Most people who are involved with horses have at some point ridden a horse with a “hard mouth”. There is a lot of advice and equipment designed to deal with this problem but understanding how the mouth became hard would be more help than a stronger bit. Strong hands, improper equipment, neglected dental care, and possible injuries to the mouth could play a role. I believe that there is no such thing as a hard mouthed horse; they are “hard minded” horses.
The first thing to consider is that the horse is only half of the equation. If we are hard with our hands the horse has no choice but to become used to too much pressure on his mouth. This will not only hurt his mouth but it will dull his mind. For example, if you always pull with all your might to make your horse stop you will teach him that anything less does not mean stop. You have established a minimum amount of necessary pressure. Over time your horse will get so dull that you can not pull hard enough to stop him. It is because you have set the minimum so high that he gets harder. Eventually you will need a stronger piece of equipment to even get his attention. It is not pulling hard that is the real problem; it is pulling hard constantly that will teach him to get hard minded.
The equipment that we use is designed to cause pain or discomfort to force the horse to respond to a pull. Too often the hands that are using that equipment are not well enough trained to use it properly. The horse can only show its discomfort in so many ways. He can open his mouth- so we tie it shut. He can throw his head up- so we tie it down. He can lean on the bit- so we lean back on the bit. Every form of evasion is met with a form of punishment; all we need to do is back up to find the cause of the resistance. If your horse does not fuss with his bit when you are not pulling then you are possibly the cause of his stress. If he constantly chews on the bit maybe he does not like your choice of equipment. Just because you like a snaffle bit does not mean that he likes it.
If his teeth are in need of work his jaw may not be moving properly. His jaw needs to move back and forth and from side to side to chew his food properly. If his teeth are not allowing his jaw to do this it will cause him pain even though you may not be pulling on him and your equipment is comfortable.
If he has had an injury to his mouth you should be prepared to change how you handle his mouth to help him out. Understanding how different bits work on different parts of his mouth will help you decide how to make him more comfortable.
If your horse for whatever reason has developed a hard mouth and a hard mind he is not a lost cause. Before you can soften him up you must first soften yourself. You must develop soft hands and that will only happen when you are prepared to acknowledge a smaller effort on your horses’ part. When you reward him more for doing less he will be encouraged to try harder to respond quicker.
Often hard mouthed horses will lean on the bit. If you give him nothing to lean on he will stop trying. Soften your “contact” to a “feel” and do not allow him to balance on you.
To make you horse soft you may have to get harder than he is. Your pull can be intense but the duration of your pull must be short. When asking your horse to soften up you must ask him to respond with just a feel. This amounts to holding the reins with your thumb and index finger and pick up the reins until you feel the bit. Your horse does not need to be on the bit rather you want to just have enough tension that the reins are taught but not tight. If he does not respond to your request then start closing your fingers which increases the tension on the reins. If you still get no response then gently pull back on the reins. And if he is still unwilling to listen brace your elbows on your side and lean back and use your body to make yourself too strong for him to run through. He must learn that you are offering a better deal. If he does not accept your offer he will also learn that he will run into a wall, the wall being an increased amount of pressure from you. Repeat this process and be very deliberate with each increase in pressure. Give him time to respond, there is a lag time after you offer a cue so do not be too quick to go to the next level of pressure. You need to wait for a commitment from him, either to respond however slightly (reward) or ignore you entirely and keep going (increase pressure).
You will also need to notice and reward a smaller effort. If you feel him respond in the slightest to your offer make a big deal over it. Once you get an initial try from your horse get softer each and every time you ask. When you ask for less with less you will be more aware of a slight response from your horse. You will essentially be more in tune with your horse. Your horse as a result will become more in tune with you.
It does not matter if you are asking for a stop or trying to get him on the bit. If he softens you soften more. If he resists you get stronger than he is. You must always be either softer or stronger than he is but never the same. The goal initially is not for him to respond quickly, it is for him to respond softly. Speed will come with confidence and consistency.
As we ride and train many of us try to establish a bond with our horse. There are many ways that we can develop the relationship needed to safely enjoy our equine partners.
It is important to take into consideration the social structure of a horse community. The horses’ natural society is one of mutual dependence. They rely on the sight, hearing and sense of smell of every horse in the group. They rely most on the lead horse to be capable of ensuring the safety of the herd. The lead horse will notice when another horse is alarmed and make a decision whether there is a real threat. The lead horse is more aware, more self confidant and mentally tougher than all the other horses in his band. He may not always want to be the lead horse; he is just unwilling to let a less observant horse be in charge. There is a great deal of responsibility that comes with being the lead horse. He is burdened with the security of the whole herd. He is the horse that will place himself in danger to ensure his herd’s survival. The lead horse will be prone to fight and less likely to run than the weaker horses in his company.
When we interact with a horse the process to establish leadership will occur. Too often we are not aware of the subtle challenges our horse presents us with. It does not take long before our horse knows that either we are not aware enough to be in charge so he decides he will be, or he knows that you will now be in charge of herd security and he is relieved to let you.
Leadership is initially established by causing or preventing the movement of another horse. It is maintained by noticing what and how your horse responds to. When you notice and acknowledge a response your horse will know you noticed. He needs to know that you are aware enough to be a lead horse
Since the survival of the herd depends on having the right leader a horse will not just give you authority. You must earn it from him or her as the case may be. This is where we can run into difficulty. Horses have a very subtle physical language. Everything they do means something to another horse. The way they stand, how they hold their head and ears, every gesture is a possible challenge for, or an acknowledgement of, leadership. The more subtle the challenge we notice and respond to the faster we will earn the respect we need to be the lead horse. If we miss the subtle challenges they will get more blatant. If we only answer the more obvious challenges we run the risk of bullying our horse. We do not need to physically overpower a horse to establish we are a better leader. The less we can do the better, as he knows that we are not abusing our authority by getting physical without cause.
When you notice small challenges you need to acknowledge them. You must meet the intensity of the challenge and exceed it slightly but do not punish your horse for it. He is just making sure that you are still the best horse for the top job. When your horse backs down from the challenge it is up to you to now get even softer than he is. When your horse takes from you, you will take it back. When he gives to you, you give back. There can be no grey area; you are both stronger and softer than he is depending on what the situation calls for. As a responsible leader you must let him dictate the intensity with which you meet the challenge. The punishment must suit the crime. As a lead horse you should not need to extend challenges to other members of your herd.
It is not about being dominant it is about being a more proficient leader. If I am too dominant my horse will fear me. If I am too soft my horse will think I am not strong enough to protect him from danger or perceived danger. We should encourage a mutually supporting relationship. As a competent leader I must take his opinion into consideration before making an executive decision. Horses are much more sensitive and aware than we as humans are capable of being. We need to give the perception that we notice everything. To do this we need to pay more attention to what our horse is saying. If he is nervous we need to notice that first then try to figure out why so we can help him relax. He needs to know we noticed.
Since we want to be respected for being the best horse we need to be more patient, more encouraging, more aware, more supportive, more consistent and more disciplined than the horses we handle. If your horse doubts you he will challenge you. It is this process that ensures the best horse is always in charge.
When trying to become the lead horse think about what dominance means to you. Does your horse follow you because you make him? Your horse should never be submissive rather he should be willing to follow you because you are a worthy leader.
© 2004 Will Clinging
There are many different ways to train a horse. Some trainers talk about making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy. This is easily interpreted as wait until the horse does something wrong and punish it. My interpretation is to help them do things correctly in the first place and there will be no need to punish.
A reward based training program can be very effective. By reward I do not mean a food treat, rather a release of pressure. I am inclined to help the horse out as much as he needs me to although there is still a need for well timed reprimands.
It is important to be aware of how your horse learns. Horses are highly intelligent animals that are capable of making informed decisions. They can analyze information that is presented to them. The more clearly a request is made the more chance the horse has in making the correct movement. If they do things correctly they need to be rewarded. It is when they do things incorrectly that we run into trouble. Instead of punishing the horse for being confused it is more beneficial to change the way we asked to help him figure things out.
I think that initially how hard your horse tries to be correct, even if they are not, is more important than how well they perform the maneuver requested. If the horse is putting in a genuine effort and can’t quite figure things out you must reward his effort. By rewarding his effort he will be encouraged to continue trying. Eventually he will be correct and then you can really make a big deal over how well he performed.
As intelligent animals horses are prone to anticipate things. This can often hinder us but there are times when we can use it to our advantage. If your horse is rewarded for trying to do something for you he will anticipate that if he tries he will get a release of some kind. The amount of release or reward he gets depends on how hard he tries. He will learn that the harder he tries the faster he is rewarded. Soon the horse is gaining confidence because he knows that you noticed his effort and praised him for it.
On the other hand if you are not prepared to help him out he will also anticipate being punished. If you ask him to do something and he does it wrong if he is punished he will learn that his efforts are not appreciated. The next time you ask for the same thing he already knows he is in trouble so he will be wrong again so he will be punished again. This cycle can be hard to break. If and when he finally does it correctly he has done it because he is afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t do it. He is reacting out of fear of punishment. He is not responding out of a willingness to do things because he is encouraged to try.
There are certainly times when a reprimand is necessary. When you do encourage small efforts some horses will start to take advantage of that. So he will try only enough that you reward his small effort. He will not try harder because he does not need to. These horses need reminded from time to time that there must be genuine effort to improve.
If there is to be a reprimand it is important that the horse dictate the intensity of the correction. If he is only mildly misbehaving then a mild correction is all that is called for. The worse he gets the more intense the reprimand becomes. You must meet the horses’ level of resistance and exceed it slightly when scolding him. You must also offer to get softer than he is when he starts to accept the things you ask of him.
A reward should be comfortable and encouraging. You do not have to lavish attention on your horse, a simple bow of your head or a pat on his neck is enough. He just needs to know that you noticed.
A reprimand on the other hand should just cause discomfort and not pain. It is important to note that the reprimand can be intense but the duration must be short. Scold him like you mean it but only scold him once for an offence. Do not pick on him, or he will resent your behavior. At that point you have lost his respect and in his mind you have become a domineering bully.
Horses need time to think. When asking something from your horse give him time to figure out what you want. Watch your horses’ expression and you will often see him thinking. If you notice him being indecisive do not scold him or reward him until he commits to making a decision about what to do. He will do one of three things when he is deep in thought. He will make a decision to do things incorrectly and get a correction. He will do things correctly and get a reward. Or he will continue to think which will buy him time.
In order to be a reliable leader to your horse you must be many things. You must be mentally stronger, more aware, more sensitive, more comforting, more disciplined and more patient than he is. If you take the time to help your horse out he will notice the change in your attitude. You in turn will see a change in his. He needs to know that you noticed that he noticed that you are trying to help. Whether he takes what you are offering is up to him. Make the right thing easy.
© 2004 Will Clinging
Trailer loading is an exercise that once all the other fundamentals are in place should be relatively easy. In this series of articles on handling young horses we have covered touching and catching. This teaches your horse to be comfortable handled. He has learned to lead and should be willing to follow a soft feel. He has learned to tie which will help him deal with being restrained. He can have his feet handled which enable him to deal with his ability to run being taken away from him. He needs to be comfortable with all of these things before he will feel safe to climb into a horse trailer. He has also learned that our personal space should be respected which is the aspect of trailer loading that is necessary to ensure our own safety.
Horse trailers are scary places for many horses, especially young green horses. Being in a horse trailer effectively disables the horses’ natural instinct for survival. This is why all the previous lessons are so important. If your horse does not trust you enough to let you remove his built in survival mechanisms he simply will not get in. Trying to bribe him with hay or grain is not going to get you consistent results, although having hay in the trailer as a reward after the horse has decided to get in is fine.
When ready to start loading I will ask the horse to lead past me a few times to re establish a space boundary. This will also remind him that when I tap him on the ribs with my flag he should walk forward past me.
When he will do this I will then repeat the same exercise as I stand inside the open trailer door. If the trailer has a ramp the exercise will need to start at the ramp, and in a straight haul stand on the opposite side of where you plan to load the horse.
It is important to give him lots of time to think about what you want. Any and every attempt to move closer to the trailer must be rewarded. After he has moved a step closer pet him and walk out of the trailer leading him away and then back to the same position. By taking him away from the trailer it re enforces that he did what you asked of him. Each time he approaches and is taken away he will realize that the trailer is not a scary place and he will get a little closer each time. I want to increase his comfort zone one step at a time. If he is curious give him time to analyze the trailer. Some horses will paw at the floor he may want to smell it and have a good look around. If he is curious he is less likely to be afraid. Ask him to put one foot in. Do not pull on him but push him in with the flag on his ribs. If he pulls back to escape go back with him but push him forward harder with the flag on his ribs until he stops backing up. Then approach and ask again.
There will be a lot of approach and retreat. When he will put one foot in he will be more comfortable putting two feet in. Each time remove him and start over. Once he will stand with both front feet in I like to have him stand there for a minute before asking him to back out. I initially have them back out because getting out can be just as scary as getting in especially if you have a step up trailer. Asking for one foot at a time will teach him to get in and get out at the same time.
Getting three feet in will be the most difficult but it is also the most important. The horse needs to learn to get in slowly and deliberately. Horses will often jump in and put both back feet in at once. This can be dangerous for the handler if not prepared and it can scare the horse. When he jumps in the trailer will sway and he may feel that he need to escape.
I do not like a horse to turn around in the trailer until he will get in all the way and back out quietly. When I do let him turn around I will let him face the door and then turn him back around to face the front and have him back out. I do this because I do not ever want him to think about bolting out the door. When he is ready to walk out forward I will have him unload just as he loaded, one foot at a time slowly and deliberately. I also think it is important for a horse to learn to balance himself in a trailer. I like to pick up his feet when he is standing inside. I also like to push him until he will move his feet over. This help his get comfortable moving and correcting himself which he will need to do once the trailer starts moving.
Once he will get in stand quietly and back out it is time to increase the difficulty. Now I will not get in with him. I will stand just outside the trailer and have him load in the same way, one foot at a time. I might load and unload a horse twenty or more times throughout the process. Each time will make the next time easier. If he starts to back out before he gets all the way in just tap him with your flag until he goes back in. When he does go back in ask him to come out before he tries again.
It is important to know the difference between a horse that will get in the trailer and a horse that loads well. A horse that will just get in is inconsistent and will always need coaxing. A horse that loads well will only need directed into the trailer and he will take care of the loading by himself.
© 2004 Will Clinging
Your young horse has progressed through being caught and handled, he leads well, he is comfortable with his feet being picked up and he can stand tied. The next lesson is establishing a personal space boundary. This will help keep your horse from pushing on you or walking over you. This lesson is also important for the trailer loading lesson that will come next.
For this lesson you will need a halter, a long lead rope and a small whip or flag.
The focus of this exercise is to teach your horse to respect you personal space. We will establish an invisible line between you and your horse that should not be crossed by your horse without an invitation. This line is established and adjusted by blocking your horse when they have reached the line.
How pushy your horse is will dictate how firm you will need to be to enforce this line. There may be times when quite a bit of pressure is needed to convince your horse that crossing the line uninvited will get him in trouble. When reprimanding a horse I believe that it is better to be firm and only correct him once than it is to be too soft and correct him constantly. With constant corrections your horse will learn to ignore you and possibly become pushier.
When starting this exercise it is important to have “intention and focus”. Know what you want him to do and concentrate mentally and physically until it happens.
Hold both hands directly out to the sides of your body with the lead rope in one hand and your flag in the other. Ask him to start to follow the feel you are offering with the lead rope. Use the flag directed towards his rib to push him forward into the feel of the lead rope. If your horse is confused and moves backwards DO NOT STOP asking for forward until he moves his feet forward or at least sideways. If he is going sideways make sure you are still offering him a feel to follow. If your horse takes even one step forward stop pushing and pet him as a reward. If you reward small efforts your horse will be encouraged to try harder the next time you ask. Ask and reward until your horse is comfortably moving forward.
If he refuses to move forward increase the pressure you are using directed at his ribs. Do not be afraid to tap your horse with the flag. We push on his ribs because that is the same area that your legs will bump him when we start to ride. It is a forward motion cue that we will transfer to the saddle.
As your horse moves forward into the feel you offer pay attention to where he moves his feet. Do they walk out and around you or do they walk towards you pushing you out of the way? This is when we will start to establish our space boundary. As you push your horse forward your flag is at his ribs, if he walks out and around you move the flag to his shoulder to keep him out. If he walks into you use your flag much more firmly to swat him on the shoulder to push him out. How pushy your horse is will dictate how much pressure you apply to his shoulder. To effectively establish that you will not be pushed you must always meet the amount of pressure your horse is using and EXCEED it slightly. When your horse is pushy you will be pushier. When your horse is giving to pressure you will decrease the amount of pressure so you are softer that he is.
When your horse will walk forward out and around you it is time to have him change directions. Slowly bring your hands down in front of you and change hands with your flag and lead rope. Bring your arms straight out from your body which effectively changes the direction of your feel and blocks the movement of your horse. When he stops his feet direct your flag back to the ribs to have him follow through with the transition. Do this slowly the first few times, each time pay attention to where his feet move. The same corrections apply if he enters your space with his feet.
If your horse is extremely pushy raise the flag up higher towards his neck to push him out. The higher your flag is the more assertive it becomes. Have him change directions until he is starting to become consistent about moving his feet out and around you.
Make sure you take the time to reward him for his efforts even if his form is not that good. Horses need encouragement to learn comfortably.
This lesson should help to establish that you are in control of your horses movement. The more subtle you can be in asking for movement the stronger your horse will think you are. Make it a personal challenge to see how light you can be. You should be as heavy as you need to be but as soft as you can be.
© 2004 Will Clinging