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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
Hi All! I have started riding my 14 year old gaited gelding in a rope halter with clip on reins exclusively for about 6 weeks now. This is going quite well for us in the arena. He is a horse with a bolting home from the trails at full gallop issue, he just grabs ahold of the bit and getting his head turned around to control him is very difficult. He also came to me a year ago chomping and rooting the bit. He is an extraordinarily intelligent and exceptionally sensitive horse who lacks confidence and is always bottom of the pecking order. He seems much happier being ridden in his rope halter and the chomping and rooting have stopped. I can actually turn his head and get control of him now, much better than I ever could with his bridle and bit. It has also helped me learn not to panic and pull back on the reins since obviously that does nothing to get control in a rope halter anyways. It is going so well I am considering taking him out on the trail just for a short 2 minutes out and 2 minutes back and see if I really have the improvement in control I feel I do in the arena and slowly build from there if all goes well. Is this reasonable or have I lost my mind as far as safety goes?
 

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I have been riding my gelding in the arena in a bosal and have found him to be very smooth and steady. I want to get out of his mouth and have been working on using softer and quieter cues while schooling. I have even dropped the reins for extended periods to find out where our "holes" are in our training. I don't have a good stop yet so we're working on that now.

HOWEVER, riding in the arena in a controlled environment and trail riding are two very different things. I am very apprehensive about going out on the trail. We're going to try it and I'm committed to working out the kicks but I have no illusions that this could be an extreme challenge.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
I have been riding my gelding in the arena in a bosal and have found him to be very smooth and steady. I want to get out of his mouth and have been working on using softer and quieter cues while schooling. I have even dropped the reins for extended periods to find out where our "holes" are in our training. I don't have a good stop yet so we're working on that now.

HOWEVER, riding in the arena in a controlled environment and trail riding are two very different things. I am very apprehensive about going out on the trail. We're going to try it and I'm committed to working out the kicks but I have no illusions that this could be an extreme challenge.
Yes I 100% agree arena and trail are two very different things. I do drop the reins with my horse too and I never hold the reins to mount him. He works off voice commands alone and stops with just the word whoa(at a walk, gait, canter, but the galloping bolt um NO) and does his running walk with just a smooch.
 

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I've been on a lot of horses that could be ridden in a halter in the arena but needed a bit or a bitless bridle with leverage on the trail. I've also been on horses that could be ridden in a halter everywhere. It really depends on the situation.

Let's say your horse was mainly upset on the trail because he has pain in his jaw or teeth, and the bit aggravated those. He may be better without a bit everywhere you go. But if he is excited on the trail because it is an interesting and stimulating environment, chances are he will still be that way in the halter.

Have you ridden him fast in the arena? Can you get him to change gaits, slow and turn when you ask, even after doing some extended cantering? Can you do fast transtions such as walk to canter then walk again, trot to canter and then walk? Are his turns easy and can he do small circles and turn the opposite direction at the trot? Those are things I would do to prepare for trying to ride on the trail.

What you want to know is if you have control of his speed and direction if he does take off at a very fast canter (or gallop) on the trail.

The other thing I would do is take him outside of the arena but not on a trail ride. Try riding around the outside of the arena if there is room, or in an enclosed field nearby, or in a different arena, anywhere that is different and new but not as open as the trail.

A rope halter is probably the least communicative of the bitless options, so if your horse likes being bitless but you have difficulty with direction or control, you can also try bitless bridles that have the ability to give you a lot more help with those. A well-fitted sidepull will give you better directional control than a rope halter in most cases, and if you need leverage you can use something with short shanks such as an S hackamore, or even longer shanked hackamores.
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
I've been on a lot of horses that could be ridden in a halter in the arena but needed a bit or a bitless bridle with leverage on the trail. I've also been on horses that could be ridden in a halter everywhere. It really depends on the situation.

Let's say your horse was mainly upset on the trail because he has pain in his jaw or teeth, and the bit aggravated those. He may be better without a bit everywhere you go. But if he is excited on the trail because it is an interesting and stimulating environment, chances are he will still be that way in the halter.

Have you ridden him fast in the arena? Can you get him to change gaits, slow and turn when you ask, even after doing some extended cantering? Can you do fast transtions such as walk to canter then walk again, trot to canter and then walk? Are his turns easy and can he do small circles and turn the opposite direction at the trot? Those are things I would do to prepare for trying to ride on the trail.

What you want to know is if you have control of his speed and direction if he does take off at a very fast canter (or gallop) on the trail.

The other thing I would do is take him outside of the arena but not on a trail ride. Try riding around the outside of the arena if there is room, or in an enclosed field nearby, or in a different arena, anywhere that is different and new but not as open as the trail.

A rope halter is probably the least communicative of the bitless options, so if your horse likes being bitless but you have difficulty with direction or control, you can also try bitless bridles that have the ability to give you a lot more help with those. A well-fitted sidepull will give you better directional control than a rope halter in most cases, and if you need leverage you can use something with short shanks such as an S hackamore, or even longer shanked hackamores.
The trainer I sent him to in the winter, said his issue with bolting back to the barn was barn sourness and I agree. I always had control of his direction at a bolting gallop but control of speed nope.
 

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You could try riding out with a friend a couple times? Unless you have already tried this. If he's barn sour you could try working him near the barn and then resting him away from it. Maybe even change his feeding time so that it's not like "I get food when I get back"... I feel like there's a few things you could try to avoid the bolting and eventually stop it.
 

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My instinct is that if he was bolting home with a bit, he will bolt home in the rope halter as well. He’s not a newbie to riding (based on his age) so he’s picked up on a few things over the years. One of them is the bolt. The bolt is a behaviour that has worked for him and he’s habituated it as a useful go to move for him. He may not use it every time he’s out but it’s there and the first time he does use it he will find out that he can run through the rope halter and it then loses its value as a training tool when riding.

There are quite a few horses that go quieter and with less fuss without a bit when trail riding. If you’d like to go bitless that’s fine but I would suggest something like a mechanical hackamore (I use the English style one - it’s comfortable for the horse but has stopping power when needed). The reality is you need to have control when things go amiss out there in the real world.

I hope you find a solution that works out positively for you and keep up the good training.
 

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Just wanted to share my personal experience with this subject. My gaited horse also acted up in a bit--no bolting but a lot of refusals and dancing around. He prefers a halter to ride in as well and in fact his previous owner said she rode trails with him all the time that way. Only she used a regular halter with a lead rope tied around for reins. When I took him for a test ride in an open field it was with this halter set up and he was great. However, I did go ahead and use a mechanical hack on trails for my own peace of mind and he took to it right away. He did not like the sidepull bitless though so I stayed with the hack. Also he neck reins so maybe that helps something??
 

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The book, "Academic Horse Training" describes bolting as "the strongest expression of the flight response." "Bolting and shying are reinforced (rewarded and thus repeated) by making increasing distance between the horse and its perceived threat..." "If the flight response enables the horse to place distance between itself and the object of its fear, the flight response has been reinforced or, in other words, rewarded. Even a distance of just centimeters may be reinforcing."

The problem with this is that horses are hardwired to learn instantly, which behaviors contribute to the likelihood that they will not die. I fully believe that most "barn sour horses" sense they're going to die, being away from the security of their home and herdmates. (In addition I believe that working a horse to death at the barn to make him associate his home with unpleasantness, it is just adding to his overall stress about being ridden...anywhere. Eventually I think it has a good potential to backfire, but I won't generalize to all horses/training situations. I think it's also a good way to make a horse hate you.) Bolting is a training opportunity, apart from deciding what head gear will stop them. "Barn sourness" is a stress behavior, loss of security, fear of the unknown, but past bolting incidents will have been been permanently reinforced and learned by the horse removing itself from its fear motivator and getting back to its comfort zone.

Horses never forget behaviors that reinforce the likelihood of their survival. It is once-and-learned.

So that being said, I fully believe that you can successfully re-train your horse to be safe on trails (bitless if you wish)...MOST of the time. But you must always be vigilant to the reality that at some point, the learned bolting behavior will resurface, and you'll need a solid backup plan when it does.
 

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I've been sitting here, thinking back on the "bolting" behavior of my two present horses and what I've learned from/because of them. My worst case bolter is my half Clydesdale gelding, a huge, powerful horse with plenty of reasons from his past to want nothing to do with going away from home. He put me on the road to eventually understanding (or attempting to) the behavior. Bolting has been described as a "broken stop response." When you think about it, that's an understatement. So, riding around in a halter safely in an arena isn't really addressing the root problem. The person who brought to light for me, the fact that BOTH my horses had a "broken stop response" to a greater or lesser extent, was Larry Whitesell, a gaited horse trainer. He brings in lots of client horses with broken stop responses. His first steps are to walk with the horse in hand in the arena, giving the horse a signal to stop, then planting his feet. Nine times out of ten the horse will keep going, sometimes right through the bit. He says he's been dragged around the arena many times. Reinstalling the response involves doing this until the horse will stop at the slightest indication of the reins (NOT stopping because the trainer stops! And actually, not GOING because the trainer does, either...that is not teaching either response.) In my interpretation, I do an imitation of Parelli's four phases of cue firmness, giving the horse plenty of opportunity to stop when it feels me begin to take up contact on the rein, but having a "phase four" cue ready if the horse blows through all its opportunities to respond to a lighter cue. And then, the horse has to stay immobile while I keep walking a few steps after I've released the cue. It really works, it's a great test to see if your halter riding has got enough "meaning" for the horse to stop when you begin to pick up contact. Then of course you teach from the saddle, followed by teaching in an ever widening comfort zone.

The other thing I discovered is that it takes regular practice to keep the cues sharp. My little TWH mare is only mildly spoiled and can throw little tantrums, but she is the smartest little learner on the planet. (My half draft has a learning disability.) Still, she's very likely to say, "Well, I don't do stop cues on Tuesdays." And I must remind her how much fun stopping on cue she is missing!

So anyway, it might be a good test to see whether you need further work on rebuilding your stop response before heading out the arena gate.
 
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