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Please, please can you help me with a problem I have with my horse. He’s six years old and my plan was to take him to some novice events this season. He’s being very difficult though as he just won’t take the bit properly and work in an outline.
I have had his teeth checked regularly and there’s nothing wrong with them at all but he just won’t respond to the bit and it feels as though he is setting his jaw. I have changed his bit from a snaffle to a tom thumb but he’s still the same. He doesn’t take any notice at all when I ask for downward transitions and he’s starting to make my hands and arms sore. Now he’s even started to get difficult about having the bridle put on. I am very upset about all this so please can you give me some advice about as it’s all starting to irritate and frustrate me.
I hope to hear back from you soon.
Carol Harold, NSW Australia
Thank you for your question. This is a common problem so you should not feel that this is something specific to your situation.
There are a number of points contained within the information you have provided that are all relevant to the possible overall cause of the issues you have with your horse. As is often the case, there can be more than one reason and it is because of this that many riders find they are faced with a dilemma when it comes to resolving problems with the horses they ride.
First of all I must make the point that we cannot be held responsible for either what we do not know, or for what we have been led to believe, or even have perceived to be the correct way to approach something. With this comment in mind, it should be noted that we are generally taught to ride and to school horses in a set manner. Having made this point, it should be understood that it is nevertheless important to have a routine and to use a method of development for a horse that suits his needs. My comment regarding this is because generally, we are rarely taught about the essential abstracts of feel and response and from our first lessons in the saddle tend to be directed towards the utilisation of procedures.
To give an illustration of this, imagine you are being taught a dance. The dance is unfamiliar to you and the teacher [who is your partner] is helping you to learn this. Let’s say for example that there are a number of basic steps that form the ‘pattern‘ for this. Verbal communication will be an advantage and the tutor will be able to show you the steps so you can practice the steps on your own prior to trialling the first team effort. What will happen the first few times that your tutor holds you and encourages you to take the correct steps? You will make mistakes.
A good tutor will guide you with feel to help you fall into the correct steps but supposing your tutor doesn’t operate that way. Supposing your tutor applies pressure to your body and arm which actually causes you to first of all become tense and then to alter your balance. What will happen to the extent you are able to focus on your steps? Your focus will be on remaining balanced and there will be tension throughout your body. Unconsciously you will be trying to protect yourself from the pressure and this is in fact a form of resistance. This prompts the question: Is your stiffness and inability to focus on the steps required deliberate resistance or does it stem from self preservation? This illustration is made in an attempt to help us to appreciate the difference between pressure, and feel, and pressure and guidance.
So let us return to the matter of the horse: first of all we have no verbal communication to help the horse understand. Our tools to help the horse understand are by means of reinforcers .* To use reinforcers correctly, we can only teach by feel and accurate response. This in turn means allowing the horse to make mistakes, and speak his mind and respond accordingly. When put in this way this differs somewhat from the instructions to which we are accustomed, which may be something like “apply the inside leg and the outside rein” for example. So the first point in answer to your question is in connection with the riding and schooling of your horse and the importance of having the dimension of feel at the forefront of teaching him what is required.
The second point is that you have made a plan for your horse to event him this season. It’s good to have a plan for your horse and future developments, but I would like to ask the question: How big was the gap between where the horse was when you made that decision and the reality of him actually competing in an event? You see, it’s our job to build a relationship with the horse and have him enjoying doing things with us before we make plans about what we think he should do. He’s not a machine and is probably trying his hardest to fathom the purpose behind it all. If we make it our daily objective to give the horse a positive outcome for even the smallest development, then we can build gradually. What we can’t do is focus only on a future goal.
The third point is the one you make about your personal frustrations with the situation with your horse. Until you are able to step back and see things from his point of view your frustrations will remain an underlying cause of your horse’s resistance. You will be unable to detect and reward the tiny changes he is making for you and the effort involved for him in doing so and this will set him back.
The fourth point is really in connection with the symptom you have with the horse which is his resistance to the bit, hand, or rein. Please note that I have identified this as a symptom as this will not actually be the problem but instead is the visual display of an underlying problem. Without seeing you and your horse working together I cannot begin to put my finger on a solution for you. However, I am convinced that if you take the time to relax, lighten up, take all the pressure off your horse both with your hands and in your mind, things will improve.
The final point relates to the age of your horse. You have stated that he is six years of age now, which tells me that he is still quite a young horse requiring time and understanding. You do not say how old the horse was when ridden work began but our recommendations and policy is that horses are best left to be backed until they are at least four years of age in some cases five depending on the individual animal. The horse has many mental and physical adjustments to make in order to happily, willingly and successfully carry a rider into the variety of exercises that are expected of him and too many horses are taken too quickly and well before a solid foundation has been established.
I hope the points made in answer to your question will give you something to ponder over and please do not hesitate to contact us again if you need clarification of any of the above. You may also like to note that we are available to assist in Australia from time to time so please don’t hesitate to request further help if required.
Very best wishes,
* Reinforcers are the only effective method for training the horse. The basic reinforcers are Positive, Negative and Consequence. Punishment is not a reinforcer. In order for reinforcers to be effective, requests must be clear and responses delivered within a three second time-frame. Consistency is also all important, responding only some of the time will cause the horse lose trust and feel insecure. Lessons should be set up to allow the horse to learn and Positive reinforcers should outweigh consequences two to one. If you are not fully conversant with the correct meaning of reinforcers for training and shaping behaviour, please research this. There is plenty of material available.
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