Who among us would say that they don’t want a partner who is both happy and relaxed? A comrade who understands their job completely and fulfills said job with willingness and try? We all want a horse that wants to work, and then wants to hang out after work. Right? Well, how do you know that your horse fits these criteria? He’s a whisperin’, and sometimes yellin’, his opinion to you constantly, if you listen.
There’s a video going around of a very famous dressage horse. The comments surrounding that video are mostly about how beautiful this is, and how much this horse loves his job. Well, that horse is telling me a fairly different story. While the horse is completing the maneuvers as requested, and the rider is using very subtle cues, as you’d expect, the horse is actually showing his displeasure with the leg aids by swishing his tail every time he’s touched.
For me, at least, the tell-tale tail swishing pretty much ruins the performance. While the ride is technically proficient, the rider is subtle, and there is no show of force, the horse is certainly not a happy and willing partner. He’s simply going through the motions he knows he has to, in order to be hassled as little as possible. Admittedly, for some horses, this is the best we’re going to get, but I’d sure like more…
One of the things that I try and do periodically is check out my horses au naturel. What I mean by this is I ride them absolutely as simply as possible. My reasoning is that I want to see where my horse really is in his training. If I am using a martingale to help me soften him in his poll, how do I know when that goal has been reached? If I haven’t ridden my horse without a caveson, how am I going to read how happy he really is with his bit and my hands?
Give ole’ Sugar every advantage and opportunity to show you just how willing and happy, or unwilling, unhappy, and untrained he really is. An extreme of this would be to ride with no bride, no saddle, no halter, and no spurs. Ride just as a man or woman, on a loose horse. While I do not recommend diving straight into the deep end, you can easily dip your toe. So, if you are using some sort of training device, which is designed to mask problems, take it off. Get rid of that martingale, running or standing, take those draw reins off, chunk that gimmicky bit behind the barn, and hang up that caveson.
Ride your horse in a plain Jane ring snaffle. No gag. No doodads. No quadraphonic sound system, spinner-bait blades, pulleys, nose bands, rings, or chips and dip. Nada! No mechanical advantages at all. Be just a rider, a horse, and simplicity itself for communication. Adjust the snaffle so that there is no wrinkle, and it actually hangs just below making contact with the corners of the mouth. BTW, this is how I ride all of mine, right from the start, an Ounce of Prevention and all that. If your horse does like the bit, and is actually picking the bit up with its tongue, as it should be, you will see no change. If you’ve had him smiling like a crocodile and used a caveson to clamp his mouth shut, you’re likely going to see some excessive mouthing of the bit. Your horse is finally showing you his disapproval of how his mouth has been treated. Or, ride him in just a halter and see if all of that feel remained, or if he became harder to steer.
When you pull that tie down/standing martingale off of him and ask him to lope, does his head shoot up like it is on a spring, or does it stay down, and he remains calm and relaxed? When those draw reins, or running martingale come off, is your horse still soft in the poll? How about those spurs? Can you sidepass without them? Will he still yield his hip and do a nice lead departure without steel in his belly? He’s telling you his side of the deal the only way he knows how, unless you Speak Portuguese, the native language of the horse.
Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that there is never a time or place to use aids or various training devices, but their use should be temporary, if they are actually helping to accomplish the training you seek. If they become permanently needed to avoid action XYZ, then your horse hasn’t learned a dadgum thing making the aid a crutch rather than a “training device”.
If your horse tells you during my test that he understands his job and does it willingly, congratulations! You are an effective communicator and you have a willing partner. If it all fell to pot, you have some work to do, but better to know that, than be blind to the real issues your horse is having.
You don’t need gimmicky bits, overpriced fad tools, or any of that stuff. In fact, a great question to ask yourself about that stuff is, “Can I easily imagine this bit/halter/clinician in a 2am Infomercial?” If the answer is yes, I’m out. Control of your horse is in his head. It isn’t in his mouth, or clipped to your girth or saddle.
Whisper all you want, but your horse would much rather that you just listen.