July 21st, 2010 Leave a commentSign Up Go to comments

Developing a Lighter, More Responsive Horse with these First Steps

by Wendy Karolczyk

Does your horse raise his head, stick his nose out, run through the bit, or worse? If so, you’re not alone!

When pressure is applied to the reins, a horse that is not soft and bending at the poll, will hollow his back. Hollowing the back transfers more of the horse’s weight toward the front end and prevents the horse from stopping or performing well. A soft, responsive horse will collect, roll his back slightly and transfer more weight to the back end. Developing a light, responsive horse will create the foundation needed to build an effective training program.

Let’s take a look at bits

Smooth Snaffle Bit Mouth Pieces

Smooth Snaffle Bit Mouth Pieces

More often than not, equine owners will reach for a bigger bit in an attempt for a better response. Bigger bits (i.e., long shanks, high ports, gag bits, etc.) are often used as a quick fix for horses that simply are not broke or poor horsemanship. To start teaching your horse to be soft and subtle, let’s take a step back.

The term “snaffle” is  usually considered to be the mildest and simplest bit. However, there are many types of snaffles ranging from mild to severe which vary in action. The most common types of snaffles are the D-Ring, O-ring, Egg Butt, and the Full Cheek.
Many passionate and intelligent equestrians often misunderstand the term snaffle.  For example, a snaffle bit mouth piece can also be used with a wide variety of shanks (leverage bits) and are often thought to be mild. In fact, the broken mouthpiece combined with a leveraged shank, can be very severe. A rider with heavy hands can create enough pressure to cause the mouth piece to clamp over the horse’s tongue and severely squeeze the jaw. Leverage bits should only be used for finishing a horse. Lateral flexion and control need to be fully established before moving on to a leverage bit.

To start teaching your horse to be lighter and more responsive, start with a D-Ring, O-Ring, Egg Butt or Full Cheek snaffle with a  7/16″ or 3/8″ smooth mouth piece. The wider the circumference of the mouth piece, the milder the bit is. For example, a mouth piece that’s 3/16″, can be severe if used incorrectly. The term smooth means exactly that — it’s smooth, not twisted; just a basic connection in the center without rollers or other inserts. Make sure the mouth piece is sweet iron, copper or has copper inlays to help create moisture in the horse’s mouth. Under no circumstances should a chrome plated mouth piece be used.

First steps

While standing still (use split reins and two hands), lower one hand and bring it back toward your knee or middle thigh. Use just enough pressure to make contact with the horse’s mouth. Your horse’s head should now be tipped slightly inward. Move your hand slow, but deliberate — do not jerk. Now, switch hands. Continue to switch your hands — go back and forth, developing an even rhythm, until you feel your horse start to soften.

After your horse starts to soften while standing still, bump him forward into a walk while still maintaining light contact with the horse’s mouth. Continue to bump lightly with your legs while switching your hands back and forth on each side. You are now driving the horse forward into the bit and asking him to soften along the way.

Developing a light, responsive horse will create the foundation needed for building an effective training program.

Developing a light, responsive horse will create the foundation needed for building an effective training program.

Horses can bend and the poll but still not soften the face and month. If your horse is not softening or giving, increase your rein pressure by bumping it back with slightly more force. Remember, no swift jerks — keep your hands light but deliberate. You want to ask your horse, ask harder if needed, and release when he gives. Make sure your horse is truly giving before releasing. By asking your horse to give, you are correcting him. Releasing is the reward. With time, you should find your horse is more than ready to please and looks forward to the reward.

Continue to ask your horse to give and reward with a release. As you and your horse become comfortable, try repositioning your hands a little more upward and outward as needed.

With lots of practice, consistency and patience, you can teach your horse to be more soft and responsive!

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