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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

Strong horses

It takes two to pull.

I am frequently seeing posts asking for bit/tack changes for a horse that is leaning on their hands.

If your horse feels strong or leans on your hands when you’re riding at home it is not something that will be fixed with a harsher bit. Leaning is caused by a lack of balance, lack of strength to do what is being asked, inadequate training, inadequate riding, discomfort, poor posture etc. It is not rude, the horse doesn’t need to learn to “respect” the hand and all a harsher bit will do is teach the horse to duck behind it to avoid discomfort putting further strain on their already compromised body.

Before anyone starts I am not talking about scenarios where the horse’s blood is up and they’re out jumping or galloping, that’s a different issue we can talk about another day. At home, where your horse should feel relaxed and calm in his work, if your horse is leaning on your hands then something in your foundation is wrong.

If your horse cannot walk, trot and canter around on the buckle without losing rhythm or balance, then they are not in self carriage and no amount of fiddling with the bit is going to fix that. When you train systematically from the ground up and make sure your horse is comfortable in his body these “contact issues” tend to disappear.

We have become so disconnected from that fact we have metal in their mouth and let people put these ideas of rudeness and disrespect into our heads when actually, if a horse is snatching at the reins, he is simply trying to relieve discomfort. We talk about evasions, but why are they trying to evade? Because the work is too hard? Have a bit of empathy and imagine that was you and your neck started to ache, but someone kept insisting and called you rude for trying to stretch for a moment.

The reason your horse feels “softer” in a harsher bit is because it exerts more pressure with less effort from you, so your horse tries to relieve it more quickly. Your horse feeling softer in the hand does not mean your horse “loves this bit”. We need to change how we look at things, it is so normal to ride with a backwards hand and think its soft as long as we aren’t seesawing. It is common practice to constantly sponge on the inside rein to the point you can see horses heads bobbing side to side to keep them “round”, what on earth has that got to do with balance and self carriage?

We’re actually training horses to lean and pull all the time, riding horses overbent, lunging in fixed training aids and asking horses to do things they are not physically ready to do without compensating all contribute to strengthening compensatory movement patterns and move us further away from a strong, comfortable horse who is relaxed in his work.

There is a whole other world out there with our horses once we start to have empathy and look at things differently. Just because something has always been done a certain way and it wins ribbons doesn’t make it ethical or “correct”. If we build our horses up starting from our relationship on the ground you will be surprised how light and balanced even your heavyweight cob can feel.

Photo of me riding a very green, very lovely, dealing pony many years ago. I used to love this photo but now all I can see is my backward hand, his overbent, uncomfortable neck, the bit pulling through his mouth from the constant pressure and his discomfort in trying to do as I ask when he wasn’t physically ready for it.

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