DEAR DANA: I have an unfinished 4-year-old mare that I am attempting to get finished for the show ring. I sent her for 30 days to a trainer, and I just got her home. Every time I go to stop her in hand, she stops with her body but flips her nose up in the air. HELP!
DEAR THERESA: It sounds like your mare is pulling away from the pressure of the bit rather than softening or giving to the bit. This could be for a variety of reasons. I will give you the 3 most common reasons I have found to cause or be a part of that problem:
1. Behavior Pattern – horses will develop a learned behavior pattern which then becomes a habit. These can become good habits or bad habits! The original cause may be the rider’s fault or may be the horses reaction or lack of knowledge. But it develops into a pattern.
2. Teeth – if your horse reacts in the face or mouth, always have your vet or an equine dentist check your horse’s teeth! There could be sharp edges or she could need dental work.
3. The Bit Is Too Severe Or Ill Fitting In Your Horse’s Mouth – if your horse reacts strongly or unexpectedly to a situation, look for a reason! Often there is a good reason. If you suspect the bit, then change bits and try again. Be soft and slow because she may be afraid if she felt too much pressure or even pain.
The most likely reason for this is a behavior pattern. This means that when she stops, you — or whoever has ridden her — are either jerking her to a stop or throwing her body weight back against her motion. Or, when she stops and tries to pull her head away from you, you reward or release her.
Here are some pointers to help you to change the negative behavior pattern. Remember, horses learn by the reward, so if you are releasing at the wrong time — when they are having the wrong reaction –then they are learning to respond incorrectly to your cue. Always start with looking to yourself to see if you are asking correctly, and never throw your body back against the horse’s motion, especially when you are pulling your horse to a stop. Your body weight is adding to the pounds of pressure in your hands, increasing the hit on her mouth that is likely way more severe than you intend.
The correct way to sit a horse in a stop is to unlock or fold your pelvis down on her back. Relax your seat and sit down in your saddle, keeping your center of gravity low. Stay in the middle of your horse. This allows her to stop with her back round and her hindquarters underneath her. Use your hands in a smooth motion — instead of jerking her mouth, just smoothly draw your horse to a stop. Stay in contact or drawing until your horse comes to a complete stop and fully commits all four of her feet to the ground. Also, try not to release her face until she softens in your hand.
As soon as she softens in your hand and all four feet are still, release her and just sit a moment until she is relaxed! She shows you this by licking her lips, or releasing a breath. Then, go forward and practice your stop again.
If she stops correctly, incorrectly or pushy, or throws her head, then just draw or hold until she softens and back her up a few steps. Repeat this until she stops softly in your hand. This will really help a horse that is heavy on her front end (and out of balance) to rebalance her weight over her hindquarters. It will also help with collection.
I hope this helps you, Theresa. Good luck!
P.S. – The DVDs that are helpful with this are the Take Control Series, especially Take Control – Vol. 2: “7 Steps To A More Responsive Horse” and Take Control =- Vol. 3: “How To Get The Lean Out Of Your Performance Horse.”