Do you ever stand on the tips of your toes, reaching up as far as you can, desperate to slip a bridle over your horse’s head? Even the most accomplished riders sometimes struggle with the seemingly simple task of bridling. The trouble often arises at the most inopportune moment, making bridling more of a battle of wits than part of gearing up for a relaxing ride. In this article, trainer and clinician Josh Nichol explains why so many riders struggle with this fundamental part of tacking-up and will offers some suggestions on making bridling a stress-free affair.
The Root of the Problem
“In my clinics, I see a lot of people encounter difficulties as they try to either halter or bridle their horses,” said Nichol. “Although this is a critical step when working with horses, it’s one that is often overlooked.” Indeed, we do live in a hurried age that places more emphasis on reaching a final goal rather than investing the time and patience required to get the basics right. As a result, many riders today are quick to dedicate the bulk of their energy to training transitions, flying changes and show worthy manoeuvres like sliding stops and piaffe. Since becoming a successful clinician, however, Nichol has learned that a great majority of these riders skip over basics such as training their horses to willingly accept the halter and bridle. “It’s really just a matter of taking all the same principles that we’ve discussed in the groundwork and applying them to the process of asking a horse to trust us with their head,” said Nichol. “If we can be mindful that horses don’t take naturally to being bridled and that we are, in fact, invading a horse’s most personal space when we reach for his nose and ears, we are more likely to succeed at taking the resistance out of bridling.”
Nichol recommends breaking down the initial training, or retraining, of bridling into several simple steps. For the purpose of this article, we will begin by addressing the halter. It is always best to return to the most basic elements when working with horses in order to uncover the areas where a horse needs support and retraining. As with all previous articles in this series, Nichol prefers to work with a rope-halter attached to a 12-foot lead rope. For the purpose of all the following exercises, we will also position ourselves next to the horse’s left shoulder, facing his head. Since the primary goal is always to feel for resistance in a horse and ask him to relax, we will begin by using the lead rope on its own as a tool to help dissipate the tension that often surfaces during bridling. Take your lead rope and loop it over your horse’s head. Several feet of rope will dangle from behind each ear. Wrap your right hand around both sections of rope, just under your horse’s jaw. With your rope set up this way, you will be able to support your horse and teach him to soften when he becomes anxious. Now, hold the halter in your left hand and slowly move it towards your horse’s neck. The neck is not nearly as sensitive an area as your horse’s face, which makes this an ideal place to start. The moment you feel your horse’s poll tighten or see his head raise, slightly lower the hand that is holding the lead rope. Do not remove the halter until your horse makes the slightest effort to lower his head and relax. The moment this happens, simultaneously remove the halter from your horse’s immediate personal space and release your hold on the lead rope as a reward. Remember that the quicker you are to reward your horse’s slightest efforts by releasing the pressure of both the halter and your hold on the lead rope, the more quickly your horse will succeed. Now, try again and expect to be able to bring the halter closer to your horse’s neck. Again, be mindful to release every time your horse lowers his head and shows greater increments of relaxation. As your horse gains confidence, your goal will be to work towards being able to rub the halter around your horse’s ears and then down along the front of his head, making sure that every effort is rewarded and that these sessions are kept fairly short.
Slipping on the Halter
Once the first part of the exercise has become easier for your horse, he will likely be less resistant when a halter is slipped over his face. Hold the lead rope in your right hand, just as you did in the first part of the exercise, and place your left hand under the noseband of the halter. Now, move your left hand very slowly towards your horse’s nose, being mindful to stop as soon as you feel resistance while you ask for the release through the lead rope. Continue to look for small increments of success. When you are able to slip the noseband onto your horse’s nose without having him brace, you are ready to move on to the next step. Since the noseband of the rope halter provides some leverage in itself, release your hold on the lead rope and slowly reach your right arm over your horse’s neck and then over his poll until the fingers of your right hand are able to reach the poll strap of your halter. To an onlooker, this step should look as though you are giving your horse a hug. “Keep the lead rope looped over your horse’s poll as you move on to this next step,” said Nichol. ‘”This will allow you to go back to it if the need arises.” As smoothly and slowly as possible, hold the poll strap with your right hand and the end of the noseband strap with your left and gently slide the halter up your horse’s face. If you feel your horse raise his head and resist the pressure of the halter, slightly pull down on the noseband until your horse relaxes once again. At this point, you might completely remove the halter as an even greater reward and perhaps even call it a day. Your ultimate goal should be to slip on the halter as your horse maintains a lower head position and remains relaxed through every moment while ensuring he isn’t simply dropping his head as an evasion.
Removing the Halter
The notion of working so diligently to retrain steps we often consider trivial can seem painstaking. “When I consider the amount of gifted riders that struggle with the simple tasks of haltering and bridling, it seems that retraining these steps is not only worthwhile, but also very necessary,” said Nichol. “Just as groundwork dictates how your leadership carries forward into the riding, being able to softly halter your horse speaks volumes about how he will later respond to your reins and bridle while you’re riding. “Envision someone trapping your own head with a halter. Wouldn’t you be unhappy if that person failed to take the time to make sure you were comfortable with it all?” For these reasons, being mindful of how you remove your halter and bridle is just as important as putting it on. “People often think they’re done once the halter is on,” said Nichol. “The truth is that how you finish something is just as important as how you start. “Riders often forget that every moment they spend with their horses is part of training. Nothing should ever be dismissed or thrown away.” With that in mind, Nichol likes to see a halter removed as slowly and with as much care as was applied to putting it on. Again, you may choose to loop the lead rope around the horse’s poll as a back-up softening device. Now, untie the halter and with the poll strap in your right hand, gently slip it off your horse’s poll. If your horse resists or moves his head up, lay the poll-strap behind the ears and apply a gentle downward pressure. Maintain this pressure until your horse lowers his head and the tension begins to dissipate. Once you feel that your horse has made an effort to improve his softness, slowly remove the noseband of the halter. At this moment, Nichol recommends using your right hand around the draped lead rope as a way to apply pressure should your horse raise his head when the halter slips off his face. It won’t take long before your horse keeps his head lowered and soft when you undo his halter.
“Since we’re usually in more of a hurry and have the specific goal of riding in mind when we pull out our halters, the level of pressure carried by the bridle is greater in the eyes of our horses,” said Nichol. “What we must first do is ask our horses to soften to the mere presence of the bridle.” To get started, keep your horse’s rope-halter on with the lead rope attached. Wrap your right hand around the lead rope so that you are ready to help your horse soften should the need arise. Remember that you are not trying to stop your horse from raising his head you are only attempting to create a pressure if he does. Just as you did with the halter in the earlier exercise, slowly move the bridle towards your horse’s muzzle and pay particular attention to any brace that your horse might reveal. Immediately remove any tension by lowering your right hand and waiting for your horse to lower his head and relax. Progress slowly and continue to use this technique with every step of bridling and later unbridling. “Work slowly with the mouth as well and introduce the bit very slowly,’ added Nichol. ‘I see many people rush through slipping the bit into the mouth and this in turn creates significant difficulties. “The secret is to not beat this to death. Only do a little bit of this work at a time and remember that you are dealing with what is ultimately the most sensitive part of your horse’s body.”
Simple Steps to Play With
Since every moment spent with our horses provides new training opportunities, Nichol recommends turning everyday tasks into micro-exercises that will help both of you become more comfortable with bridling. “While you’re just standing around with your horse haltered, slowly and gently move your hands close to your horse’s ears while you once again ask for softness through the lead rope,” offered Nichol. “You can do the same thing as you gently introduce a finger under his lips or onto the bars of his mouth. “You might also slide one hand up your horse’s neck and rest it on his poll while the other hand gently rests on the bridge of his nose. Apply gentle downward pressure on his nose and be prepared to add a bit of pressure on his poll if you feel those muscles tighten and/or his head begin to rise. “Do not try to resist your horses head, just apply a question. Release as soon as you feel your horse relax and praise his try. The amount of ways you can apply these training techniques is really only limited by your imagination.” Indeed, the possibilities are endless. Apply this concept to clipping, brushing, braiding or whatever else you might think of. Generally speaking, no matter what barn or showground you walk into, when bridles are pulled out of tack lockers it doesn’t take long to spot at least one high-headed horse. Don’t let this be yours. By taking the time to apply Nichols’ techniques, you might not get as good of a stretch while bridling your horse, but you will most certainly get the opportunity to work with a softer, more willing partner.