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More in the round pen: Introducing the harness

By PATRICIA DEMERS - Horsetrader columnist - December 18th, 2014 - About Driving

PatriciaDemers_170pxI like to introduce the harness a few pieces at a time, in this order: saddle, back strap with crupper, then the breeching. This just seems to make sense to the horse and is less overwhelming to his senses.

You want to introduce the harness piece-by-piece, so they won’t get frightened. A few times around on the lunge or round pen for each piece is usually sufficient. You simply want the equine to be relaxed and accepting without fear. When introducing the crupper (that’s the part that goes under the tail), it’s important to prepare your horse to relax its tail by gently stretching the tail upwards and letting the horse drop it down without resistance. Rub the underside of your horse’s tail with your hands to get him used to feeling something there. When the tail is in its normal position, the crupper is properly fitted when there are about one to two fingers of room between the underside of the tail and the roll of the crupper. It’s not to be fitted too tight or too loose, which can cause the equine to clamp or swish his tail in discomfort or anxiety. When introducing the crupper for the first time BE CAREFUL, as your horse may clamp his tail, scoot forward, and possibly buck and kick! Do your homework before and desensitize them, and you‘ll have less resistance. You may want to do this the first time in a stall. Don’t punish your horse if he objects — leave him alone to work it out and accept it. The underside of the tail is very sensitive and easily rubbed, so make sure your crupper is clean, not cracked, and of the appropriate size. You might even want to put a piece of sheepskin around it to cushion it.

Next is the breeching. The hip strap threads through the slot in the back strap. This buckles to and holds up the breeching strap (the wide piece with two rings). This fits properly in the widest part of the equine’s butt — neither too high nor low – but in the center. You want to be able to get a hand’s width between the breeching and the butt, so don’t make it too tight. Your horse may scoot forward the first time this touches him, so let him work it out for himself. Again, don’t punish — he’s got to get used to all kinds of straps touching him in unfamiliar places. Next, put the breast collar or neck collar on. Secure them so they don’t fall forward while the horse works. This may be done by either tying up the traces to the breeching (if they don’t unbuckle), or use a piece of cord.

While introducing each piece of harness, continue to do your exercises: walk, trot, whoa, stand. Be sure to work both directions equally.

I’m a fan of the “German training scale”: relaxation, rhythm, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection. I want my horses RELAXED but attentive when I’m working on teaching them something. They also need to stay in RHYTHM 1-2, 1-2, swinging along at both the walk and trot. Horses accept training better when they are relaxed, not anxious or fearful.

Next, we introduce the long lines. It’s best not to use nylon, as you can get a bad rope burn. Two cotton lunge lines work well, or you can purchase cotton long lines through catalogues. Your harness driving lines will be too short to use for this exercise. Some prefer to thread them through the saddle rein terrets, just like they would be when attached to a carriage. My preference is to put them through the shaft loops at about midline of the horse. I find that this sets the horse’s head at a more relaxed and normal headset. Either way is OK. This is where both the trainer/driver and the horse build their communication, mutual respect and confidence in each other. The trainer must develop soft and flowing hands, and the equine must start to listen through the bit. Work with right (“gee”), left turns (“haa”), and “whoa” at the walk before working at the trot. It’s best to start this in a controlled area, then work your way up to ground driving around the stable, and then down the trail or neighborhood to introduce your horse to things he’s going to encounter when hooked to a carriage.

If the equine is working relaxed and is accepting of everything, then it’s time to introduce the blinders. If you don’t have a driving bridle, your regular bridle and a racing hood is a good substitute. When introducing the blinders, do so in a controlled and familiar space. Your horse will be anxious for the first few minutes while trying to figure out why he can’t see behind him. Go slowly in this stage and review everything you’ve done previously, but now do it with the blinders. TALK to your horse when he’s in blinders so that he knows where you are — you don’t want to startle him.

As for bits, there must be a million to choose from! You still can’t beat a simple snaffle or mullen mouth to start with. There are specialized driving bits, the Liverpool being one of the most popular because of its versatility of rein slots. The best bit is the one your horse wants in its mouth.
Your goals are to introduce each piece of harness and blinders. Long line your equine in and out of the arena, with and without blinders, while maintaining relaxation and acceptance of each stage. Don’t forget to use your whip as you would your leg in riding.


Patricia Demers is a trainer based in Lancaster, CA, who specializes in carriage driving. You can submit questions or reach Trish at driving@horsetrader.com.

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