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Steve Werklund Horse Trainer

Does your horse charge ahead through the bit when you ask him to stop? Does he toss or twirl his head, or yank the reins out of your hands when you ask him to turn left or right or slow down? Have you tried dozens of different bits, or other contraptions, thinking that one of them will force your horse to listen to your commands, but nothing seems to work? This is when some people throw up their hands in despair, and lament that their horse must just have a “hard mouth”!

This may come as a surprise, but there really is no such thing as a “hard-mouthed” horse!!
A horse’s mouth cannot get “hardened” to the bit. Just think of the number of times you have been to the dentist. Can you ever imagine your mouth getting “hardened” to what the dentist does to it? If anything has become hard, it is the horse’s mind that has become hardened or dull and unresponsive. Put simply, the horse is ignoring the rider’s rein cues, and not giving (responding appropriately) to the cue, which is pressure on the bit being applied through the reins by the rider’s hands. Sometimes the horse learns to ignore the rider’s rein cues, because the rider does not reward the horse appropriately for the correct response, or because the horse has been rewarded for the incorrect response.

A bigger, tougher, more severe bit that induces more pain on the horse’s mouth or jaw is not the answer. It is not the pain or the amount of pressure that you apply that makes the horse want to slow down, stop or turn to the right or left. The bit and the pressure applied to it through the reins are just meant to cue the horse to respond in a certain way. This pressure should be as light as possible. In order to respond on a light cue, the horse needs to learn through thousands of repetitions what behavior constitutes the correct response to a given cue. This is called conditioned-response training. In short, the “hard-mouthed” horse has not been conditioned properly to respond softly, immediately and appropriately to the rider’s rein cues.

So how do we condition our horse to respond softly on a light rein cue? It takes thousands and thousands of consistently correct conditioned responses for the horse to “learn” the appropriate response to any cue. It takes about 3000 repetitions for the horse to learn the correct response, but only about three repetitions for him to learn the wrong response, and about 300,000 repetitions to retrain the horse that has learned the wrong response. To train the horse properly, the rider must be as close to 100% consistent and 100% correct as he or she can be 100% of the time. 

Changing our horse’s behavior always involves an even more difficult job -- changing our own behavior first. So, in the case of the horse who is unresponsive to the bit/rein pressure (i.e. “runs through” the bit), or who is responding inappropriately (i.e. head tossing, head twirling, pulling the reins out of the rider’s hands), we must start back at square one, getting control of the horse’s nose, from the ground. The plain truth is, if we can’t control the horse’s nose, then we have no control at all. Our horse MUST learn to respond willingly, softly and immediately to every request we make of him. So, what do we do to gain control of the horse’s nose? The horse must learn to respond from the ground first, because if we can’t get the horse to respond from the ground when he is standing still, then we will never be able to get it from his back when he is moving, because speed adds an emotional component to the learning situation. We will need to add the pressure of speed at a later point in the horse’s training, but not at the beginning. So let’s start gaining control over our horse on the ground with Cue Spot #1, the nose.

You can start these exercises with very young horses as well as with older horses. I like to use a 1/4” rope halter, because I find that the horse is more responsive to it, and that it is easier for me to feel the horse responding, and I tend to make my requests lighter. You will need to gain control of the nose in all the directions the nose can go-- down, left, right and finally the most difficult, back towards the chest. This last movement I call “flexing at the poll”, the poll being at the top of the head behind the ears where the head is attached to the neck vertebrae. For the horse, flexing at the poll is like us bending our head down to look at our belly button. It is very difficult and is a strain for the horse to do at first until its muscles are built up. The last direction the nose can go, of course, is up, but we generally do not teach the horse to put his nose up in the air past a certain level, because this prompts the release of a hormone that triggers the flight response. This command does come in handy, however, for teaching the horse to lift his nose up off the ground when he is distracted and eating grass.

Practice controlling all directions the nose can go every time you are with your horse, using just your hands, or your halter or your bit and bridle. You cannot over practice control of the nose (head). This is the key to “giving to the bit”, which in turn is the key to control over ALL the horse’s body. Practice this thousands and thousands of times in all directions. Use what I call the “Graduated Cueing System”, that is, start with a very light cue (signal) and increase the pressure in graduated steps until the horse gives us the response we want, which is that he moves his head (or initially, even appears to THINK about moving his head in the direction we want). Then release the pressure on his head IMMEDIATELY, so that the horse knows he has done the right thing.

Always ASK SLOWLY in graduated steps, to give the horse every opportunity to respond correctly. When he does, RELEASE QUICKLY to let the horse know that he has responded correctly. The longer it takes for the horse to give you the correct response, the longer should be the reward, which, for the horse, is release from the pressure you are applying to his head. Any pressure (no matter how light), which we apply to the horse’s body, is somewhat confining or claustrophobic in his mind, and freedom from all pressure is the horse’s best reward for giving us what we asked for.

Practice these simple exercises over and over from the ground first and then from the saddle. Always start by asking the horse with the lightest rein cue possible, gradually increasing the pressure in steps. NEVER release the pressure until the horse responds appropriately, even if the response is only an approximation at first. Start by rewarding small responses or attempts, and then build it up, gradually expecting more and more, and not rewarding the horse with a release until he gives us a response that is closer and closer to what we want. Make sure the horse NEVER gets a release for the wrong response. Try to be 100% consistently correct yourself. This is how we develop willingness, lightness and responsiveness in our horses.
Steve Werklund is a Certified John Lyons Trainer in beautiful British Columbia, Canada. Steve has combined his John Lyons training with methods of other natural horsemen into a unique method, which he calls “From Foundation to Finesse”. He travels extensively giving his “Dancing with Horses” clinics in Canada and the US, and also conducts longer 2-week horsetraining sessions at his training facility, End of Trail Equine Training. In August 2003, Steve further established his reputation as a highly skilled horseman by winning a colt-starting competition for master horse trainers, the first ever of its kind held in Canada.

Contact: Steve Werklund
Box 621
Lister, BC Canada VOB 1YO
Phone: 250-428-5643

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