Bridling a Horse: It’s a Relationship Thing

Hi Doc and Cathy — I was hoping that you could help me with a problem I am having with Lucy. A horse-friend of mine has a great horse facility in this area, and lately he has invited me there to attend a monthly training session with a local trainer. She does English, Dressage, Western, and driving. He even trailers Lucy there and back. We have gone 3 times. I figure just trailering her anywhere is great for her, no matter the reason. She is still trailering pretty well I think.

Anyway, I think these sessions have been generally beneficial to Lucy and I. Last Sunday, I asked for help with 2 basic problems that Lucy came to me with, bridling (you knew that one) and mounting. We really made great progress actually. We made progress on Sunday, and I have been able to repeat our success several times since then (success on every attempt). I have also seen Lucy every day since then. We had an absolutely awesome time together last night. She bridled perfectly, walked and stopped perfect when led, and mounted perfectly. I was on a cloud all day today because of it.

Then tonight I went out to see her, just clean her stall and bridle her again, just because I thought that was a good idea. I expected success, we both seemed just the same as we were last night, she had finished her dinner just like last night, and for some reason it went terribly. I tried to bridle her for 45 minutes tonight, without success. I did exactly the same things that the trainer had shown me, which had worked perfectly at least 4 sessions in a row.

I just don’t understand. I am so sad, upset, confused, and tired right now. I’m afraid it is going to be as bad or worse next time because we didn’t even get the bridle on tonight. Do you have any advice at all for me? Sincerely, Heather

Hi, Heather — Horses are our ultimate teachers, they make us soar and they humble us, teach us patience and persistence and constancy and the value of repetition and baby steps. Most of all they teach us that relationship is about visualizing the best and accepting best efforts and best responses – no regrets, no judgments, no guilt, no shame, no blame.

Several times in your letter you mention variations of the words “success” “progress” and “perfectly”. You also mention the word “problems” and the phrase “…went terribly”. As long as you give Lucy (or anyone else) the power to cause you to be “sad, upset, and confused” you will bounce between euphoria when you get what you want and sad, upset, and confused when she gets what she wants.

When we do this we set things up as a competition and in competitions someone wins and someone loses.

Rather than spend 45 minutes trying to get her to do anything that is not working, evaluate in the first 10 to 30 seconds if she is resistant or receptive to what you are starting to ask for (accepting the bridle). If she is receptive proceed in baby steps and pause often to reward her cooperation.

If she is resistant, FIRST create a consequence for resisting and then SECOND immediately ask for (and reward when you get them) a series of other things you are pretty sure she will willingly let you do (back up, pick up a foot, disengage (move) her rear end to the side, disengage her front end to the side, put her head down, flex her head and nose to her side, etc.)

Better yet, test her out on a bunch of these things each time BEFORE you try to bridle her. If she won’t cooperate and do these small, easy things for you the chance of her accepting the bridle is low. Build a pattern of successful requests and responses before you ask for her to accept the bridle.

However, if you meet inattentiveness, resistance, or refusal at any time you must create a soft, appropriate consequence or she will take advantage of the situation and increase her inborn tendency to have her own way – this is just a natural part of being a horse. Anna Twinney, an amazing horsewoman, explains it best, “If there is a leadership void, somebody must fill it; the horse will if the human doesn’t.”

How long did you work with her putting her head down for you before you went and got the bridle? The mere sight of the bridle is a concern to a horse that has issues with it. We can’t expect to hide it from them but if we get cooperation on some other exercises and get them relaxed and comfortable and cooperative first we sometimes have a better chance with the thing that concerns them.

I’m working with a mare here at the ranch on bridling issues and some days we never get to the bridle because she does not become completely comfortable and cooperative with the preliminary test things I ask of her – so we work on them that day.

If you approach next time with the fear of failure you are expressing you will be going backward and doing her a great disservice. You did not fail, she did not fail, she did not win, you did not win. There is no win or lose, there are no problems when playing/working with horses only learning and relationship building OPPORTUNITIES.

The goals of gentle/natural horsemanship are – 100% trust, 100% respect, and 0% fear. This goes for the horse and human alike as far as I’m concerned. You cannot fail with her, give up your goal, success, and judgment based thinking, beliefs, and fears; have fun and learn with and from your time with this horse. You trust her and she trusts you. Work on her respecting you. Eliminate your fears and concerns (completely and at all times) and hers will evaporate.

Become emotionally neutral when with her – there is/are no right or wrong, good or bad, problems or perfection – everything just is and we accept it and move either forward or backward which doesn’t matter because there is no forward or backward either. We just move on to whatever we think of to move on to.

You are doing just fine, relax, breathe, and smile – especially when she won’t accept the bridle. Thank you for seeking help. Let me know your thoughts about this please. I appreciate the opportunities I’ve had to spend time with you and Lucy, and enjoy sharing things I hope are of value to both of you. –Doc

Read the complete conversation between Doc and Heather…