Would your horse rear or pull back if this happened to him?

Getting the Give

By Michelle Labriola

Q: How can I teach my horse not to rear or panic when he steps on his lead rope or reins?

A: You can teach him to give to pressure rather than to react instinctively. There are three steps:



#1 The Ask
This is picking up the rein in the center and alerting the horse that a request is about to be made.

#1 The Ask

#2 The Reach
Here you reach down and begin to take the slack out of the rein (direct rein), asking for the Give - in this case, for the jaw to move towards the shoulder, lowering the elevation of the horse's head (the lower the head the lower the emotional level), softening his jaw, poll, and neck. The horse can take his jaw in SIX different directions - up, down, in, out, left, and right. We begin teaching one side at a time. Direction is not an issue at this point in the training; ride in safe place - a small area such as a round pen.

#2 The Reach

#3 The gift is the Give
When he answers by bringing his jaw down and deep in toward the shoulder (he gives), you release the rein completely, rewarding the horse with the opportunity to walk without any pressure.

#3 The Give

We try at all costs to avoid a wreck when it comes to being around our horses. Few would intentionally put themselves or their horses in danger. Most know that it takes less than a second to set off a chain reaction with a horse that can put us in the hospital or have us calling the vet to repair the horse, but how many seek to learn what it takes to have a safe relationship with their horse? Better yet, perhaps too many feel that's just the way it is. Some believe horses are big stupid animals, a bundle of nerves, cowards. Is this true? Why is it that when they execute upper level maneuvers we regard them as royalty but when they react to pressure rather than respond (key words) we use degrading adjectives to describe them, sell them or destroy them? I had a client that wanted to keep horses for when summer guests came to her farm to ride. Her instructions were to me ... train them to be good; if they rear take them to the auction and sell them for kill. These were healthy, sometimes young beautiful horses! But because she had a friend killed by a horse that reared over backwards many years ago, the ones she owned today were doomed.

Horses have survived thousands of years because they feel and react to the slightest of pressure. We can use this bit of knowledge to work for us instead of against us. The horse can take any body part in six different directions: up, down, left, right, forward, and back. The horse will feel pressure on his poll if he attempts to lift his head. Most horses would feel unexpectedly trapped and react by trying to pull up and away from the pressure, or even rear. This is their normal behavior. It isn't bad or stupid or any other adjective; it's what has enabled them to survive all these years from predators. The horse in the picture was taught to give to pressure. Pressure anywhere. Once it is taught, the horse reacts in a safe relaxed manner. Think of how a martingale or tie-down works. We've been taught that by using this strap and adding our hands and legs we can put his head or even his hooves (speed) in a desirable position. Would those traditional methods help the horse who's tied, spooks and pulls back? When teaching, you want to keep it simple.

Pressure from all different directions isn't necessary and can be confusing to the horse. Like learning to play a piano - one wouldn't be expected to sit and play using both hands like Mozart in the first few lessons. Imagine if you were expected to try and when you didn't get it right you were jabbed by a leg in the side or had your mouth yanked on. If it were broken down one side at a time until you get it, then the learning process would bring you great joy and self-confidence, and you'd begin to enjoy the work.

Michelle Labriola

The exercise can begin on the ground. Using a full cheek snaffle bit, attach a cotton lead line to the bit. Tap the hip with a dressage whip asking the horse to move forward. The second he does, reward him with verbal praise and stop tapping. Focus on teaching the 'go forward' cue first. You want him moving with his shoulders and hips aligned, not pulling his outside shoulder away from you. Slowly take the slack out of the line and hold light steady pressure. When the horse brings his jaw to the inside (approx. 4 inches) release the rein. Allow him to continue moving forward without any contact whatsoever. He should not stop unless you've asked for it. Be aware of who's leading the dance here.

After 10 to 15 small bends you'll want the bend to become deeper. It will look like he's biting a fly on his shoulder. Offer his reward - release of pressure, perhaps a rub on his neck. You'll find that whether on board or on the ground a communication via the rein will begin. You'll ask for softness and he'll answer with a yes. When he responds consistently (100% of the time all the time) you have a cue.

When mounted, first lift up the rein in the center; this cues the horse that a request is coming; then slowly take the slack out of one rein and when he brings his head to the side ... reward him by literally throwing the reins down on his neck, praise and let him take a couple of steps free of encumbrance. You can incorporate rhythm by counting one 1000, two 1000, then ask again. This will really help your focus and help the horse anticipate your request. Stick to one side at a time until he's learned it. I begin all my guys from the ground; until they are responding I remain on the ground where I am safer.

Remember the reason you go to work every week is for a paycheck. If you tried to do a good job and showed up every day on time and didn't get paid, how long would that last before you quit? One week, two? The horse will do anything for his paycheck. Living without pain or pressure is key for his survival. If the teacher isn't having fun the student really won't be; he'll become frustrated and drop out of school. Think about it before you begin, or take this article with you and read it again at the barn. Don't make it difficult, and don't make excuses. Try it! This works on all horses, and can be taught from the ground so that you can begin a youngster or work in a small area if weather or time doesn't permit riding. This 'give' is the basis of any training. You cannot over do this exercise. Now go and enjoy the relationship with your horse. Don't just read and watch, become an active partner.

Copyright 2001 Michelle Labriola

About the author:
Michelle Labriola is a resident of Long Island certified by world-renowned horseman John Lyons. Michelle rides English, Western and Dressage. She is available for private teaching as well as clinics and demonstrations anywhere in the country. For information about Michelle teaching at your facility:
M.L. Horse & Co. 631-218-2241
East Coast Stables 631-924-2696