Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Stopping, Suppling and Snaffle Bits

I got this letter in an email. I edited it down some, but kept the important parts.

Alexis said: I had a question for you about my 9 yr. old gelding, Smoke.
I bought him when he was 5, and he was just serviceably broke.

Fast forward to now--he has a very nice stop, handles himself well and stays collected in a nice frame, picks his leads up and can carry it on any size circle.

It took me several months to get him to soften on the bit, and drop his nose as he stopped, rather than doing a bad impression of a giraffe. I put so much time and effort into getting that soft, collected stop that now, I have another issue to deal with.

When I stop my horses, I always ask them to back at least three or four steps. With Smoke, he stops, tucks his nose, and backs about 2 steps. If I ask him to back any more, he simply tucks his head to his chest. Now, I admit, I like for him to soften through his poll and neck before I back him up, but I'm at a loss as to how to get the next few steps out of him!

Ideally, I would like to be able to lope a circle, ask for a stop, then be able to back him up a foot or so without having to pull on his mouth. He's not doing any thing wrong per se, simply doing what I'd been asking him before by softening his face and poll.
Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated!!!

Hey Alexis -It sounds like your doing a great job of getting your horse going.
I think there is some confusion between you and Smoke on what you want from him and why you want it.
I’m not sure how you got your horse to soften when he stopped, so I’ll tell you what I do and why, and I think it will help.
If I have a horse who is throwing his head as he stops I make sure he isn’t sore before I start correcting things.
Hollowing out and throwing his head will be either a response to pain or anticipation of pain. So if he's afraid of getting pulled on, or knows it hurts to stop he'll give you this response.
If I am working on softening a horse through a stop I work on getting him to soften during the run down, then release him into the stop itself.
I get my horse soft in the face by working his ribs and shoulders, not his face. If his back is up and I’ve got him soft through his withers he’s going to travel soft in the face.
If everything is soft and relaxed he’s going to hunt his slide and travel with his front feet running and his hind end buried, all on a loose rein.
I want my horse to look forward to the stop, not dread it.
So two strides before my stop begins I release all my cues and say “Whoa.”
My hand relaxes and releases the head as my legs come off and quit asking for forward.
There’s lots of ways a stop can go wrong, but I’m going to focus on two problems which seem to most apply to your situation.
The first is if I ask for the stop and, well, he doesn’t. He can just keep going (rare), or he stops hard but then starts moving forward again once he stands back up.
In this case I’ll make him back.
But I don’t just pull on his face. I bump with my legs to get him back.
When I back a horse, I’m essentially bumping him forward into his bit.
My bit creates a wall. My legs push him into the unforgiving wall and he backs to escape the pressure.
In a situation where the horse is stepping back a few steps, then breaking at the poll and sticking, I’m going to look at this as confusion on my horse’s part.
If he’s stuck I take it to mean he has strung out and hollowed out his back. With his neck up and his head giving at the poll he really can’t get moving again until he get’s his body back under control, with his back up and his hind legs under him.
So I would kick him forward into my hand rather than keep pulling back. Then he can step forward, get himself organized and he can back off my legs again.
When I slide a horse like this, or one that hollows out and throws his head I will ask for the exact no pressure stop I described above, then kick him forward into the bridle after he has settled.
I might step him into a spin or two, or just trot some forward circles (depending on his level of training) and then I would go again.
The key to fixing my horse is to consistently allow him to complete his stop before I correct him.
Then I have to analyze what caused the problem and correct his position, either forward or back.

Kel said:I used to ride with an cowboy who started all his horses in a bosal, then to a snaffle and then to the two rein. He was in his 70's when I was riding with him and he said that was the way the old cowboys did it. I find it interesting that now adays that you go from the snaffle to the bosal and that is the accepted way the old cowboys did it. He could make one hell of bridle horse and won alot with them. What is it that you like about the snaffle bit first?

Kel- The most important thing to remember is not all trainers do things the same way, even back in the "old days." If your guy said everybody did it that way, it means everybody he trained with. Trainers who rode 30 or 40 years ago didn't share information like they do now. So there were unique pools of training going on in different parts of the country.

I learned to train from people who will also tell you "that was the way all the cowboys did it," and to their mind it is true.

That being said, I didn't learn cowhorse from cowboys, I learned it from professionals who train for the show pen. They also make lots of money in the show pen. But most of them don't work on a ranch (except Mike Miller, who's about the coolest cowboy on the planet).

The NRCHA (national reined cowhorse association) has futurities for three-year-olds. It's called "The Snaffle Bit Futurity" because most of the horses are started in a snaffle.

The four and five-year-olds are offered the hackamore classes and the derbies, then the bridle classes begin when the horses are six.

So that should explain why I train in this order.

It goes deeper than that though.

I work off a saying, "the snaffle develops soft shoulders and the hackamore develops a soft face."

I truly can't tell you where I first heard this, it's been around a long time.

The dressage guys can probably back me on how the snaffle works through the shoulders.

I want my horses to have their feet under control before I worry about where the face goes.

I firmly believe, from experience and conversation with trainers I respect, that if I have the feet the face will follow.

The hackamore then softens and refines the face in relation to the feet.

Also, after a horse has been in the hackamore for a year he will automatically go to neck reining.

When I turn a horse in the snaffle he will follow direct pressure from my hand. So when I pull left, he will go left.

The hackamore puts pressure on the outside of my horses face, so when I pull left his face is pushed left.

This is how the pressure works in a curb.

So this is why I train in the order I do.

It doesn't mean your old guy doesn't know what he's doing, or that he isn't a hand. But at the end of the day we all train our horses in a way we understand, no matter what the method.

Somebody else asked: Why do you send your horses forward out of a spin, instead of letting them stand?

Somebody else- I don't always send them forward, but going forward and loping a circle on a loose rein is a reward for my horses. I teach them the quiet spot is in their circles as well as when they stand.

A spin is a forward motion. The horse is stepping forward around his pivot foot. If I pull him back he will have a harder time getting around his hind foot.

So if I feel him coming back in the spin I will kick him forward and lope out of it.

If I let my horse stand and rest every time we spin he will start to hunt the rest instead of the spin, which will make him lug on my hand and leg.

If he gets to spin without me using any spur or too much rein he will look to give me a good spin.

If the spin is so perfect I don't need to ask for anything more I let him rest after the spin, but not until it's at least 70% ready to show.

I also drill my with a lope and spin exercise. I lope in a loose circle, I randomly stop, spin to the outside of my circle if I want to keep the same lead, or to the inside if I want to change leads. I do this all over the place. I spin one or two times, then lope directly out.

This speeds up my spins, increases my horses strength and agility and is fun. All without using too much spur.
I only send him forward with my legs, during the spin I sit quiet.

He starts to speed up his spin in anticipation of the lope.


  1. Thanks for the the your explanation of the order of training. I hadn't thought about the order of the shows. My old friend was really more into making finished bridle Horses for what we called back then "working Ranch horse" or "Stockhorse" classes. Of course we are talking in the mid to late 70's and I don't know how long it has been really popular and properous to show 2 year olds.

    I like your drills for the spins. I have been having an issue with my horse "sucking back" in the spin and banging his front legs together. I have been trying to spin one rotation (or there abouts) and then push him out and it seems to help. Think that your lope, spin, lope drill would help him stay more forward or thinking about going forward?

  2. Kel- It really helps. Don't try for perfect spins, let him find them and then just go.
    If I drill it's because that's the plan, I don't use it as a punishment....the horses get a kick out of it.

  3. Pressure Sensitive Horses? What do you guys think?

    Well, I have recently been entrusted to train my boss's filly. She is 4, halterbroke and that's about it. She had a BNT that apparently screwed her up. She's been dragged by another horse (BNT's work), abandoned in round corrals, etc. Other lady I work for told me she's just a hot filly. That she worked straight 8 days & was almost going to get on her before filly's owner called it quits. She now, supposedly pulls out of your hands because owner & BNT always let her go when she pulled away; & doesn't give her head at all.

    I pulled this filly out of her pen yesterday. Easy to catch, which wasn't a surprise because she's all over you for attention, which made me dislike her because I'm big on my personal space. So I was expecting a horse that would be walking on my heels trying to walk in front of me, etc.

    Didn't happen. She walked perfectly & there was a horse bucking & neighing. She looked up mildly concerned, not what I expected. I expected a hot horse to call back or want to prance. She just followed behind me docilely. Very hot horse indeed. Since this was my 1st time working w/ her, I decided to run her thru her paces in this big, isolated arena. Last horse I worked there, who was supposedly super calm, always neighed & was a little nervous. This filly was just focused on me. Still waiting to see some of that hotness & hardheadedness.

    I send her out, noticing she kind of takes off a little fast, w/ me not even throwing the rope out at her & that she was mildly confused by my posture. So she was paying attention & responded to more a exaggerated body position. I hold my hand out for pressure unless they need more. She was trotting rather fast around me. I put my hand down, she kept going, I took note of this. Most horses calm to a walk when I take off the pressure. I step back & whoa with my hand. She "joins up" right away, but after a small tug on the line. Indicating to me, that she probably was yanked with the rope to stop & smacked in the rear to go since she seemed a little unsure of body position, voice/hand cues, etc.

    Now mind you, this was the horse that always tried to crowd your space. She didn't try it once when I was working with her, in fact, she did her darnedest to keep away from the end of the rope. She looked concerned, a little nervous. She tried to anticipate what I wanted. I toned it down a lot & went step thru step w/ everything, she knew it; but I have a feeling people handled her w/o considering her mindset. Thus, she was trying to please me, by acting before I could punish her with a smack.

    She put her head down for me w/ very little pressure at all, & calmly. She gave to the halter pressure from side to side, I was confused. She was giving to me quite willingly, once she knew exactly what I wanted. She respected my space perfectly. I sent her out again to see if I could get her to calmly walk on the lounge line. I had myself sideways to her & she would only walk a few steps before she got nervous & started going again. She did shake her head to pull a little, but nothing uncontrollable.

    I obviously didn't work her hard enough to fully test her. So, where is this hot, hard-headed horse with no work ethich (seemed pretty willing).

    So what do you guys think? Is she pressure sensitive? Or is she just playing me? Think she's hot? Or would be calm by nature if given the proper chance and guidance? Sorry for the long story :P

  4. jonas- I would get rid of all pryor information. This horse did everything you asked, but you say this was because of abuse?
    She seemed a little nervous but totally focused on you?
    I can't find anywhere in your description that tells me this horse was abused.
    I had a # 1 rule I tried to follow no matter what.
    When I got a new horse in training I started her like she had never had anything done pryor to me.
    I didn't try to out think the previous trainers, I just went with the flow.
    If she had some handling I liked I silently thanked my lucky stars and continued on.
    If there was something I didn't like I fixed it without over thinking how she got that way.
    Horses are incredibly forgiving.
    If she has had mistakes made in her past it doesn't matter to her. YOU'RE not making them.
    So just progress with her training and pay attention to her signals.
    you'll both be fine.

  5. My daughter just informed me I can't spell prior.

  6. Great advice, as always, Mugs.

    Thanks for explaining the stops and spins in such detail, it REALLY made sense.

    You're too cool. :)


  7. mugwump said...
    My daughter just informed me I can't spell prior.

    Tee-hee, that's what I was thinking. Just proves that you are human after all!

    Great discription on the stops and spins, I especially like the drill you described at the end. If all goes well on my ride this weekend, I might try it...but gotta get the old boy loping in a consistent circle first.

    You've really inspired me to get back into the saddle on a regular basis, too bad my world is about to freeze over for six months, I'm going to be bubbling over with training ideas by spring, Oliver won't know what hit him.

  8. Thanks Mugs, I sure appreciate the advice. Smoke is so smart, lol, that's why it frusterated me. I've never had an issue w/this before and it honestly baffled me. He was doing that hollowing out thing from getting hauled on by the gal who rode him before I got him bought. That was over 4yrs ago, and he still has moments where he reverts back to that "OH CRAP, THIS IS GONNA HURT" mindframe as a result from her. If I don't have to load everything up on an ark, lol, I'll try and ride in the next evening or so and let ya know how it goes. Thank ya ma'am!!! =]

  9. Jonas
    I think the filly is sensitive, I think that too much pressure might confuse her or worry her. She sounds great!
    I've worked with a super sensitive horse lately. His owners used a stud chain on him to get him moving... I dislike stud chains, so I went to catch the little guy in the field (he's a gelding by the way), I caught him right away, which is a miracle for him. I didn't think much about that, I just went with the flow. Then I hooked my lead to him, as soon as I went to walk, he threw himself back like he always did, I proceeded to turn around and smack him with the lead on the shoulder until he gave up the fight. As soon as this was over, I turned around and proceeded to walk the horse on a loose leadline. This horse is untrained and I had to coax him a bit sometimes to get him to lead, but I never pulled harder than 2-5 pounds of pressure, it worked great! I had to trailer him and he stepped right in!!!! the first time he was trailered, he nearly injured everyone that was standing there and broke two leadlines! Proof that being gentle, light and not having a paniqued crown around can turn any horse around. I was so proud of him! I like to work alone on my horses, I don't get questionned when I correct them, the horses are more tuned in and I don't get stressed! I had to smack him because he would've ran away backwards with me, when he saw that there was no way he was going to win, he gave immediatly and was a charm to work with. Sometimes, we just need to tone it down instead of up... try it!

  10. Well, the lady I work for, wants me to get a stick, and make her not so sensitive to pressure. Which bothers me because I want a horse to move away with the least amount of pressure, not have to wack them with a stick to make them move out. I appreciate the sensitive horses. So now this is my dilemma. Either I ignore her.. But now she wants to train her horse and my horse together now. It bugs me. But maybe I shouldn't baby her and make her less sensitive... But at the same time, I don't like wailing on a horse to make it go. I like light horses. Sigh.

  11. Kind of going along with the sensitive horse comments...

    I have a 5 year old OTTB mare that I have been taking two riding lessons a week on since June, along with riding on my own once or twice a week. She is very sensitive natured. Her ground manners are very nice as she will move over or out of the way with just slight finger pressure. She's similarly sensitive under saddle.

    However, she has her "good side" and her "bad side". She doesn't like to get off of my left leg. My trainer had me put spurs on last night (I've used them off and on with this mare - but she HATES them!) as she kept running through my left leg, and was being intentionally belligerent (we were near the out gate). I would BARELY bump her with my spur when she would start to run through her left shoulder and she would cow kick at my leg, switch her tail, pin her ears, buck a little, etc. and finally she just sulled up and quit. My spurs are a roping type with a tiny little blunt rowel, and again I'm VERY careful how I use them. In fact, several times I didn't use my spur at all but she would cow kick at my leg and throw a fit simply because she knew I had my spur ON. But using spurs on her just seems to cause more issues then it fixes. I'm a little frustrated trying to figure out "what now".

    On a similar note, this is the mare I posted about before that cross-fired a lot, or picked up the wrong lead. After a LOT of work, she now picks up the correct lead fairly consistently, and is much improved on the cross-firing (she just does it on the longe line when warming up now). She started bucking at the canter depart awhile back. We worked her through it, and I thought we had her over that particular issue. But last night, riding in a new and larger arena, she started bucking again at the canter depart, a little more seriously this time and trying to bolt.

    I'm becoming a bit frustrated with this mare. I generally like mares and get along with them, but this one seems to make a particular serious effort in complaining about work and coming up with new evasion tactics all the time. I'm starting to believe some of the horror stories about OTTB's having unfixable bucking issues. I knew it wasn't going to be easy to retrain her, but I figured after four months of serious work, she would be so much better now than she is.

    Should I just send her out to a trainer? I know part of the problem is that I can't make myself ride her through the "sticky situations". I get scared. So, if I put her with a trainer to work on the bucking at the canter and leg yielding/spur sensitivity - is that the answer?

    Sorry, this became a book!