“Bridling a Horse: It’s a Relationship Thing”
This student has generously given her permission to share her story of challenges and triumphs she is experiencing with her horse in hopes that it might benefit other people and their horses.
A bit of background:
Heather is one of our many very committed students and is incredibly dedicated to her horse and to using gentle/natural horsemanship techniques with her. It is very common for us to work with people who want alternatives to using force, pain, and physical punishment when working with their horses. These people seek our advice because they do not yet have enough effective and gentle “tools” to achieve their goals and deal with the many levels of challenges horses can and do present us with. Our student’s horse came to her owner with a long-standing issue with difficult bridling. Lucy is a wonderful horse, very gentle, generally a willing and cooperative mare; and has the dominance qualities of a lead mare. The mare has been responsive to the new techniques her owner is using, and has responded extremely well to the techniques of natural horsemanship compared to the more conventional style of harsher training from the horse’ past.
The text that follows is our students’ questions and concerns, Doc’s responses, and the students’ response to Doc’s statements.
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 & 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 & 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?
|Doc working with Lucy
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.
– Hi Doug, Thank you for taking the time to send me your thoughtful reply today.
– Yes, they are the ultimate teachers… I am trying to do better with the consistency and the baby steps, I guess I’ll always be working on those things.
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.
– At least I had part of that right; I did visualize “the best”. … I know, there is no right…
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”.
– I knew that you would say something about that, too, but I didn’t know how else to say that everything had gone so well, and then so not-well.
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.
– It made me smile when you said that it is basically a bad idea to let anyone “make you feel happy, sad, or upset”. The funny thing is that I TOTALLY know that, I never let human people affect me that way, I just never thought of applying my thinking about this to animal people. Maybe that is why my sadness and upsetness (sic) was so profound, I’m just not accustomed to being affected like this, I have no practice (thank goodness). You also said that when I did this with Lucy, I set us up for being in competition. I know it is a very bad idea to be in competition with Lucy, there is no way I could ever win, and I do not want to go there!
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.
– I knew I was in a death-spiral, but after I had missed that 10 – 30 second clue that this wasn’t going to work, I didn’t know I could stop asking her to accept that bridle. I wish I had figured that out then…
***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.)
– O.K. – that gives me a game plan that was what I was missing (or at least an important thing that I was missing). That looks like a good plan. Even after last night’s “whatever-it-was”, there were still things she would still do willingly for me, and I will assume that she will still be willing to do some things with me today. Thank you, I felt lost, not having any idea where to go next.
I still can’t stop myself from wondering, though, how long it will be before she will accept the bridle after what I did last night, if I were her, I don’t know why I would ever accept it. I might not be able to ride her for months that would be sad. I will do what you suggested, and I’ll keep you posted.
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.”
– Thank you. I need to remember this. Do you have a suggestion as to a appropriate consequence? I have one idea, but I’d guess that you have a better one. I am so happy that you got to meet her, so you have her & I in your mind as you think about this. I think I should be paying you for this much of your time.
How long did you work with her putting her head down for you before you went and got the bridle?
– I did almost not at all. She had been accepting the bridle with my barely doing it for maybe 2 times previous.
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 watch for her reactions when she sees brushes, saddle/blanket, harness, halter, & bridle. She has a reaction to all of these, but only an acknowledgement that she sees them, not an upset or uncomfortable reaction. She doesn’t even react if I place the bridle along the front of her face. If I get a reaction, it isn’t until the bit touches her lips, and then she first wiggles her lips to keep the bit out, then throws her head if I persist.
I’m working with 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.
– That is good to know.
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.
– So much Zen… It is so weird. I don’t know why this work/play/learning with Lucy affects me so strongly, I am NOT normally like this. I am reading your words and thinking about them and crying for some reason and I don’t even know why. Weird.
You are doing just fine, relax, breathe, and smile – especially when she won’t accept the bridle.
– … And laughing now, too….
Thank you for seeking help. Let me know your thoughts about this please.
– I profoundly thank you for your help. I added my responses and emphases’ to your words above.
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.
– I am grateful, and you know I think these thoughts of yours are valuable.
|Heather, in the photo above, observes Doc working with Lucy
I have been thinking about all of this “Lucy & I” stuff non-stop. I’m sure something must be gelling in my sub-conscious; we’ll see how long it takes to make it into my unconscious mind.
I just wanted to give you an update. I went out to see Lucy after work today, with Aaron for moral support. Lucy & I worked on leading & stopping (she has been doing willingly, something we have developed lately), then I decided to try the bridle. I took baby steps again, lowering her head, touching her lips, putting my thumb in her mouth, putting the bridle up to her face, no resistance. She gave me a small clue that there might or might not be resistance to bridling when we got to that, so I decided to see if she would let me. I went back to the way I held the bridle before, which was easier for me (I’m not so coordinated sometimes, so making this easier for me was a good idea). She gave me just a touch of attitude, just on principal, but she allowed me to bridle her. So, I took a breath, petted her, and then just led her to where I tie her. I picked her hooves, then unbridled her and put her back in her stall, where she likes to be. I feel much better now, I was worried about how long that would take after my “whatever it was” the other night.
Thank you for your help, patience, & support.