I have a question about a mare who is being used in lessons for some of the more advanced riders. Lately, when asked to go onto the bit, or even with any constant pressure, she begins tossing her head, and if the pressure is not relieved or she becomes agitated with it she even resorts to small rearing. What is the best method of approach to use with her, and what are some possible causes. Her teeth and bit don’t seem to be the problem.
The first thing to look at when assessing a problem with the horse is health. Have your equine dentition check your horse’s teeth and mouth for problems. More information on dental problems can be found in our Health section. If the equine dentition confirms that the horse’s mouth is healthy and pain-free, you can continue with re-training the horse to give to pressure on the bit. If you are not a veterinarian or equine dentition yourself, it would be foolish to assume that there aren’t any problems in your horse’s mouth.
Assuming that this mare is your own, but also used in advanced lessons, the head shaking and rearing may be a result of receiving mixed messages from many different riders. Horses who are not trained as “school horses” will usually become more agrivated by a slight change in the rider’s habits and cues than horses who have been trained for lessons. The reason for this is that “school horses” are very much used to receiving mixed cues during every ride. They often have a different rider every day, and are trained to be less responsive to the daily changes this presents. Your mare has most likely become confused as to what cues and responses actually work.
The mare has learned that she can get away with head tossing and rearing. You may not have encouraged this behavior yourself (since you have said this is a more recent behavior), but other riders most likely have. The riders probably don’t even know that they are encouraging the bad behaviors.
If the mare is going to continue riding in these lessons, you should discuss with the trainer how you would like the students to respond when your mare exhibits the behavior. Talking to the trainer about it will help ensure that the problem is handled consistently. You don’t want the students teaching your horse to ignore a cue that you have previously taught her to respond to.
I recommend that you read our other articles on giving to the bit in our Riding/Under Saddle section. Although it is not the same behavior your mare is exhibiting, the solutions are the same. The reason the mare is not listening to the cue you are asking, is that she has been “untrained”. She has been trained not to listen to it, or to respond differently than she has been previously taught.
You should begin “re-training” your mare at the halt or walk. If you start this work at the trot or canter, it is much harder for her to learn it. Horses are most relaxed at the halt or walk. They are at their best when they are relaxed, which makes training much easier and more permanent. Once she has mastered the cue at the walk, you can then teach her at the trot, and finally the canter.
By being consistent in your requests and rewards, she will soon learn that head tossing and rearing are not an option. When you place pressure on the rein, it should be constant and consistent. The pressure should not (under any circumstances) be removed from the rein until she has responded with the “correct answer”. The “correct answer” is to lower her head nicely.
Hold that pressure firmly as long as you have to, until she responds with the “correct answer”. If she begins shaking her head or rearing, maintain steady contact on the rein. Once she has shown (even for 1 second) that she has stopped shaking her head and lowered it slightly, reward her by completely releasing the rein. If you release the pressure on the rein while she is exhibiting the bad behaviors you described, she will only learn that head tossing and rearing are the correct answer to your request.
Wait about 3 seconds before asking again, and repeat the process until she learns that you will stop bothering her mouth (with the rein) when she gives you the “correct answer“. Since it sounds as if she has previously learned to give to the bit nicely, it probably won’t take very long to “refresh” her memory on what it is all about.
Use the same exercise as a refresher in any future rides, should she decide to begin exhibiting the bad behaviors again. Any time she decides to toss her head or rear, stop whatever you are doing and concentrate on that part of her that doesn’t understand your request. It doesn’t matter if you are in the middle of a course of jumps or galloping in a field…you must take care at all times to make sure your mare is understanding your cues, and responding correctly to them 100% of the time.