This title is meant to be taken lightly, except that as a traveling free-lance trainer and instructor, each new “case” does take on the sense of being an investigation. The past “record” of a horse is so important, but unless the human client has owned the horse for a very long time, the horse and his behavior hold all of the answers in how best to help him and his owner. The most important part of this on my part is that I have to take the time to listen to each horse as an individual, take nothing for granted, and remember that 98 per cent of the time if the horse is not doing what is asked of him it is because he does not understand, or is mentally, emotionally, or physically unable to do what he is being asked to do.
I was called to a barn in Alabama where the main emphasis is hunting and trail rides. One of my regular clients is a teenage girl named Catherine. Catherine and her mother, who also rides, wanted to help a friend of theirs who recently purchased an Appaloosa mare named Raindance. They had observed the teenage owner being run away with on her, and also not being able to bridle her because she was so nervous about anyone around her ears. The mare was also described to me as “spooky”. No one seemed to know the past history of Raindance, so the horse had to provide all the answers to her behavior.
For my first session with Raindance, Catherine was going to do the riding with the owner observing. Patti, the young owner, was afraid of her horse now, so I needed to demonstrate to her that nothing Raindance had done was “on purpose”; there was a reason for her behavior, and that she was not challenging Patti’s authority or was stupid-two remarks that had unfortunately already been expressed. Catherine was a good rider with an independent seat, so her hands could be consistent and soft. She was also able to understand and follow directions well, so this was the best scenario.
I took the time to observe Raindance from the start of the lesson. Owners who are having behavioral problems often ask me if I want their horse all tacked up and ready to ride. If it is a new horse I always prefer to observe them right from the beginning, including catching them in the pasture, I never subtract this time from the lesson time.
Raindance was nervous in the crossties and quite insecure. Not faulting anyone, but she definitely had the air of “now what is going to happen to me?” I asked if she lunged, or knew any groundwork, and no one really knew as they had not owned her very long.
I massaged her for a bit, not looking at her directly. We took our time in tacking her up. I checked the saddle fit. We ended up using Catherine‘s saddle as it fit much better. They had used an elevator snaffle on her, the type with three rings, which is quite a severe bit. I explained that a horse will frequently run AWAY from pain in their mouth…that they do not always realize that if they slow down the pain will stop. If a rider begins to feel that he needs a more severe bit to control his horse, then the fault lies in the former training. The horse and reschooling of owner and horse is in order.
I used a simple French link snaffle on Raindance. When it was time to bridle her I did “ear work”, not looking at her directly. I used the back of my hand to gently stroke her ears. She got much better. We used a treat just before I put the bridle on. Why not allow a horse who associates being bridled with pain to have positive reinforcement involved? As I slid in the snaffle I was able to feel her anxiety lessen.
Raindance changed as she came out of the barn. She raised her head high, her eyes became very hard, and she was holding her breath. I determined that she did not know how to lunge, so I just quietly started her on the basic exercises that end with the horse understanding basic groundwork. Because I had no expectations on how she should react-just observing and giving her praise when she stated to understand, Raindance very quickly started to chew and take a big breath and her eyes got soft.
After Catherine mounted I kept her on the lunge line for safety and to reassure both horse and rider. Raindance understood going around a large circle with a rider on her back and me as the grounds person so she received clear reinforcement. I NEVER lunge from the bit. I lunged from a regular halter, NOT a rope halter with knots.
Raindance was very sensitive to Catherine’s leg, and when she used her hands just a little to establish contact, she reacted by quickening her tempo in walk or trot and raising her head. With quiet work she soon calmed, and so I felt secure in allowing them off the lunge line. We worked on getting Sundance to trust her hands and round, but it was evident that she started to digress. she got more and more upset, and I felt that it was probably from the bit. Catherine used her hands well, but any time she tried a half halt or a transition Raindance would throw her head up.
At one point when Sundance raised her head I could tell that she was starting to panic and that she was close to running away, so I quickly had Catherine dismount. I put a Bitless Bridle on Sundance. I use bits and teach people with bits, but sometimes because of past trauma, soreness in the horse’s mouth, uneducated hands of the rider, or past or present abuse, they are just not suitable. A Bitless can be used as a diagnostic tool…it will tell you if that is the problem- the horse experiencing pain in his mouth.
Tying a horse’s head down or his mouth shut because he throws his head up or opens his mouth is akin to your dentist hitting you on the head with a hammer instead of fixing your tooth. If you can remember the last bad tooth ache that you experienced-that you could think of nothing else, you can relate to a horse in similar pain or worse, and also being asked to carry a rider and perform mental and physical activities. It immediately makes clear why horses react the way they do.
I fit the Bitless on Raindance and from the ground stopped her and turned her. Horses almost always immediately understand whole head control, but I always take the time to make certain that the “wheels turn“ in their heads and they understand. I then had Catherine mount and kept her on the lunge for a few minutes. The change was immediate! This sort of result, when the horse is immediately “happier”, for whatever reason, is what makes my job so rewarding.
Everyone watching could see the change. Raindance lowered her head because there was relaxation in her body and she could use herself correctly. Her eyes were soft and she took deep breaths. Catherine was able to ride her in the large outdoor ring wherever she wanted and you could tell that they were both safe.
The owner will continue with the Bitless and work on her position and developing an independent hand, although whatever was done to Raindance was done before they owned her. She will be able to listen and get better because she will not be fearful of being in pain. Later if they want to try going back to a bit they can do so gradually, but I recommended to them that a skilled horse dentist or veterinarian check Raindance thoroughly for mouth trauma, bone spurs on the bars, and any back pain. They are also hiring a chiropractor to work on her.
It would have been easy to blame the horse-to look for an “easy fix“. Possibly put a worse bit in her mouth, put draw reins on her, or tie her mouth shut. These would have been abusive methods, and would not have been the answer. The horse will tell you what he needs if you just take the time to observe and listen. Do not have a “I will get him before he gets me” confrontational attitude. We are caretakers of our horses, and we need to take the responsibility seriously, with equestrian tact and understanding.