WARNING: This article was posted 4 years ago. Experience now proves that this article may send some readers into a flying rage or emotional outburst, which is then expressed in very long emails or comments to this post. All comments to this post are approved by me and I will gladly approve differing opinions, but not negativity and outbursts. PLEASE read this article with an open mind. Its basic message is: Rope halters, hackamores, bitless bridles are generally NO more gentle nor ‘natural’ to the horse and can – just like a bit – cause injury, pain, discomfort, stress in the horse. The solution: Learn how to ride with a light hand and an independent seat to do right by your horse. Learn proper training techniques that work without pain coercion. Please also note (and see picture): I DO USE A ROPE HALTER when indicated, on both my horses and rehab horses in the past.

horse with wormer
A rope halter on an appy mare I rehabbed.This brief introduction will hopefully help put things into perspective for those, who are on the defensive right after reading the title.

As the horse world is evolving and people across all disciplines are striving for a generally more humane approach to horsemanship—focusing on relationship and gentlenss—there has been a shift from traditional halters, bits and bridles to alternative solutions that are perceived to be more ‘natural’.

Apart from the fact that I don’t believe there to be anything ‘natural’ about riding, driving or otherwise using horses for our purposes in the first place, I want to question the ‘naturalness’ and also the humanenessss or gentleness of some of these devices.

Let’s do a bit of semi-scientific investigation of halters, bridles and other tools commonly used to restrain and control our horses or to simply ‘keep him in the neighborhood’.

The ‘rope halter’

horse with rope halter
My horse Paladin with a light-weight rope halter

The rope halter is made of rope of various thickness or flexibility. It features strategically placed knots that send ‘signals’ to the horse and in that aid the handler in controling the animal. Here a description of a ‘Be Nice Halter’—a certain type of rope halter—on the website of a well-known equine supply retailer:
“The halter for complete control every time you handle a horse. When the animal resists, the halter tightens and pressure is applied to nerve areas on the head. As the animal relaxes, pressure is instantly relieved, rewarding good behavior.”  (Note: Not all rope halters tighten, this is an extremely harsh halter.)
1773 users give this halter 5 stars. Excellent! We can conclude that the halter keeps its promise: Absolute control via pressure on sensitive facial nerves results in desired results for the handler.

What does it mean for the horse?

nerves of the horse’s head (from the University of Lincoln)

The horse’s face is lined with a network of sensitive nerves that exit the skull around the middle of the face and extend into the muzzle. There is also an abundance of nerves right behind the ears, a very sensitive area. Note: This is where stallions bite during their stallion fights, they know it hurts!

Let’s embark on a little practical experiment to understand what this may feel like: Find an area of your own body that is bony, meaning having little flesh between bone and skin, and has a lot of nerves, for example your shin. Sit comfortably on a chair and put your leg up on another chair. Now take a rope halter with the knot on your shin and and attach a weight of about 2-3 pounds (about the weight of a 22′ longe line with brass buckle) on it for about 30 minutes. Keep tugging on it to simulate the effect of a handler adding some pressure to the weight of longe line and brass buckle. If you have a 22′ longe line with brass buckle, feel free to weigh it before the experiment, just to make sure we get it right. Do the exact same thing on the exact same spot the next day and the day after.

Feeling good? Probably not. But you may just have discovered a way to get your teen to take the trash out: “Get that bag out there or I’ll pull out my rope halter!”

By nature—due to the roundness of the rope and the resulting thin area of contact with the horse’s skin—the rope halter puts a lot of focal pressure on the horse’s facial nerves in the area of the knots and also, aided by gravity, behind the ears and on the front of the face. Combine small area of contact with a heavy brass buckle and a 12-22′ longe line (together, weighing close to 3 pounds), add the effects of gravity, consider the super sensitive nerves in the horse’s face and behind his poll and the result is a formula that can result in pain induced

  • negative movement habits
  • head throwing
  • face paralysis
  • unwillingness and other behavior issues
  • an ‘upside down’ horse
  • numbing of nerves, muzzles or facial areas
  • chronic tension in the poll and TMJ.

My thoughts: There may be a place for the short-term, responsible application of rope halters in combination with an attached, light-weight lead rope without buckle (I purchased such a halter in Montana in 2007 and still use it on occasion.) For every-day use, a flat nylon webbing halter with leather break-away head piece or a flat leather halter is the humane method of handling your horse.

If you horse does not respect this connection, you have a training issue, not an equipment issue. A rope halter should never be used during

a) bodywork or b) longing.

A) It will cause occasional discomfort and distract the horse from the bodywork.

B) Unless in cases of extreme behavior challenges and for short-term, special-case application, you will want to use a flat halter, a longe caveson or even a bridle with a gentle bit for longing. All this is more pleasant to the horse and will enable him to move freely without pain.

Standardbred with a leather halter
My Paladin modeling a leather halter.

The Hackamore

A hackamore works along the same principles as a rope halter. It puts strong focal pressure on very sensitive areas of the horse’s face. It is NOT a more humane solution than any kind of bit. Rather, it’s meant for a skilled and knowledgable rider/trainer, who can work with this tool to increase the responsiveness of a horse. If you don’t have ‘breaks’ on your horse, a hackamore will NOT be a good solution, only a very painful fix for a deeper training issue. If you are not experienced in the use of a hackamore, get an experienced trainer’s input and advice, to see if you and your horse are ready for a hackamore.

The bitless bridle

Even though softer and with less focal pressure, the bitless bridle works along the same lines as above. In addition, some styles constrict the horse’s head, a feeling that is so unpleasant to the horse that it will strive to be obedient to avoid this feeling. If you are planning to use a bitless bridle, observe your horse carefully. If the desired effect (obedience) comes with wide eyes and a raised head, it’s not working for your horse.

Conclusion

  • The horse’s face, head and poll area is lined with ultra-sensitive nerves.
  • Rope halters, hackamores and some bitless bridles enable the handler to use a pain response to control the horse.
  • Pain-based control tools can result in behavior and physical issues (see examples above).
  • They seem to temporarily solve control problems, but your horse will pay the price in the long run.

Recommendation

  • Re-examine the tools you are currently using.
  • Don’t rely on trainers, marketers, fellow horse-people or even literature (including this article!) to make
  • decisions around the use of so-called ‘natural’ tools.
  • Put yourself in your horse’s shoes, visualize or physically try the tool on yourself and then restrategize, if needed.
  • There is no substitute for proper training. If you feel you need more control, find a trainer that is in line with your own general philosphy, even if it’s against the ‘popular belief’.

Enjoy your horse!

Stefanie with an Arabian in a flat webbing halter for bodywork.

Stefanie Reinhold

 

If you read The Horse’s Back (part 1)How to detect back problems in your horse”, you already know whether you suspect your horse to suffer from discomfort in the back. And you already know that symptoms may be anything from an unwillingness/inability to step under to bucking and rearing, in extreme cases.

So now that you know how to spot some back issues, you will want to know what to do about them. We could now get into gymnasticizing, horse massage, equine bodywork, liniments, supplements, Jägermeister or Guinness in horse feed (;-)… But whoa! First let’s look at possible causes. Only if we identify possible causes will we be able to address them effectively—not just tinker around with the symptoms.

According to my experience, the following are the three major root causes for back discomfort in horses:

SADDLE FIT

Saddle fit is the number one concern when we look at a horse’s back health. Here, we need to consider two equally important aspects:

1)      How does the saddle fit the horse?

2)      How does the saddle fit the rider?

If the saddle fits your horse but not you, you will be unbalanced in the saddle, which is just as uncomfortable to the horse as an ill-fitting saddle. A saddle that is comfortable for you but doesn’t fit the horse is a torture instrument for the horse.
Tree size, length, ‘rock’, balance, rigging, all these are elements that need to be considered in Western and English saddles.

a bridging dressage saddle
Looks nice, but doesn't fit. This saddle bridges and slides back under the rider. A torture instrument for the horse.

Tree size

Too small – pinches around the area of upper edge of scapular cartilage (the soft cartilage around your horse’s shoulder blade) RESULT: restricted range of motion, ‘laziness’, stumbling, falling

Too large – saddle sits too low on the withers, saddle tilts forward, takes rider out of balance (pain in the withers) RESULT: ‘laziness’, reluctance to being saddled, doesn’t want to trot or canter, rushing, rearing

You say: “No problem, my horse’s saddle does not have a tree!” Please recheck the fit: Treeless saddles are the perfect solution for some breeds or horse/rider combinations, but NOT for all.

Length

Too short – only if the saddle is too small for the rider RESULT: rider gets out of balance, uncomfortable for the horse, horse holds his back tight and doesn’t round

Too longHea ye, hear ye! This is THE main cause of saddle related back problems I see in my practice. The weight bearing area of the horse’s back ENDS with the last rib. Anything beyond that causes a myriad of problems RESULT: not stepping under, tightness in lumbar, not taking left/ride canter leads, hops during transitions, goes against the bit, grinds teeth, sweats quickly under the rider but not on the lunge line…. The list goes on.

‘Rock’

Too much rock – pressure points due to unevenly distributed weight and rider’s imbalance in the seat RESULT: rushing, flighty and nervous behavior, hollows back, lifts head

Not enough rock – saddle is too straight and ‘bridges’. This is a problem often found in modern Western saddles. Not sure, who designs these saddles, but a horse’s back is NOT straight like a workbench. The result is pressure in the front of the saddle and in the back, with no or insufficient contact in the middle. RESULT: hollows back, lifts head, rushes, bucks or in more agreeable types: gets lazy or collapses. Main cause of ‘cold back’.

Rigging

A very important, often overlooked element. Here, you will need to differentiate between English and Western saddles and the respective various types (dressage or jumping, reining or trail, for example). This discussion would go too far here, please see this article for resources.

If you feel this is an old hat and you got it all covered, please make sure that this is really the case. Regrettably, we sometimes get advice from ‘subject matter experts’ that steer us in the wrong direction, even those that are certified and especially those, who’d like to sell us a saddle. I would like to encourage you to do your own research.
Here some resources:

Article: “How saddle fit contributes to your horse’s soundness”. This article contains a number of videos about English saddle fit, presented by Jochen Schleese. These contain good basic information about saddle fit and are not a sales pitch, worth watching. In this article, you will also find some links to recommended books and videos.

Here a word about “Mismatched” equipment: The horse does not care whether you ride in a brown bridle and a black saddle. But he does care whether you want to ride dressage in a jumping saddle, for instance, or do endurance in a dressage saddle. Your saddle has to fit the purpose. One example I encounter frequently: A rider has a multi-purpose saddle with focus on jumping, such as the good old Stubben Siegfried VSS I learned to ride on.

a multi purpose jumping saddle
This saddle is ideal for jumping, hacking out, hunting, rising trot and two-point seat.

This is an excellent saddle if you… hack out a lot in the two-point seat, hunt, jump, if you post the trot and ride the canter in two-point. This saddle is NOT suitable for dressage or for any rider, who would like to actually sit in the saddle most of the time. It is not designed to distribute the weight accordingly and will make your horse’s back hurt, if you use it as it was not intended. Please take your time to research this further by means of the resources mentioned in my article above.

THE RIDER

Yes, this is a touchy topic. Imbalance, heavy hands, hollowed backs, bracing, using stirrups incorrectly, using the dressage whip incorrectly (giving impulses at the wrong time), sitting heavy during the down-phase of the rising trot, imbalances in the rider’s anatomy, an unfit or overweight rider, all can contribute to a horse’s back discomfort. Rider fitness, confidence, riding technique and balance are important factors that all influence the horse’s back health. It is hard to take a good look at yourself. I know that from experience. However, you will reap the rewards if you do and so will your horse. Identify your goal, whether it’s getting in shape, overcoming some confidence challenges, losing a few pounds or brushing up on your riding skill and find a knowledgeable coach to take you to the next level.

THE HORSE’S MOVEMENT HABITS

We all have movement habits, and so do our horses. Your horse may have learned a certain inefficient self-carriage at some point in his life, either during early training or being ridden by a former owner, as a result of an old injury or a formerly ill-fitting saddle etc. This movement habit now needs to be identified and then actively ‘unlearned’ or rather replaced with a better, more efficient and more comfortable self-carriage. Recognizing a movement habit is a bit tricky. This involved a few steps from ruling out all other possible causes to seeing the horse is motion and under saddle. Postural re-education is a process that takes patience and knowledge and should be done with the help of a skilled equine professional or trainer.

And then there is also

  • Compensation – for pain/discomfort/restriction in other areas of the horse’
  • Conformation – not all horses are created equal!
  • And the ‘Fear Factors’ – pain, worry, anxiety manifest as back problems.

If you read to this point, you almost read a novel about ‘back problems’ and I thank you for your interest. There is a lot to consider and ponder, to learn and to evaluate. If you need help thinking things through or if you’d like someone to help you sort through some of these questions, please drop me a line stef@reinholdshorsewellness.com

Until next time, when we will take a look at “How to help your horse overcome back problems”.

Be well and enjoy your horse!

Stefanie Reinhold

During my equine bodywork practice, I occasionally encounter horses with unexplained lameness or restrictions. Vet, farrier and saddle fitter have exhausted their possibilities and the owner is faced with the horse’s recurring unsoundness without explanation. In these cases, bodywork provides relief, but often does not result in lasting change alone.

This leads the focus to the missing piece in the puzzle: the horse/rider interaction or rider biomechanics and how the rider affects the horse’s soundness.

There are two undeniable basic facts about using horses as riding animals:

1)      our vertical spine meets the horse’s horizontal spine in various levels of impact during a sequence of motions of two separate yet attached bodies and

2)      “there is nothing natural about horse back riding”, since horses were not by nature designed to carry a rider.

From this we can conclude:

a) yes, riding a horse implies the possibility of doing the animal harm, simply based on the biomechanical parameters and

b) riding therefore needs to be a factor, when considering what in the horse’s environment can keep him sound or potentially make him unsound.

Rider biomechanics have been on my mind for a long time, not just since a young man offered me a seat on the bus the other day. Thinking about your own flexibility as a rider and ability to stay out of the horse’s way during our – hopefully – harmonious movement together, is not a question one starts asking when approaching 50 or so. It’s a basic requirement whenever we want to do the right thing for the horse.

This is a vast topic and good books have been written by very knowledgeable folks (e.g. “The Rider Forms the Horse” by Udo Burger). I can only highlight a few aspects and hope to enthuse you for the subject.

As bipeds, we often naturally move contrary to the horse’s quadruped movement.

As an example: The walk, the ‘easiest’ of all gaits to ride. We bipeds move our arms diagonally to the legs during the walk, meaning when our right hip moves forward, our right arm moves back. When we ride and hold the reins, we will tend to do the same: move the right hip forward, and the right arm back (even if ever so slightly). Try it on a chair! This directly counteracts the movement of the horse and means, that if we do not want to jar the horse’s mouth with every step, we need to make a conscious effort to develop an independent seat, where hip can move independent of arm.

Let’s take this example one step further – a fictional case study: A rider who has not yet developed an independent seat rides a willing and compliant horse for several years, jarring his mouth with every step in the walk. Soon the horse will develop a ‘dead mouth’, possibly leading the rider to believe the horse needs a sharper bit. After using the sharper bit for some time – which works wonders with the ‘stoppability’ – the horse starts shortening the stride and refuses to take the right lead. He develops an unwillingness to bend in the neck and an ornery temperament. The rider (possibly in unison with the trainer) attributes this to a number of factors unrelated to his/her riding and continues to ride until the horse develops unexplained front leg lameness. A journey through farriers and vets begins with no result.

This is a fictitious scenario, a combination of different cases I’ve experienced. Similarities to real, living horses are merely coincidental ;-).

What happened here? Causing the horse discomfort in the mouth by moving like a biped on the back of this quadruped causes the horse to carry himself in a way that compensates and allows him to avoid the discomfort as much as possible. Instead of swinging his head lightly from side to side during the walk, he will hold his head still, and his neck stiff, in anticipation of the next jarring feeling in the jaw. Over time, the ‘head neck muscle’ (bracchiocephalicus) and related muscles become permanently contracted. This muscle’s job is to move the front leg forward. Through the restriction, the horse’s stride becomes shortened. Soon the tension will expand into the upper neck musculature and muscles that are responsible for the movement of the shoulder blade (scapula). The shoulder becomes tight and unyielding. Since it is the ‘shock absorber’ for the front legs, it now loses its function as such and the front legs have to bear most of the impact with every step. The trot becomes choppy, the strides restricted. Discomfort and restriction leads the horse to get stiff in the neck and possibly refuse to take one lead or another.

By the time the symptoms become loud, this has been going on for a while. Often it’s hard to make the connection. It’s not easy to ask oneself ‘how could my riding be a factor’?  Nevertheless, it’s the right question to ask.

There is an excellent website with in depth information regarding rider biomechanics http://nicholnl.wcp.muohio.edu/dingosBreakfastClub/BioMech/BioMechRideContent.html.  You can also order a book on this website about the same topic.

Even small changes in your riding can make a big difference for your horse’s soundness. As a non-ambitious rider who doesn’t show, I personally have to make a conscious effort of working on my seat. Having seen quite a bit of damage to horses by unskilled riders, I am painfully aware of what my riding can do to my horse and do what I can to get guidance and feedback, to keep myself fit and flexible and to stay aware of my short-comings as a rider.

If you have a story to share or tips or experiences regarding Biomechanics of Riding, please email me stef@reinholdshorsewellness.com or share your comment.

Have a harmonious ride!

Yesterday it was Friday again… time for a massage and some Masterson Method Bodywork. This time Jimmy was even more accepting and cooperative. His poll, neck and cervical/thoracic junction, however, still feel uncomfortable enough to threaten a nip or shake the head assertively. Jimmy’s poll is very tight, soft tissue around the Atlas very hard and sensitive during massage and C3-C5 (neck vertebrae) seem stuck and unrelenting. After the third time working up and down the neck, nipping attempts stopped and Jimmy showed signs of release (licking and chewing, snorting) and I let him just digest the bodywork for a moment.

Sweat Spots Left Side
Sweat Spots Left Side

While I took notes and pictures, Jimmy stood still like a statue, as if in a ‘zone’. I noticed distinct sweat spots in the same areas he sweated during the last bodywork session.

Sweatspots Left Side
Sweatspots Left Side

(For an in depth explanation go to Jim Masterson’s blog and search for ‘sweat barrier’.) At the end of his bodywork session he really enjoyed a good rub of his left hindquarters which elicited several non-stop yawns.

Back in the pasture he merrily trotted towards the herd and was greeted by his new ‘main squeeze’, the white pretty little mare, who came running to greet him.

Jimmy Dean, you’ve got ‘the life’!!!

Stay tuned for the next episode:  Jimmy Dean under saddle (without rider)