Riding to Music? Easier than you may think!

10 Easy Tips to get YOU Started Riding to Music

As we follow the Olympics (or not…) or view Youtube videos of the classic ‘Pas de Deuxs’ of yesteryear or spunky dressage Freestyles of today, we may get the idea of riding to music ourselves. Not a dressage rider? Never done this before? No problem! You do not have to wear any special kind of pants to have fun with music.FElixBuerkner

For those, who have never tried this and would like to give it a shot, here some tips

1. Getting the ‘horse to ride in rhythm’

Hmm… this is actually not how it works. It works the other way around! Find your horse’s natural rhythm in all three gaits and certain exercises (according to your schooling level) by determining Beats Per Minute (BPM). Thanks to modern mobile technology, that’s easy with a Smartphone app such as the Android App BPM Tap. This video shows how it works.

Have someone tap the rhythm on the Smartphone while you ride and write down the respective bpm for trot, canter, for example.

Here a similar app for the iPhone: Beat Counter for iPhone

If you prefer to take a video of your horse under rider and then determine the needed bpm on your desktop, this is the app for you: BPM Online Counter for Desktop

Here the average BPMs – your horse, depending on size and breed – may differ from this!

  • Walk – between 50-65 BPM
  • Trot – between 75-90 BPM
  • Canter – between 95-110 BPM
  • Passage/Piaffe – between 60-65 BPM

2. Determine the kind of music you like

What type of music do you like? Classical, Pop, Rock, Reggae? Dig around in your CD collection, on your MP3 player, your iTunes, record collection or on Pandora.com.

Unsure? Let your horse guide you! What type of guy or gal is your horse? Daredevil or sensitive flower? What kind of expression do you have as a pair? Serious, sense of humor, goofy, elegant? Have fun with this!

3. Find the songs with your horse’s BPM

Oh my! Just when we thought this was going to be easy. Here a good way to start:

  • Go to Equimusic.com, a free resource created by Michael Matson, creator of the “Dancing Horse Fund” or to the very comprehensive, searchable BPM Database.
  • Enter the desired BPM in the search field and ‘enter’ to bring up search results.
  • Browse the songs and listen to the song (youtube, iTunes, etc.) to develop a feel for the rhythm.

You can either use the suggested songs or find one with a similar rhythm in your own collection. In that case, double-check with your BMP tap app.

4. Create a log of suitable music per gait.

A great tool is Evernote. You may just be sitting at Starbucks and hear a song that may work for your horse’s trot, tap the beat, confirm, and want to remember that song later! Evernote will work across all your mobile and desktop devices.

5. Create a first practice routine

Motto: Keep it simple and make it short and sweet! Have fun! Just ride in the arena and experiment, then write down what your’d like to do and practice a few times.

Once your are relatively secure, have a friend time the different sequences or take a video so you can time them yourself.

6. Assign music to sequences

Decide which of your selected pieces would be fun to combine and write down your plan.

7. Be the mix master!

Purchase (if needed) the music and mix to match your routine. A useful tool I like and that is also recommend by Equimusic, is the open source application Audacity.

8. Load and go!

Load your mix on your mobile device, get the ear phones going or hook up to your arena speakers and give it a whirl!

9. Some don’ts…

  • Do not try and force your horse into a rhythm just because you like the song!
  • Your horse has ears, too! Heavy Metal may not be the best choice.
  • When it comes to speaker volume: As high as necessary, as low as possible.
  • Mix it up and create built-in walk breaks. Be mindful of your horse’s fitness level!

10. Last not least…

  • Don’t be surprised if your horse shows a side of his/her personality that you did not know yet. You will feel different and so will your horse!
  • Riding to music can be addictive. You will never listen to the car radio the same way!

Most of all, make this an activity you BOTH can enjoy and keep in mind that it’s easier to overdo it when you are having fun…

As always, enjoy your horse!

SReinhold_sm

Stefanie Reinhold
Reinhold’s Horse Wellness

 

 

Can You See the Real Me?

“Riding is not about “riding”.  It is about everything that happens before we even get to the mounting block.”

A guest blog article by Horse Behavior Specialist Anita Kush

In my practice as a coach to horse owners and trainers, who seek a more mindful connection with their horse, I come across many, who have become caught up in a vicious cycle of unfulfilled expectations, shattered hopes and dreams, disillusionment, and more – albeit adjusted – expectations. The way out of this cycle is to start by asking ourselves the right – and perhaps uncomfortable – questions.

[Now, please take some quiet time, read each question, pause after the question, answer it for yourself, honestly. Then move on to the next …]

When we arrive at the barn, what do we really see?  Is it what is before us?  Or is it our vision of what we want to be or achieve?  And is our horse – our colleague in this endeavor – a partner or a slave to our ambitions and desires?

Is our goal predicated on a picture in a magazine, a moment frozen in time, a video, an idea, a concept, a wish, a book telling us that – yes – we too can look like and be THIS…if only we will follow a certain method or buy a certain product or gadget…

What is meaningful horse work?  It is work that is considerate, fair, helpful, firm (when necessary) and facilitates long term understanding in relationship  of the two parties involved.

Wscared-horse-200x132hat is the difference between “disobedience” and learning? Is it possible that what we interpret as disrespect or unwillingness to perform certain tasks, may be in reality lack of understanding? The horse showing us what he knows and that he is unable – not unwilling – to fulfill the request?   Or that perhaps our question isn’t clear. What is accomplished by demanding that certain things happen – even though it may be physically or emotionally impossible for the horse to comply?

What is the process of learning that we need to understand?  Making mistakes and struggling means: Your horse is trying to figure out a way to accomplish what you are asking. He is not avoiding the question!

“Remember, it is not about the task, it is about how we come to it. Is it with willing cooperation or grudging resentment?  The choice is ours.” (Anita Kush)

Riding is not about “riding”.  It is about everything that happens before we even get to the mounting block.  Getting on is the culmination of the totality of the relationship between you and your horse.  No gadget or video can give you the answer. There is no one size fits all method or equipment.  See beyond mechanics and arm yourself with deeper knowledge.

The horse has all the answers! Look at the horse in front of you: He’ll always tell you the truth and live up to your expectations. Learn to expect what you want to see – a non-confrontational, cooperative and mindful interaction with your horse!

anita

Anita Kush

[If you are interested in a consultation with Anita Kush, please see her bio here or call +18477910494 or email caprioles at hotmail dot com.]

Let’s Talk Training Scale! Part 1 – Relaxation

Relaxation: The mental factor

There is much talk about the German ‘Training Scale’ in the context of horse training and in many a barns – especially with dressage focus – we’ll find posters, images or signs on the walls, showing the 6 elements of the training scale or training pyramid.

GermanTrainingScale_RelaxSupple

Before we discuss the mental factors of relaxation, let’s remind ourselves of the origins of the German Training Scale:

The Training Scale (Skala der Ausbildung) first appears as a 6-step concept in the 1937 version of the “H. Dv. 12 German Cavalry Manual: On the Training Horse and Rider”.  At the same time, Siegfried von Haugk – cavalry officer, head of the remount school Oschatz and co-author of the HDV12 – created an updated version of the army hand book on “Teaching Riding to Recruits”, which contained – for the first time – the description of the 6-step systematic training system in sequence as we know it today.  The HDV12 is – essentially – the basis for today’s FN Principles of Riding. The ‘principles’ were altered, however, to meet the needs of today’s recreational riders. In recent years, the panel responsible for the content of these principles has decided on a return to some of the original teachings of the HDV12 to ensure horse welfare.

While ‘Rhythm’ is the first element of the Training Scale and basic foundation in the schooling of the young horse, the late Olympic gold medalist Dr. Reiner Klimke valued Suppleness (Relaxation) above all. We can find suppling exercises in his and his daughter Ingrid’s books (for example Basic Training of the Young Horse: Dressage, Jumping, Cross-country) as well as in the HDV12.

But are there preconditions for even getting to suppleness?
Is there a step before the step?

The answer is YES: We need to embark on a ‘Path to Relaxation/Suppleness’, meaning

  1. Eliminate any factors that cause the horse to brace
  2. Release any existing tension in the horse (and rider!)
  3. Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse

This ‘path’ never ends! It must be introduced before Suppleness can be expected. However, it is not a ‘step’ that we accomplish and then move on. We need to actively and consciously incorporate these three important ‘paths’ into our schooling – and the learning as well as the rewards will never stop.

Let’s look a little closer at these 3 elements on the path to suppleness

1. Eliminate factors that cause the horse to brace

Bracing is a reaction on part of the horse, where the horse protects himself against an external influence causing pain or discomfort. This can also be mental discomfort! In response, the horse will constantly contract muscles, not only fatiguing or even damaging these muscles, but also skeletal elements that these muscles are attached to. Relaxed, supple movement becomes impossible. Here some examples for factors that can cause bracing in the horse:

  • Ill-fitting tack
  • Incorrect use of spurs
  • Tightly adjusted bridles
  • Hard rider hands
  • Rider seat lacking suppleness
  • Inconsistent aids
    RTEmagicC_11_31_Losgelassenheit3.gif
    This horse is bracing in the head-neck junction and the upper neck.

    And more…

The goal: Identify those factors that cause bracing in your horse. Caution: This is not a ‘one fits all’ process, but a very individualized look at what your horse is expressing and an investigation into possible causes. Then eliminate these factors and replace with something that works for horse and rider, but allows the horse to move freely.

Note: Bracing is not always bad… When catching a basketball, you brace against the impact. The key is to be able to let go afterwards! Constant, habitual bracing is the problem.

2. Release existing tension in the horse (and rider)

037small
A simple Masterson Method exercise to release tension in the hind end.

Once certain bracing patterns or negative movement habits are established, the horse carries tension that he is unable to release himself. These tense, constantly contracted muscles, muscle spasms, lack of flexibility, limited range of motion translates into lack of suppleness. To get a fresh start on your Path to Performance™, you need to create a ‘clean slate’ by releasing tension and restriction and thus create the possibility of learning new movement or postural habits. For both rider and horse, this can be accomplished by:

  • Bodywork & massage
  • Guided exercises
  • Active stretching
  • Myiofascial release

And more…

The goal: Find areas where tension & restriction resides and release it through various modalities, enabling the body to find a whole new way of moving in a relaxed way.

3. Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse

You are strolling down a busy street on a sunny Saturday afternoon – leisurely shopping pleasure. Suddenly, you hear a loud crash only a few yards away. A car accident! How does your body feel? Without any of your conscious doing, your body will show the typical human stress response posture: tucked in chest and abdominals, shoulders rounded forward, knees slightly bent, head moves forward (basically our modern ‘smart phone’ posture…) – and increased blood sugar and blood pressure, heart rate and sweating.

whataface
This rehab horse had a tense facial expression upon arrival.

The horse – as a prey animal – has an even more fine-tuned physical response to stress. These physical responses can be so subtle, that we relatively loud-mouthed, always on the ‘go’ humans, do not even notice. Here a short list of the horse’s physical responses to stress:

  • Hollowed back or braced back
  • Holding abdominals tight (sheath makes wind-sucking noise when trotting)
  • Shallow, fast breath
  • Grinding teeth
  • Tight-lipped muzzle
  • Overall tension and short-striding

An many more….

The key to avoiding these physical stress responses is to eliminate stress. Easier said than done! Are you causing your horse stress? You may not think so. But once you experience truly non-confrontational dialog with your horse, you will see a difference.

The goal: Creating a relaxed mental platform on which horse and rider and interact productively without the barriers of stress response, which always leads to physical tension.

Got it? Got A-B-C covered? Then off you go, enjoy your success with Suppling Exercises!

If you have questions or would like to dive into these topics a little deeper, I recommend my seminar “Path to Performance™ I – Releasing Tension & Restriction”.

Here some more resources:

The Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book

Basic Training of the Young Horse: Dressage, Jumping, Cross-country

Beyond Horse Massage: A Breakthrough Interactive Method for Alleviating Soreness, Strain, and Tension

H. Dv. 12 German Cavalry Manual: On the Training Horse and Rider

As always – be well and enjoy your horse!

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Stefanie Reinhold

How to Chose a Bit that Works for Your Horse

5 Questions that help make the right choice.

Bitting is a complicated topic, but I hope to make it a little easier for you to ask yourself the right questions. The answers to those questions can then be your guide to finding the right bit.

  1. What lies beneath (the muzzle)?

The muzzle is a sensitive, complex part of the horse’s sensory system. In the best case scenario – suitable bit and sensitive, light hands – it is therefore also a perfect ‘communication hub’ between rider hand and horse brain. In the worst case scenario – the wrong bit and rough rein influence – it becomes the scene of torture.

We need to look beneath the muzzle to determine:

  • How wide is your horse’s lower jaw?
  • How concave or flat is the cavity of your horse’s palate?
  • What is the angle/shape of your horse’s ‘bars’ (the toothless lower part where the bit rests)? Is it shaped like a roof, with a small contact area? Or is the contact area flat, wide and fleshy or anything in between?
  • How thick is your horse’s tongue?
  • Last not least: Any old injuries/scars/odd tooth arrangement or presence of ‘wolf teeth’?

Lift your horse’s lip, feel around, carefully grab the tongue, stroke over the bars, touch the palate and explore its shape, open your horse’s mouth and observe any visual clues. In other words: familiarize yourself with the landscape of your horse’s mouth.

  1. What does the exterior of the muzzle look like?
Explore the external muzzle.
Explore the external muzzle.

After you have explored the inside of your horse’s mouth through palpation and visual exploration, it is time to look at the outside.

  • How long is your horse’s mouth (meaning the opening, where does the corner of the mouth end relative to the nostril)?
  • Do you notice any chafing or cracking, warts, or scarring?
  • How deep is the chin groove?
  • How fleshy is the muzzle?

These factors – in combination with the factors above – are important when it comes to choosing the right bit and bridle. (E. g.: A horse with a short mouth will not do well with a dropped noseband. A horse with a long mouth does not need ‘2 wrinkles’ to have the bit in the right position.)

  1. What is the horse’s personality?
  • Energy level: Anything from laid back or ‘pokey’ to forward and energetic. Rate your horse on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the highest energy level.
  • Strong-mindedness: Even with the best of training, there are horses, who insist on their own agenda more often than other, more agreeable types. It is important to be realistic about this. (No excuses! Bad training does not count!) Rate your horse on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the most strong-minded.
  • Sensitivity: This plays a bit into the physical make-up and also the history of the horse. A former school horse can be quite dull in the mouth (mentally and physically), another horse has lots of sensitive nerves and reacts to the smallest closing of the hands. Rate your horse from 1-10, with 10 being the most sensitivity.

NOTE: If you are unsure because the horse may be new to you, take your time and enlist the help of a friend or trainer to gently and respectfully explore the respective area with your horse.

  1. What is the horse’s job and training level?

Considering the horse’s riding discipline and training level is key. Rate your horse on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the highest level that can be attained in your discipline.

  1. What can be expected by the rider?

What type of rider will handle this horse’s reins? Rate the skill level as it pertains to a) independent seat and b) careful and sensitive use of the reins and soft hands, on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being a very balanced rider with skilled, soft hands.

Some general rules of thumb:

  • A young horse and/or a horse with little training should have the gentlest bit possible. The Herm Sprenger Dynamic RS snaffle bit, for example, can be a good choice.
  • Bits with leverage or double bridles only belong into the mouths of horses with the appropriate training level and under a skilled rider.
  • Rider safety is first. If you ride competitive trail or endurance, for example, and you have a high-strung animal, you need to take this into consideration. And yes, bits sometimes do stop horses.
  • A simple snaffle bit of some type will do fine for most applications – from dressage over trail riding to show jumping – if horse and rider are appropriately trained.
  • Snaffle bits with leverage are especially harsh bits! (This includes the ‘Tom Thumb’ bit!)
  • The best-fitting bit can become an instrument of torture under a tight noseband.
  • Broken snaffle bits (French link, for example) are not necessarily gentler. It depends on the horse!

TIP:  For horses with difficult mouth anatomy (thick tongue plus narrow jaw and low palate, for example), or horses with learned bit aversions, try a Meroth leather snaffle. Be sure to not purchase ‘copy cat’ products, as they may contain toxic tanning agents. And only the Meroth bit is 100% leather without steel or plastic core, therefore extra gentle.

Write the results of you explorations on a sheet of paper. Also list your concerns and questions, then contact several bit experts and ask what bit they would recommend for your particular horse and situation.

Chose the bit and answer that makes the most sense to you.

Your horse will be the last judge!

As always, be well and enjoy your horse!

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Stefanie Reinhold

There is a general lack of good, reliable resources and information on the topic of ‘bits and bitting’. Here some resources you might want to explore:

Riding in Lightness – 5 Steps the Get YOU Started

While generalizing is always a bad idea – I’ll start with a little generalizing in order to keep this blog post at a manageable size. The topic – as you well know – fills many a book!

Fritz Stecken riding according to HDV12
Fritz Stecken on Noble. Perfect Lightness!

After, what seems, several decades of lots of pushing, prodding, pulling, and bracing in main stream equestrian sports – namely dressage – the general consensus seems to be getting back to a more classical approach, i. e. Lightness! Luckily for our horses, there has been increased buzz around classical riding websites and Facebook pages (such as Silvia Loch’s Classical Riding Club or the HDV12 German Cavalry Training Manual. as demonstrated so wonderfully here by Fritz Stecken on Noble). Along with that goes more awareness around so-called ‘modern’ riding techniques that cause bracing, tension and hyperflexion with the respective public criticism (e. g. “Rollkur” type of techniques or tense “circus-like” dressage performances).

But what’s the hype about?

Why Lightness is Necessary

And here King William on a noble steed on a loose rein!

Lightness is to touch what whispering is to voice. Just as pushing, pulling, prodding is to touch what shouting is to voice. As we become more enlightened about the nature of the horse, we learn that our silent, sensitive partners respond better to whispering than to shouting. As ‘loud’ interaction (whether via touch or voice) creates bracing in our horses, ‘soft’ interaction is the key to suppleness. Suppleness is the highest goal and basis for any schooling of the horse, no matter the school (French, Spanish or German).

So we (those of us, who put the horse’s wellbeing first) are looking for ways to become lighter. Lighter in our aids, lighter in our influences, lighter in our interactions with our sensitive equine partners.

Where Does Lightness Start?

Most riders spontaneously think of the reins. Indeed, sensitive, light rein contact is an expression of lightness. However, lightness starts at a deeper level: The mental and physical relaxation and suppleness of the rider, which can then find its expression in riding in lightness, developed through careful and systematic training (and ‘un’training!).

Getting Started With Lightness – Before Climbing in the Saddle

You don’t have to wait until you sit on the horse to work on your lightness. As a matter of fact, once you climb aboard, it’s hard to work on yourself. Mental & physical suppleness, which finds its expression in lightness, is best started in our every day activities.

5 Tips on How To Develop Lightness

  1. Practice Mindfulness – While this sounds like something out of a Buddhist retreat manual, it’s rather simple. 10 minutes a day of focusing on the ‘here & now’ won’t turn you into a meditation expert, but can do much for your ability to relax and be in the presence, a useful skill for riders living in the information age. Do this at home, at the office (but not while driving!)  (Resources: The UCLA offers free online meditation audio OR Guided Mindfulness Meditation: A Complete Guided Mindfulness Meditation Program from Jon Kabat-Zinn)
  2. Use Mental Imagery – day-dreaming with a purpose! Research shows that what we mentally train, we have an easier time realizing in ‘real life’. So day-dream away, but with a plan! Imagine yourself riding, then imagine yourself riding in lightness. Isolate various areas of your body, then put the picture together. Tackle anxiety, confidence issues, and limiting beliefs, we well. Do this while waiting at the doctor’s office or on an airplane, for example. (Resources: More about mental imagery for athletes here OR The Art of Mental Training: A Guide to Performance Excellence (Collector’s Edition))
  3. A Little Stretching – goes a long way! Find a good time of day to incorporate some stretching exercises. 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes at night can make all the difference! Many stretching exercises can be done during breaks at work, too! (Resources: Free fitness videos by FitnessBlender OR The Anatomy of Stretching, Second Edition: Your Illustrated Guide to Flexibility and Injury Rehabilitation)
  4. Improve Mobility – suppleness starts with your mobility. Overcome aches and restrictions that we accumulate through our every day or work activities. (Resources: Speak to someone at your gym about foam rolling OR The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body)
  5. Last not Least – ditch unnecessary stress! Mental stressors cause tension in the body. Take a conscious look at what stresses you in your life and see what you can eliminate (e. g. the dog walker, who is always late; the hairdresser, who just can’t get it quite right; possible overcommittments, etc.)

Hope you will feel inspired to create Lightness in your life. It’s bound to make Riding with Lightness so much easier!

Enjoy your horse & be well!

A light touch in all your interaction with your horse.
Have a light touch in all your interaction with your horse.

Stefanie Reinhold

“No Drama Worming” for the Lazy Horse Person

How to give wormer, medication, or electrolytes without battling the horse

Battling the horse for any reason is never a good idea. Even if we manage to muscle our way to goal achievement, both horse and human are left with a bad taste in their mouth, wormer or not. Any interaction between horse and human should be one of mutual understanding and cooperation, whenever possible.

Even the most well-meaning horse people, however, cave under the task of giving their horse an oral dose of wormer. Even for those, who practice fecal testing, it does become necessary to administer the foul-tasting chemical to the animal from time to time. No, I don’t buy the ‘apple flavor’! My horse’s face tells me that the stuff is not equine Godiva…

Over time, I have observed the following futile attempts to get the horse to accept the syringe and swallow the wormer:

  • Ear twitching (very, very dangerous to the horse’s ear cartilage!!!)
  • Tongue twitching (danger of fracturing small bones inside and connected to tongue!!!)
  • Use of nose twitch (while not downright dangerous, should be reserved for real emergencies)
  • Desperately hanging on to the halter (will help you spread wormer all over your new shirt)
  • Spreading the wormer over food (will entice the horse to spread the food all over the ground, this used to be my method of choice…)
  • and other similarly ineffective or drama-soaked techniques.

But what to do? The endurance riders among you probably already do it: You need to give your horse electrolytes during rides and probably practiced that with well-tasting syringe contents first. The trick is: Get your horse to happily accept syringes before approaching with the ill-tasting stuff!

apple sauce and syringe
An empty syringe and some apple sauce.

This is the solution that will solve the problem in the long run and make worming ‘a piece of cake’:

What you need:

  • Empty syringes (farm supply store)
  • Unsweetened apple sauce (individual serving cups work well)
  • Any type of halter
  • A little patience

Every time you see your horse, find an opportunity to fill a syringe with apple sauce and gently move your hand with the syringe around the horse’s mouth. In the beginning, your horse may react unfavorably, thinking you are approaching with the wormer.

apple sauce in syringe
Fill the syringe with apple sauce—several times, if needed.

Don’t insist that your horse look at the syringe, simply make it available around the horse’s head. Curiosity will eventually lead the horse to take a sniff and let you touch his lips with the syringe. While your goal is to eventually be able to squirt the contents into your horse’s mouth, take your time and plan for several sessions.

horse with wormer
For day 1, a soft eye around the syringe is a good goal.

Tips:

  • Don’t ‘push’ the syringe on the horse. Hold it near the horse’s mouth and let it be the horse’s idea to approach it.
  • Be satisfied with small progress. A soft eye, not moving away from the syringe, may be a good goal for the first day.
  • Don’t have an agenda. Your horse will tell you when he is ready to give this a try.
  • Let the horse think that it is his idea to take the syringe into his mouth.
  • From then on, it’s smooth sailing!

There will be some disappointment after the first time the syringe does not contain apple sauce, but you can remedy this by squirting apple sauce into the horse’s mouth right after the wormer. He’ll take his chances with you again.

Let me know how this worked for you and leave a comment!

Enjoy your horse!

Stefanie Reinhold

horse taking wormer
Let it be the horse’s idea!

On rope halters, hackamores, bitless bridles—’natural’ or potentially harmful?

WARNING: This article was posted 4 years ago. Experience now proves that this article may send some readers into a flying rage or emotional outburst, which is then expressed in very long emails or comments to this post. All comments to this post are approved by me and I will gladly approve differing opinions, but not negativity and outbursts. PLEASE read this article with an open mind. Its basic message is: Rope halters, hackamores, bitless bridles are generally NO more gentle nor ‘natural’ to the horse and can – just like a bit – cause injury, pain, discomfort, stress in the horse. The solution: Learn how to ride with a light hand and an independent seat to do right by your horse. Learn proper training techniques that work without pain coercion. Please also note (and see picture): I DO USE A ROPE HALTER when indicated, on both my horses and rehab horses in the past.

horse with wormer
A rope halter on an appy mare I rehabbed.This brief introduction will hopefully help put things into perspective for those, who are on the defensive right after reading the title.

As the horse world is evolving and people across all disciplines are striving for a generally more humane approach to horsemanship—focusing on relationship and gentlenss—there has been a shift from traditional halters, bits and bridles to alternative solutions that are perceived to be more ‘natural’.

Apart from the fact that I don’t believe there to be anything ‘natural’ about riding, driving or otherwise using horses for our purposes in the first place, I want to question the ‘naturalness’ and also the humanenessss or gentleness of some of these devices.

Let’s do a bit of semi-scientific investigation of halters, bridles and other tools commonly used to restrain and control our horses or to simply ‘keep him in the neighborhood’.

The ‘rope halter’

horse with rope halter
My horse Paladin with a light-weight rope halter

The rope halter is made of rope of various thickness or flexibility. It features strategically placed knots that send ‘signals’ to the horse and in that aid the handler in controling the animal. Here a description of a ‘Be Nice Halter’—a certain type of rope halter—on the website of a well-known equine supply retailer:
“The halter for complete control every time you handle a horse. When the animal resists, the halter tightens and pressure is applied to nerve areas on the head. As the animal relaxes, pressure is instantly relieved, rewarding good behavior.”  (Note: Not all rope halters tighten, this is an extremely harsh halter.)
1773 users give this halter 5 stars. Excellent! We can conclude that the halter keeps its promise: Absolute control via pressure on sensitive facial nerves results in desired results for the handler.

What does it mean for the horse?

nerves of the horse’s head (from the University of Lincoln)

The horse’s face is lined with a network of sensitive nerves that exit the skull around the middle of the face and extend into the muzzle. There is also an abundance of nerves right behind the ears, a very sensitive area. Note: This is where stallions bite during their stallion fights, they know it hurts!

Let’s embark on a little practical experiment to understand what this may feel like: Find an area of your own body that is bony, meaning having little flesh between bone and skin, and has a lot of nerves, for example your shin. Sit comfortably on a chair and put your leg up on another chair. Now take a rope halter with the knot on your shin and and attach a weight of about 2-3 pounds (about the weight of a 22′ longe line with brass buckle) on it for about 30 minutes. Keep tugging on it to simulate the effect of a handler adding some pressure to the weight of longe line and brass buckle. If you have a 22′ longe line with brass buckle, feel free to weigh it before the experiment, just to make sure we get it right. Do the exact same thing on the exact same spot the next day and the day after.

Feeling good? Probably not. But you may just have discovered a way to get your teen to take the trash out: “Get that bag out there or I’ll pull out my rope halter!”

By nature—due to the roundness of the rope and the resulting thin area of contact with the horse’s skin—the rope halter puts a lot of focal pressure on the horse’s facial nerves in the area of the knots and also, aided by gravity, behind the ears and on the front of the face. Combine small area of contact with a heavy brass buckle and a 12-22′ longe line (together, weighing close to 3 pounds), add the effects of gravity, consider the super sensitive nerves in the horse’s face and behind his poll and the result is a formula that can result in pain induced

  • negative movement habits
  • head throwing
  • face paralysis
  • unwillingness and other behavior issues
  • an ‘upside down’ horse
  • numbing of nerves, muzzles or facial areas
  • chronic tension in the poll and TMJ.

My thoughts: There may be a place for the short-term, responsible application of rope halters in combination with an attached, light-weight lead rope without buckle (I purchased such a halter in Montana in 2007 and still use it on occasion.) For every-day use, a flat nylon webbing halter with leather break-away head piece or a flat leather halter is the humane method of handling your horse.

If you horse does not respect this connection, you have a training issue, not an equipment issue. A rope halter should never be used during

a) bodywork or b) longing.

A) It will cause occasional discomfort and distract the horse from the bodywork.

B) Unless in cases of extreme behavior challenges and for short-term, special-case application, you will want to use a flat halter, a longe caveson or even a bridle with a gentle bit for longing. All this is more pleasant to the horse and will enable him to move freely without pain.

Standardbred with a leather halter
My Paladin modeling a leather halter.

The Hackamore

A hackamore works along the same principles as a rope halter. It puts strong focal pressure on very sensitive areas of the horse’s face. It is NOT a more humane solution than any kind of bit. Rather, it’s meant for a skilled and knowledgable rider/trainer, who can work with this tool to increase the responsiveness of a horse. If you don’t have ‘breaks’ on your horse, a hackamore will NOT be a good solution, only a very painful fix for a deeper training issue. If you are not experienced in the use of a hackamore, get an experienced trainer’s input and advice, to see if you and your horse are ready for a hackamore.

The bitless bridle

Even though softer and with less focal pressure, the bitless bridle works along the same lines as above. In addition, some styles constrict the horse’s head, a feeling that is so unpleasant to the horse that it will strive to be obedient to avoid this feeling. If you are planning to use a bitless bridle, observe your horse carefully. If the desired effect (obedience) comes with wide eyes and a raised head, it’s not working for your horse.

Conclusion

  • The horse’s face, head and poll area is lined with ultra-sensitive nerves.
  • Rope halters, hackamores and some bitless bridles enable the handler to use a pain response to control the horse.
  • Pain-based control tools can result in behavior and physical issues (see examples above).
  • They seem to temporarily solve control problems, but your horse will pay the price in the long run.

Recommendation

  • Re-examine the tools you are currently using.
  • Don’t rely on trainers, marketers, fellow horse-people or even literature (including this article!) to make
  • decisions around the use of so-called ‘natural’ tools.
  • Put yourself in your horse’s shoes, visualize or physically try the tool on yourself and then restrategize, if needed.
  • There is no substitute for proper training. If you feel you need more control, find a trainer that is in line with your own general philosphy, even if it’s against the ‘popular belief’.

Enjoy your horse!

Stefanie with an Arabian in a flat webbing halter for bodywork.

Stefanie Reinhold