Give a Little Bit
When I was about fourteen, one of my chores after school was to exercise our racehorse. My father always said, “Just sit quietly and canter him up the hill. Don’t take hold of him. He’ll pull if you take a firm grip and you won’t be able to hold him.” I can remember the horse getting faster and faster and me pulling harder and harder each time we cantered up the hill. And my father was right, I couldn’t hold the horse.
At fourteen years of age, I thought the horse was pulling against me. I realise now that I was pulling against the horse. This is a very common mistake made by horse people of all ages and stages.
Many years ago, my Canadian friend Ron Cosgrave took me around a few rodeos in Alberta. At the time, Ron was the official starter for the chuck wagon races. It was great to get an inside view of what went on. After a couple of days spectating, one of the drivers asked me to help him take his chuck wagon team to the starting line.
The idea was that the driver and the helper both held the reins, in order to try and control the horses. So the two of us held the reins of the four horses and drove out onto the track.
Even though we had four horses in hand, I used the same take and give approach on the reins as I always do. I pulled the reins to ask the horses to slow down and gave the reins a fraction when the horses responded.
“What are you doing? Just pull all the time” the professional driver told me. “We have to try and hold them back”. It wasn’t my rodeo, so I did as I was told. I don’t know how the driver thought that two humans could possibly out-pull four big strong thoroughbred horses. But that’s what he tried to do.
It’s easy to think the same way when your horse gets excited and tries to run away with you. It’s easy to think that you need more pressure on his mouth to “hold him”. It’s easy to think that you need a more severe bit because your horse can’t feel the one that he’s wearing.
Go to any horse event and you’ll see all sorts of bits, nosebands, tie downs and gadgets to supposedly help riders control their horses. You’ll also see blinkers, ear plugs, shadow rolls and lots of other gimmicks to supposedly help horses stay calm.
Do you really think that any horse will run faster, jump higher or perform complicated movements more skilfully because he has a severe bit in his mouth? Do you really think that a curb chain, a tongue tie or a tight noseband will help any horse’s performance?
Put yourself in the horse’s position. Would you like to run, dance or jump with a severe lever in your mouth, a tight band around your nose or a chain under your chin? I don’t think so.
When you ride your horse, your goal should be to use as little pressure as possible. You don’t need severe bits and you don’t need to pull all the time.
An ordinary snaffle bit is all you need to teach any horse anything. A bit is merely a way of giving a signal to your horse. When your horse isn’t doing as you ask, you can make things a little unpleasant by pulling on the bit. When your horse does as you ask, you must make things easy and pleasant for him by giving the rein. Every horse can feel an ordinary snaffle bit in his mouth. If he couldn’t feel the snaffle, he wouldn’t pull against you.
When their horse plays up, some people blame the bit. I guess that’s a lot easier than blaming themselves. Believe me it’s never the bit, it’s always the rider.
Read more on this subject here: www.fearfreehorsetraining.com/blog/mouthing-a-horse
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Excellent post. I enjoy your posts and am learning from them.
Diana February 11th, 2017
This is an excellent post. I break in and retrain horses and the only bit I use, no matter what the issue, is a full cheek snaffle. I've got four different sizes and the only reason I might change the bit is to get a better fit. The most powerful part of the bit is the brain attached to the arms that hold the reins that attach to the bit. With the right amount of human brain power we can teach horses to respond to the tiniest of pressures. We so often forget that it is the release that trains, not the pressure.
Kate May 18th, 2015
Yes, it's the human mind that matters, not the bit.
Neil Davies May 18th, 2015