Soft Touch for Gaited Horses

Horse owners may be pleasantly surprised at just how cooperative your high-stepping horse becomes when you change to a snaffle, and put these practical exercises to work.
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Horse owners may be pleasantly surprised at just how cooperative your high-stepping horse becomes when you change to a snaffle, and put these practical exercises to work.
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Many of us who own gaited horses share the same problems. Our horses won't stand still for us to mount. When we ride, our horses are stiff and tense. They get excited and may rear. They can't relax and walk calmly down the trail on a loose rein.

For years, John Lyons has been showing people how to solve these problems. But many think that John's techniques won't work on gaited horses, partly because he advocates the use of snaffle bits.

Traditionally, most gaited breeds are ridden in long-shanked curb bits. The long-held belief is that leverage bits provide greater control of the horse while encouraging an upright head carriage. But John has shown during numerous clinics and symposiums that gaited horses can perform wonderfully in snaffle bits without sacrificing either control or proper head position.

Many gaited-horse riders also feel that they need to use a curb bit so that the horse can lean on the bit while "gaiting." But in fact, many gaited horses lean on the bit because they are out of balance, and their riders provide support to these unbalanced horses by allowing them to lean on the bit.

It's an endless cycle. If you support a horse by putting constant, light pressure on a curb bit, the horse's natural response is to lean on it. Over time, the horse will get heavier in the bridle and begin to be unresponsive to the rider. In order to control the horse, the rider will get a stronger bit, and the cycle will start again.

When riding in a snaffle bit, a rider can still provide an unbalanced horse with the support he needs, but the technique is a bit different.

To support the horse's balance with a snaffle bit, the rider begins by asking the horse to give to the outside rein and then asks the horse to bring his nose slightly to the inside. This positions the horse so that he can rebalance himself, removing the need for the horse to "lean" on the bit.

In the early stages of this exercise, it may be necessary to rebalance the horse frequently. Gradually, with consistent repetition, the horse will learn to carry himself in balance without the rider's assistance.

Relaxation Techniques

  • Improve your horse's balance by asking him to give to the outside rein first and then bring his nose to the inside with direct rein pressure.
  • Pull on only one rein at a time to encourage your horse to bend and give in that direction, softening the muscles in his jaw, neck and back.
  • If your horse won't stand still, put his feet in purposeful motion; eventually he will realize that standing still is less work.
  • Use the "head down" and "go forward" cues to counter rearing tendencies.
  • Use circles and serpentines to help teach your gaited horse to slow down.

Curb Bit Mechanics
Curb bits utilize principles of leverage. When the rider pulls on the reins, pressure is applied to multiple points simultaneously, including the tongue, the bars, the poll, and the chin. If you pull hard enough, you can cause pain because the shank multiplies the force of the pull. The severity of that force depends upon the length of the bit's shanks, the type and tightness of the curb chain, and the amount of pull applied by the rider. The longer the lower shank is from mouthpiece to rein ring, particularly in comparison to the length of the upper shank from mouthpiece to headstall ring, the more the bit amplifies the pressure.

The mechanical advantage is gauged in terms of ratios. For instance, if the rider applies five pounds of pressure to a curb bit, he could be putting 25 pounds of pressure on the horse's mouth. If used harshly, a curb bit - or any bit for that matter - functions as a punishment device, not a training tool.

When a horse is in pain, he is not worrying about you or what you want him to do. He concentrates on the pain and how to escape it.

Some horses can become very determined in their efforts to escape. Head tossing, rearing and bucking can all be caused by a sensitive horse's reaction to pain from the bit. Other horses may exhibit less dramatic but equally undesirable responses to undue pressure on their mouths and heads. They may resist the restraint by increasing their energy, or becoming excitable and nervous. When ridden, these horses are often covered in sweat.

Another disadvantage of a curb bit for training purposes is the fundamental way in which it operates. It is designed so that both reins are pulled simultaneously. Whenever you pull on both sides of a horse's mouth at the same time, an untrained horse often responds by stiffening his spine and jaw and pressing forward into the pressure. This is why you often see gaited horses turn by pivoting on their hind feet instead of calmly bending through a turn. Over time, this sort of muscle tension can cause horses to have back and neck problems, resulting in lameness that is often difficult to diagnose.

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A Better Training Tool
Snaffle bits are designed as a training tool. Many snaffles have a "broken" mouthpiece, meaning two or more separate pieces are joined together to form the mouthpiece. But it is not the mouthpiece that identifies a bit as a true snaffle. It is the rings at the corners of the mouthpiece. True snaffles do not amplify the signal on the reins. The force of the pull follows a direct line from the rider's hand to the horse's mouth. There is no leverage.

If the rider puts five pounds of pressure on the bit, the horse feels five pounds of pressure on his mouth. The bit may apply pressure to the tongue, bars and corners of the horse's mouth, depending on the horse's head carriage and the rider's hand position. This causes enough discomfort to motivate the horse to respond to the rider's request. Using a snaffle considerately, however, you will not exert enough pressure to cause him to fight the signal.

Snaffles are designed for "unilateral" signals - that is, you should pull on one rein at a time. Applying pressure to just one side of the horse's mouth encourages the horse to bend and give in that direction, softening the muscles in his jaw, neck and back. This helps the horse relax and encourages him to comply with your requests.

When used properly, a snaffle does not encourage a horse to stiffen in his back and neck, or to lean into the bit. However, snaffle bits do not operate effectively if you pull straight back on both reins simultaneously. The jointed mouthpiece can collapse and pinch the soft tissues of the mouth.

Beware, too, that some snaffles can be severe. The narrower the mouthpiece, the more severe the bit. You may also see snaffles in tack stores with wire-thin or twisted metal mouthpieces, which are more severe than smooth-mouthed snaffles.

Look for a bit with a smooth, medium-sized mouthpiece. If the mouthpiece is too thick, it may be too mild and give your horse little reason to heed its signal. In contrast, a thin, narrow mouthpiece will inflict a considerable bite and could possibly cut the tongue and corners of the mouth. Such bits should be avoided.

Snaffle Bit Basics

  • A jointed snaffle is an ideal bit to use with two hands.
  • A snaffle bit transfers the rider's pull ounce for ounce, unlike a shanked bit, which multiplies the force of the pull.
  • By pulling on only one rein at a time, you will encourage your horse to bend and give in that direction.
  • Resist the urge to pull back on both reins simultaneously, which can cause a jointed snaffle to collapse and pinch the mouth.
  • Choose a snaffle bit with smooth bars of medium diameter. Avoid mouthpieces made with twisted wire or narrow bar stock.

Getting Started
If you are now convinced that you and your horse could benefit from using a snaffle bit, what should you do to get started?

Number one: Do not take your gaited horse who has been ridden his entire life in a curb bit and put him in a snaffle and continue riding the way you always have. You will very likely lose control.

There is a saying about snaffle bits: "Pulling back on both reins makes a horse smile." That's because when you pull on the reins together, the pressure will not only pull his lips into a "smile," your horse will also be smiling because he is now in control. In a direct pulling contest between your arms and your horse's head, your arms will lose every time.

Does this mean that it's too late to retrain your horse to respond to a snaffle? Of course not! You just have to change the way you use your reins and the way you think about controlling your horse.

When you put a snaffle bit on your horse, every contact that you make with the reins should be on only one rein at a time. Even later, after your horse is completely trained, you will always use the bit one side at a time. Your cues will become subtler, but they will always touch one side of the horse's mouth and then the other side.

The "Broken Mouthpiece" Myth

Many people think that any bit with a broken mouthpiece is a snaffle. The difference between a snaffle bit and a curb bit with a broken mouthpiece is in the shanks. A true snaffle bit does not use leverage, so it will not have any kind of shank. Snaffle bits also do not have any means of putting pressure on a horse's poll, like a gag bit does.

When bit shopping, don't be fooled into thinking that a curb bit with a broken mouthpiece will give you the benefits of a snaffle bit. Remember, shanks mean leverage and leverage increases the strength of the pull, regardless of the type of mouthpiece.

Basic Concepts
John's techniques for training a horse to respond to the bridle have been covered in many Perfect Horse articles. We won't try to explain his entire program in this article, but here are a few basics about how to make the transition from riding with a curb to riding with a snaffle.

Apply pressure to one rein until the horse gives you the change you desire. When the horse responds correctly, release the pressure.

Be specific in your mind about what you are asking for, and be sure you are not asking for too much at once.

First teach your horse to move his hindquarters to the right when you pick up on the left rein and vice versa. (This is also the foundation for teaching the one-rein stop.)

The one-rein stop is your emergency brake. It allows you to get the horse under control by bending him around to a stop. This movement keeps you safe when you are using a non-leverage bit.

Next, teach your horse to lower his head when you put pressure on the bit. Apply pressure and release it immediately when he complies; reapply if he raises his head and again release immediately when he lowers it.

Use circles and serpentines at first to help control your horse's speed. Over time, you will use your body position (not your reins) to control your horse's foot speed.

Getting your horse to lower his head on request is the key to teaching your horse to walk calmly down the trail on a loose rein. To teach it, apply pressure with one rein and hold it until the horse lowers his head. Then give him an immediate release. As soon as the horse starts to raise his head, take up pressure and hold until he lowers his head. Once your horse understands this concept, you can ask him to lower his head anytime to help him relax.

Although it may seem alien at first, controlling the speed of your gaited horse is no longer going to be done by pulling on the reins as you may have been doing when riding in a curb bit. Your horse will learn to respond to your body position as requests to speed up or slow down.

When you first begin, your horse won't know this, so use lateral bending to slow him down if he is gaiting too fast. Riding in circles works well, but riding serpentines works best. A serpentine consists of riding in a straight line, then asking the horse to turn in a half-circle in one direction. Continue riding straight, and then ask the horse to turn a half-circle in the opposite direction. Continue this pattern until the horse slows his feet.

The faster the horse is gaiting, the more frequently you should ask him to turn. Remember to only use one rein when you ask the horse to turn in a half-circle.

Further improvements
Once you have made the transition from a control device (curb bit) to a training device (snaffle bit), you can begin to eliminate some of those behavior problems we commonly see in our gaited horses.

One common problem we see in gaited horses is their inability to stand still for the rider to mount. I actually saw a gaited-horse trainer tell a rider to tie the horse to a wall, mount, and then untie the horse while mounted. I thought this was a bad idea, with great potential to get someone hurt. But it does illustrate just how desperate people are to solve this problem.

John offers a better, and far safer, solution. His approach to teaching a horse to stand still begins with groundwork. You teach the horse to lower his head and move his feet in response to cues with the reins. Once the horse understands about moving his feet on cue, you can begin teaching the horse to stand still. (That sounds backwards, but all training begins with movement, even standing still.)

The basic idea is that you cannot make the horse stand still. You can, however, give him options. You offer him a chance to stand still. If he begins to move around, you begin directing his feet to move - forward, backward, shoulders left, hips left, shoulders right, hips right. Any combination will do as long as you keep asking the horse for movement and you control the direction of the movement.

Next, offer him another chance to stand still. He may be glad to stand or he may start to move again. If he moves, just go back to practicing moving his body parts with the reins. It may take several iterations of practicing, then offering him a chance to stand, but eventually, he will be glad to stand when you give him the chance. Over time, as you keep practicing this, the horse will stand still every time without the need to do the groundwork first.

To prevent your horse from anticipating the fact that you will be moving as soon as you are in the saddle, you should make a practice of having the horse stand still for a minute before you move away from the spot where you mounted. You will be amazed at how big an improvement you will see in your horse by just making that small change in your riding habits.

Another problem you might have is a horse who won't stand still while you are mounted. To fix this problem, ask the horse to stand and then release the rein. If the horse moves away, pick up one rein and make the horse do a one-rein stop. As soon as the horse's feet have stopped, release the rein. Repeat the one-rein stop every time the horse moves, and he will quickly decide that it is far easier to stand still than it is to move around going nowhere.

If your gaited horse wants to rear, you can do several things to help break this habit. First, teach him to lower his head on cue. A horse cannot rear if his head is lower than his withers. Once his head is lowered, keep him moving forward, but keep his neck bent to one side. A horse can't rear if he can't get his head out in front of him. Work constantly on having the horse walk calmly on a loose rein. A calm, relaxed horse is unlikely to rear.

If your gaited horse is tense and nervous when you ride, you should spend time teaching him to lower his head and walk on a loose rein. Working on serpentines, circles and half circles will help your horse relax and realize that all his excess energy isn't necessary. It may take many sessions, but your horse will change his attitude if you are consistent and show him that he has nothing to fear.

These are just some examples of ways you can use John's training techniques to improve your gaited horse's performance. Consider the possibility of freeing your gaited horse from the potential harshness of a curb bit and venture into a new partnership based on willingness and trust. You'll find that the snaffle bit is the cornerstone for building this new partnership.