I love my readers! They ask really great questions, usually ones that every other Standardbred owner can relate to.
This week's letter comes from Shari in Spokane:
"I've seen your posts about flexing, and that has really helped my 8-year-old Standardbred gelding soften up a lot. However, when he starts trotting, he can really pull on my hands. It feels like he's leaning on my hands when I ask him to slow down or go from the trot to the walk. I don't want to put a stronger bit on him. I want him to listen to me in the snaffle. Can you give me any suggestions?"
Thanks, Shari, for the question. And the smartest thing you said is that you don't want to put a stronger bit on him. You are right. It will solve your problem to some extent. But at the bottom of it all is the fact that your horse is not soft to the bit. A stronger bit will not lighten him up. It will only strong-arm him into slowing down. We want to use a different strategy.
You also said, "it feels like he's leaning on my hands." He is--and you will never win. At least not if you are trying to stop him using both reins. Now, for the more advanced horse, there is something called the half-halt, which I've used in both dressage and in the hunter ring to lighten a horse, as well as help him collect and balance himself. This is a two-handed move, but it is exectued with the speed of a lightening strike. Not with the power, however. More on that in another post...
Shari rides Western and also has a green horse. She needs to focus on basics.
Why two reins create problems When a rider asks a horse to slow or transition down by pulling on both reins at the same time, the horse can often feel trapped, and old instincts will kick in. Your horse's neck and head were originally designed to be able to resist the weight of moutain lion or other predator. When you pull back with both reins, his natural reaction is to say, "Oh no, you don't." And he will stick his nose out, lean on you, and do whatever else he can to resist you.
It's a battle you will never win, simply by virture of the fact that his conformation makes him so very much stronger than you.
A quick fix is the one-rein stop. But first you should work on getting your horse to be light on the ground. To learn about flexing on the ground, please click here.
Once you have learned to flex your horse from the ground, you are ready to move on to flexing in the saddle. Using a plain snaffle that fits correctly, here is the basic idea: while your horse is standing still and you are mounted up, shorten the right rein and bring it to your right pocket (make sure the left rein is loose so your horse can easily turn his head to the right).
When your horse softens to the point where his nose is on your boot, release the rein and reward him by stroking his neck and offering verbal praise. Of course, his greatest reward is that you have let go of the rein. The pressure comes off (and the reward comes out) when he does what you asked.
Now do the same thing on the left. Shorten the left rein, draw you hand to your pcket. When your horse's nose is on your boot, release the rein.
When you are first teaching this, stay with one rein at a time, putting in three or four nose-to-boot efforts on the right before switching to the other rein. As you progress, you can ask your horse to flex from side to side, one nose-to-boot effort at a time.
I do this exercise over and over and over and over. And I do it every time I get on, no matter how schooled the horse is. It warms up the neck muscles, helps your horse maintain suppleness, AND it keeps him light to your hand.
HELPFUL HINT: If, when you start this exercise, you horse tries to get out of the work by turning in a small circle, just hold onto the rein until he stops moving his feet. He will, eventually, stop moving his feet. I promise.) As soon as he puts his nose to your boot while standing quietly, release the rein.
The One-Rein Stop
The one-rein stop is actually very easy to do and is similar to what you did in the flexing exercise. Let's imagine you ask your horse to trot or canter. Although you are looking for a nice, controled rhythm, your horse has decided what you really mean is, "Go as fast as you can."
The instant that you feel him starting to speed up and lean on your hands, immeidately shut him down by pulling back on the outside rein. If you are on the trail, use either rein, but NEVER both together. By pulling only on one rein, he has nothng to fight against. He will not want to continue moving forward and will quickly learn to stop and submit to your hand.
If you have a horse with a long-standing habit of running away with you or pulling against your reins, this may take a week or more of very consistent work, at least 30 minutes a day. But what will happen is that your horse will quickly learn: "Every time I start to go really fast, she stops me. Every time I stick my nose out and try to lean on the reins, she uses that one rein and stops me. And since she's doing it with one rein, I might end up with my nose looking at my tail. Boy, it's hard to run off when I'm in that position. So maybe I'll just stop. It seems easier to just go slow."
When you first start practicing this, you might find that your horse turns in the direction of the one rein you hve used to stop him. Don't get too upset about this, even if it means you end up facing the opposite direction. Keep your leg on the girth, on the same side as the rein you are using, to encourage your horse to move forward. But straightness can come later. If he turns, just quietly turn him back in the direction you want to go. After you've gotten your horse to lighten up, you can work on straightness. Stop first, straightness later.
My husband had a wonderful Quarter Horse mare he used for search and rescue. When she came to us, Lady's mouth was so locked up, riding her was like dealing with a ton of rocks. She could pull against her rider like nobody's business. You could never, ever take your hands off the reins or she was off like a rocket ship. The one-rein stop changed this mare's life (and ours, because our arms didn't ache anymore!). I hope it will help you, too.
Be patient, make lightness you only mission for the next couple weeks, and see if this helps.