Thursday, May 28, 2009

More on Lighter Cues, Lightness is when bridles are no longer needed.

Everyone wants a lighter horse. Light on the forehand, light on it's feet, light to the touch, and most importantly, light on the reins. Yesterday, I was working on getting my horse lighter and found myself starting to play tug-of-war. As usual, when I catch myself doing that, I remind myself that pulling harder will get me no where and that the timely release is all important. And of course things start to improve slightly, but soon we start fighting again.

Realizing that a new approach was needed, I decided to look for a way for the horse to encounter some direct consequences for pulling on the rein that would provide an automatic correction rather than my pathetic and ineffectual tugging. (Everyone else calls them half halts, but my spasmodic jerkings are not that refined)

I also wanted to find a way to teach the horse not to pull that met the following criteria:

1. It had to be automatic or at least nearly so.

2. It had to be somewhat intuitive so that I would not have to remind myself to do it.

3. It had to be easy so that a novice could do it.

4. It had to be Safe.

5. It had to be non confrontational. (so the horse does not get agitated and pop his head in the air.)

6. It had to be possible with regular reins and a snaffle.

Well I think I found one.
The first thing I would do as I ride the horse is take up the reins gently and slowly, in tiny increments. This initial gathering of the reins was the tricky part because I needed to keep the horse soft all the way until the horse's head was where I wanted it. For a very green horse, that might put his face somewhere between 45 degrees and the vertical. For a more advanced horse who sort of knows where he needs to be but has learned that he can pull the reins from his rider, that would be on the vertical.

Once the horse's head is in the correct position, I would make a mental note to select a particular rein, (usually the inside rein) to hold fast no matter what. This rein I will call the steady rein. As soon as the horse begins to pull, I would hold the steady rein but I would release the other rein as he pulls.

This creates an interesting phenomenon. Because I am holding the steady rein and releasing the opposite rein as he pulls, the horse ends up pushing his neck into a single steady rein. This results in him forcing his head into a turn. The beauty of it is that I am doing nothing but allowing him to pull; but on one rein only. Thus the horse pushes his own head into a turn, and finds that he wants to straighten his neck but cannot. Within a stride or two, he is begging for you to take up the opposite rein again to help him straighten his head. When you do take up the opposite rein, he is actually grateful that you are pulling and is more than willing to give to the bit. After that, I wait for him to do it again and repeat.

The wonderful thing about this method is that the horse actually looks upon you as a hero for saving him from a self inflicted punishment.

So the algorithm goes as follows:

1. Place the horse's head where you want it depending on his experience

2. Wait for him to pull

3. Instead of pulling back, release one rein

4. Watch him turn his head

5. When he stops pulling, which will be in about 5 seconds, take up the opposite rein and straighten his head.

6. Accept his thanks for actually taking up the rein.

So this method meets the original criteria:

1. It is automatic, when the horse pulls, you release. (instead of fighting) and this turns his head which he wants to straighten on his own but can't, thus he is actually grateful for the final correction.

2. It is intuitive. What could be more intuitive than "when he pulls, you let him".

3. It is easy, no cat like reflexes needed. Just wait for him to pull and then release the rein. Gather it back up at your leisure.

4. It is safe. Often horses who lean into the bit can get faster and unruly when you try to gather the rein. Or they can toss their heads and work themselves into a frenzy creating an unsafe condition. This method turns the horse's head and makes him walk a small circle. It is the equivalent of the one rein stop which most institutions teach as a safety feature anyway.

5. It is non confrontational. The horse turns his head, and there is no tugging, jerking, jiggling, or tapping. The horse's head quickly softens and he learns not to pull as it gets him nowhere fast. (literally)

6. It is easily accomplished with standard equipment and a snaffle. It works with a curb too as long as you are not expecting too much in the beginning.


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