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Dear Dana: How do I get my horse less fearful in the face?

By DANA HOKANA - Horsetrader columnist - January 19th, 2012 - Q&A Dear Dana

Dear Dana: I have a 4-year-old Quarter Horse gelding that constantly over-bridles and seems very afraid in the face. I’ve tried different bits, and they haven’t changed anything. Often, he will also thrust his head forward and up, pulling the reins from my hands forcefully. I’ve recently started asking him to bring his head around to follow his nose, and it’s helped some — but now he’s becoming heavier in the face. How do I get him to relax in the face?
–Calli Wilson, Temecula

DEAR CALLI: I think it’s possible that much of the problem could be because your horse has developed fear and resistance in the face – most likely from the way a rider used their hands when he was being started, or possibly by the way you use your hands now. This has developed into a very bad habit, and no matter what caused it, you can still benefit and improve by what I’m about to teach you!

By developing better feel in your hands you can help your horse to get over this. A horse that reacts by being afraid in the face has not yet learned to have confidence in the rider’s hands. Sometimes this starts by a rider putting too much bit or bridle in a green horse’s mouth. It also may be that the rider may not be sensitive enough in their hands to deal with it. The behaviors of over-bridling or “hiding in the face”, pulling reins out of your hands, and getting “heavy in the face” are all ways that horses use to resist pressure — they show an unhappy and unwilling attitude to pressure in the face or mouth. I would put your horse back into a snaffle or a mild short shank correction-type bit, then and let’s work on rebuilding his confidence.

First of all, establish in your mind that it’s OK to take hold of your horse’s face, but also realize that how you approach him with your hands is reminiscent to how you would speak to a person. If your approach is sharp, jerky or rough, then you have “yelled” at him with your hands, and he may be on the defensive. The behaviors you mentioned are defensive behaviors. The biggest thing you can do to change his response is to change your approach to him.

Here are some secrets to good hands:

1. Your Approach– This is such an important part, as it is the start the communication with your horse using your hands. Do your best to make sure initial contact is smooth and fair. Don’t come in with a rough or rigid jerk. I teach my riders that it is OK to bump or correct your horse in the face as long as you are in contact. If you jerk or bump with no warning — “out of mid-air,” so to speak — you will scare your horse and teach him to brace against your hands. When you pick up on the reins, just draw up smooth and slow until you are in contact with his mouth and then make any corrections, as needed.

2. Your bump, pull or correction and the follow-through– Once you’ve made contact with your horse’s mouth, you now have to make the decisionas to whether you need to pull or bump your horse in the face or simply just hold him. This is where feel comes into play. Do your best to “feel” with your hands what your horse is doing at the end of the bridle reins – which leads to a point: If your horse is ever pulling the reins out of your hands, he is basically controlling your pull or pick-up. This can reinforce the very bad habit of a horse throwing his head. By allowing him to pull the reins out of your hands, you are giving him a positive reward for his negative behavior, and that will make him do it even more and more! Make sure you are mindful about your hold on the reins, and don’t let those reins slide through your hands! Also, don’t give your horse any stronger correction than is needed to get the desired response.

Remember, the pounds of pressure that you use to pull or bump on your horse is intensified or magnified when you use a shank bridle to the degree of severity of the bit. If you are in a snaffle, it is close to the same pounds of pressure as you actually apply with your hands. So ride very mindful of this, and don’t add any more pressure than you need — that will develop trust in your horse. Also, make sure you give a clear message. Riding this way will take a lot of focus, and, for myself, I have found that if I am really working on a horse I must limit my outside distractions or I may get heavy-handed and lose the feel I am trying to develop. You are building a relationship with your horse, so be a fair partner.

Follow-through is another important component of this phase of the pick-up. Follow-through is nothing more than asking until you get a response.
This also requires feel and awareness. It means to stay in or follow through until you are satisfied with the amount your horse gives. Be clear and give a clear message, and your horse will learn faster. I look for my horse to give in the face but also to soften or lighten in my hands. Then I know I’m ready to release.

3. The release– Once you are satisfied with your horse and the amount that he gave, then you want to release or give back to him with your hands. I like to release in a smooth, slow motion. I also want to recommend that when you release, you are truly released. Make sure you give enough rein so that the pressure(or contact) changed enough so that he truly felt the release. The release is his reward. Horses learn by that reward. They also look for the reward, so make your message clear and make sure he realizes that he is being rewarded.

I’ve just given you a lesson on how to use your hands more effectively. If you study that and put it to practice, you will start seeing some good results with all the horses that you ride.

Also, a word of warning – as with all horses that you ride, if you are in contact with a horse and their face shows any signs of wanting to rear or becoming dangerous, then stop what you are doing and get the help of a professional.

Thanks for your question and happy riding!

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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