October 4, 2021

Horse pulling on bit

I recently saw a question about a horse that pulls down on the bit. Many comments said "Your horse needs a bigger (stonger) bit."
However, a horse will lay on any bit you 'let' them lay on.

The following exercise is useful for the horse that pulls on the bit or any headgear you're riding in.
It also works for horses that are too elevated or braced.
All of which  have balance, or lack of it, in common.

The old solution, whether people admitted it or not, was often to inflict pain to discourage the behaviour. Thankfully that is becoming less acceptable.

We must always remember that rhythm, relaxation and suppleness must be encouraged, and not sacrificed.

Part 1: Observe it

⁠The first part of solving the problem of the horse pulling on the reins is to notice they are doing it.
You could use narrow or slippery reins and you'll find they'll hurt your hands if the horse starts pulling.
This will remind you.

The exercise explained below should be taught to riders and horses even when the horse is not making any mistakes. It is a tool (that promotes suppleness) and not a punishment.
Then when it is needed they will both be familiar with it.

Part 2: Improve it

⁠As soon as you feel the need to close more than just your thumb and first finger to keep the reins, do the following:

  1. ⁠Turn your body towards which ever side your horse is bent.
    This will give the outside rein while bending with the inside rein and spiraling into a smaller circle.
  2. Slide your inside leg back and do turn on the forehand (disengaging the hindquarters).
    As the horse disengages, they will offer more bend, as long as the outside rein allows it.

    They are giving to the inside rein, from your inside leg.

    They are also suppling their inside hind. That's a benefit you'll want as you teach them to transfer more weight to their hindquarters.

    ⁠If they are straight when you start, make sure you practice this to either side, not just one.

    If they are already bent, stay with that bend as you disengage so you don't create resistance.
  3. ⁠As the hind moves over and they give to the inside rein, soften your inside leg.
    Resume equal contact and ride forward on that bend.
    Gradually straighten and resume what you had been doing.
  4. Repeat as needed.
    You may have to repeat quite a lot in the beginning. The thing is you need to be consistent in your expectations.

    Decide how much contact/pressure you're willing to have with the horse's mouth. Apply this correction each time the horse exceeds that. 

For more of my thoughts on contact, check out my other article
Question: Contact in a Bosal or Bit.

Why not half-halts?

You might wonder why I don't just suggest the rider apply half-halts.
Although this is a really good idea, many riders do not understand how to ask.
Or don't know if they are getting a response.
I find it often leads to more pulling. 

The exercise shown here can be applied by most riders to most horses.
It will improve the horse's suppleness while breaking the tug-of-war habit.
This will improve the chance of success when half-halts are added.

edited to add:  you’re asking the horse to engage just the inside hind leg. Something that is easier for them than engaging both, and the reason why practicing both directions is important.
When they learn and develop the ability to engage each hind leg separately, then the rider will be able to start asking the horse to engage both which is necessary for a half-halt to work.

Let me know your thoughts below.

Before you go to the next article,
I'd love to read your comments and answer your questions below.

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About the author 

Trish Hyatt

International Coach and Clinician
National and International Top 10 Competitor
Technical Delegate and Judge of Working Equitation

Trish's superpower is the ability to give you and your horse what you need, in a way that you understand, so each horse and rider makes progress and knows what they need to work on.

She puts her many skills to use introducing the international discipline of Working Equitation to riders eager to improve their partnership with their horse, with a focus on fun, classical horsemanship and use of the horse for practical work or as cross-training for other disciplines.

  • I totally agree with you Trish, this method can also apply to a horse that is increasing tempo and not responding to half halts.

  • Thanks Trish. My horse had a habit of doing exactly what you described- laying or leaning on the bit. And yes, no amount of changing the bit improved it. I believe this is also a rider problem as, if you simply accept that your horse is ‘heavy’ in the hands and try to push him forward to engage hindquarters more, the problem continues.
    A trainer I had once instructed exactly as you described, with a shoulders fore and increased bend on a small circle, I’d ‘wait’ until the horse lightened by better engaging the hindquarters. Voila, lighter and more consistent engagement. The point is to ensure that the horse lightens before you allow straightening and also, as you say, maintain the feel through the bend as you straighten.
    Thanks Trish. You’re the first person to describe this so accurately. It’s a real life changer!

    • Thanks Ruth. You’re right, send him more forward is often suggested. And as you mentioned, the problem often continues. It comes back to balance and if they couldn’t balance before they often lose their balance more. The theory is correct that you need to engage the hindquarters but instead the tempo increases and they fall forward faster as you and I have both seen.

      I appreciate your rewording of the same exercise in a way that some of the more English style riders can identify with.
      The cool thing about either description is that you’re asking the horse to engage just the inside hind leg. Something that is easier for them than engaging both, and the reason why practicing both directions is important.
      When they learn and develop the ability to engage each hind leg separately, then the rider will be able to start asking the horse to engage both which is necessary for a half-halt to work.

  • I really appreciate this article! I have used small circles to increase impulsive with shoulder in, but your article is both detailed and explicit. It will allow me to make a correction and continue on more seamlessly.

  • Hi – I agree with the activity to engage the hind end, as often that is the reason the horse will brace. However, a recent project proved that it isn’t always just the hind but also the front end that can get stuck. In the arena the horse was was fine, but get out in the wide open spaces and the more you tried to move the hind end the faster he lost balance sideways. Falling sideways is the best way to describe it as it was the weirdest and most unsettling of feelings. I realized it wasn’t just the hind end but his front end that was locked up against the rein, the reason he would lose balance. I switched focus to the outside shoulder and the drifts stopped. We did a lot of move the hind end bring the front end across through that so it was weird to see how it showed up when the space changed. Anyway he’s gone home with his human, a lot of different activities for the two of them to work on and I await his first update.

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes with horses it’s not always cut and dried. This is exactly how I would start to teach a horse not to run through the shoulder, but extra steps are involved in the rider recognizing it, and correcting it, with appropriate timing.

      It’s a challenge to write an article and not have it turn into a book as there are no many variables. That’s why I the Working Equitation Mastery, For The Rest Of Us program.

      It includes step by step instructions for training the skills a horse needs, but also includes a community where I can review videos and get to the heart of specific problems as they come up. Some have even become full lessons that I added to the program in the Beyond The Basics section.

      Working Equitation Mastery

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