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Our Newsletter

2009 Incidentally Speaking

Drawn to a Conclusion

By Julie Goodnight


Happy Hill Farm is a great place to board your horse. With plenty of acreage, there’s not only room for generous turn out for the stalled and pampered horses, but also a one-mile gallop track around the perimeter and access to many miles of wooded trails.

With 60 horses in stalls and another 20 or so in outside pens, it’s a busy place, and several full-time trainers operate out of the facility. If they are not riding their training horses, they are teaching lessons (and sometimes doing both). The trainers and boarders represent a mixture of disciplines—some for show, some for pleasure.

Most of the boarders work with one trainer or another and some are experienced enough to be fairly independent of the trainers. As always, there are a few know-it-all wannabes who are generous with their advice to others and who are eager to ‘help’ you with your horse.

Chatty Cathy, the barn busy-body, would fall into this category. Methodical Molly had two horses boarded at Happy Hill; one was her old faithful gelding that she had done everything on in the past four years she’d owned him; the other a young Thoroughbred mare whom she’d just acquired from a rescue situation and on whom she was eager to try her hand at training, since she had grown bored of her old-faithful, been-there-done-that gelding. Molly’s new horse, Star, seemed good tempered and mellow on the ground, but when riding, she was rather frantic, tossing her head, prancing and rooting on the reins. Although Molly could ride her, and more or less control the speed and direction she went, Star was far from being a fun ride and at times seemed out of control.

Chatty Cathy to the rescue! As Molly struggled with Star, Cathy rode along side and said, “I know just the thing to fix your horse so her head’s down and she’s easy to control!” Although it sounded a little too good to be true, Molly was so frustrated with the mare’s frantic antics, that she was ready to consider any option. Out came the draw reins and in no time, Cathy had removed Molly’s reins from the bridle and, attached the draw reins at the cinch, right between the horse’s legs, threaded them through the bit and up to the saddle. “Here,” said Cathy, “give her a lap around the track with these reins and see how good she’ll go.” Since all the arenas were busy with lessons, they were relegated to riding on the gallop track.

Both Cathy and Molly took off together, at first at a walk, and Molly was amazed at how easy it was to get her horse’s head down. In fact, in short order, the mare’s nose was plastered to her chest as Molly maintained the contact on the draw reins. Although it felt a little odd for Molly, it seemed much easier to ride the mare with her head down.

Soon they progressed to the trot and still Star’s chin was clear to her chest, but neither amateur rider was aware of the building tension in the mare. Pleased with how well her mare was doing, Molly soon urged her up to a canter and still her chin was cranked in.

The first few strides were okay, but then with every stride, the mare got stronger and stronger until she was running at full speed. Molly pulled and pulled on the draw reins, to no avail. The mare was running right through the bridle with her nose on her chest as Molly continued to pull back on the draw reins.

As she rounded the turn for home, the mare got even stronger and it was clear to Molly that she had absolutely no control. Knowing what could happen if the mare ran straight back to the barn through a myriad of obstacles and considering all the options, Molly thought it was time for a flying dismount. She vaulted off the horse and tumbled onto the thankfully soft-groomed dirt, but still managed to badly sprain her ankle and break one wrist. Star continued her flight back to the barn and as she rounded the corner into the barnyard, she wiped out on the pavement and went sprawling across the yard, leaving lots of hair and hide in the asphalt.

Both rider and horse recovered with no lasting injuries, but the mare’s training had taken a serious turn for the worse and the rider’s confidence was shot. Since Star already thought riding was a stressful and bad experience, now she associated riding with fear, pain and flight.

The Analysis

On many levels, this was a predictable and avoidable incident. Perhaps taking advice from an amateur on using a serious training device was Molly’s first mistake; second was believing something too good to be true—there are few instant fixes with horses.

Hopefully, if a professional did recommend an intense training aid such as draw reins, she would use them correctly, try them on the horse herself first and supervise the owner’s use in a confined setting.

The fatal mistake was using draw reins without the regular rein, too and attaching them between the legs instead of at the girth also contributed mightily to the runaway. In the configuration Chatty Cathy placed on the horse, and without regular reins, the horse’s head was trapped down and she began to run through the bridle in a panicked and blind flight path directly for home.

Many would argue that training aids such as this should only be used under the direct supervision of a professional trainer. Artificial aids can be useful in the training process but if used incorrectly, they can not only be dangerous, but also may become a crutch.

A horse that needs training aids in order to remain in control should probably not be used for amateur riders. If training aids such as tie-downs, martingales, draw reins, etc. are used on a horse for the purposes of control, that horse is probably not a candidate for a lesson or trail horse.

For training purposes, using draw reins on a horse that is frantic and evading the bit is simply putting a BandAid over a festering wound. When dealing with training difficulties with a horse, first consider the origins of the behavior and rule out any physical problems in the horse or equipment. The origins of the behavior may be fear, pain, ignorance, obstinance, instinctive or learned behavior. Often, particularly in the case of bitting problems, the horse was never actually trained to begin with but just bridled, saddle and ridden—in a continuous state of confusion and defensiveness. The head tossing and rooting behaviors are in evasion of the bit and could be caused by a physical problem or a training problem. The bit may be inappropriate or ill-fitted or there could be problems in the horse’s mouth with scaring or dental issues.

Once a physical problem is ruled out and the horse is fitted correctly and comfortably in its tack, we can look to a training solution. More than likely, this traumatized mare needs foundational training-- starting from scratch with a remedial training program supervised by a professional trainer. Draw reins, if used correctly, can be useful in many training programs but personally, I do not use them at all because they tend to create a false frame and is difficult to mimic from the saddle when you are riding without them. Since draw reins are not legal equipment in competition, I don’t want to become reliant on them.

I do prefer a bitting system that teaches the horse to respond to the natural aids of the rider and teaches self-carriage in a collected frame. More information about this is available in my video, Bit Basics, and there are articles in my Training Library at http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php Incidentally Speaking Long in the Stirrup By Polly Haselton Barger Incident: It was a bright, sunny day with no rain or storms in sight-the perfect day for taking a group out on a trail ride. The equestrian staff at Sunny Acres*, a small privately owned stable in California, was pleased when the group of riders showed up promptly for a 10 o’clock ride, although there were more young children than they were expecting. Tom*, an expert rider, fun loving and very popular with the guests, assigned the horses and was anxious to head out on the trail. His assistant, Carly*, usually a stickler for details, deferred to his decision.

Sunny Acres uses primarily quarter horses and has a written policy of fitting the western saddles to both horses and riders. The horses usually require a larger saddle, therefore when they are expecting children they have adaptive stirrup leathers on some of the saddles so that they can adjust the stirrups short enough for younger and/or shorter riders.

On this particular morning there were two horses ready with the shorter stirrup option, but three children arrived with the group. The schedule for the day was tight, so Tom made the decision to put the child with the longest legs on a horse with a regular western saddle, rather than take the time to change the tack.

They began the ride in the arena, as usual, to make sure everyone could stop, start and steer their horse, as well as to make sure the horse/rider combinations were appropriate. Everyone seemed to be able to manage their horse well, and even though the one child had to really reach his toes down for the stirrups, he seemed fine. Carly asked him if he was comfortable with his horse and saddle and he gave her a big grin.

The ride started out on the trail and everyone was having a grand time. Suddenly, about 30 minutes into the ride, the horses spooked and jumped suddenly (because of a small earthquake tremor, as it turns out) and the child on the horse with the long stirrups was unable to stay on. He fell sideways and landed hard on his shoulder, dislocating it. Fortunately, he did not sustain more serious injuries.

Analysis: Sunny Acres is a good stable with an emphasis on safety. Their policies are designed to mitigate as many unsafe circumstances as possible, although there are some situations that can arise (such as an earthquake tremor) which might cause horses to react in an unpredictable way.

They take all riders to the arena first for instruction/analysis and maintain a good staff/rider ratio. Their horses are well trained, quiet and calm and their tack is well maintained. Their staff are friendly, good with children and are all excellent riders.

The staff, however, in this instance, put the riders and the facility at risk. They, perhaps, should have been better trained to strictly follow policy in every instance and might have benefited from attending an instructor certification program. California does not have an Equine Risk Liability statute to protect the horse industry from liability in the case of inherent risk due to the nature of the horse, but a case might be made for negligence since the staff failed to follow the written policies of the facility. By having a written policy the facility recognized the importance of fitting tack to riders as well as horses, and the failure of the staff to do so certainly did not comply with best practices accepted by the facility.

In conclusion, a facility such as Sunny Acres, which has well thought out policies and procedures, good horses and first rate tack, can be compromised by staff that is not thoroughly trained and, better yet, certified.

*All names changed for the purposes of this article.

Incidentally Speaking

By Polly Haselton Barger

The Incident

Laura was looking forward to her first Ranch Horse Versatility (RHV) competition.

She and her new Quarter Horse, Cody, had been working hard to prepare for it. Although she had only had him for a few months, she felt the daily training sessions had been fruitful and that he was prepared for all of the different components of the competition.

He handled cows well, travelled smoothly for the pleasure class and was not only beautiful, but had outstanding conformation, so the halter class would be a cinch. He was a little nervous about some of the trail obstacles, but they had worked hard to get him accustomed to many different things. One thing Laura was proud of was how well Cody had handled the dragging. In preparation for the trail class she had desensitized him from the ground and the saddle with a sack of straw and a very small tree.

On the day of the competition Laura and Cody arrived at the show ground a little late, so they were rushed getting groomed and tacked. Laura was a little nervous, but Cody was calm and took all the activity around him in stride. As the competition commenced, Laura sat on Cody watching the other competitors working their horses through the various elements. Cody quietly watched the cow events, but suddenly perked up during the trail class. The object to be dragged was a large, black, corrugated pipe and as each horse and rider moved across the arena with it Cody picked up his head and swiveled his ears nervously. Laura was focused on the action and was not tuned in to Cody’s reactions.

When Laura rode Cody up to the pipe, he snorted and stepped sideways. She gave him a pat and spoke quietly to him, urging him closer. She got the rope and dallied it around the saddle horn, keeping the excess lariat and the reins in her left hand. She was hoping for extra points for being technically correct.

As Cody began to move, dragging the pipe with him, he suddenly spooked, lunging forward. Laura quickly undallied the rope from the saddle horn, but it was too late. She now had both lariat and reins together in her left hand, and had no control as Cody took off bucking across the arena. Unable to separate the reins from the rope she couldn’t let go of the pipe, so it continued to follow the now panicked horse. Laura was quickly unseated, fortunately unhurt, except for her pride.

The Analysis

Laura had done a good job with Cody’s training, and had made a good effort to expose him to different stimuli. She had roped off of him to make sure he was relaxed about ropes and had him drag different things to increase his confidence. Even with all of her preparation, however, she should have been more attuned to Cody once they were at the show grounds. She especially should have noticed and acknowledged his interest in the big, black, corrugated pipe. This was not something he had ever seen before, and it was clearly making him nervous. Had Laura tried to think like a horse she might have realized this was a horse-eating monster chasing all the other horses, with full intensions of eating them.

Laura also would have been wise to instill in Cody a calm down cue during his training. As they approached the pipe and he began to react in such a nervous way, Laura might have been better off to pick up the lariat in her right hand and hold it, instead of dallying it around the saddle horn, even though it would cost her points. Then her left hand would have been free to hold the reins only, giving her more control when Cody began to spook.

In general, paying close attention to a horse’s reactions to unusual objects, especially at a new place, in a new situation and acknowledging how they might perceive it in their prey animal mind, will help to prevent unfortunate incidents.