If someone said “We need to scrutinize the effect of every single item we use in our interaction with a horse, whether it be a halter, saddle or bridle,” I would whole-heartedly agree. In fact I would probably expand on that to include everyday items we use around them, say a grooming brush for example. But maybe even more significant is how we use our bodies in our interactions with the horse.
The reason I say this is because ultimately, it’s the QUALITY of touch, or how we connect to our own bodies when we connect to our horses that makes the real difference. Let me give you an example. Take the difference between a flat halter or rope halter. The flat halter is usually made of a web material, compared to a rope halter, which is often yacht braid with knots on the nose. The knots can be aversive and potentially severe and the thinner braid can put painful pressure on the poll.
Because of this feature people tend to prefer flat halters. But wait, let’s take a deeper look at those as well.
In my work with Peggy Cummings I learned to watch how horses braced against contact from the human, whether it was from a halter or the human’s touch. I witnessed, participated and finally assisted in clinics where horses arrived stiff, rigid and fully braced against the feel of the flat halter. Not only were the horses dull to the cues given by the handler using the flat halter, their necks reflected years of muscle development that was created by the effort of pulling against the human who was unconsciously adding unnecessary pressure on the halter, or, was consciously adding unnecessary amounts of pressure in an effort to control the horse. The evidence showed that it was people really just ended up building more brace and resistance in the horse.
I’ve watched well-intentioned horse-loving people reach up and touch a web halter and in the first moments of contact I could see the horse brace. It was the HUMAN’S touch that triggered the brace. In fact even reaching for the halter caused some of these horses to lift the head and try to evade the touch. The flat halter allowed the horse to pull even more resolutely in the opposite direction than where the handler was suggesting through her use of the tool. This reinforced the brace and the vicious cycle continued.
Be assured, I’m confident those same horses would have been resisting and bracing if they were wearing a rope halter. My point is this had less to do with the equipment being used and MORE to do with how the person had learning gaps in how to use their bodies when handling this equipment.
The truth is the people approach horses with braced bodies; their own bodies are disunited or rigid and this rigidity gets relayed to the horse. Furthermore they are often completely unconscious of their own movements. They turn and walk away from the horse, fully expecting the horse should follow, even if the horse is unprepared to follow. Consequently the lead rope tightens, the halter exerts pressure, the horse’s head lifts higher with the nose moving forward, the neck stretches and finally the horse takes a couple of awkward steps setting him up to be heavy on the forehand. The lack of balance, softness and feel in the handlers touch of the lead or halter is often combined with a mindset that suggests that if the horse is unprepared to follow it deserves to feel the halter tighten. This absolutely builds layer after layer of brace into the horse.
The problem is seen in every discipline with horses wearing every type of halter. Even people who are trying to train their horses with kindness and positive techniques, can be seen turning and walking away while they unconsciously pull, manipulate or handle the lead in such a way that the horse is feeling pressure, not the good kind of pressure, but the kind that builds brace. Remember, our pulling creates their brace. Our handling creates resistance.
The same can be said of saddles. One might think that a bareback pad would guarantee comfort for the horse, yet if the horse has to drag around a someone who is so tight that the compression alone creates discomfort, then the bareback pad is not the answer. Changing the rider’s body awareness and use IS the answer.
People also use their body language to cue the horse to do something, yet they move faster than the horse, or they try to push the horse with their energy. They also use tactile cues that, instead of being inviting, are poking, prodding or otherwise stiff and rigid.
So I would like to offer this suggestion. Instead of trying to blame a piece of equipment, as if somehow switching halters is the answer to a horse’s comfort, I would vote for taking it a step further advocating an intense focus on teaching the HUMAN how to connect with their own body in a fully balanced, healthy way, then take that conscious awareness and connect with the horse. Our timing, rhythm, balance and integrated movements are ALWAYS either adding suppleness or brace to a horse. It is up to us to keep ourselves conscious of this fact.
Remember every time you ask something of your horse, whether it’s through your touch or a piece of equipment, you are either building more softness or building more brace.