I have been riding for eight months at a stable and am taking classes once-twice a week as well as clinics. I bought a horse from the stables I go to; he is a twelve year old Arab and a very forgiving horse but in the last two months he has started to pull on the bit. I am finding this very, very frustrating. My teacher is a very good trainer as well as a teacher. Just this weekend she told me to try a softer bit, and there was no pulling. I went out the next day to ride and he started to pull again. At first we maybe thought when he is getting tired he pulls, but it can be ten minutes into the ride and he starts to pull again. I thought maybe it could be his teeth but his teeth were checked when he was bought and they were fine. Would you please be able to give me advice into what else I could try? I am going into a show this weekend with him and when he pulls on the bit it causes me to not enjoy my ride.
Pulling on the bit, rooting the reins and head tossing are always caused by the same thing: the rider. This is not a human with a horse problem, but rather a horse with a human problem; and a very common one at that, so don’t feel too badly.
The reason why he did not do this for the first few months you had him is that he tolerated the unrelenting and unfeeling contact on his mouth (or it wasn't as bad at first). At some point he reached his limit and began to pull against your contact, begging and pleading for a release and undoubtedly it worked to his advantage and he got some rein away from you, even if only for a brief second, thus rewarding his behavior.
The first thing to fix is you. Talk this over with your instructor and she should be able to teach you how and when to release the contact. Even if you are riding English, in my opinion you should not be riding on direct contact until you are much more advanced in your riding. You would never want to ride with direct contact out on the trail, because you want your horse to be calm and relaxed and be able to use his head naturally to balance.
Although the rider inadvertently trains a horse to lean on the bit, root the reins or toss his head, once the problem behavior begins, it is challenging to correct it without making the problem worse. The first thing always to ask yourself with any riding problem is, "what am I doing that is causing my horse to act this way?" Chances are you are holding too tight a contact for no reason. But you cannot release at that moment when he pulls because then you are rewarding his behavior.
The first thing I would do on a horse that has learned this defensive behavior, is make sure I was riding him on a totally loose rein and only taking contact momentarily when I had to cue him to turn or stop, with an instantaneous and dramatic release. He will probably do some experimenting by pulling his head down very low to see just how much rein he has and I will let him drag his nose on the ground if he wants (if I do not give him anything to pull against, it is a fruitless behavior). When he does root or pull on a shorter rein (which he will because this has become ingrained learned behavior), I lock my hand on the rein, or even lock my hand against the pommel, so that he roots into a very fixed rein and hits himself in the mouth. If he does not get any release and instead punishes himself when he pulls, he'll quit; but only if the rider holds up her end of the bargain: to not hang on his mouth. As with all horse training, how effective you are as a trainer depends on how quickly you can either correct or reward (release) the horse. To correct this behavior, the correction (the bump he gives himself in the mouth) has to be instantaneous with the pull. By the time you've thought about what to do, it is probably too late to be effective. Timing is everything for a horse. You have a 3 second window of opportunity to reward or correct, but the optimal time is half a second. If the correction comes that quickly, his behavior will be eliminated almost immediately. And if he is rewarded by not having constant static pressure on his mouth when he is doing his job, he’ll turn back into the solid citizen that he was when you got him.
If you can change your way of riding and have more awareness is your hands, your horse will change right away.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
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