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How to Lighten a 'Heavy' Horse


By Tommy Garland

In training horses, one of the most common questions is "How can I make my horse lighter in the bridle?" We always come across those horses that want to push on the bit or bosal. In most circumstances, it is because the horse is not supple. A simple test for suppleness is the following exercise. While on the horse's back, try to flex his head around to his left shoulder by pulling slowly on the left rein and then smoothly pulling his head around to his right shoulder using the right rein. If there is a lot of resistance to this exercise, the horse is not supple.

A woman riding a horse in a ring

The first step is most easily done in the stall. Place a surcingle or saddle on the horse. First, you want to use a properly fitted halter and one rein. Attach the rein to one side of the halter (it does not matter which side you start with) and run the rein through the middle ring on the surcingle or through the girth ring that hooks to the billet. Now, slowly start taking up the slack on your rein by pulling it through the ring until the horse's head is slightly turned to one side. Tie the rein to itself (in a slipknot) and step away from the horse. You can leave the horse in the stall so he can try to figure it out himself, but continue to watch him. After five minutes or so, release the rein and repeat on the other side. Continue this exercise for about a half-hour, switching from side to side and taking up a little more rein slack with each repetition. Once the neck and shoulder muscle stretch and strengthen, you can increase the lesson time. This exercise can be very tiring for the horse at first, because he is trying to resist giving into the pressure that the halter is applying to the side of his face. I start with the halter first in order to let the horse get familiar with what I am going to ask him to do with the snaffle later. Hopefully, he will be quieter and more receptive. It may take a few days or a few weeks for the horse to understand this, but if you are willing to read your horse's reactions then you will know when he is ready for the next step.

When you have reached that point, it is time to proceed to the ring or round pen. You want to stay in an area that is not too large in diameter so that you have some control over the situation. Using the same equipment, perform the exercise that you had been doing in the stall. Make sure that you start with the rein fairly loose and tighten it as the lesson progresses. It is also important that you step away from the horse so that he sees that you are not doing anything to him and that he has the ability to relieve the pressure himself. Encourage him calmly to move forward at a walk or slow jog. The goal is to have the horse moving forward around you with his head to the inside. At first he may only make small circles around himself, but you want to gradually move him to the outer edges of the pen area. Be calm and quiet and, above all, reassure him that this exercise will only be as difficult as he wants it to be. As the horse gets better with the lesson, you will start to see slack in the rein. You may not notice this as easily with the halter, but when you move on to the snaffle bit you will start to see more progress with these lessons. The canter will come later. Once the horse understands this lesson with his head to the inside of the circle, start this exercise to the outside of the circle. I would not start a lesson with the horse's head to the outside, but would begin the lesson with the head to the inside and then move on to the outside.

When you feel that the horse has mastered this exercise, you can start using the snaffle bit. I like to use a smooth D-ring snaffle so that the bit cannot be pulled through the horse's mouth during the suppleness training. Your ultimate goal is to be able to try the suppleness test while on the horse's back without any resistance. Keep in mind that horses learn through repetition. Be consistent and quiet in your lessons, and you will see marked improvement in time. This is not the only way to achieve the suppleness that you may be looking for, but it would be a good first step.

Tommy Garland comes from a family that has always been involved with horses. In 1985, Tommy became involved with the Arabian industry, and he currently owns and operates Garlands Ltd. in Powhatan, Virginia.

Reprinted with permission from Arabian Times.


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