Win Pulling Contests with Brain, not Brawn

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

The average horse weighs at least five or six times the average human adult. So it doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict who's going to win if they get into a pulling contest. Humans who find themselves in pulling matches with their horses need to learn to use their brains rather than their brawn to solve the problem. Often, they're so busy arguing with the horse that they don't take time to analyze the problem.

Constant pulling or lugging against the bit is an evasion of a rider's poor hands that quickly becomes a bad habit. It's not obstinacy on the horse's part. It's self-defense. Riders without an independent seat bounce with every stride, hitting the horse's mouth with each bump. Really unsteady riders may hang on the reins to maintain their balance. The horse soon figures out that pulling against this bouncing or hanging stop the pain. A steady, hard pull eventually numbs his mouth so he no longer feels the jerking.

Once pulling has become a habit, it takes time and patience to retrain the horse to trust the bit. Longe the horse in a simple snaffle bit and side reins that have elastic inserts or rubber donuts for a little give. With the reins long enough to allow the horse to stretch its neck, work toward a relaxed, rhythmic trot. Then ask for transitions between the trot and walk, and finally for cantering with transitions back and forth to trot. The horse must move forward from driving aids to correct the pulling. If the horse starts to pull while longeing, send him forward with stronger driving aids.

Once the horse moves relaxed on the longe in all three gaits without pulling, put the rider back up without reins. With the horse still in side reins, work the same sequence of longeing transitions until both horse and rider are completely relaxed and the horse is not pulling. While the horse is learning to trust the bit, the rider must work on an independent seat. That means riding with all muscles and joints relaxed while balancing over the horse's center of gravity. No gripping. No hanging on the reins.

Next, remove the side reins and give the rider reins but keep the horse on the longe line. The person on the ground can help with forward driving aids if needed and the safe, familiar longeing circle helps the horse stay relaxed. The rider should have steady hands and give the horse enough rein length to allow it to stretch its neck. The horse must understand that driving aids mean forward and weight aids mean to slow or stop.

When the rider can ride all three gaits and transitions on the longeing circle with the horse remaining relaxed and not pulling, they are ready to leave the longe line and move on.

Training takes patience. Training means developing a communication system. Each stage may take several weeks depending on the horse and how ingrained the habit of pulling has become. Be careful not to overwork the horse so that the retraining is a pleasurable experience. Longeing can be strenuous--20 to 30 minutes are maximum, particularly at the start of the retraining program. Remember to reward the horse with a pat whenever it gives the right response.

When the rider has an independent seat and uses the aids effectively to send the horse forward without hitting it in the mouth, pulling will be a thing of the past. Whether trail riding for pleasure or training for competition, every rider's goal should be a horse that is responsive to leg, rein and weight aids. This takes time and dedication but the end result--a harmonious relationship between horse and rider--is well worth it.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

Ron has been teaching "Natural Horsemanship" before it was cool. No matter how long you have been riding, MM will improve your riding immeasurably! Appreciate that you will not be riding a "made" horse all the time and value what each horse has to teach you. It is soooo WORTH it!
Debra Davidson Jennings: 1993 Riding Master III Graduate