A rider curses because her horse refuses to be bridled. He shouldn't make such a fuss, she thinks. The mouthpiece is no bar after all (and therefore not severe). Well. The mouthpiece might be a snaffle but there is more to it: two shanks, to be precise. This combination (a snaffle mouthpiece with leverage) is available in different designs and features - here in Europe it's usually called a Pelham. 

What kind of shocks me is the ignorance concerning its mode of action. This bit combines two functions (snaffle and lever) without the rider being able to apply them separately. This is why this bit sucks for horses. 

A classic snaffle bit. Design: Nadja
Let's have a look the good old snaffle bit. Two pieces of metal, linked in the middle, the left rein talks to the left piece, the right rein to the right piece (a snaffle consisting of three pieces waters up the separation of left and right). This bit is ideal for lateral work - asking for flexion in the neck or giving at the poll lateraly. In general it talks to one side of the horse more than the other. 

Now let's look at the leverage bit like a curb. The mouthpiece is a bar. It's not built to adress one side of the horse's mouth or jaw. If you pick up the reins (which ideally are operated with one hand), the bar rotates in the mouth, the chain around the chin tightens as does the head stall which increases pressure at the horse's neck. This pressure is not lateral, it applies to both sides. The curb is made to tell the horse how to carry his head and neck - give at the poll, bridle up or lower the head in a forward down position. 

The curb is made for vertical aids, the snaffle for lateral aids. As a rider I want to separate that out strictly. And that is exactly what is lost when using a combination bit. When I pick up the reins, I not only adress the snaffle in the horse's mouth but also the lever. Both have completely different meaning to the horse - and my undifferentiated rein aid mixes both up

In my opinion it's impossible to give a clear aid with that kind of a bit. This is why no serious horseman uses or recommends it. 

If you look at dressage, the curb is always combined with a snaffle. The horse then carries two mouthpieces at the same time, and the reins control the bits separately (though some ways of holding the reins make that hard). 
The baroque rider who guides his horse with only a curb uses his seat to give lateral aids (as in flexion of the horse's body or position of the neck). They don't need an additional snaffle. Neither do the Californian Vaqueros - at least if I understood Jeff Sanders. It would make sense: The bosal (the hackamore) traditionally is an important part of the horse's education. And it is not a tool that is ideal for lateral aids. So these cues need to come from the rider's seat and legs as well. 

A Tomb Thomb Bit: The mouthpiece looks
like a snaffle but it features shanks.
Design: Nadja
The combination bit is usually referred to as Tom Thumb Bit. Mark Rashid wrote a clear analysis why it makes no sense (to the horse). Rick Gore's point is the same - he conveys it less profoundly, but very plainly in his choice of words.

PS: My personal favorite display of complete ignorance is a comment under the mechanical hackamore from a German online horse outfitter. It says: "Ideal for hot horses, as the cheap hackamores usually break under the strain". It doesn't get any worse than this. 

PPS: Another sign of little savvy is using a leverage bit on a horse, combining it with a martingal and justifing it with the horse being a chronic rearer. You don't even have to understand the mechanics behind the bit to understand how stupid that is. Just have a look at the words, with the leverage bit also called elevation bit and the martingal also called a tiedown. So using both at the same time the rider basically says the horse: "elevate the neck and lower the head". What would I want to communicate by that apart from the fact that I am absolutely clueless?

A few days ago during a lesson. We had a bag attached to the stick and were waving it in front of the horse's nose and to her shoulder. The owner pondered: "Sometimes I have the impression that she doesn't respect the whip anymore". 

And this is why today's post is about sensitizing and desensitizing (and the mistakes we tend to make). 

"What is she doing with the whip?!" Drawing: Nadja
Desensitizing the horse is a vital part in the training according to horsemanship principles. The horse learns that he can ignore certain stimuli, but needs to react to others (our aids) - which is then part of sensitizing the horse. 

It's often sound or movement that trouble horses and make them spook. Desensitizing the horse we confront him with swinging whips and rustling plastic bags (among others). 
Some may assume that that is not exactly rocket science, but don't underestimate the process! Timing is essential - if we miss the right moment to take away the pressure, we'll easily teach the horse the opposite of what we wanted.

Furthermore it is not enough that our horse can bare certain stimuli without running of. Horses can freeze in the standstill. Us humans assume he is fine because he doesn't bolt, but that is a misjudgement. So standing still is only the first step towards the goal (I know this idiom sucks): A truly relaxed horse accepting us waving a flag or a plastic bag. We want him to think: "Ok, there she is again with her bags and whips. I'll go to sleep in the meantime."

But how can the horse tell if we want him to relax or if he is supposed to react?
We help him to tell the difference by presenting the stimuli in a different way

When we desensitize, we swing the rope, the stick, the whip or whatever we are using in a regular, swift rhythm. The regularity helps the horse to tune into the movement and the sound and to accept them as something unthreatening. 
When we sensitize, we start with a subtle cue and little pressure and we increase it until the horse reacts. When he does, we immediately stop the cue. 

"Ok, she is still swinging the thing." Drawing: Nadja
Working from the ground, the horse can also tell by our hands if he is supposed to relax or to respond: Our leading hand operates the rope, our supporting hand the stick or whip. For example, if the horse circles me to the right, my right hand is my leading hand.
When we desensitize, our leading hand is passive. It holds the rope, which has slack, but carries no tension. Our supporting hand does all the work swinging the whip. 

If we want our horse to move by contrast, we lift our leading hand and give the horse some feel and direction over the rope. It's the first cue. If necessary, we support with the other hand and the whip.  
The horse needs to rely on us that with an inactive leading hand we don't ask for anything but relaxation at a standstill. Whereas, is our leading hand active, we'll follow through with the supporting hand and the whip, if necessary.

Common mistakes and solutions

- You want to prove to your horse that he doesn't need to be afraid of the whip. You throw the whip over his back, your horse pulls backwards immediately and you stop. You've now taught your horse that he just needs to pull back in order to make you stop moving the whip.
The solution: Stick to the process (quote: Warwick Schiller). Stay with your horse even if he moves and tries to get away. You are not trying to keep him from moving. Allow him to drift but follow him. Remove the whip when he slows down and comes to a halt. This way, your horse learns that you have an off-button. And he can switch you off by standing still. If he is able to stand still while you are swinging the whip, you can progress working on him not dreading the whip further. You want him to relax completely

"Whatever. I'll have a nap". Drawing:Nadja
How you can tell that he is relaxed? 
I've written extensively about reading horses in my small ebook. You can download it here by signing up for my newsletter

- You want your horse to move out on a circle around you. You start waving the flag like crazy. The horse makes some indecisive steps, then comes to a halt and looks at you. You confused him. 

You did not use your leading hand pointing in the direction your horse was supposed to go. Meaning you told him to stay put. The waving of the flag had no direction but carried a lot of energy - ambiguous signals for the horse. 
The solution: Just be clear. Use your leading hand to direct your horse and support with your whip if necessary. Be serious about it. Some people hesitate to come through and touch the horse with the whip. The horse realizes it and might find it unnecessary to move out in the future. 

What to pay attention to when desensitizing the horse - the summary

- the right timing
- aim for a truly relaxed horse
- strictly separate leading and supporting hand
- strictly separate rhythmic and increasing pressure 

Do you desensitize your horse? What is your experience?

In this video Warwick Schiller adds another approach to desensitizing. He works with a horse that is afraid of a plastic bag.
I used to work as an editor for a regional newspaper. When dealing with freelancers I always tried to grant them as much freedom as possible. I didn't want to order them around or be too narrow with my asks. Just because if I'd been a freelancer I would have wished for being treated like that. I would have wanted the editor to trust me that I will deliver on time - without him having to tread on my toes and micromanaging me. 

My intention was a good one - but it didn't always work out in everyday work life. I made the mistake to project my needs onto others. Of course, some people need freedom and responsibility. But others need clear orders and boundaries - and with my rather lax attitude I didn't live up to the needs of these freelancers.

I think, with horses, it's similar.
There are some horses that demand more room for themselves. And there are others that yield willingly to the human and make way for him to decide for the two of them. 
If I am that type of human who has clear expectations and demands and I meet a horse from the first category, we might end up fighting. Because I am not quite flexible enough to adjust to the horse's needs and to grant him more say then I would like to. I think a horse of the second category will have an easier time to accept strong leadership. 
I, with my "I'll grant you freedom"-attitude on the other hand will probably confuse a horse of the second category because I don't communicate clearly enough. My behavior creates misunderstandings.
Freiraum, Grenzen, Pferde verstehen Blog
Asking questions is part of communication.
 As is being clear. Photo:Nadja

Like a few weeks ago, when I was working with the project horse from the ground. I wanted to send him out on a circle to the right. Instead he came in with his ears pricked, posing a question. I like questions as they prove that the horse is mentally engaged and communicating. This is why I consider it rather rude to answer with a "no, get the hell out of here on that circle!". But if I wait too long giving the horse a pause in the middle with me I create confusion rather then do good to our relationship. Because my initial aid "please go out on the circle to the right" turns into "yes please come in" for the horse. 
If I ask for the circle the next time, the horse will likely offer to come in again instead of traveling on the circle around me. If I then send him out with energy, the misunderstanding is complete. Once I said "go" and was okay with "whoa". The next time I said "go" and insisted on "go". 

This is a mistake I make quote often. I want to support the horse's mental engagement and I dont' want to be overly critical. But over this I become wishy washy with my signals. A response like "no, this was not the answer, try again" in the end is more helpful to the horse than having to correct him in the end because I accepted something I actually didn't want in the first place. 

Just to give you another example of this: A few weeks ago I was riding a friend's horse. The mare had experienced some bad handling and wasn't too keen on backing up. Too much pressure on the bit she usually comments with rooting the head. I wanted her to move out from a standstill. But she shifted her weight back and offered to back up. Instead of keeping up my aids until she found the forwards, I released. Because I was happy how willingly she offered the backup. Asking her to move out again, she naturally offered the backup again - and already I had created a misunderstanding. 

Do you also have mistakes that you make over and over again?

Hi there,
I know, it's been a while since the last post. 
The reason: I've been preparing a small ebook for you guys. It will be about reading horses and about 15 pages long. 
It sums up everything I know about reading horses and covers 

- relaxation and tension
- contradicting signals and 
- behavioral patterns.

Most important for you: it is not for sale but a gift for you readers. 
I'll deliver it with my next newsletter in a few days (and the future newsletters will contain a link as well so you can access it whenever you want). 
If you would like to read and/or download it - just sign up for the newsletter (which comes twice a month and is free too).

This is the cover of the ebook. Picture: Nadja

What is most important being with horses? Fairness, patience, leadership skills? The right method with the right techniques?
I think all of these are valid ideas. But for me, the basis is something different: Our awareness and our attentiveness. Not only for the big but especially for the subtle things. For nuances in body language - our own and the one of the horse. 

I find that if we become more aware of our behavior and the behavior of the horse, we observe us and we collect information. Which in return helps us to make good decisions - meaning decisions that enhance our training and our relationship with the horse. 

This is why I recommend to spend time with the horse just focusing on observing and feeling. Don't aim for something apart from attention and having a closer look than usual. I think that is beneficial no matter if you are a horsemanship newbie or an experienced horse person. 

You don't have to do anything, just be with your horse and ask yourself (some of) the following questions. 

basis, good horsemanship
Both horses are attentive but
focusing in different directions. My
legs are relaxed, but my upper body
still has some tension. My belly button

is turned away from the horses.
Photo: Marko
How do I use my body?
Think if you are tense or relaxed and how you breathe. Do your arms and legs hang casually or are they braced? Where have you put your weight? How do you hold the rope? Check if you are looking at the horse or if you can feel where he is and what he does without actually watching him. 

Where am I respectively to my horse's position?
Check if you are close next to each other and if you feel crowded. Are you standing next to your horse's head or further back, maybe at his withers? Have the two of you moved? In which direction does your belly button point (yes, this is important)?

What does my horse do? 
Is he relaxed or does he want to move around? Check where his attention is and how he carries his head. Does he adapt to your movements? 

I think the range of observations we can make without actually doing something is quite amazing. 

Last year, I attended a clinic with Leslie Desmond. The participants were standing next to their horses when she advised one to shift her weight from the leg nearest to her horse to the other leg. Instantly, the horse lowered his head and breathed out deeply. We underestimate the importance of these small details - when we are aware of them that is to say.

Of course, you can observe your horse whenever you want and not just standing still next to you (we actually do it every day). I just think that starting out from a stand still is the easiest way to do it deliberately because you can fully concentrate on it without having to manage anything else. Which would be the case if you'd actively ask something from your horse. 

At the beginning it is not important which questions you ask and which answers you'll receive observing your horse and you. It's also not about scrutinizing or judging the answers
I think the important thing is to observe the horse in different situations, to get used to it and turn it into a habit. In the end, we are not only aware of the horse almost unconsciously, we also learn to react correctly without having to give it much thought. 

Interestingly enough, we don't have to actually look at the horse to observe it. This is helpful when leading the horse, for example. For me it's important to know where he is at (in terms of place and emotions) without  having to turn constantly. Horsemen and -women don't want you to turn your head neither. Pat Parelli says "Don't look back, he won't change color", and Leslie Desmond indicates that a human that turns his head often when leading the horse casts doubt in the horse if he actually knows where he wants to go.  

Also, it's not that hard to sense where and how the horse is walking behind us - we just need to concentrate on and direct our attention to it: We can look from the corner of our eyes, we can listen to the hoofbeats, we can observe the horse's shadow on the road (if the sun is in a good position) or we can just try to sense the dimensions of our bubble and if the horse is outside or crowding it. 

Have you ever thought about the level of your awareness around your horse? Have you tried to feel and watch closely? Or has it become something you do automatically without thinking?

How to make friends with a horse?

„Give him what he needs and he will give you what you want“

I think the quote is by Pat Parelli and it sums up what I think is the basis for a good relationship with our horse: the change of perspective.
In order for the relationship to thrive, we need to put our horse‘s needs first. And I am not only talking about keeping the horse on a pasture with company and feeding it adequately. This is more about what we in our time together can contribute to the well-being of the horse.

If we don‘t walk that mile in our horse‘s shoes and if we don‘t feel responsible to help the horse to be comfortable around us, our relationship becomes onesided. Us humans ask and tell and take, while the horse has the giving part. Constantly. This cannot be a sound fundament for a friendship - who wants to be together with somebody who is only focused on his own issues and advantages and who doesn‘t care about the other that much?

This is how the concept of taking the horse's point of view applies being with horses:

Saying "hello" in a polite manner is part of
a starting a friendship. Photo: Marko
 I not only go to the horse when I want to use him for my pleasure (riding or groundwork). Sometimes I just visit him on the pasture and say hello. Sometimes I bring him to the barn just to groom and feed him and then bring him back to his buddies. I don't want my horse to believe that I only show up when I want him to work for me.

I try to keep him motivated - in our case we rest a lot in our sessions. I've been preaching this for ages but it's a hard concept for some people to grasp. Only if my horse knows that I will allow him to rest, he will not try to do so on his own (breaking gait or just minimizing his efforts). Instead he will be motivated to do what I ask because he can rely on me letting him rest afterwards. 

I try to not make the horse feel bad when he made a mistake (this is hard for me). So instead of: "Come on, how often do we have to repeat this until you finally get it?" or "Can you just for once listen?" I try to say (in my mind) "Ok, that was not exactly what I had in mind. Can you try again please?" or "I am confident that you can do it. Give it another shot". 
I am pretty sure (at least most of the time) that the gelding tries to find out what I want and that he is willing to comply. If he doesn't, often I failed to deliver the information he needed, he is stiff and physically not able to do what I asked - and sometimes his focus is on saving energy (versus expending it). 
I will no reprimand him, up the phases or use the whip but politely ask for another try. Us humans do not always feel fit and we don't always give 100 percent neither (especially not if it isn't worthwhile). I think from time to time we can concede that to our horses too. 

I don't always succeed in putting this mindset into action though. From time to time I become angry and inpatient. But I try to be in control of my emotions. 

Of course, there is way more to building a friendship with a horse. But these three ideas struck me as important. 

How do you build a relationship with a horse?

PS: This text of Anna Blake made me think about the feel I deliver the horse when he does something wrong (in my eyes). It's the inspiration for the final part of this article.

This is the second review of a novel on this blog: Hannah Hooton's "Making the running". You might remember that I already wrote about "Share and share alike", the third novel of her Aspen Valley Series. "Making the running" is part four.

You can read the books individually, they don't base on each other. Still, the novels are interlaced: They feature the same horses and the same people with each book highlighting some of them and the others forming the background and atmosphere for the storyline. This is a structure that appeals to me - and Hooton does a great job diving into the different worlds of the characters, be it stable staff or members of the British upper class.

This is part 4 of the Aspen Valley Series. 
Cover: Hannah Hooton
"Making the running" protagonist Kate Creswell works as a stable lass at Aspen Valley Racing stable. Her dream is to see her favorite horse D'Artagnan run at the famous Cheltenham festival. 
Her attractive and ruthless sister Saskia in the meantime puts all her energy into tempting D'Artagnan's trainer Jack into an affair. She is not interested at all in Jockey Ben who fancies her - and to whom Kate is attracted. That gives her a hard time as she officially is dating Ben's wealthy half brother Nicholas. 
The relationship of the brothers is not the best and also Kate has family issues with a father who left her when she was little and a mother who's an alcoholic. To top it all, she discovers not only a dark side of Nicholas, but also Ben is not what she thought he was. And though D'Artagnan is allowed to race at Cheltenham, it seems he will not be allowed to win. 

Reading my summary that doesn't sound too spectacular. But to me that is the strength of the book. Storyline and characters are credible, and the reader (at least I) can relate to the protagonist's problems. The plot is not artificially structured or overly sophisticated and neither are the characters. But they don't have to. 

I liked the way Hooton manages to connect all the dots and to close the story quite elegantly. The book is an easy and entertaining read and you'll stick to it until the last page. 
I liked it better than part three of the series - which seemed a bit too crafted to me. But maybe, I just felt more related to the protagonists this time. And what really made me laugh were some plain details every horse owner knows by heart: a horse swishing his tail in one's face, a horse with his whiskers full of grain or the fancy horse names that will be familiar to anybody who ever set a foot on a racetrack. 

Click here to visit Hannah's website. You can download the first part of the Aspen Valley Series, "Keeping the peace" for free.