A “Second Opinion”?

Winter has arrived, at least for now.

Horses tend to get a little friskier when the winter comes, even if the temperature at that day is not terribly cold. With the changing daylight hormones change, and the shorter daylight hours may bring up instinctive ancestral memories of cold weather=increased predation.

Cider was pretty mellow about everything last Sunday. She sort of grumbled under her breath for being asked to work some, but it was the usual arthritic grouchiness from the colder weather. We plodded around the ring peacefully. Then a dog who lives across the road came onto Shannon's land and Shannon was trying to shoo him away. Shannon has lost a few chickens to predation lately and this dog always seemed to be around then.

So Shannon was trying to shoo the dog off. Since the dog was not in the ring he sort of ignored her. I gave Shannon my crop to amplify her arm movements, turned Cider away from the fence, and Shannon started whacking the pipe corral with the crop.

Cider started to bolt. I was on light contact, I closed my fingers and after a split second I released the tension on the reins, making good and sure that there was no tension on the curb rein. Cider halted, and she stood on sagging reins while Shannon beat the pipe corral with my crop scaring the dog further off. Cider did not even flinch after the first whack.

Now, in 50 years I have had several “discussions” with horses when they got scared from an unusual noise behind them. These discussions have been with my regular snaffle bits. Usually the horse starts off by starting to bolt, slamming into the bit. Then the discussion starts after I release the tension on the reins a little bit. The horses start off with “But Mom, it may be DANGEROUS!” to which I reply “stand still, it is OK.” Usually this repeats around 3 or 4 times with me gradually escalating the strength of my hand aids before the horse reluctantly stands, tense and frightened, usually not relaxing completely for a minute or two. I have gone through this a few times in the years I have ridden Cider.

But this time it was different. Her response was “OK” and she relaxed as if she had no worries as Shannon continued to make noise behind her. She was relaxed, showed no signs of fretfulness, and acted as if everything was all right in her world. She could see Shannon, she kept an eye on the dog, and when we moved off she gave me her usual relaxed, calm walk.

With the double bridle I am getting the impression that the horses are using the extra bit as confirmation, a "second opinion" as it were, answering the horse's questions of “Are you really sure? Did you really mean that? Why should I even listen to you? Am I safe?” This is not because I am hauling on the reins, I might have a momentary firm hold on the bradoon rein and I always release tension on the curb reins immediately. Then I advance my hands to encourage the horse to lower its head, reach for connection and calm down.

Over the decades I learned that the WORST thing a rider can do when a horse starts to bolt is to hang onto the reins. If the horse has slammed into the bit you can be sure that the horse's mouth will start to hurt, and if the pain continues the horse finds validation in its decision to run away, but this time the horse makes the decision because its mouth hurts. Danger=mouth hurting=all the more reason to run away as fast as the horse can. Relaxing the reins reduces the pain giving the horse a chance to evaluate the situation and decide it can live with the scary sensation which isn't so bad after all.

These pandemic winter weeks have ended up interfering a lot with my lessons. Wednesday there was rain so I did not ride. I had set up with Debbie for me to get my lesson on Friday but she warned me that getting ready for the show at the stable this weekend might interfere. That is what happened, Debbie was not at the stable when we arrived, Darryl told me Debbie was busy and he brought MJ in to the wash stall. He got one of Debbie's students, Mary, who was cleaning stalls to come over and help me. This girl has to be a competent horsewoman, Debbie has her riding and re-schooling a rather difficult TB mare. I was so grateful to get the help, the temperature had dropped to just a little bit above freezing and there was a brisk north breeze. As Mary cleaned out MJ's hooves she told me how she was working the mare, what she had to work on further, and generally gave me the impression that she knew what she was doing as far as retraining a horse goes.

Mary continued to help me groom and tack up, telling me she'd rather do that than clean the stalls right then. Mary likes MJ who has gathered a considerable fan club at Debbie's stable. The general consensus is that MJ is FUN to ride, uncomplicated, cooperative, and willing to work with his rider. After Mary groomed his back I immediately put the Fenwick saddle pad on his back and MJ relaxed, put his head down a little bit, and generally looked pleased.

As Mary tacked up MJ I told her why I was using each piece of tack, my rather different saddle pad (the Fenwick Western Pad), my rather different saddle (Pegasus Butterfly Claudia), my RS-tor, and the titanium bits on my double bridle. Mary said she had never used a double bridle and had never put one on a horse so I coached her through it. While she was trying to get all the parts in the proper place MJ voluntarily, on his own, opened his mouth for the bits and he cooperated fully with all the necessary fiddling to get the curb chain hooked up.

I was not wearing any of my BOT or Fenwick stuff myself except for my Fenwick gloves in the stable and walking out to the ring. I took them off to mount and rapidly put them back on again as I had to ride in the second ring where it is windier. The Fenwick gloves worked fine, my hands were warmer than they usually are in regular gloves or even in the BOT gloves. The wind just did not seem to get through these gloves and my fingers stayed toasty warm instead of turning into blocks of ice.

As MJ huddled under his two exercise sheets (one BOT, one a wool blend) he seemed to stay warm. It was not one of my best rides but MJ cooperated adequately as we walked around in the ring in the bitter, bitter cold wind. Since I was wearing my face mask the air I breathed was sort of warmed up and that seemed to help a lot in keeping me feeling warm. I was just glad I got to ride even if it was windy and cold.

When we got back to the barn Debbie finally appeared and apologized for no lesson. I told her not to worry about it and asked about a lesson next Wednesday. This is a maybe, Debbie told me she was planning to take a week off from lessons, but to call her and see how she feels. Right now I am thinking that Debbie deserves a full week off so I probably won't have a lesson next week either though I will still try to ride MJ on Wednesday, weather permitting.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on January 21, 2021 at 8:33am

This is why it is supremely important to release all tension on the reins, that is let the reins sag a little, after the horse slams into the bit.

Then, and only then, can the horse listen to your aids, hand, leg and seat.

By giving the rein somewhat to the horse, even momentarily, is also a grand way of not inciting rearing when horse and human have a heated "discussion", as well as bolting and other unwanted behaviors.

Comment by B. G. Hearns on January 20, 2021 at 9:44pm

Interesting observations about bolting horses, pain in the mouth, and fear of being hurt. I never though of it quite that way. Thank you.

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