How to retrain a strong horse so you can slow down and stop in a snaffle

  • Strong horses can be a nightmare for riders – it’s never fun being out of control and it can be downright dangerous if you can’t adjust your horse’s speed.

    Dr Gemma Pearson, a qualified equine veterinary behaviourist who is director of equine behaviour for The Horse Trust, offers advice for retraining such horses, but she starts by saying that as a behaviourist, she hates the term “strong” being used about horses.

    “Obviously horses are strong. We wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – be riding them if they were weak, so what do we mean by a strong horse?” she says. “What people normally mean is that the horse pulls on the reins and that you need increased rein pressure to control the horse.

    “So from a behaviourist’s perspective, I would start to break that down and say the horse has a deficit to slowing and stopping from rein pressure. I would also say that the horse is unable to maintain self carriage – so when the horse is being ridden, the horse starts to accelerate without being cued from the rider.”

    Gemma says a typical scenario is a horse whose owner says he’s fine to ride in most situations, but becomes strong on a cross-country course.

    “The horse associates the cross-country course, the start box, the jumps, with galloping so it triggers that kind of emotional response of excitement, of let’s start galloping, so the horse does that. Then the rider is unable to control them from the reins, but that can in itself cause discomfort in the horse’s mouth, which can mean some horses try and get faster and faster. And then you need increasingly strong bits, and different or tight nosebands to control these horses.”

    Retraining strong horses

    “To state the obvious, we retrain the horse to slow and stop from rein pressure,” says Gemma. “It is important they understand this from rein pressure and not just from our seat – once the rein pressure works correctly, then we use our seat so hopefully we don’t need to use the reins, but it’s always there as a back up and to reinforce the seat if needed.”

    When backing a young horse, Gemma will teach them to step forward and back from rein pressure in hand and then will put the reins over the horse’s head and her hands either side of the withers, mimicking the riding position.

    “I’ll put light pressure on the reins and these horses just step backwards, because they’ve learnt that backwards bit pressure means to step back,” she says, adding that horses use the same muscles to step back as to slow down when moving forwards, so the better the horse steps back from light rein pressure, the better their slow down response will be.

    Sometimes, horses will flex or raise their head and neck instead of stepping back, so they associate bit pressure with changes in head and neck position, not with movement of the feet.

    “If you put too much pressure on, horses just brace against it or as we often see, they raise their head and neck in the air and they hollow through the back,” says Gemma.

    “If the horse really doesn’t understand rein pressure, you may even have someone in front and they can put a bit of pressure on the horse’s chest with a hand or even with a light whip tap. The millisecond the horse starts to step back, we release the pressure on the mouth entirely. The horse will very quickly learn not to move the head and neck and that the way to make the bit pressure go away is to step backwards. Eventually we’ll go back to a contact level of pressure, but initially we make it really clear for the horse.”

    Once the horse can step back from light rein pressure, Gemma repeats the process with walk to halt transitions.

    “I count the number of steps of the front feet. If you use light rein pressure, the horse should be able to halt within two steps. If it takes five, that tells me there’s a deficit in the stop response. So if you do two steps without stopping, I would put more rein pressure on and make the halt happen. But again the millisecond you feel the horse slow down and stop, release that rein pressure – that’s the reward and reinforces that that was the correct behaviour.”

    Gemma will then do trot to walk and canter to trot transitions, before working on changing speed within the pace.

    “If you think about the amount of squeeze on the reins it takes to bring the horse down from trot to walk, think about using 10% of that to get the horse just to take some slower steps,” she says.

    Once the horse can slow down or stop from rein pressure, then we need to teach them to maintain self carriage – that is, to maintain the same speed until the rider cues them otherwise.

    Gemma explains: “So at this point I may be cantering the horse and I may use light rein pressure to bring them into a slow cante,r but then I’ve got to be able to give and retake the reins without the horse accelerating again. That proves to me that I’m not holding the horse slow. If the horse does accelerate, you just slow them down again and then try again a bit later on. And you’ll find the horse learns to maintain that slower rhythm.”

    The next step will be to work the horse in a field with jumps in it, but without actually jumping.

    “The visual stimulus of the jump might encourage that horse to want to accelerate, but if we can train the horse to slow down and stop off light bit pressure and then maintain the slow canter around the jumps, in a couple of sessions, then we might start to work over the jumps,” says Gemma.

    “If you’ve got a horse that starts to bolt towards or accelerate rapidly towards the jump, teach them to go slowly towards it. If you’re a long way out from the jump, I would even halt if you can feel them starting to rush.

    “Once you get within about five strides of the jump I wouldn’t try to halt because we don’t want to teach the horse to refuse and we also don’t want to upset them – it’s their job to actually get over the jump. But what I would do is when they land on the other side, I would quietly bring them back to a halt. Release the rein pressure – that’s the most important bit – and let them gently walk away.

    “If you just keep repeating that, you’ll find that these horses start to approach in a decent rhythm. Even if you get that nice draw into a fence where they may accelerate slightly into it, but then they’re expecting to halt after it so they immediately slow themselves down again. And then you might not need to slow down, you might be able to use your leg and go on and jump the next jump.”

    The role of bits and nosebands

    As a final point, Gemma emphasises that she would like to see horses ridden in snaffles with normal cavesson nosebands.

    “Obviously there are lots of different scenarios and there are times when horses may need something different, but people often use a pelham or a gag because it feels lighter in their hand, but you’ve got to remember that because of the leverage, it putting an awful lot more pressure on the horse’s mouth so it’s not any lighter in the horse’s mouth, it just feels lighter to you,” she says.

    Gemma adds that more severe bits and tighter nosebands can sometimes result in damage inside the horse’s mouth. If horse sport is to maintain its public acceptance it’s important that we train horses to stop off light rein pressure, to maintain that slower speed and not to accelerate without being asked.

    “If we can do that, we never get into the situation of needing stronger bits and tighter nosebands,” she says.

    She does, though, emphasise that safety is paramount.

    “I’m not saying if you’ve got a horse that you struggle to control in a gag bit with a tight grackle noseband, just put it in a snaffle. Safety is the most important aspect and you have to have control. But try to get the horse lighter and you’ll find most of these horses over time you can get back to using snaffles with nosebands that are not tight.”

    You might also be interested in:

    How can you tell if a horse is happy?

    Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday, is packed with all the latest news and reports, as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find how you can enjoy the magazine delivered to your door every week, plus options to upgrade your subscription to access our online service that brings you breaking news and reports as well as other benefits.

    You may like...