Break it Down

This week I learned the importance of breaking the steps of a maneuver down for a horse. I’ve been told that it makes it easier for a horse to see what is going on by taking each section of a maneuver apart and teaching it that way, then putting all of the steps together. But I never really understood what that looked like or how to do it.

Well, in this situation, it looked like letting the horse do something ‘wrong’ in order to get another part of the process ‘right.’ Then I did the part that he had done ‘wrong’ separately, after.

The only reason I looked at breaking steps down a second time was because Joker is a horse I only see once a week for about 20 minutes. Our sessions are therefore very limited, and the only thing he has a problem with is bridling, which we only work on for less than 5 minutes each week. In between, lots of other people work with him, reinforcing his bad habit. With such limited resources for this horse, I have been forced to be creative.

Joker has a severe aversion to the bridle. He has figured out that, being a tall horse, he can lift his head up and point his nose to the sky to avoid the bit, and his nose literally touches the ceiling of the barn. Through repeated negative* reinforcement—the bit leaving—this behaviour has been reinforced so strongly that when he sees the bridle coming, he begins to look away, which in itself is a form of negative reinforcement. With horses, ‘out of sight out of mind,’ actually is true.

Usually I put one hand on his poll and one hand on his nose and ask him to bend around to the left and put his head down. Usually he resists strongly and starts backing up. So this time I took the steps apart and essentially performed them backwards. While I still insisted that his head remain at a tolerable level for bridling, I moved with him around to his right, where he wanted to have his head. This way he could not swing his head violently all the way from the left to the right, gaining momentum the whole way and losing the bit each time. Also, he was unable to raise his nose as far.

The bit was in in a much shorter time than it was before.

Then I began working on politeness.

I brought his head where I wanted it, curved to the left (but I still did not ask for his head to come down). Here I did up the throatlatch and noseband, insisting on the head position that I wanted. When I was finished messing with his face, I began training the head down. Without all of the distractions of the bridle being in my hand, he understood my request with only three repetitions within about 20 seconds and dropped his head immediately to a position lower than I have ever seen him go from light pressure on his poll and nose.

I will continue to break these steps down for my obstinate friend and see how we fare. I expect that this very smart horse will make great progress from here on in.

The Horsegentler

*please note that negative reinforcement means ‘taking something away’ such as pressure or an object, not punishment or something with a negative connotation.



I have noticed a marked difference between ranch horses and performance horses. Compare these two word pictures:

  1. A dressage rider is leading his big warmblood down the barn isle. The animal is tacked and ready to go into the ring for practice. In the saddle, he does everything perfectly, thanks to the expensive trainer, but recently he has been a real pain on the ground. Now, as he is led to the ring, he seems to deliberately walk on his rider. He pushes his master almost into the stalls on the other side of the isle and refuses to go back where he should. When the rider finally succeeds in correcting him, he throws up his head and makes a big fuss, prancing. The rider has tried everything to calm his horse down – a custom saddle and bridle, special feed, and even supplements and medications. Nothing has helped. The trainer assures him this is normal.
  2. A big warmblood stands quietly tied to the trailer. He is saddled and ready for the day’s work. His saddle is the same saddle his rider uses for all the horses he rides. It fits, but it is by no means custom. For food, he grazes and receives a treat of oats when he comes into the pen every morning. His rider unties him and walks towards the gate. The horse follows behind at a polite distance, stopping when his rider stops to open the gate.

Which horse would you want to ride? The professionally trained horse that only has experience with a rider in the saddle and is spooky and disrespectful, or a horse of the same breed and temperament that can and will do anything his rider asks? A horse that is respectful and willing can still compete to high levels – perhaps even higher than the ill-mannered one. It just depends on the training.


Horses that bite can be very dangerous. Most horses do not bite just for fun, in fact, 1 in 1,000,000 horses might have a mean bone, but the vast majority sure do not. When an otherwise sweet horse starts biting, it’s time to pay attention!

More than likely, your horse has been trying to get your attention in more subtle ways such as a slight increase in crabbiness, or little twitches of his tail. You didn’t notice, and now he is saying, “Alright, I’ve had enough!” The most common reason for a horse to start biting humans is pain. He has told you before that he hurts, you didn’t listen (or you just didn’t notice) and now he really hurts and is trying to relieve the pain any way he can. Tying the horse tighter will not help – he’ll just try something else to get your attention, such as kicking, bucking, rearing, anything to get rid of the pain. If he succeeds in stopping you from doing whatever is causing him discomfort, that will be highly rewarding. It is better to stop this behaviour at the biting stage before it progresses to worse aggressive behaviour.

To find out more about biting horses and what to do about them, check out the Horses with Vices page.

The Horsegentler.

Preparing the Young Horse, Part 1

So you have a young horse, which, of course, you will want to ride at some point. So how do you get him to be a quiet, well-trained animal who does exactly what you want, when you want it, with a quiet attitude and a light feel? The place to start is in the Basic Ground Training posts I have laid out. Your horse needs to know all that and more before you can begin to get to the riding stage.

If you have read and are doing the desensitizing lessons, you are already half of the way there. You now need to get a saddle and saddle pads and put them in a place nearby you so you can grab a blanket with one hand and control your horse with the other. You will follow exactly the same process to get your horse used to the saddle and blankets as you did to get him used to a plastic bag. Fold up the blanket and rub him, all over. This should be no big issue if you have done your homework with the bag. Open it up, flap it around a little, even let it flop over his back or on his belly and legs if he is doing exceptionally well and standing perfectly still, not worrying at all about what you are doing. Make sure to do this on both sides. Now act as if the blanket is a saddle and swing it by his side before swinging it up and over, letting it flop heavily on his other side. You may have to saddle from the right at some point, so do this there too. Our goal here is a versatile horse. Then he can specialize and do anything once he has his basic training.

Once both you and he are confident with the blanket and you can put it anywhere on him without him acting up (and if he does, you simply correct him calmly and carry on), you can continue to the saddle. Swing it by his side a lot. Touch him all over with it. Lift it up and down. (yeah, build those muscles!) He should stand relaxed and quiet. During one of your swinging sessions, calmly swing it up and onto his back. Don’t change your attitude at all or he will get that something is going to happen and get all hyped up over nothing. Just swing it up and take it right back off. Then quit! You got what you wanted, and, as with most things, if you quit while you are ahead, you will be even more ahead the next time.


Bridling your Horse, Part 2

I hope you have had success with the method I laid out in the last lesson. I realized that I forgot to mention why a horse might be doing this, and how to get over that main problem, instead of just dealing with the symptoms.

If you use a curb bit (one with leverage – it does not matter if it is jointed. If it has shanks on the side it is a curb bit and it is severe) there is a greater chance that your horse will have issues, unless you are a very good rider. A curb bit is designed to be used to refine complicated movements on horseback, and it is certainly not meant to be used by beginners simply because they need more control over their horse. If you need more control, your horse, or you, needs more training! Any well trained horse should be able to do whatever you ask of it calmly and willingly in a plain jointed snaffle bit. So, please avoid a curb bit if at all possible. One slip-up and your horse may have his mouth permanently damaged, leaving him ill disposed to take the bit nicely the next time you want to ride him. I mean, if someone stuffed a lump of metal in your mouth and it hurt, you would do everything in your power to keep that same metal out of your mouth the next day! Remember that a horse is a living creature with nerves, just like us. In fact, in many cases, horses are way more sensitive than we are. Treat him as such and be as gentle as possible. A horse with a ‘hard’ mouth has simply been desensitized to the action of the bit, and this takes a long time to fix. It is not impossible, however! Virtually any problem a horse has can be remedied with time and proper training techniques.


Bridling your Horse, Part 1

Bridling a horse is also what a lot of people struggle with. Their horse shoots his head up to the sky so they can’t reach it or they jerk it just as the bit goes in to make it slip right out again. And, once again, there is a simple solution to this problem.

If you haven’t yet, please read my last post about relaxing your horse. Practice that lots, because you will need it in this lesson.

So, start there. Get your horse relaxed with is head down. If he is head shy and you cannot get his head down, start rubbing him in a place he is comfortable with, such as his neck, and slowly rub up to his head. If he protests, keep rubbing there until he relaxes. Continue until you can touch his face wherever you want to.

Now you can get your bridle. Hold the headstall in your rigt hand and drape it over his poll. If his head goes up, ask him to drop it again before continuing. Cradle the bit in your left hand and bring it to his mouth calmly. Slide your thumb into his mouth, resettin his head whenever it goes where you dont want it to be. Wiggle your humb until he opens up, and insert the bit. Unbridle him right away and praise him. Bridle as many times as you an, but try to end the lesson on a good note.