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Starting Romeo: Part 2 Bridling and Learning to Give

In this exclusive training series, Kate Fenner from Kandoo Equine will take you deep into the essential foundation lessons for any horse. Last month, Romeo learned basic handling, including haltering, grooming, picking up feet and tying up. This month,  it’s bridling and learning to give. 

Join us for the whole of 2018 and watch the un-started, five-year-old Friesian gelding, Romeo, gradually work through each of the lessons and why not follow along with your own horse?

Whether your horse is un-started or already going under saddle, but you feel these are areas that need a little work, you’re in the right place. 

Before you start

In Part 1, I showed you how Romeo stood, without being restrained, for having his feet done and grooming. This pre-lesson work sets the stage for the lesson itself, helps get the horse into the Engagement Zone (see the March 2017 issue of Horses and People or click here) for learning and begins to build that bubble of communication we are going to need when riding. An important part of this is tacking up, especially bridling.

As you follow along with this series of articles, you may be starting your own horse, or perhaps re-starting one that lacks solid foundation training.

Whichever category your horse falls into, your choice of bit is very important when dealing with an educationally young horse. My personal preference is a full cheek jointed snaffle with a lozenge. This particular bit, when fitted correctly, has limited movement to prevent the nutcracker effect of some snaffles.

Have a look at this short video comparing snaffle bits.

Whether you’re working an un-started youngster or a more experienced horse, it’s a good idea to go through this important lesson step-by-step. It is here the horse often has their first introduction to negative reinforcement – pressure-release – and much of their future training will be based upon this type of reinforcement schedule.

Head down

The first thing to do is to teach the horse to lower their head for bridling.

Romeo stands at about 16hh (18.3hh when he’s nervous… Or so it seems!) And, personally, height is not one of my best features – being a mere 5’3” (shod). So, for this task, Romeo must come to me.

Last month, we discussed putting the head collar on the horse and I showed you a way to do that without necessarily teaching the ‘head down’ cue first. This is useful because it’s sometimes difficult to reach the horse’s poll, as Romeo taught me (see Image A).

You can use the head collar and lead rope to apply gentle pressure to the poll.

Simply hold even pressure on the rope until your horse drops their head – even a centimetre – and then release all pressure as soon as the horse lowers their head (Download the pdf version of this article to see Images B and C).

Here, you’re teaching the horse to respond to the ‘head down’ cue, which is a simple pressure cue to the poll.

While you’re teaching this, expect the horse to raise their head between attempts and re-apply pressure when they do. Your horse will soon learn the pattern – raise head, feel pressure; lower head, pressure is released.

Bridling

Now your horse has learned the ‘head down’ cue and is relaxed with a low head, they’re in a good position to be bridled. If this is the first time you’ve bridled the horse, then I suggest you do some habituation work without the bit attached to the bridle.

To do this, simply remove the bit from your bridle, and slip the bridle on and off the horse – paying careful attention when handling their ears. If you find your horse is not comfortable with this process, then I suggest you do some more habituation work before starting the bridling and ‘give to the bit’ lesson.

One of the advantages of webbing headcollars (the less expensive ones, that is) is the buckle on the nosepiece. Slip the bridle on over the headcollar (Download the pdf version of this article to see Image D) and then simply undo both buckles and slide the headcollar off the horse (Download the pdf version of this article to see Image E).

Once in place, adjust the bridle to fit your horse with a wrinkle in their lip, just above the bit. If you’re using a noseband, be sure you can insert at least two fingers underneath it – this needs to be done right in the middle of the horse’s nose, on the nasal plane, not at the soft area on the side of the face above the bit.

As you can see in Image F, Romeo is wearing my every day, work bridle – a simple leather strap over the head.

Give to the bit 

Whether your horse is un-started, off-the-track or a dressage schoolmaster, the ‘give to the bit’ lesson will be a useful addition to their education.

For the less-educated horse, it’s a gentle introduction to negative reinforcement, and teaches them to engage with you and look for answers in movement.

For the older and sometimes ‘hard-mouthed’ horse, it’s a simple way to re-sensitise them to rein cues and re-engage them with learning.

We begin the lesson at a stand-still, but have a dressage whip with you, because if your horse wants to move, it’s important they only move forward. We really don’t want the horse backing away from the pressure. If your horse does back up, simply lift your whip to the hip and encourage them forward again, then offer them another opportunity to stand still.

Romeo is wearing a pair of long split reins. I particularly like these reins for teaching this exercise, because I don’t have to worry about the off rein getting too long or looped – I simply leave it over the neck.

If you have a set, great; if not, just try to remember we’re only teaching this lesson from one side at a time – meaning you should never have any pressure on the rein on the opposite side of the horse.

We’ll begin by handling only the left rein from the left side. After that, we can go to the other side of the horse to teach the right rein; at which stage the left rein will be looped over the neck (Download the pdf version of this article to see Image A on the next page).

The first step is to pick up a little pressure on the left rein and wait for the horse to give to that pressure.

Your position is important here (Download the pdf version of this article to see Image B on the next page). Try to hold the rein at a similar angle, as it will be when you’re riding; this way there is one less step for the horse to learn a new rein angle when it’s time to ride this exercise.

In Image B, you’ll see I have the dressage whip in my right hand and that is resting on Romeo’s wither. With my hand here, I can easily lift the whip when needed and, more importantly, give Romeo a nice scratch as a reward (positive reinforcement) when he gives to the pressure (negative reinforcement).

You can also see I am standing at Romeo’s shoulder, about a foot away from him. In the next lesson, which will appear in the next issue, we’re going to start moving the horse’s shoulders and will need to change our body language to help the horse with that, so try to be aware of where you are standing at this stage.

Hold that gentle pressure (Download the pdf version of this article to see Image B) until the horse gives, or moves into the pressure by dropping their nose slightly and bending their neck a little to the left (Download the pdf version of this article to see Image C). Then, immediately release the pressure by making a loop in the rein, and give the horse verbal praise and a scratch on the wither as reward for finding the correct answer.

The pressure you apply should be steady and the horse needs to move into that pressure to ‘give’. This is one reason the full-cheek snaffle is such a good bit for this lesson – it puts some pressure on the other side of the horse’s face, encouraging movement in the direction we are wanting.

Remember, it’s the horse that makes the movement. We are not trying to pull the horse’s head around – your hand stays still and the horse’s head moves. Bending the horse’s head too far around to the side as shown in Image D (when you download the pdf version) is unproductive and will cause the horse discomfort if done repeatedly.

Release the rein and praise the horse when you get a small amount of lateral movement as shown in Image C.

Try hard not to ‘give and take’ or ‘play with the bit’, because each time you release pressure, you’re telling the horse they found the correct answer.

If the horse has not given when you release the pressure, even momentarily, then you are simply confusing the horse.

As riders, we’re often taught to wiggle the bit with the aim of softening the horse in the bridle, but this action is more likely to be confusing to the horse.

You’re teaching the horse a pattern, as always, and the pattern goes like this for the horse:

  1. I feel pressure on the bit.
  2. I relax, lower my nose and move my head to the side a little.
  3. All pressure instantly goes away and I get a nice scratch.

It’s a simple pattern and one the horse will learn quickly. In fact, if you’re quick and consistent with your release, after a few repetitions, you may even find your horse anticipating the pressure and ‘giving to the bit’, even before you’ve picked up the rein. This is exactly what we want the horse to do because they are now working off the lightest of pressure cues and responding before the pressure reaches the bit.

How much pressure? 

So, how much pressure should you apply? Pressure is your motivator, and you need to apply enough pressure to motivate your horse to change what they’re doing and move their head.

For the dressage schoolmaster that is accustomed to large amounts of unrelenting pressure, this may be a lot of pressure for the first few repetitions. Whereas the youngster that has never worn a bridle before and has not been desensitised to bit pressure, simply picking up the rein may invoke the movement you want.

The thing to always remember is we are working towards less and less pressure, having the horse become lighter and softer in the bridle. So, each time you pick up the rein, see if you can get the same result from a little less pressure.

This lesson, at a stand-still, should be taught from both sides of the horse, as shown in the pictures of Romeo.

In the next lesson, we’re going to get those feet moving! We’ll look at same-rein-same-foot and reverse-arc when we start to teach Romeo shoulder control.

Check out Dr Kate Fenner’s podcast for more step-by-step, ethical and sustainable horse training courses.

This article was published in Horses and People April 2018 magazine or buy the whole series as an e-book.

Dr Kate Fenner, BEqSc (Hons), PhD

Kate is an equine scientist with a PhD in horse behaviour and training from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science. She is also an equestrian coach (Equestrian Australia and British Horse Society) and horse trainer (John and Josh Lyons Certified Trainer). Kate has ridden, trained and competed in Dressage, Jumping, Western and Polo in Australia, Europe, the United States and Asia.

After years of experience starting horses for clients, Kate feels strongly that owners are best served by learning to train their own horses. As a result, she founded Kandoo Equine and has developed a series of ethical, easy to follow, step-by-step guides that are suitable for horses and riders of all levels.

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