Ask a Teamster: Bridling a Horse – Done Well, “It’s a Relationship Thing”
by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M.and Cathy Greatorex of Montana
Note: when we use the word horse or horses it is my intention for it to be extended to include mules, donkeys, and ponies unless otherwise specified.
Our student, Heather, has generously granted us permission to share the story of some challenges and triumphs she has experienced with her horse, Lucy, in hopes that it will benefit other folks and their horses, mules or donkeys.
Heather is one of our many very committed students and is extremely dedicated to her Belgian mare, Lucy, and to using only gentle/natural horsemanship techniques with her. It has long been our passion and vocation to teach and mentor people, like Heather, who are looking for soft, effective, and safe alternatives to using force, intimidation, and physical punishment in their relationships with their animals.
There is a growing public awareness about a revolution in horsemanship that is rapidly spreading across the globe. Many of the traditional methods of the past have become obsolete. A more horse friendly and psychologically and scientifically superior way of interacting with, using, and training horses is now available to be learned and applied.
The people who make use of our services do so because they are ready to make the commitment to learning and applying the “horse friendly”, gentle, safe, and effective principles and techniques that we promote and teach. Like Heather, they are seeking the benefits of a deeper understanding of equines, higher levels of communication with their animals, and the ability to create a perfect relationship with their horse, mule, or donkey. They want to learn to take their partnerships with animals to a higher level, deal with the many facets of challenging “learning opportunities” horses present us with, and achieve their horsemanship dreams.
We are in no way advocating that people not set boundaries with their horses, or not set high standards for behavior and performance. Rather we are talking about developing balanced relationships with equines in which the human earns the right to leadership by gaining not only the animals’ trust and friendship, but also its complete respect. In return, horses willingly choose to agree to do as they are asked, and actually enjoy doing so with and for their kind, gentle, softly assertive, trusted and respected leader.
Heather’s horse came to her with some deep seated apprehension and resistance associated with bridling. In our experience bridling issues are a very common source of frustration for horse owners – not to mention to the horses themselves. Lucy is a very gentle, generally willing and cooperative, wonderful mare. She also has some qualities of a dominant, leader type mare – persistence and determination for example (wonderful qualities, by the way, when they are used in cooperation with us rather than in opposition). In our opinion Lucy, like all horses with bridling issues, has justifiable and horse-logical reasons for her concern and her sometime resistance to bridling.
Horses always have what they consider “good reasons” for what they do or don’t do. Their reasons and choices may not seem like good reasons or choices to us, but in their minds the horses are positive they have good reasons and choices. Our job is not to argue with them about their choice or the reason for it, but to give them a better reason to make the choice we prefer or need them to make. Unless we can softly and gently offer them what they consider to be better options, and at the same time consistently create gentle and effective consequences when necessary, we cannot expect their behavior to improve – and most often it will get worse.
Lucy has proven to be very responsive to the gentle yet softly assertive techniques that Heather is learning and using with her. Lucy has responded extremely well to the techniques of gentle/natural horsemanship, especially when compared to the more conventional style of training from her past.
What follows is a series of email coaching/mentorship exchanges between Doc and Heather. Our hope and Heather’s too, is that in the sharing of this portion of Heather and Lucy’s journey together you will find useful information and gain understandings that will aid you in creating the perfect relationship with your horses, mules, or donkeys – and thereby enrich both your life and theirs.
NOTE: To promote understanding we have taken the liberty of intermixing segments of some of Heather’ emails with related portions of Doc’s responses, rather than print every email in its entirety, one after another. Heather’s words are in italics, Doc’s are not.
Hi Doc and Cathy, I was hoping that you could help me with a problem I am having with Lucy. A horse-friend of mine has a great horse facility in this area, and lately he has invited me there to attend a monthly training session with a local trainer. She does English, Dressage, Western, and driving. He even trailers Lucy there and back. We have gone 3 times. I figure just trailering her anywhere is great for her, no matter the reason. She is still trailering pretty well I think. Anyway, I think these sessions have been generally beneficial to Lucy and I. Last Sunday, I asked for help with two basic problems that Lucy came to me with, bridling (you knew that one) and mounting. We really made great progress actually. We made progress on Sunday, and I have been able to repeat our success several times since then (success on every attempt). I have also seen Lucy every day since then. We had an absolutely awesome time together last night. She bridled perfectly, walked and stopped perfect when led, and mounted perfectly. I was on a cloud all day today because of it. Then tonight I went out to see her, just clean her stall and bridle her again, just because I thought that was a good idea. I expected success, we both seemed just the same as we were last night, she had finished her dinner just like last night, and for some reason it went terribly. I tried to bridle her for 45 minutes tonight, without success. I did exactly the same things that the trainer had shown me, which had worked perfectly at least four sessions in a row. I just don’t understand. I am so sad, upset, confused, and tired right now. I’m afraid it is going to be as bad or worse next time because we didn’t even get the bridle on tonight. Do you have any advice at all for me?
Doc’s reply (D) with Heather’s subsequent responses (H) interspersed (4/6/2012):
D: Hi Heather,
H: Hi Doug, Thank you for taking the time to send me your thoughtful reply today.
D: Horses are our ultimate teachers, they make us soar and they humble us, teach us patience and persistence and constancy and the value of repetition and baby steps.
H: Yes, they are the ultimate teachers… I am trying to do better with the consistency and the baby steps. I guess I’ ll always be working on those things.
D: Most of all they teach us that relationship is about visualizing the best and accepting best efforts and best responses – no regrets, no judgments, no guilt, no shame, and no blame.
H: At least I had part of that right; I did visualize “the best”. … I know, there is no right…
D: Several times in your letter you mention variations of the words “success” “progress” and “perfectly”. You also mention the word “problems” and the phrase “…went terribly”.
H: I knew that you would say something about that, too, but I didn’t know how else to say that everything had gone so well, and then so not-well.
D: As long as you give Lucy (or anyone else) the power to cause you to be “sad, upset, and confused” you will bounce between euphoria when you get what you want and sad, upset, and confused when she gets what she wants.
When we do this we set things up as a competition and in competitions with horses the perception is that either we win or the horse wins, whereas in reality – neither wins – both loose.
H: It made me smile when you said that it is basically a bad idea to let anyone “make you feel happy, sad, or upset”. The funny thing is that I TOTALLY know that. I never let human people affect me that way, I just never thought of applying my thinking about this to animal people. Maybe that is why my sadness and upsetness (sic) was so profound, I’m just not accustomed to being affected like this, I have no practice (thank goodness). You also said that when I did this with Lucy, I set us up for being in competition. I know it is a very bad idea to be in competition with Lucy, there is no way I could ever win, and I do not want to go there!
D: Rather than spend 45 minutes trying to get her to do anything that is not working, evaluate in the first 10 to 30 seconds if she is resistant or receptive to what you are starting to ask for (accepting the bridle in this case). If she is receptive proceed in baby steps and pause often to reward her cooperation.
H: I knew I was in a death-spiral, but after I had missed that 10 – 30 second clue that this wasn’t going to work, I didn’t know I could stop asking her to accept that bridle. I wish I had figured that out then…
D: If she offers avoidance or resistance: FIRST create a soft consequence for resisting and then SECOND, immediately ask for (and reward when you get them) a series of other simple little things (unrelated to the bridle) you are pretty sure she will willingly do for you or let you do (back up, pick up a foot, disengage/ move her rear end to the side, disengage her front end to the side, put her head down, flex her head and nose to her side, raise and lower her tail, etc.).
H: O.K. – that gives me a game plan that was what I was missing (or at least an important thing that I was missing). That looks like a good plan. Even after last night’s “whatever-it-was”, there were still things she would still do willingly for me, and I will assume that she will still be willing to do some things with me today. Thank you, I felt lost, not having any idea where to go next. I still can’t stop myself from wondering, though, how long it will be before she will accept the bridle after what I did last night, if I were her, I don’t know why I would ever accept it. I might not be able to ride her for months; that would be sad. I will do what you suggested, and I’ ll keep you posted.
D: Better yet test her out on a bunch of these things each time BEFORE you try to bridle her. If she won’t cooperate and do these small, easy things for you the chance of her willingly accepting the bridle is low. Build a pattern of successful requests and responses before you ask for her to accept the bridle. However, if you meet inattentiveness, avoidance, resistance, or refusal at any time you must create a soft, appropriate consequence or she will take advantage of the situation and increase her inborn equine tendency to have her own way – this is just a natural part of being a horse (or a human). Anna Twinney, an amazing horsewoman and clinician, explains it well, “If there is a leadership void the horse will fill it”.
H: Thank you. I need to remember this. Do you have a suggestion as to an appropriate consequence? I have one idea, but I’ d guess that you have a better one. I am so happy that you got to meet her, so you have her and I in your mind as you think about this.
D: How long did you work with her putting her head down for you before you went and got the bridle?
H: I did almost not at all. She had been accepting the bridle with my barely doing it for maybe two times previous.
D: The mere sight of the bridle is a concern to a horse that has issues with it. We can’t expect to hide it from them but if we get cooperation on some other exercises and get them relaxed and comfortable and cooperative first we usually have a better chance of success with the things that concern them.
H: I watch for her reactions when she sees brushes, saddle/blanket, harness, halter, and bridle. She has a reaction to all of these, but only an acknowledgement that she sees them, not an upset or uncomfortable reaction. She doesn’t even react if I place the bridle along the front of her face. If I get a reaction, it isn’t until the bit touches her lips, and then she first wiggles her lips to keep the bit out, then throws her head if I persist.
D: I’m currently mentoring another student and his mare here at the ranch. Like Lucy, she has bridling issues from her past. Some days we never get to the bridle because she does not become completely comfortable and cooperative with the preliminary test things we ask of her – so we end up simply having worked on them that day. It’s all the same to me because we are building trust, respect, and her acceptance of us as her consistent, dependable, gentle leaders no matter what we are doing. Once that foundation is rock solid the sky is the limit.
H: That is good to know.
D: If you approach your next interaction with her with the fear of failure you are expressing, you will be going backward and doing her a great disservice. You did not fail, she did not fail, she did not win, you did not win. There is no win or lose, there are no problems when playing/working with horses only learning and relationship building OPPORTUNITIES.
The goals of gentle/natural horsemanship are – 100% trust, 100% respect, and 0% fear. This goes for the horse and human alike as far as I’m concerned. You cannot fail with her. This is not just about bridling, it is about your entire relationship and future with her – and with any other horse you may ever interact with. Give up your goal oriented, success, and judgment based thinking, beliefs, and fears. Have fun with her, and continue to learn from and with this amazing animal. You trust her and she trusts you. Work on her respecting you. Eliminate your fears and concerns, completely and at all times, and hers will evaporate.
Become EMOTIONALLY NEUTRAL at all times you are with her – there is/are no right or wrong, good or bad, problems or perfection – everything just is and we accept it and move either forward or backward which doesn’t matter because there is no forward or backward either. We just move gently on to whatever we can best think of to move on to at the time, in the moment.
H: So much Zen… It is so weird. I don’t know why this work/play/learning with Lucy affects me so strongly, I am NOT normally like this. I am reading your words and thinking about them and crying for some reason and I don’t even know why. Weird.
D: You are doing just fine, relax, breathe, and smile – especially when she won’t accept the bridle.
H: … And laughing now, too….
D: Thank you for seeking help. Let me know your thoughts about this please.
H: I profoundly thank you for your help.
D: Cathy and I appreciate the opportunities we’ve had to spend time with you and Lucy, and we always enjoy sharing things we hope are of value to both of you.
H: I am grateful, and you know I think these thoughts of yours are valuable. – Heather
Dear Doc, I have been thinking about all of this “Lucy and I” stuff non-stop. I’m sure something must be gelling in my sub-conscious; we’ll see how long it takes to make it into my unconscious mind.
I just wanted to give you an update. I went out to see Lucy after work today, with Aaron for moral support. Lucy and I worked on leading and stopping (she has been doing it willingly, something we have developed lately), then I decided to try the bridle. I took baby steps again, lowering her head, touching her lips, putting my thumb in her mouth, putting the bridle up to her face, no resistance. She gave me a small clue that there might or might not be resistance to bridling when we got to that, so I decided to see if she would let me. I went back to the way I held the bridle before, which was easier for me (I’m not so coordinated sometimes, so making this easier for me was a good idea). She gave me just a touch of attitude, just on principal, but she allowed me to bridle her. So, I took a breath, petted her, and then just led her to where I tie her. I picked her hooves, then unbridled her and put her back in her stall, where she likes to be. I feel much better now, I was worried about how long that would take after my “whatever it was” the other night.
Thank you for your help, patience, and support. Heather
Hi you two. I just wanted to let you know that things are going very well for Lucy and I. Between the help you have given me, and monthly sessions with a good trainer over here (keeps ME tuned up mostly), Lucy and I have been on a really positive track for some time now. Bridling is going well consistently, as well as leading, standing, mounting and loading. I was noticing today something very counter-intuitive for me. I am “getting after” Lucy more (disciplining her), and I swear she is liking me more. She is more interested in me, and wants to be around me more. I know it is strange, but so many of us just go through our daily lives with our horses without those simple and important things (well-mannered bridling, leading, standing, mounting and loading) because we just don’t know how to change them. So, I want to thank you and the others who help me, because I wouldn’t be here without you. Sincerely, Heather
Hi Doug & Cathy, Thank you for all of your kind words. I talk about that whole experience all of the time. You both were so helpful, as were all of the wise horse-people who I talked with at the Ask a Teamster meetings and another instructor over here. If our experience could help anyone else, I would love to help them. Feel free to use any of the experiences that we have shared however you wish, I trust you both.
Bridling Lucy is never a problem anymore, and our relationship continues to improve and deepen. I was telling a friend about all of this last week, especially the part about how you showed me that I was allowing Lucy to manipulate me emotionally. You didn’t exactly put it that way, but that was the foundation of my problem. That was a paradigm shifter for me. I know not to be affected by people this way, but, I didn’t realize that I was leaving my emotional doors wide open to animals. This had never caused a problem for me, so I didn’t know I had a problem. Once I saw that I needed to interact with Lucy as I would a person, I was so much better! It took some time to make that transition in my mind, but my goodness that was helpful! She respects and likes me more, and we understand each other better, looking at each other more rationally. I love her with all of my heart, but I am careful now to interact with her rationally with love, rather than “ in love” and an emotional mess!
I am happy that you think I have been a great student. I have tried my best to take in, understand, and use all of the information, advice, and wisdom that you both have shared with me. I try to pass it on, too.
I am so happy that you are continuing the Ask a Teamster sessions at the Auction. Those sessions are so invaluable to anyone who wishes to improve their relationships with horses, as far as I’m concerned. We’ ll be there for both sessions, and the whole auction. Thank you again for everything. Sincerely, Heather
“If you reward him with kindness after he has done as you wish he will be most likely to learn to do as he ought. For instance he would receive the bit more readily if some good should come of it every time he received it” – Xenephon (430? – 355? bc) Greek soldier, historian, philosopher, and one of the first great riding masters. Author of the book, The Art of Horsemanship.
Bridling a horse, mule, or donkey is one of the ultimate opportunities for us to practice going slow, and being soft, light, and gentle. What is slow to humans is typically NOT slow to horses. When our hands and minds are too fast for a horse they perceive us as predatorial. If our voice changes to sterner and/or louder the same effect can occur. When any of this happens to horses they first become concerned, then worried, and ultimately fearful if we do not change our physical speed, mental energy, and emotional state – in short, if we do not become slow, relaxed, and non-predatorial in all respects. Better yet, let’s train ourselves to not go there in the first place.
It is not easy for humans to learn how to think, feel, and react like a horse but it is possible and the results when we do are truly amazing. The two of us experience it ourselves as we continuously learn more about horses and analyze and practice our horsemanship skills. We also consistently observe it in our students as we help, coach, and mentor them.
In order to transform our horse into the perfect horse we must first transform ourselves into the perfect friend, companion, and leader of that horse.
A new way of thinking, feeling, and being is typically required, but thankfully at this time in history the tools to accomplish this are now available to us.
Welcome to the revolution in horsemanship,
Doc and Cathy
Doc Hammill lives on a ranch in Montana. He and his partner Cathy Greatorex help people learn about gentle/natural horsemanship and driving and working horses in harness – through writing, workshops, demonstrations, lectures, and his horsemanship video series. www.DocHammill.com