Bracing and Defending
The response from the last article (April 2004) was probably the
most response I have ever had from a single article. So, for this month, we will
go farther into that subject.
Some of the most common things that go wrong in barrel racing are, horses
leaning and cutting off the pocket and horses bracing upwards and defending
their mouths and sides. Most of the time, we have trained them to do those
things. When we change the way that we are teaching and training them - only
then will the results change. Write this on your refrigerator: Insanity=doing
the same things over and over expecting different results. We have to change the
input to get the output (results) that we want.
Horses that win consistently and last for long periods of time are horses that
are yielded and maneuverable in their bodies. To get a horse to this stage, he
has to be confident in his rider's hands and feet. Most horses that are brought
to me in training have already learned to brace and defend themselves in areas.
Some are so frightened, that when you move your foot, they jump. This horse is
not yielding from the leg pressure, but jumping away from the possibilities of
being jabbed with a spur. This horse cannot be taught to yield until he is over
his fear of my leg pressures. I often ride the light sided, scared horses in a
very soft boot until they accept my legs without a jump.
You can know that your horse is confident in your leg pressures if you can get
him to extend his trot, reach out with the front legs and maneuver him with your
feet from side to side. I am talking about a natural gait in the count of two
beats in the extended trot. If your horse has learned an unnatural gait and
trots more like a prance or skipping natural beats, he is most likely afraid to
extend the front legs. Think about it! If he has been jabbed or scared on the
sides, it would be very scary for him to extend the leg. That would leave his
mid section vulnerable to a jab. Would you lift your arm and say - "I am giving
you a chance to jab my ribs"?
You probably would once - but surely not twice.
If you cannot maneuver your horse going slow - how can you expect to maneuver
him when you are running full speed and he tries to cut the pocket.
(By the way, I have never had a young horse that does not try to cut the pocket
when speed is first applied.) A confident horse can be maneuvered all over at
any speed and a braced one cannot be maneuvered willingly at any speed.
The mouth is another area that we must protect like a china cup. It is like the
telegraph station to the rest of the body. We communicate to the rest of the
horse through the mouth. The very first thing that is done with any horse that
comes to me in training is to have a professional Equine Dentist go over the
mouth. When the teeth are sharp and eating into the sides of the horse's mouth,
you have problems before you ever start to ask the horse to yield. This is
because there will be pain when you ask this horse to give a part. If you cannot
get the horse to yield laterally you can know that he will brace vertically.
This is a big key to horse training. When laterals are yielded (side of mouth,
neck, shoulder, rib cage and hip) then your vertical poll work will fall into
place. When laterals are braced and defended, then your vertical will be a mess.
The horse will simply stiffen a part and push his head into the air. If you put
a martingale, tie-down or brow band on a horse that is defending upwards, now
you have trapped him in his pain. He has no way to escape bad teeth pain when
his head is tied down except to get into unnatural gaits, push himself out
sideways or worse.
If you have had your horse's mouth gone over and corrected and he still pushes
upwards, then it is time to look at how you are using the mouth. You either have
a stiff lateral part that needs softened and yielded or your movements through
your reins are too quick and sharp. Also, your bit may not be the right one.
Test: Is your horse throwing his head up and down or side to side? Consider
changing bits and doing lateral work until this improves. Use training bits (no
curb straps, shanks or nose pieces) such as O rings and gag bits when you are
training or correcting.
Remember the next time you ride your horse to look for ways to improve your hand
and feet cues so that your horse will gain complete confidence and yield to your
cues and not dread and stiffen from them. This requires that the mouth be
correct, the tack be correct and the cues from the rider be clear, consistent
and without threat to the mouth or sides.
You will know when you have all things correct because your horse will get
quieter, faster and confident. When he is in pain or not understanding, he will
tell you by getting ratty, slower times and get in unnatural defense
gaits. It is up to you to know the difference. May we all become a student
of the horse and listen to what he is telling us as we train him.