaxed, supple, and strong enough. A steady rhythm (or regularity of beat) is an indicator for good training, meaning your horse is relaxed and supple.
After that, we’ll take a look at Tempo (what’s your horse’s natural tempo, how many BPM – beats per minute – in each gait?) and Speed (how much ground does my horse cover in any given time increment).
Stay tuned for a follow-up article explaining the difference between rhythm, tempo and speed. It’s always good to revisit these basics.
Horses have been around for a lot longer than our modern conveniences like horse vacuums and show sheen spray. While we can be grateful to have access to these conveniences, not everything we use today is actually helpful or beneficial. What did experienced stable hands do in the ‘old days’?
Sometimes, it’s the simple ‘old-school’ solution that gets the best result.
“Horses were groomed twice daily, once early in the morning and once in the evening. The tools were simple.”
History of Grooming
Horses were used in different settings throughout human history. ‘Best practices’ in grooming were developed and maintained mostly in the cavalry—as there was a strict need to maintain the horses’ at their best possible health and condition.
Here a tidbit from the history of Fort Scott in Kansas:
Horses were groomed twice daily, once early in the morning and once in the evening. The tools were simple:
I extracted these tips from different sources, books and cavalry manuals. Enjoy!
The German cavalry prescribed a minimum of 100 brush strokes (with a horse hair brush) per horse per day. The recruits had to groom their own horses and were subjected to rigorous inspections. Grooming was not only viewed as a means to clean the horse but also to provide a good massage, increase blood circulation and well being. But the recruits were encouraged to be quick about it: “There is no value in grooming beyond the point of when the horse is clean.” (Care of the Troup Horse, 1937)
What’s in an Onion?
Apparently something that makes the horse hoof shiny. Cut an onion into half and rub the clean and dry hoof with the raw onion before entering the show ring. It will provide shine without the unwanted side-effect of attracting sand and dirt.
Laurel Oil for Hoof Growth
Laurel oil (bay leaf oil) has been a staple in hoof care for centuries. The thrifty groom would massage the oil into the coronet band, then sparingly spread a thin film over the rest of the hoof wall. Then hoof treatment was applied to the collateral groove and the sole of the hoof, never the frog!
Caring for the Sweaty Horse after Exercise
The hot and sweaty horse appreciates having his eyes and nostrils cleaned with a damp cloth. Then 10-15 minutes of calm walking in hand, in winter or cool weather covered with a simple wool blanket. Follow up with a vigorous rub down with a bunch of clean straw to dry the coat further, then brush the coat smooth with a coarse natural brush.us.
Less Is More
Do we really need all the chemicals and gadgets that fill up our grooming box today?
“There is no value in grooming beyond the point of when the horse is clean.”
Looking at old sources it becomes clear. A few good-quality grooming tools and the right technique (also read “4-Step Grooming“) is enough.
One thing I am happy about: The old metal curry combs—monstrosities that can do more harm than good—have been largely replaced by gentler tools
“The old metal curry combs—monstrosities that can do more harm than good—have been largely replaced by gentler tools.”
Caring for the Horse’s Mane
The knowledgeable old-school groom rarely combed a mane! Instead, the mane would be finger-combed, then brush the mane until smooth and shiny. Only then would the groom use a wide-toothed comb and—if desired—part small sections and braid loose braids. Ready to pass inspection!
Fun fact:The German cavalry collected all mane and tail hairs in special bags. These were then picked up periodically by the mattress maker! Yes, fine mattresses were made of horse hair!
Wherever there are horses, there will be flies… Besides cleanliness, the old-school barn master prescribed a natural ally in the war against the buzzing pest: swallows. Encourage swallows to nest in your barn and you will keep the fly population low.
If you cannot convince the swallows to nest in your barn, try a ‘spiked lemon’. Spike a lemon with cloves and hang it up in your barn.
Keeping Leather Soft
After cleaning saddle, bridle & other leather accessories thoroughly with saddle soap, the old-school groom would not let the leather dry out completely but instead apply leather conditioner when the leather was still somewhat damp. After letting the conditioner soak in, remove excess fat with a wool cloth, easily made by shrinking an old wool sweater in a hot wash cycle.
Cleaning Sweaty Bridles
In order to remove caked on dirt and sweat before cleaning the bridle with saddle soap, take the bridle apart and soak it for a few minutes in lukewarm water with a squirt of ammonia.Be sure not to forget the bridle in the bucket! Remove after a few minutes.
Never wash the fetlock when washing the hoof. If the fetlock got wet, dry it off thoroughly.
Never trim the hair inside the ears
Never trim the whiskers around the muzzle and eyes (the horse needs them to assess distances)
Some ‘Do Nots’
While the old school groom had a number of tricks in his bag, there were certain ‘Do Nots’ that made sure the groom would not unintentionally hurt the horse.
Here some examples from various cavalry manuals:
Do not use a metal curry to curry the entire horse. Only use it to loosen caked-on mud or sweat on muscled parts of the horse’s body. Never use a curry on bony parts or on hairless areas.
Beyond that, use the metal curry ONLY to clean the brush during and after grooming.
Do not comb a tail! Only finger-comb, then brush with a medium-stiff root brush.
Caring for the Horse’s Tail
The old-school groom would NEVER comb a tail. Instead, the groom would use his fingers to part the tail hair and remove larger pieces, than brush the tail clean with a medium-stiff root brush.
Last not Least: A Tasty Snack!
The groom in old times provided his horses with tasty branches from fruit trees, birch trees and hazelnut bushes. This was supposed to be healthy and good for the teeth. If you’d like to take it up a notch, soak some bread in beer, a snack that was (or still is…) supposedly popular in some parts of Germany. (Note: This tip is provided for entertainment purposes. If you would like to try this, please check with your vet first!
Get your FREE Old-School Grooming Poster
I like the simple old-school grooming concepts and prefer to groom in this more fun, efficient, and natural way. If you feel the same, you can get my old-school grooming poster “4-Step Grooming” by sending an email with the subject ‘old school grooming‘. I will then send you the pdf, which you can print out and hang up in your barn!
Hope you enjoyed this article. Be in touch with question!
“I like the simple old-school grooming concepts and prefer to groom in this more fun, efficient, and natural way..”
Stretching with the aid of a treat – usually carrots – is a great way to keep your horse flexible without causing any damage. So-called “Carrot Stretches” can be found all over YouTube and the internet. However, it is important to do it right to get a real benefit.
“Carrot Stretches” are active or dynamic stretches, meaning the horse needs to perform the stretch. In comparison, there are ‘passive’ stretches, where the handler effects the stretch, usually by applying a pulling force to the respective limb.
Please note this important difference:
Active or dynamic stretches – like the ones shown below – can be performed any time with a cold horse. The horse will never injure himself, you cannot overdo it!
Passive stretches can cause damage to soft tissues if performed on a cold horse and —if unintentionally overdone— even on a warm horse.
Therefore, I DO NOT RECOMMEND PASSIVE STRETCHING as it can result in injury.
Carrot Stretches – Safe, Fun, Effective!
Here my tips for safe & fun, basic carrot stretches that help keep your horse flexible and supple:
The Horse Situp
Your goal is to encourage the horse to raise the back by stimulating a reflex when stroking across the gluteal muscles.
Have a relaxed horse and stand sideways behind the horse or place a hay bale between you and the horse’s hind end.
Use your stiff thumbs or a safe tool like a quarter coin to apply some pressure to the left and right of the sacrum.
When you see a slight reaction from your horse – lifting the back or tensing muscles without showing a pain response – glide down the gluteals toward the ‘poverty groove’, attempting to elicit a response where the horse raises the back (see image 2).
Practice this with a safe horse. Once you experience the amount of pressure you need, it will come easier.
To the girth line
Hold the treat by the girth line. The horse should reach for it, stretching the muscles around the wither area.
Your horse may need some help in understanding what is asked. Patience is the key!
In image 3 you see Paladin ‘cheating’. He is a little club-footed in the left front and wanted to minimize the stretch. Ideally, the horse will keep the legs straight.
To the outside of the front foot
Images 4 and 7 show how this is done correctly.
The horse stretches the opposite side of the neck and shoulder and brings the back up.
Note: Paladin once again ‘cheated’ a little in image 4. Do not insist on correctness, rather work towards it slowly.
To the point of hip
Image 5 shows how nicely Paladin can reach for the point of hip.
I started by the shoulder and guided him toward the hip, rewarding him with the carrot once this position is reached.
Tip: If you can let your horse eat the carrot slowly, you will maximize the benefit.
On images 6 and 8 you see how different horses solve this challenge according to to their ability.
The paint horse made it easy for himself by stepping forward with the left front, even on several attempts.
Start easy with what the horse can do and build up over time.
To the elbow
Image No. 9 shows how the horse is reaching for the treat by the elbow or lower shoulder.
Schedule your carrot stretches twice weekly.
Cut the carrots into manageable pieces, not too long (‘snatchers’ like Paladin will munch the entire carrot at once…) and not too small (save your fingers!).
Always aim for what your horse can do, then take it up a notch next week.
Do the stretches on both sides. Every time…
IMPORTANT: Dynamic mobilization stretches, or “carrot stretches,” should be performed on level, non-slip footing in an enclosed area, with the horse standing square and balanced. Encourage the horse to hold each position for several seconds, followed by a moment to allow them to relax their muscles and return to neutral before the next attempt. (Comment provided by CaveCreekEquine.com)
The (nearly) lost art of teaching fundamental concepts
When it comes to riding instruction – especially around the difficult task of teach ‘the seat’ – how would you finish the sentence: “I wish….”???
I wish I knew…. (how to teach a feel, how to sit correctly, how to explain this better, …. you fill in the blanks) may be how many will start this sentence.
I wish I found… (an instructor, a horse, a way, to learn a correct seat, ….) may be another.
Teaching the seat is difficult as we attempt to explain something that needs to be ‘felt’ to be understood. But there are some simple steps that can help improve the way we teach and learn a functionally correct seat.
An elusive concept
‘The seat’ is an elusive concept. Observing various riding lessons, I get the impression that the seat has become something external, something that needs to ‘look right’ versus ‘feel right’. “Heels down, shoulders back!”
Or something completely removed from function. “Collect him/her!” “Ride a circle!” “Stay by the wall, don’t drift toward the inside!” Without mention how the seat will contribute to reaching the goal, which is ultimately always the communication with the horse.
A ‘correct’ seat always puts function before form. If we want to do more than learn/teach how to ‘sit pretty’ (and often stiffly), we need to ask for/provide better riding education.
5 Ways to re-introduce ‘Seat Education’ into Riding Lessons:
Give (instructor) and take (student and instructor!) longe lessons
Free to focus on our own body and how it interacts with the horse, we can gain security, relaxation and independence and truly observe and correct our ‘functional posture’.
Use a horse that is in rhythm and calm on the longe line and that responds promptly to voice commands.
Practice on a barrel
A barrel or a sturdy saddle stand can be a great tool to start practicing an independent seat. Make sure to fasten the saddle to the barrel or stand so it will provide a true experience when the student is asked to respond to shifts in position.
Have the student respond to rein pressure or pressure to various parts of her body by shifting pelvic position and balancing from the ‘seat root’.
Identify off-center posture that feels ‘normal’ to the student. It is easier to identify and correct a postural habit on a static barrel and then take this new awareness to the horse.
Explain (students ask for explanation) how the seat contributes to all exercises you are teaching (learning) or commands you are giving (given)
Example: Some horses drift to the inside of the arena. The way to counteract this is counter-intuitive. Humans tend to want to ‘push’ with their shoulders. This will bring the rider into the a position that exaggerates the problem and thus causes frustration. One needs to do exactly the opposite, which is counter-intuitive for humans. The instructor needs to take time to explain the role of the seat in detail, otherwise the student continues to struggle.
Address tension and postural habits on the ground
Many clients look for improvement in their horses by releasing tension and thus enabling functional posture in their horses by booking horse massage and especially Masterson Method® sessions. Releasing tension in the rider’s body before mounting can produce similarly positive results.
Ask the student to stand straight, identify any imbalances, then ask to stretch and stand again. Observe how awareness contributes to improvement.
It is with great sadness that I read how some of the really bad news around equestrian sports come from my country of origin: Germany. The widely read ‘Suddeutsche Zeitung‘ had the following headline: ‘The End of Torterous Horse Practice‘.
Right Under the Spectator’s Nose
The practice in question: Bandages and brushing boots – meant as protective gear – are spiked with pressure points and tightened to the point of pain. The purpose: When show jumping, the horse will now lift his legs higher and be sure to avoid any type of contact with the jump. The unsuspecting spectator simply sees a spectacular show jumping performance.
A ‘Lame’ Decision?
The FEI’s General Assembly in Montevideo recently decided to prohibit the practice (in German called ‘Zuckis‘) – starting in 2022. So a little over 4 more years left to torture horses legally. For many horses, it will come too late. They will end their torturous career in the service of an overly ambitious prize money hunter.
Wraps Getting a Bad (W)Rap
‘Zuckis’ are now in the public eye – it’s a good thing. The flip side: Wraps and other leg protection are getting a ‘Bad Rap’, much like nose bands. Important to remember: It’s not the piece of equipment per se that is at fault. Real protective gear for horse legs like wraps and brushing boots are a blessing and protect the fetlock joint from injury. It’s the abuse of the gear that makes it ‘verboten’. If we ask our horses to maximize their athletic potential in jumping, we do need to protect the horse’s legs.
So a little over 4 more years left to torture horses legally. For many horses, it will come too late. They will end their torturous career in the service of an overly ambitious prize money hunter.
What can you do about it?
Let Common Sense (& Compassion) Prevail!
It’s once again up to the spectators to raise the flag. Become aware, speak up, don’t applaud when you witness such practice (especially not on easily-shared social media) and DO THE RIGHT THING yourself – modeling this to kids and younger riders to raise compassionate show jumpers!
Commons sense tells us to differentiate between those, who protect their horses with brushing boots and those, who abuse gear to realize their own ambitions in equestrian sports. Compassion mandates us to speak up for the horse – no matter where and when.
Spot the Offender
When visiting or participating in an event, here some things to look out for:
A helper runs into the warmup ring before the horse enters the arena and quickly tightens the horse boots (there is a term in German for doing something very quickly: ‘Ruck Zuck’ – therefore the boots are called ‘Zuckis’ when used for this torturous practice).
The horse lifts his legs unnaturally high and overjumps.
The horse seems tense and in a rush to get things over with.
During the ride, the horse kicks out repeatedly with the hind legs, as if to get rid of something (the ‘Zuckis’…).
I am grateful for you, the reader, who is undoubtedly NOT in the ‘Zucki’ camp!
From Stone Age to Rocket Age, humans have been practicing collective and individual gratitude (e.g. Thanksgiving Holiday, Thank You cards, Prayers and Offerings, etc.) and there is good reason for it: Gratitude is Good Medicine!
Gratitude is Good Medicine
Have you ever felt warm around the heart when expressing gratitude to someone? Then you did it right! That’s the kind of heart-felt gratitude that feels good to you when expressing it and to the receiver – whether human or not…
No Lip Service, please!
In our brain-centered, head-heavy world, we tend to rationalize, organize, streamline, multi-task – all brain-based ‘surface modes’ that do not get to the core of feelings. To express gratitude so that YOU & the RECEIVER FEELS IT, please let it come from the heart.
Let it come from the heart!
Try this exercise at home:
Stand in front of a mirror (or talk to your dog or an imaginary friend 😉 and say “Thank you for [fill in the blank].” How do you feel?
Now let’s try that again: Feel you heart area. Really direct your consciousness to this area. Then imagine, you heart had lips. Relax you shoulder, soften you gaze, smile a little and say (with your heart lips) “Thank you for [fill in the blank].” How was that?
In step 3, you ‘lip synch’ with your heart. If you do it right, you will feel your heart area and other parts of you body – perhaps your hands – warm and feel pleasant. This is the kind of FEELING you want to convey when expressing gratitude.
5 Ways to Show Gratitude in the Barn & Beyond
Simply say ‘Thank you for […]’ whenever you feel there is something to be grateful for. Example: I say “Thank you for providing such caring help to Regalo.” to my helper and friend Bettie – either in person or even via text! Important: You must look the person in the eye (when in person), smile, and ‘lip synch’ with your heart. Then it’s a real gift!
Leave a little note. That can be a sticky note with a smiley! Example: I have a little book that my dog walker and I use to communicate. I draw little smileys next to my thank yous and often say “I really appreciate that you….”. Find opportunities to express your thanks to others with little notes they find in unexpected places.
Share a little. Baking something? Got a little too much of something? You certainly have experienced an overabundance of something. Instead of putting it in the freezer or the cupboard, why not attach a little ribbon and a thank you note and express gratitude by sharing. You can find plenty of opportunity! Example: When I buy a big bag of Forage First horse treats, I put a few in a little bag and leave it for a helpful barn friend’s horse with a little thank you note.
Picture that! You may have a smartphone or a phone that takes pictures. These can be easily shared. Taking a picture of something someone else loves or has helped you with and sending it to them with a ‘Thank You’ is a great way to show gratitude. Example: Take a picture of your friend’s horse (“Thank you for […]. I saw your horse in the pasture and thought you’d like to this picture.”)
Book it! Accidentally bought the same horse book twice? You may have done this before, if you are like many horse people on a horse book buying binge… This book will be someone else’s treasure! Write your heartfelt thanks into the cover and give it to or leave it for your helpful barn friend.
You got this!
These are just some ideas. You know best who to thank and how to do it. Practice is key! Here some tips:
Practice heartfelt thank yous at home – you may be in ‘brain mode’ and give ‘lip service’ without realizing it!
Grow your gratitude vocabulary – create a little collection of terms and phrases that express your gratitude. Write them on a card or in a journal. Soon, they will be anchored in your gratitude tool box!
Say less – mean more! A simple heart-felt ‘Thank You’ is better than a stream of words that come from the ‘head’.
Be grateful! For everything. Food, air, your old paddock boots, a cup of Joe, fair weather, YOUR HORSE!
Hope you find this helpful. Please share this article, if you do!
Why you should use the best grooming brushes you can find…and where to find them.
If you own or lease a horse, chances are you have to groom him. You can find plenty of tools online and at your local farm supply or tack shop. Most grooming brushes look like what everyone else is using. And they are cheap, many featuring synthetic bristles and meant to be replaced quite frequently.
Most grooming brushes look like what everyone else is using. And they are cheap.
So why go for anything else?
Grooming is so much more than cleaning your horse. It is not only a chore that leads to a certain result, but also an opportunity to bond, listen to your horse, have a mutually satisfying experience, and get even better results! As with any job or chore, the right tools are key. My frustration with what I could find in tack shops led me on a quest to find a better horse brush.
But do you really need better horse grooming tools?
Let’s ask these questions first:
Do you care how your horse feels?
Do you want a good relationship with your horse?
Do you want the best possible grooming results?
When making purchasing decisions, do you care about the environment?
Do you appreciate quality that lasts for years?
If you answered YES to at least 3 of those questions, read on.
Grooming can be so much more than cleaning your horse.
Gentle strokes with a soft brush are a tactile experience that feel good to your horse and will be appreciated.
But many grooming experiences are pure torture.
Remember, your horse’s skin is extremely sensitive. Just play this through in your mind and see it from the horse’s perspective.
Someone approaches you with a tool, intending to work it across your skin.
You don’t have a choice in the matter, you are tied up and any attempts to protest to unpleasant touch (wiggling, pinning ears, kicking) will be interpreted as ‘ naughtiness’.
You know what discomfort is coming, your sensitive skin flinches in dreadful anticipation.
The groomer just tries to get it all over with because ‘the horse does not like to be groomed’.
Moreover, the results are mediocre, the coat looks dull, something to attack with a horse vacuum or another bath or ‘shine spray’….
This type of torturous ‘get it done’ grooming does nothing to improve the condition of the coat or the relationship between horse and human.
What happens in ‘your grooming story’?
Does the groomer use a tool that feels good or just anything that may be about the barn, scratchy or not?
Does this interaction between groomer and horse lead to a better relationship or to resentment and even fear?
Let’s continue our story imagining our groomer has already discovered the many advantages of using high-quality brushes such as HorseHaus brushes:
Our horse will be relaxed and unafraid, and looking forward to the grooming session.
He will use this time to relax deeply and enjoy the company of the groomer, who goes about her task in a methodical, but also gentle and considerate manner.
At the end of the session, our horse may have dozed off or show other visible signs of relaxation, his coat clean, healthy and shiny.
Our groomer will have learned a lot about skin condition and little bumps or scratches on the horses body.
She will be satisfied with the result and carefully clean and put away her grooming brushes to keep them neat and ready for the next grooming.
Now horse and rider are ready to begin their activities together.
Whatever your activities you pursue with your horse, you both will feel more comfortable and trusting toward each other after a considerate and successful grooming session.
You will feel good about grooming and your purchase.
Others may notice how shiny and healthy your horse’s coat looks and you will wonder whether it is not just the proper cleaning but also the gentle massage you give your horse with every grooming (and the answer is yes).
Knowing that your brushes will last for years, you feel good about your purchase.
The fact that neither people nor natural resources got hurt in the manufacturing of the brushes (HorseHaus brushes are FCC certified) or sourcing of the raw materials make you feel even better.
Which type of groomer are you?
Life is learning. If you are currently the groomer with the horse that does not like to be groomed, the scratchy plastic brush wielding type, do not despair!
After many successful rehab experiences with horses that had ‘people problems’, and 7 years of working with ‘airs above the grounds’ performer turned equine behaviorist Anita Kush, I realize that a large range of problems in the human – horse interaction can be traced back to a small set of unhelpful behaviors on part of the human.
Let’s get one thing clear: It is NEVER the horse’s fault. If we can agree on this, you may read on and may find something helpful here.
Bonding with our horse – what a wonderful and noble intention.
Not only do we want to get on, get along and understand each other, we want to forge a relationship that will be strong enough to carry us through the unavoidable moment of crisis – big or small. We want to have ‘something in the bank’ – on the trust level. This topic is rich enough to fill a book. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Let’s start somewhere…
Here 3 common mistakes and what to do instead:
Mistake: Feed snack as reward.
Do this instead: Let ‘virtue be its own reward’. The exercise went well? The horse stood calmly for the farrier or while mounting? Praise in a soft voice, be a relaxing and reassuring presence for your horse. Then feed snacks out of that context of reward, for no reason at all, just to socialize.
Mistake: Letting your horse fend for himself
Do this instead: A dominant horse is crowding your horse when you fetch her from the pasture? Your horse’s more assertive friend grabs for his feed bowl? A fellow boarder is loud and encroaches on your space in front of your horse? These and other types of situations require you to take charge. Give your horse the feeling that you are “in charge of everything” and will create a safe environment where your horse’s needs (for instance for space) are met. Be your horse’s ‘Joan of Arc’ or ‘Genghis Khan’!
Mistake: Expect obedience at all cost (i.e. “don’t let him get away with it”)
Do this instead: Look at every interaction with your horse as a conversation. E.g. you want to turn left, your horse turns right. Diffuse, deflect, re-channel – never argue with your horse. In this case: Good idea, but let’s do that my way (turning right, circling around, coming at it again, repeat until desired outcome is achieved – without confrontation!). Obedience in horses is a habit willingly built on trust, never enforced.
Follow this ‘recipe’ for 30 days, then let me know how you and your horse are doing.
Every horse is different – when it comes to mouth shape and sensitivity. Some horses simply cannot make peace with a bit, others are bothered by a bridle.
My sensitive Lusitano gelding Regalo tends to curl up with even some gentle bits. For him, the answer is an original Meroth Freedom snaffle (caution, don’t buy a knock off, more about that in this blog post).
When I approach him just with reins and attached bit in hand, he willingly opens his mouth and lets me place the bit inside, then patiently stands while I fasten the bit at his jaw. I make sure to have two finger wiggle room as I don’t want to tie the tongue down, simply stop the bit from falling out.
Riding with gentle contact makes for a relaxed horse. No metal in the mouth, no bridle hugging the head.
Regalo seems happy, is responsive and no longer curls up.
Besides, doesn’t he look handsome without bridle?
5 Signs Your Horse Is Unhappy with Bit or Bridle
Doesn’t take bit
Curls up (behind the bit)
Tension in poll and TMJ
What do you think? What are your experiences with bit and bridle? Do you use a leather bit by Meroth? Comment below.
In this article, we will briefly explore how our ‘frame of mind’, interaction and communication styles affect our horses – mentally and physically!
Watching a patient young father today with his unruly but content and curious toddler at our local Wholefoods, I remembered a standard sentence that I heard when I was a child: “Why?” “Because I say so.”
The memory triggered number of other phrases that people in my generation will still be familiar with:
Don’t talk back.
Children should be seen, not heard.
….. the list goes on.
Not blaming the generation of my (German) parents here, who learned their parenting skills from a generation born into monarchy. Not listening was utterly ‘un-Prussian’!
What I am saying in a nut shell: We all know that what we learned to be true at some point, may no longer serve our higher purpose and we can unlearn and relearn to better meet our own and others’ needs – including our horses!
One fundamental skill that many riders and horse people need to desperately unlearn and relearn —in my opinion—is the way they interact with horses.
Negative Effects of Confrontational and Threatening Interaction
Ever walked down the street and heard a sudden crash from a car accident? How did your body respond? You went into ‘defense mode‘, preparing to fight or run. Horses and other mammals respond very similarly – with ‘hyperarousal‘.
Here from loom, S. L. and Farragher, B. (2010) Destroying Sanctuary: The Crisis in Human Service Delivery Systems. New York: Oxford University Press. (pp. 102-106)
“Like other animals [like horses…], humans have formed a highly effective protective system that evolved in our original evolutionary environment when human beings lived in small groups of family members and were threatened by hungry predators. This defensive action system is a total body mobilization, driven by powerful neurochemicals that flood our brain and body. To survive, we must pay attention to any information from the environment that might help us, so many of our senses become more acute—eyes dilate, hearing improves, smells sharpen. Whenever threatened, our attention becomes riveted on the potential threat, and we become hypervigilant to what is going on in our surroundings. … This state is called “hyperarousal” (Horowitz 1986). Below the level of our conscious awareness, we choose appropriate survival-based action: fight, flight, freeze, appease. If we survive the threat, recuperation follows, which is characterized by rest and isolation, wound care, and gradual return to daily activities (van der Hart, Nijenhuis et al. 2005).”
Confrontational Interaction with our horses keeps the horse in a constant state of hyperarousal.
This does not always show up as a ‘hot’ horse.
Here some possible indicators of chronic hyperarousal:
Shut down and dull, perhaps ‘lazy’
Shut down and occasionally explosive/unpredictable
“Rude” – another way of being ‘shut down’ (walks right over you, pushes into you, just wants you to ‘go away’…)
Aggressive (bites, kicks, aggressive toward other horses)
Tense (stiff movement, holds breath, grinds teeth, leans on bit or gets behind bit, etc.)
Possible long-term health problems resulting from chronic hyperarousal (examples):
Arthritic changes (namely in the vertebrae from staying stiff under saddle)
Ulcers and chronic teeth or TMJ problems
Stress on muscles, tendons, ligaments and resulting injuries (from lack of suppleness, chronic tension)
Possibly Insulin Resistance (see source below)
Your frame of mind—and how it plays into your horse’s mental and physical soundness
Our ‘frame of mind’ determines our reality, to a great extent. It is the filter through which we perceive the world.
We will then also behave and communicate according to this ‘frame’ and draw respective conclusions.
Example: If I am a surgeon, I will look at every wart as something that can be removed surgically. If I am an herbalist, I will think of a tincture to apply.
When entering the barn – have a ‘horse lovers frame of mind’.
And to love the horse means to strive to understand the horse’s nature and actively work to meet its mental, emotional, and physical needs!
Part of our ‘frame of mind’ is composed of things we learned throughout our life, meaning learned behaviors that become— sometimes deeply ingrained—habits. This includes attitudes relating to interaction with others and the respective communication style.
Example: If I have learned that I get ahead at the work place by behaving in an intimidating and dominant manner and that this is the way to get results, I may behave similarly at the parent teacher conference (or at the barn!).
Houston – there is trouble!
Over the years, I have observed many kinds of unhelpful and downright harmful interaction with horses, resulting in behavior and performance problems and unsoundness:
Behaving in a confrontational manner (example: jerking on the lead rope for no reason, stepping aggressively toward the horse, etc.)
Demanding obedience (example: getting impatient when the horse does not stand at the mounting block)
Intimidation (scaring the horse into compliance)
Punishment (whipping, spurring, jerking on the reins, even kicking, tying up, and other horrors…)*
And the greatest sin of all: Anthropomorphism (meaning subscribing human traits, feelings, thought patterns, motives, etc. to your horse)
(*Horses have no, NO concept of punishment unless it is immediate, swift, without anger and the horse knows what behavior invited this response.)
Number 5 is key here: Perhaps it is possible to be a tough one to deal with at work or at home, if your ‘frame of mind’ at the barn is that of a person, who realizes that the nature of the horse demands a completely different set of skills and attitudes, namely:
Asking for cooperation
Punishment only as immediate response to dangerous behavior (the very rare exception)
Deep understanding of the nature of the horse as a prey animal that lacks a human’s ability for cunning, strategizing, manipulative, intentionally malicious behavior.
Perhaps it is possible to be a tough one to deal with at work or at home, …the nature of the horse demands a completely different set of skills and attitudes.
Anthropomorphism (treating your horse as if he/she was a human) sets you up for the following interaction patterns that are not only unfair but also extremely stressful to your horse (examples):
Untimely and unwarranted ‘reward’ and ‘punishment‘ – often long after the fact, something a horse cannot relate to.
The habit of assigning human-like motives and strategies to horses. Horses live in the moment. They did not ‘plan’ to do anything more than 3 seconds in advance!
Expecting your horse to ‘understand’ what you want. (Thinking your horse knows exactly what you want, but doesn’t want to do it.) If your horse understood, he/she would be happy to do it, if you set it up right and strive to understand yourself. Example: Riders, who kick their horse’s sides and shoulders because ‘the horse doesn’t WANT to give me his shoulder’ should be flogged, tarred and feathered. Because that is what that feels like to the horse.
Constant nagging, tugging, pushing, jerking, yelling, as a response to perceived ‘misbehavior’. This includes making annoying ‘eh, eh, eh’ sounds!
Treating your horse like a pet and interpreting disrespectful behavior as ‘cute’ or as a sign of ‘intimacy’. Your horse needs to know you will keep him safe. Let him know you are doing that by setting boundaries.
Being inconsistent and spoiling your horse. You are puzzling your horse! A spoiled horse is a dangerous horse. Create consistency and predictability in every interaction.
The list goes on…
Riders, who kick their horse’s sides and shoulders because “the horse doesn’t WANT to give me his shoulder” should be flogged, tarred and feathered. Because that is what that feels like to the horse.
When looking at your horse – see a horse! Do not transfer the way you understand humans and the behaviors, expectations, interaction and communication styles you may have with humans to your horse!
4 simple steps to improve interaction and relationship with your horse
STOP THINKING OR SPEAKING OF YOUR HORSE AS IF HE/SHE WAS A HUMAN!!!
If you have developed this habit, it takes practice to break. For the next week, simply observe how you think and talk about your horse. Does it sound like you are talking about your favorite nephew or some bully in class? Take a deep breath, acknowledge you ‘anthropomorphized’ your horse, and move on. After this first week, you will feel the NEED to change this.
ASK – DON’T TELL!
Start by changing your vocabulary around that.
I worked with my horse all morning. NOT I worked my horse all morning.
I am asking for a rein back. NOT I am making him rein back.
Later, you can expand on that by framing every request to your horse in an ‘ask’, not a ‘tell’.
DON’T THREATEN YOUR HORSE
You may think you don’t…. But many of us do. Example: I recently stood next to a horse in conversation with the owner, the working student was holding the horse. The working student incessantly jerked on the lead rope/halter every time the horse so much as breathed. It was clear that the expectation: BEHAVE was communicated in a manner that horse must find threatening. This is a hard habit to break as it requires a lot of awareness. My tip: Read the original horse whisperers (Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt). After that, you may find more wisdom in modern horsemen/women but you will know what to look for.
OBSTAIN FROM PUNISHMENT
This is a tough one. The horse was ‘bad’ (anthropomorphism) and needs to be punished, isn’t that so? Don’t we hear trainers say— time and again—“Don’t let him get away with it!” or worse “Whack him!”. We don’t want to be bossed by our horse, we don’t want him to get the upper hand and ‘push our buttons’. Right? Wouldn’t this make us look stupid or incapable? No worries… The only worry you should have is how you look in the eyes of your horse. Don’t punish. Redirect, start over, reward.
Don’t punish. Redirect, start over, reward.
Exception: My rule is, if a horse shows learned, dangerous misbehavior such as biting humans, I do punish swiftly, clearly, without anger (that’s tough) and without letting this moment linger on. 1 second punishment, the next second we simply move on—on a good note. NOTE: You need to be consistent, meaning react the same way every time this behavior is displayed. Otherwise, you are making the problem worse.
Horse are horses! Do not interpret horse behavior within the frame of mind applied to human beings, who have completely different needs, behaviors, motives, and agendas.
Learn non-confrontational interaction with horses!
Don’t threaten your horse! (Get help in identifying what these threatening behaviors are!)