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When horses rub the wrong way, it’s time for some communication

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - January 20th, 2011 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY: My horse stops and rubs his face on his foreleg while I’m riding. I’ve checked the bit, bridle and have had several vets say his teeth are fine. What do I do?
Leo Ortman
Cupertino, CA

HEY LEO: I have to agree with your vet; I don’t think it’s his teeth, bit or bridle. As a matter of fact, I have two horses in my barn that have the same behavior, one of which is my wife’s Friesian stallion.

There are some horses that after working in a halter or bridle have recognized that rubbing their face on their foreleg just feels great. In fact, I have worked with horses that have come into my barn with a problem that follows the one that you’re having with your horse. These horses have been allowed to rub their faces on their legs so much that the horses have figured out how to actually remove their headstalls on their own. For this reason it is extremely important to interrupt this pattern of rubbing so that you don’t find yourself riding your horse bridle-less against your will!

Taking care of this habit is no different than other bad habits or behaviors that we want to curb. I suggest you try tackling this challenge initially from the ground. I suspect that if you lunge your horse with a bridle and side reins for as long as you normally would under saddle, he would probably feel the need to rub as well. Instead of correcting or punishing for it, simply see the rubbing as his way of asking you to reward him for some other exercise.

Here we have a perfect example of looking for an excuse to reward — not for an excuse to punish. The exercise that you choose to reward him for is not as important as the timing and the intention that you project to him which should be nothing more than an opportunity to reward him. So try to keep a positive energy and a pleasant look on your face. Reward-able exercises can be as simple as continuing to lunge again if your horse doesn’t stand quietly without rubbing. You should continue this until he does what you want. You can accelerate the process by either asking him to back up or by turning on the forehand because these are exercises that require more effort. Each time the horse goes back to rubbing, when given the opportunity to stand, simply repeat the exercise and add a few more strides each time to the mix. It won’t be long before your horse will recognize that he still has freedom of choice but his life has changed because of the consequences.

It’s important to let your horse know that you welcome the face-rubbing because it’s his way of asking you to reward him for your favorite exercises. This is why it is important to keep your game face on and to reward him after each reward-able exercise. Once he gets the picture — and he will — piggy-back that thought onto the saddle.

Before you get on, be sure to adjust the throat latch properly for this exercise. The last thing you want is for your horse to realize he can actually rub the bridle off. The key here is to keep him moving if he chooses to rub, and then reward. If you find that his pulling down and rubbing is overpowering for you, pull up on a single rein with both hands and move his hindquarters away from that rein.

How consistent and timely you are will determine the time frame of this exercise. So make sure you set aside plenty of time for this. Once your horse gets good at this, you can challenge him by feeding him the rein until he just stands there quietly.

Leo, you should have fun shaping this behavior because it’s an easy one to fix.

Always remember — even if you’re working with a horse on something easy — to trust your instincts and think safe,

Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horse-and-human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco CA, at his bustling StarBrite Riding Academy. Does your “horse-human” relationship leave you with a question for Ray? Just go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Hey Ray!” section, then submit it!

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