“My horse won’t stop – I need a stronger bit.”
“My horse drags me on the halter – I need a chain/knotted rope halter/control halter.”
“My horse won’t move away from me – I need a training stick.”
When we come up against a training issue we often think we need to be stronger than our horse, to make them do what we want. We think we have to win.
But we’re completely wrong.
It isn’t a battle at all, it’s a conversation, and if it’s not going well, then shouting isn’t going to make it better. Imagine you’re talking to someone who doesn’t understand. Maybe they don’t speak the same language as you do, or maybe they just don’t have the context required to follow what you’re saying. If they have no idea what you’re asking them, saying it louder isn’t going to make any difference. Now they’re worried because you’re yelling, and still don’t have any idea what you’re asking them.
If your horse doesn’t stop from your rein cues, then chances are they don’t understand that the cue means they are supposed to stop. Instead of switching to a more severe bit, you need to go back to an earlier stage of training, and explain it to them.
If your horse drags you around on a halter, instead of switching to a halter or device that causes them pain when they try to take off, figure out why they drag you and fix it. If they didn’t understand, find a way to explain it to them. If they’re frightened, take the time to show them what to do instead when they’re scared.
And if your horse won’t move away from you when you ask them to, probably they don’t understand the question. Ask them in another way, instead of using a stick to back up a request they didn’t understand in the first place.
Horses are born with something called an “opposition reflex” and in the wild this served them very well. What it means is that they naturally move into pressure, instead of away from it. If a wild horse was being chased by a wolf, and the wolf reached up and bit the soft part of their belly – as a wolf does – and the horse pulled away from the pressure and pain of the bite, their belly would likely be torn open, and they’d be lunch for the wolf. If, however, as their instinct tells them to do, they move TOWARDS the bite, not only would they minimize the damage caused by the teeth of the wolf, but they’d also have every chance of trampling the wolf and causing him to release, letting the horse get away. The size of a horse means that flinging their bulk into whatever it is that’s pressuring them gives them pretty good odds of coming out on top. And while a Miniature Horse is a whole lot smaller, they’re still a horse, with the same instincts, and they’re going to respond to pressure in exactly the same way.
If a horse feels pressure or pain, their instinct tells them to meet it and exceed it.
If they aren’t responding to the pull of the bit, switching to a more severe, potentially painful bit is likely to exacerbate the issue. Now instead of simply ignoring the bit pressure because they didn’t understand what it meant, they may feel they need to actively work against it. Your more severe bit, in an “into pressure” horse, could be the cause of your runaway.
If your horse is dragging you around, chances are their opposition reflex has suckered you into a pulling match. Stop pulling back. Maybe you could take off the leadrope, and work on your skills at liberty, and take the opposition reflex out of the equation. Or check your timing and be sure you’re releasing the second you get a response, to prevent the opposition reflex from activating. And remember, adding more pressure and pain by using a severe tool like a knotted rope halter may just result in a more dramatic response from your horse as they attempt to protect themselves from the pain.
If your horse won’t move away from your cues, chances are it’s because you are in direct conflict with the opposition reflex. More pressure will simply cause them to respond with more pressure. Instead of escalating or using a tool that can add pain to the equation, try minimizing your cues, watching for the smallest weight shift, and clearly letting the horse know that they’re on the right track.
If your horse is not responding in the way you think they should, it’s because they don’t understand. Escalating the pressure or inflicting pain isn’t going to make it clearer to them.
Pressure begets pressure. If we want to have a soft, responsive horse, we need to be a soft, responsive handler.