Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Working Towards Softness: Why I Don't Use Gadgets

In response to the comments on yesterday's post, I'm going to do a series of posts concerning working towards softness. The first post, this one, is about why I don't use gadgets when I work with my horses. The second post will be about some basic things I've learned about working towards softness, and the remaining posts will contain some simple exercises that can convey the concept and feel of softness, and perhaps be useful. Now before I get started with these posts, please remember that I'm just someone working with my own horses. I make no pretense of being a trainer or in a position to advise anyone else about what to do with their horses. This blog is just my descriptions of what I do with my horses and how I find that it works or doesn't work, and my opinions about all that. I'm the first one to admit that some or all of my methods or opinions may be wrong. I'm on the road here, just like anyone else who rides or works with horses, and I believe I've got a lot more to learn from horses and people.

Now, with those caveats out of the way, the question of whether or not to use gadgets, and how to use them if you do, came up in the comments yesterday, and I have enough to say about that topic that I decided to do a post rather than respond there. I used to use gadgets - lots of them - any new bit or device that came out and I was on it - I've used them all. I don't use any now, ever, although someday there'll probably be a case where I do for a specific reason to prove me wrong. The only equipment I use is a bridle without a noseband and some sort of snaffle bit with a smooth mouthpiece, a web halter (occasionally a rope halter, but rarely) with a cotton lead rope, a saddle (that fits) and occasionally long lines (almost always without a surcingle). That's it - no spurs, martingales, draw reins, strong bits, flash nosebands, crops or whips (although occasionally a crop used as a secondary aid on my leg - not the horse - can be helpful), no bitting rigs or anything else. (Parenthetically, it's possible to classify all tack, and particularly bits, but also bitless bridles, as gadgets, but let's classify basic tack as "not gadgets" for purposes of this discussion.)

I'm not just a refusenik - there's actually some thought behind this. My objective is for the horse to be able to move, by free choice, in a way that is soft and relaxed and capable - just as it would in the pasture without a rider. This means that what the horse does has to be by choice and not constraint. I also want to know what the horse is thinking and feeling - the horse must be able to express itself and the conversation has to be two-way. So this is the first reason I don't use gadgets - I think they tell the horse what to do rather than ask the horse so the horse can figure it out. The analogy is, when you're teaching someone to add, one way to do it is to give them the answer and drill them in the answer, so they learn that 2+2=4. The other way is to teach the person how to add, which will not only allow them to figure out that 2+2=4, but also to figure out lots of related things - and I'll bet they remember this better than a drilled answer. (I can't take credit for this analogy - it comes from Mark Rashid.) Using gadgets usually just gives the horse the answer. I believe it's a lot more powerful to help the horse figure out how to respond to your ask, on its own - the learning is more powerful and generalizes better to other situations.

The second reason I don't use gadgets any more is I think using them is often a slippery slope, for riders and trainers. It's very easy to become dependent on them, use them too much and develop a way of riding that requires them. There was an interesting example at a barn where I used to board. There was a trainer there who had some nice horses. But every horse she had, hers or a boarder's, was lunged all the time in a bitting rig. Every horse was ridden in draw reins or side reins or a neck stretcher in a tight position. Even when they were jumped, they were in side or draw reins - and that's an ugly thing to see - the horses would try to jump and hit themselves in the mouth, refuse and be punished for it. Those horses never got a release or a break, and they were crazy. One day the trainer rode one of her nice warmbloods without the devices, and he went nuts, flipped out and threw her - she broke her ankle. The horses had no idea how to carry a rider without leaning on the devices - without them the trainer and the horses were both lost. Now I'm not saying that all people who use devices go to this extreme. But many riders and trainers use gadgets too much and for the wrong reasons, in my opinion. Gadgets and devices are often used as shortcuts instead of real training, and they're used as crutches. They're also used because that's the fashion in a particular discipline. They're often used to more quickly produce a "headset" or a "frame" that's pure illusion, without any real softness at all.

The third reason I don't use gadgets, particularly those like drawreins that apply a leverage effect to the bit, is I don't think I'm a good enough rider, and I don't think I'll ever be. The mouth is one of the most delicate parts of the horse's body, and a misused bit can cause severe pain and even permanent physical and mental damage. Using leverage on the bit amplifies this risk, and the gadget just becomes a means of coercion, and if misused enough, a way to produce fear and tension. Now I've been riding for many years, and I won't use these gadgets for fear that I might, even unintentionally, do physical or mental harm to the horse. I believe many people who use these gadgets aren't better with their hands than I am, and I would include many people who purport to be trainers in this group. Your hands better be darn good before you consider using a leverage device on the bit, in my opinion.

Now those are just my opinions. If you do use a gadget or device, Laura M. and in2paints had some good thoughts yesterday about this and you should read their comments - the use should be only for a short time and only until the horse understands what you're after - it should be used as a communication and not a control device, to make a point more clear and help the horse figure out what you want. If you do this, do it with extreme care as devices and gadgets can easily cause harm to the horse and its confidence in you. Once you're done with showing the horse what you mean, the device should come off and there should be no further, or very limited, need for it. Otherwise, it's becoming a control device or a crutch, or both. Softness only comes when the horse willingly does what you ask, not when the horse has no other option but to comply. I think often people ride with gadgets or devices because they don't know how to do what they want any other way, but there are other ways, in my opinion, and I think they produce better long-term results, but sometimes those results take more time, effort and patience from us.


  1. Good post! Well said as always.

    I think some people, on some horses, can use spurs as a tool and not a gadget. I don't use them on Dixie because my legs aren't steady enough when she spooks, and the last thing I need to do is goose her when she startles! But other than that, I agree with your categories.

  2. I think some are tools and some are gadgets , but as you say it is a slippery slope .I prefer to add time and technique before I add leather and steel

  3. I definitely see the point of not using a gadget, my challenge is in figuring out something very basic.

    What do I do with the reins to encourage my horse to drop his head?

    I know I want more than that, but I'm just aiming for point A today. And I need an explanation suitable for a toddler. :)

    So today Smokey and I worked without the neck stretcher thingy. It was a day just for training on standing while mounted, and reshaping his backing.

    His head was up, but not terrible, really. I worked a bit to bring him in like this: I pulled down and held with my ring finger on the reins. When he dropped his head, I released.

    Then I tried to set my hands so if he popped his head up further (because he'd drop his head, then lift it again), he'd run into the reins. It seemed to confuse him at first, but then he did better.

    Then I'd forget and have to get re-situated.

    So is that what I should be doing?

  4. Breathe - that sounds pretty good - in part 3 of the post I'm going to describe a couple of simple exercises - of course seeing it is better than writing about it. The basic deal is to set a boundary with your hands, and give the horse a soft place to move into - that is, make sure you're not pulling and that your hands don't recoil (move towards your body) when the horse softens. There, you've helped me write part of that post!

  5. Fantastic post Kate! I certainly try to keep everything I ride in as little gear as possible. The reliance on gadgets is one of my pet peeves with Hunterland. Not saying that all Hunters train with gadgets but unfortunately it seems too widespread. Usually with time, patience, and classical training the horses get it... just like your Dawn and my Panache. Although I have used the neck stretcher (two rides, ten minutes of gadget use each ride) on Panache, it was while coming back off an injury and she just needed a gentle reminder of how to carry herself.

    I have a theory, and that is that people will grab for the gadget when they don't understand the body mechanics of how a horse's "headset" is a direct outcome of the horse's conformation and core strength. Unless the core is strong and supple the horse's head and neck cannot be soft and round. Over-use of the gadget becomes a subsitute for developing true core strength that creates a beautiful mover and a happy horse.

  6. Amen Kate!

    Too many (dressage) riders rely on extreme tack and working the horse from front to back instead of back to front. The desire for immediate gratification takes over and the horses suffer.

    If we don't have the patience and compassion for the horse to learn how to communicate with him... to achieve an equal and willing partnership WITH him, then (as my trainer says) we should hang up our spurs... (which by the way I don't use as I'm not a skillful enough rider lol) :)

    We might not all agree on the finer points, but I think we can all recognize when a horse is willingly cooperating with his rider.

    Here is a lovely example - Dr. Reiner Klimke and Alderich doing their victory lap in the '84 Olympics - 76 one tempes... sublime :)

  7. Nice post, and I have to agree. Just last week I was having uses with Milo's transitions, that he would hollow out in the transition, than correct himself afterwards. I asked a friend and she recommended a german martingale. A side of me was really hesitant because I had never used one and basically didnt want to eff him up. And another part of me was thinking, the frame, the softness come witha a supple body, I need to get his body moving correctly and the rest will come. And honestly, only a week later, a lightbulb seemd to click on in him somewhere and when I rode yesterday he just made beuatiful transitions. I think if I had fallen into using the german martingale, there would have been heaps of trouble for us in the long run. Im glad I stuck to my guns.

  8. Great post, Kate, as always! I learn so much from stopping by here, oh, how I wish I lived closer to you!!!

  9. It's funny, I was just thinking about this topic a few days ago and I think one problem with a lot of these "gadgets" is that since they give so much power to the hands it becomes impossible to back up the hand with enough leg and as a result you end up pulling your horse into a frame rather than pushing your horse into the bridle, resulting in a false frame.

    I wonder if horse training could be at all like dog training? I've found with dogs that the most successful way to teach tricks is to find a way to encourage the dog to do the action on their own...not do it for them. Like if I want to shake a paw I need to find a way to encourage the dog to put his paw in my hand, not just go grab the paw myself and pull it forward. Could it be the same with horses that if we just force them into a certain posture it carries no meaning vs finding a way to encourage them to move into that posture under their own power?

  10. Interesting post Kate. I'm an anti on the gadget front too but I do sometimes wonder when is a gadget a gadget?

  11. Ok, I do use a surcingle for long lining and will upon occasion "Vee" the driving reins to get my horse to go round...but once he releases, I put the reins back in a normal position. I often carry a whip to help cue a leg aid, and it really helps with making the lateral work easier. Spurs are required at FEI, so in anticipation of that, I will wear them once in a while. They can also be useful for refining a leg aid in some exercises.

    All that being said, most of the time I ride without any extra stuff. The exception would be if I were jumping or going cross country--something I no longer do--and then I might use a martingale if I was on a horse that needed one for control/safety. Then, the key is careful adjustment that allows the martingale to only come into play should the horse throw his head up dangerously.

    I have always taught stretch down and on the bit without the use of any equipment beyond and ordinary bridle with a snaffle bit. It might take longer that way, but what you end up with is a horse truly trained to go correctly into contact.

  12. Wow thats an exellent post and so much to think on, I am mostly in agreement with you, true training can never be quickend with gadgets even if it seems like it. I often think to train better I look back at the vaquero way of training and it takes 5-7 years to train a horse properly. Thats a long long time but by the time they are a finished horse, they are way past any horse that has been forced to "learn" with all them crazy gadgets. I however use spurs, but as an extension of my leg, never as a punishment.
    There are so many people who want to rush through training and just move up with a stronger bit or draw reins and the hrose ends up worse afterwards.

  13. Good post. I was appalled at the gadgets I saw in the hunter ring in Florida last winter. I don't know how the horses could move let alone jump. I'm sure there are similar situations in all disciplines.
    That said I find a dressage whip a useful training tool to reinforce my leg aid. It is never used harshly, but tapping lightly behind my leg to reinforce a rhythm, get past a refusal to move forward (when starting a green horse)etc. has been useful to me.
    Also, some awful things happen without gadgets. Look at rollkur (but maybe you'd count a double bridle a gadget).

  14. Your math analogy is spot on, Kate.

    I'm definitely gadget free (no spurs, whips, martingales, draw reins, etc) because that's what works best for me and my mare. She won't be forced into anything without putting up a fight, so I've made an effort to allow her to figure it out on her own. I tried draw reins with her at one point to try and help her understand what I was asking, but it was hurting much more than it was helping.

    I'm not anti-gadget, because they work great for some horses as a training tool, but they're often misused, and over used.

  15. Oh very excellent post Kate~
    I have sure had to learn the hard way. ..Many trainers and much adverse advise in the past. Too many trainers wanting to fast track horses/riders.
    I love the way your loving patience towards horses and common sense come together.
    I have to admit, since I have found you...I feel.half hearted reading, as I have no safe place to apply the talents/tips you describe.....till NOW...oh man, I have much back reading...I am moving to an arena soon!

    I desire trust between my mare and me in the arena setting. Though there has been writings lately, from some, of horses not keeping bad thoughts towards abuse in arenas and mental hardships.and pain.
    I strongly disagree...mine makes me start Over...much...she does seem to remember and react. I have always tried to be soft and seek answers for her strong opionions towards arena work. I just need her to be safe..and I fair.
    All that to say, I am looking forward to joining the softness/communication party here..first hand, very soon!


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