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Dear Dana: Why is my horse over-bridling? What can I do?

By DANA HOKANA / Horsetrader columnist - April 7th, 2011 - Q&A Dear Dana

DEAR DANA: Why is my horse over-bridling? What can I do?
Janelle Ackers, Victoria, Canada

DEAR VICTORIA: A horse is over-bridling his head when he carries his head extremely bridled and behind the vertical position. When he is over-bridled the horse will often arch his neck or throat latch giving him an unnatural look. Many horses carry their head and neck this way because they are afraid or intimidated. Although I also want to stress that many times horses have learned to over-bridle, and even if you do everything right, it may have become a habit for him. It can be complicated!

The American Quarter Horse Association wants to see a natural profile. A natural profile is a level top line with the head position being on the vertical or the nose slightly in front of the vertical. AQHA is encouraging judges to not reward head and neck carriage that is too over-bridled or shows fear or intimidation. I have known some horses that have carried their head and neck behind the vertical for so many years it has become a habit, and although it may of started with intimidation, it became a habit. This habit can be hard to break. I also feel that when a horse is over-bridling his head he can be “hiding” from the rider’s pick up or pull with his hands. When he is over-bridled it is more difficult for him to extend his front leg in a full extension of his stride and have the lift through his shoulders and back that I like to see. It can become the easy way out for the horse!

I want to educate you, the rider, in how the use of your hands, and the equipment you use may play a part in the horse becoming over-bridled.

The use of your hands:
I teach riders to ride mindfully! When you ride mindfully you are aware of what cues you are giving your horse and how your horse is responding and where your horse is underneath you. Your level of awareness is heightened. When you ride mindfully your feel and timing will improve because you become more aware of how you are using your hands. I teach people that if you have a strong hand and always use a lot of “pounds of pressure” in every cue, your horse will learn to hide and over-bridle or become stiff, resistant and dull depending on your horses sensitivity level. Try to become aware of how much pressure your horse needs to respond, and use only the amount of cue that you need. Also learn to release when he gives. Ideally we want our horses to carry their head in a natural position. If we are holding or over-cueing our horse he can’t do this. We will build his confidence by releasing him when he is in the right position. He will learn to have self carriage. Remember don’t give more cue than you need to get your desired response. As you learn to give clear messages with your hand and give a clear pull and release, your horse will gradually learn to “let go” in his head and neck and not stay over-bridled.

How the equipment you use can affect your horse’s head set:

I encourage you to develop a good, working knowledge of how bits and bridles work. Then you know what bridle to ride your horse in. Understanding bits is the key to training your own horse, or fixing problems he may have.

The severity of a bit depends on many factors: such as the mouth piece, the shank, and the angle of the shank. High mouth pieces with a long straight shank may encourage your horse to stay over-bridled if that is a problem for him, even if you have the best hands. If I have a horse that tends to over-bridle, I will often use a lower mouth piece, curb-type bit with a short shank that is slightly swept back. I may even use a loose cheek correction-type bit. The interior of every horse’s mouth is shaped differently, so I often try lots of bits until I find the bit my horse is happy and relaxed in, but that it still has the leverage that I need.

The other factors that can play a big part in getting that “winning profile” is if you do all your schooling in draw reins or martingales. Often training aid or gimmicks can “hold” your horse in an over-bridled position. Keeping your reins too tight will keep his head too bridled also.

Here are some exercises that may help you to “unlock” your horse’s head and neck.

Bend his neck.
A lot of lateral bending will help your horse to release his neck. This works in many ways. If you only bridle your horse’s head straight back he will flex at the poll and give in the jaw. When you ask your horse to bend or give his head to one side or another, he is using more of his neck muscles. I like to do a lot of lateral exercises because I feel it not only strengthens the neck, it releases tight muscles and enables the horse to lift his shoulders as you are bending his neck. I ask my horse to follow his nose. I start by taking him to one side or another and bring my hand out to one side. I encourage him to walk forward, stepping up to his face.

Every horse is stiffer to one side than the other. The stiffer side I will work on more. Often the side he is stiffer on will be his worse lead. My goal is that he will walk a tight circle, approximately 12-15 feet in diameter. If he can’t stay in a small area, then he is leaning. I work with him until he becomes fairly equal and willing both ways.

I will start by releasing my cue as soon as he takes just a few steps correctly. I will gradually increase my expectations as he becomes more supple and willing. Notice when you release that he will stretch his neck out. Make sure that when you release you give him enough rein that he does not feel you at the end of the reins! Give him that freedom to release his neck. This exercise will do wonders to help a horse loosen up his neck.

Hold until you feel lift!
Another exercise that works really well is to hold with your hands until you feel your horse lift up through his body. When a horse is tight in the neck he may, but not always, be on his front end. I like to take a hold of my horse with my hands in a smooth pick up. I will draw up on the reins. Try not to bump as that will signal your horse to bridle his head. What you want to feel is him to collect and lift up through his body, not just bridle his head. As I take up on the reins, I will also encourage my horse forward with my legs. As soon as I feel lift under me I will release. I repeat this until I can engage collection and lift through his body. You will find that as your horse is lifting up and moving at this full potential he can let go of his head and neck.

Horses often over-bridle and balance with their head and neck because they are not using their body correctly. This can become a conditioned behavior response because the rider bumps his horse and as soon as he bridles he releases him, it almost becomes a reaction by the horse. You can reprogram this behavior by picking up, but waiting to release until you feel that lift. Reprogram your horse by changing how you ride!

Training horses is a continual process and what works in one season may not work in the next. It is imperative to stay open and creative. Continually assess your horse and your riding to keep your horse at his best!

I hope this helps you to develop that “winning profile”! I would recommend Maximizing Your Western Pleasure Horse 1, 2, 3 and the Headset Series Take Control 5, 6, 7.

Do you have a question for Dana? Simply go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Dear Dana” section, then submit it! If your question is selected, you will be entered into a monthly drawing for a FREE “Winning Strides” DVD from Dana’s training video series.

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