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Contact Issues for a sensitive horse

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  • Contact Issues for a sensitive horse

    Horse is very very sensitive, but in that sort of eager beaver sort of way - like a very alert border collie. He's almost bombproof, not spooky at all, but he's not a deadhead by any means. He's also a 14 year old greenie (of sorts, he raced for a very long time quite successfully and then was ridden sporadically.) Teeth are done, back has been cracked, hocks injected, ulcers treated, at a nice new facility where care is really really good. Lots of turnout with buddies. Trail ridden when possible (though not much this winter). Not clipped but recently shedded.

    Walk-trot very nice. Not really engaged yet, but we've been working with relaxation first since he likes to go go go. He doesn't bolt or do anything stupid, he just likes to go and go fast.
    He's not a spookhead, so I wouldn't classify it as anxious in that sort of nervous way, but it's more like a severe eagerness to please.

    He struggles with contact and right now either wants you to not touch his face or to keep a strong hold. Strong hold results in more fast (he's a racehorse after all) and obviously does not make a connection. Local trainers (hunter and dressage) have been a little stumped by him.

    Right now he's in a rubber-mouth snaffle. He hates it. More on that later.

    Canter. Hm. Well, we spent a Loooooonnnnnnnggggg time in trot and just doing canter work on the longe because canter at first turned into omg we're at the racetrack again. Canter no longer turns into that, but it's kind of like this...

    Horse: Trot-Trot-Trot

    Me, thinking: "Okay, he's nice and relaxed, I think I'll let him..."

    Horse: LEAP INTO CANTER...Canter Canter Canter...beginning to build down the long side...approaching the short side...


    Me: No seriously, I didn't, I didn't touch it, the reins were long, I was giving...I swear I was giving.

    Horse: You DIIIIIIIID *wringing head, flinging it between his legs and all over the place*

    Me: No, look. Okay, so maybe I did. I'm not sure that I did, but you are saying so so I must have. My hands are on your neck.

    Horse: NOOOOOO....you touched me, you touched me, you held me for a second and I don't like that at all *flinging head, wringing it to the side, bending inward, ignoring leg completely*

    Me: Seriously dude, I have my hands here, and the only reason I'm keeping any length of rein at all is so that you don't put your head any further between your legs and start bronc-ing.

    Horse: But I don't LIIIIIIKKKKKEEEEEE it.

    Me: Le sigh. Keep cantering...okay, nice canter, now you can trot.

    Horse: Okay, trotting, trotting...oh, wait, did you lean back slightly? Did that mean canter? No? You brushed me with your leg, did that mean canter? No? Did I feel you just touch my mouth again? Seriously? WHAT THE HECK??? I TOLD YOU I DON'T LIKE THAT.

    I think that illustrates it nicely.

    Things I've tried:

    Put my hands in a variety of places to make him comfortable with me touching his mouth and comfortable that a shortened rein means nothing at all. This sometimes works at the walk (he'll finally settle) but does not work at the trot and is a disaster at canter. He can trot at a steamroller pace for an hour or probably more, but my middle-aged body gives out by that time. He has a notoriously hard time "just dealing with it". He doesn't do anything horrible - it's just...well, it's like the above.

    On the longe he overreacts equally to canter IF the longe line is anywhere near his mouth. If I loop it through the noseband ONLY (which I did as a last resort since his face is too small for my longeing cavesson - and held my breath because I thought he was going to break my bridle) he is soft and responsive and mostly balanced (for his green state). He listens to voice commands. I even have to watch how loudly I say "Trot" because if I say it too energetically we get steamroller.

    Had other (well qualified) people to ride him. He's worse with other people and actually tanks off with most of them. I'm not saying I'm spay-shul, I've just figured him out to this point.

    He is extremely attuned to body signals. Actually I think he's a mind-reader. I'm kidding. Well...mostly.

    Once I finally taught him how to back (at first it was accompanied by head flinging and not feet moving EVEN THOUGH HE DID IT ON THE GROUND VIA VOICE COMMAND!!! *shouting intentional...can you sense the frustration?*), he does it with the merest touch on the rein...and I do mean something that probably most mortals would not be able to see. A ninja finger-twitch. A suggestion of a closed finger.

    He is keen keen keen. I have had other thoroughbreds and really spicy ones, he's not like them. He's not bouncy and hard to contain - I can walk and trot him on a super long rein and he will act like a western pleasure horse. It's like he's an overachiever and can't break the connection with "pressure on mouth = go time + anxiety".

    It's almost like I need to find a way to tune him down in general, not up. He overreacts to *everything* and so the learning process has really been slow because getting the right response is tricky. Want to trot? Think trot and lift with your seat. MAYYYYBE brush him lightly with your leg if he was looking at himself in the mirror or something. Legs can be on, draped and comfortable, so it's not like he's not accepting of the leg, he's just...eager and looking for changes in your body movement as opposed to a specific aid.

    In a quest to make him comfortable we tried a million saddles, and finally found one that fit. So that has been ruled out.

    We've also experimented with bits, and tried a:
    Mullen mouth egg butt (med-width)
    Rubber-mouth jointed snaffle D
    French link loose ring (wide)
    French link loose ring (thin)
    Hackamore (disaster on wheels)
    Mullen mouth with a port for his tongue (D)

    The bit he LIKES?

    The Waterford.

    With most bits he can be tricky to take the bit, he complains, he rubs his head on everything after I take the bit out.

    With the waterford? It slips right in no complaint. When I take it out he may rub once (he hates foam on his face), but it's not the flinging about of the head and melodrama that accompanies other bits. Oh, and he doesn't complain at all at w-t-c with the waterford.

    But I know I can't make the connection with a waterford. Or at least that's what I understand. So one thought was to look for a bit that he will accept and like that has traits of the waterford. I suspect that he doesn't object to it because it's not hard in his mouth. And since I really don't touch it, it never forms that "solidness" that the waterford can form.

    So...options? Advice? Obviously the Waterford is not the full answer (we have a myriad of other issues going on) but I'm thinking that putting it back in may allow him to concentrate on learning instead of melodrama.

    When I got him he was jumping 3'6" coops in the hunt field in a double-twisted. That lady has brass balls and is a very strong rider and she said she had a ton of trouble with him (unsurprising, now that I know him). His style was to run at the jumps eagerly and he seemed to have a natural aptitude for where to take off, because he wasn't adjustable at all...(isn't...wasn't). I bought him because his brain is super-solid and because of his attitude and natural ability. He is a diamond in the *very rough*. If I can crack his sensitivity issues I know we'll continue to move forward. He is a forever horse for me, not a sales prospect. He'll retire on my farm, due to what he has given me back (my confidence, believe it or not...).

  • #2
    If you get the type of work you want out of him with the waterford, why can't you just ride/educate him in that? It's not illegal or any where near a harsh bit. And he can't LEAN on it, I've never had a problem with connection with one (or lack thereof).
    \"In all manners of opinion, our adversaries are insane.\" Mark Twain


    • Original Poster

      Well Squirt, that is my question...or one of them. What I don't want it to be is a crutch or a shortcut because he is SUCH a different horse with it in his mouth. I also wonder if I'm "wussing out" by not insisting that he go with a "normal" bit.

      <caveat> I may be overthinking this. </caveat>


      • #4
        So use the waterford. There's nothing wrong with it (and FWIW, I love waterfords and think they are extremely useful).

        My mare hasn't gone in a "normal" bit in years...don't think it's been detrimental.
        Proudly blogging for The Chronicle of the Horse!


        • #5
          Originally posted by OneGrayPony View Post
          I may be overthinking this.

          By all means...use the Waterford! If it is what works best right now, stop beating your head against the wall about it!

          What is a "normal" bit anyway?

          If the horse was 3 and never been ridden before, sure...train it to go on this so-called "normal" bit. Your guys is like mine - comes with some training baggage - so go with what works for him.


          • #6
            Inky had the same issue. We tried a bunch of different bits and what he finally decided he liked was the Myler Level 1 D Ring Comfort snaffle. He went from head flinging tantrums to 'OK, this is cool, I can handle contact with this bit'. He's got a very small, mild parrot mouth, and he just did not like anything that was 'busy' in his mouth, his mouth can't handle a thick bit, or a single joint snaffle.

            But if he likes the Waterford, use it.
            Lowly Farm Hand with Delusions of Barn Biddieom.
            Witherun Farm


            • #7
              Use the waterford. Who cares if it's not a "normal" bit if it works? It's not harsh.

              Have you ever put him in side reins on the lunge? How does he react? You might want to start there to teach him about connection.

              How much leg are you using? I find that the sensitive ones actually need more leg sometimes. You want to recycle that "OMG I WANT TO RUN" energy back into their hind end rather than becoming fast and on the forehand and strung out.

              Oh, and lateral work lateral work lateral work. Then when you're done, do some more lateral work. I'm sure your dressage instructor emphasized this, but it really does help get a true connection and get the horse to use themselves properly.

              Good luck. I also have a quirky TB and they can be a challenge, but man are they fun
              friend of bar.ka


              • #8
                Use the Waterford if he likes it. If it makes him ridable and more enjoyable go for it. He may have an odd shaped tongue or mouth and that may just work for him. Once be starts to get it and settles you can go back to another bit to try.


                • Original Poster

                  I have put him in side reins on the longe and he had an equally distasteful reaction to them. I never tried side reins to a longeing cavesson though...maybe I should try to find one that fits him (he has a weird head) and see how that goes. Or see what side reins to the waterford do - I didn't try that.

                  I really ended up just sticking the waterford on the first time as a "I have this bit in my toolkit let me put it in his mouth" kind of thing.

                  He gets very confused and pissy with a strong or heavy leg (which was one of the things that led us to suspect ulcers). Flat ears, flinging of the head, shooting off into never never land. I'm not saying I have to pussy foot around him (except when I also have the reins gathered) it's more like...he has really sensitive hearing and feels that's too loud.

                  We are continuing to work on his lateral work. He still struggles with it. Gets it totally well on the ground, but he has made an unbreakable connection between leg = go (even if it's just one leg). And actually that may also come from his prior training. His former owner said that she hated a horse that didn't go forward...well...he definitely goes, but he's not fizzy.

                  TOF was especially hard for him (what, you want me to step over but NOT go forward?) and the addition of hand even as a check-release and leg just blows his mind into the atmosphere. I still have to use the wall sometimes for him to "get it" and even then you can see him thinking "my owner is a moron, doesn't she realize there's a wall here?" I get TOF and lateral work best when I use the stick only (as a tap/cue) because it's different than leg.

                  Luckily he's very kind and patient when he thinks I'm a moron. If he were unkind he'd be a very dangerous horse.


                  • #10
                    I have some similar issues, though not quite the same. 9 yo OTTB. Off the track for 2 years - raced 4 &1/2. Not much done with him as he immediately became a handful at the canter, and over fences. Now has gone through extensive vet work, did a course of Gastrogard with no change - has some limitations, but we have figured his attitude, which has gotten more difficult, is an assertive thing rather than physical, now more enhanced by his being in very, very good physical condition - and, of course, wanting to run again!

                    When I got him in the fall, he was tossing his head regularly with a copper roller bit. Now has a French bit and is much better, though not 100% perfect. (Had his teeth floated this winter by a specialist who said they were awful - not done correctly previously, and will need another appt within 6 months.) I can longe him with the line run through his bit.

                    We had started right off doing work at the walk and trot, including lateral work, and other exercises to keep things interesting. After figuring out how to resolve some minor arthritis he's been ready to return to the races!

                    After being bucked off twice, I got back to lots of reading, and also got a 2nd opinion w/ a very good trainer quite familiar w/ Thoroughbreds. We are starting all over again on ground work & the longe to improve our communication. I didn't get this part! OK, heard go back to the beginning, but I was thinking - why? Just to quiet him down?

                    Now I'm learning to make his instructions clear, and so that he's listening to me. And so that I am making the decisions - not him. He has some issues on the ground, but not at all mean. He still has to get his balance at the canter (when we eventually go there), and realize that it's not about going as fast as possible. I believe previous longe work was done solely to wear him out - he didn't really learn much, and an arthritic ankle will have us doing it within limits - lots of walk/trot/listen! Had very similar experiences as you - pretty reactive on the longe when we first went back to it - including for trainer, assistant trainer, vet & visiting trainer. Now that he and I are more used to each other, he is not such a big deal with me. But can be with the rest!

                    When I ride, he is not really happy to have much leg on him. Super sensitive sides. So we are starting again at the walk, while he figures out what I want from him, and while I try to figure out how much is too much, and where to sit for him. And what kind of walk I prefer from him. Barn trainer is dressage, while I am H/J - and my sitting too deep in the saddle can get him irritated at times. So have thrown in some work in the half seat, as he simply goes forward without much agitation being there - then return to normal. And keeping work in the saddle limited and short - to be stretched out over time.

                    All those years of the track schedule are hard to erase! No, we don't want to go faster. Yes, I have requests of you that you're not familiar with so get frustrated when you are seeking to make the decisions. And yes, we may ask you to do more than run outside fast for a few minutes, then get a bath and stay in and take it easy the rest of the day!!

                    Will be interesting to hear other comments.
                    But he thought, "This procession has got to go on." So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all. H.C.Anderson


                    • #11
                      I started reading your very fun post, OP, and one thing jumped out at me..

                      You need to stop experimenting! Pick a philosophy and ride it. Your lack of consistency moment to moment, let alone ride to ride, is probably driving this horse crazy

                      Decide what to do and do it.

                      Love your writing style.
                      "Kindness is free" ~ Eurofoal
                      The CoTH CYA - please consult w/your veterinarian under any and all circumstances.


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by EqTrainer View Post
                        Love your writing style.
                        Me too! (No training advice, though )
                        Follow us on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/peonyvodka/


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by EqTrainer View Post
                          I started reading your very fun post, OP, and one thing jumped out at me..

                          You need to stop experimenting! Pick a philosophy and ride it. Your lack of consistency moment to moment, let alone ride to ride, is probably driving this horse crazy

                          Decide what to do and do it.

                          Love your writing style.
                          Hits the nail on the head!

                          I've learned the schedule and routine are so important. Had 1000 opinions when I first had him this fall, so everyone thought of something different. I showed up to ride, or work with him, when I could fit it in the schedule, around others' lessons, and weather wise. Now starting over, I try for the same time early morning, "weather" or not- as well as consistency in what we're trying to accomplish - and the routine that will get us there. He's definitely less fidgety overall.
                          But he thought, "This procession has got to go on." So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all. H.C.Anderson


                          • #14
                            Use the Waterford or maybe try a HS KK ultra. It's a soft bit, and many horses like it. I'd avoid loose rings with one that is so sensitive in their mouth because it has a lot of movement due to the loose rings.

                            I agree with the poster that suggested more leg. Lots of lateral work. I find that bumping them with the leg, to ask for each step, rather than just continued pressing/squeezing seems to be more effective.

                            I also like to teach the sensitive ones a cue to relax. You can start when you are on the ground, and grooming or scritching them in their favorite spot, by using a phrase like "Theerrree you goooo". (Said in a quiet long drawn out voice). Whenever you are doing something relaxing, use it. When you transition downwards, and go to relax on a longer rein, scratch the withers with a finger and say it. If you are trotting, and get a couple of strides of a relaxed trot, scratch the withers and say it. Soon, you'll be able to sink into the saddle and say it, and he'll automatically relax. Also, you might try sighing loudly and relax into the saddle, and you'll find that often, they will relax as well. Sounds strange, but it works.

                            Does your horse have a bit seat? If not, talk to your vet about getting one. Most racehorses seem to, but maybe he doesn't.

                            Make sure your noseband isn't too tight. Some horses really hate it.

                            I'd also do lots of repetitive work, like circles, to help him relax. Jet is one that sounds a lot like yours, and I find that doing lots of changes of direction/transitions, just gets him more wound up.



                            • #15
                              May not be necessarily the greatest solution for him but it sounds like he just needs to get over it. Put your leg on him. The more you try and avoid doing it the more reactive he's going to be when you do it. Take contact and put leg on him. He may not like it but he needs to get with it. Of course it may not work but it may just be an attitude, respect issue. He may just need to get with the program. Whether its through a couple of unhappy rides with your trainer or you


                              • #16
                                I have put him in side reins on the longe and he had an equally distasteful reaction to them. I never tried side reins to a longeing cavesson though...maybe I should try to find one that fits him

                                I think this-- give him a mid-point where he can hear you. I don't agree with getting after a sensitive/anxious horse. He might not spook but he clearly finds canter work exciting. I would give him a half-step in accepting contact. Put your leg on him and insist on some contact for trot, trot walk/halt work and build from there.

                                Hilarious post tho--


                                • Original Poster

                                  Awwwww, shucks, thank you, guys. He's a big personalitied guy, and I'm glad to share him (in fun) with you.

                                  Eqtrainer, you have most likely hit the nail on the head. I've been so busy trying to figure out what he likes and doesn't like, I may have neglected the "just deal with it" part of his brain. We do that on the ground quite often, but he objects so strongly when under saddle (and it's not a bratty move, it's a whiney move) that I hate to press him because he is so eager to please.


                                  I guess *I* have to put my big girl panties and just do it. I think my big fear with him is that I'll continue to fritz him out and that it will be a long row to hoe to bring him back. I've just never had one that is this difficult before regarding re-mouthing, but I'm wondering if it is because of his past.

                                  Unfortunately I've been traveling since I posted, so alas, I have no update (and he's probably been saying "thank god, she's left me alone for almost a week). Consistency is not the hallmark of an adult ammy, and I haven't found anyone who is capable of riding him for me yet. It's this bizarro-land catch-22...I need to be more consistent to get him through the stuff that will make him rideable...but I need someone around to help me ride him so that I can be more consistent.

                                  Luckily, neither one of us are in any sort of hurry and we are enjoying the process...well...at least mostly ;-)
                                  Last edited by OneGrayPony; Mar. 6, 2012, 12:53 PM. Reason: errant s snuck in there!


                                  • #18
                                    He isn't accepting your leg or your hand. Time to put them on him until he does.

                                    I feel your pain, I have one just like him. I accomplish nothing when I pussyfoot around it -- just put the leg on, and if he hates it, tell him to deal, your leg isn't going anywhere. He will after a few rides. I would keep an even pressure on him, the deadhead Warmblood-style squeeze every step of the trot, etc. will likely drive him batty.

                                    This does not mean "get after him" in any way...just put your leg on and take a light contact, and be steady and consistent about it. If he gets heavy in your hand, half-halt and go back to keeping the contact light/don't let him lean. I would never "get after" my sensitive guy, it would fry his cute little mind.


                                    • #19
                                      Agree that he does't sound broke to the leg or the hand.

                                      If you watch Day 1 of the 2012 GM Horsemastership clinic on the USEF website, Beezie Madden does a session on a horse that resists the leg by hopping and talks about how she has to be careful not to remove the leg but to actually ADD more, or the horse has trained her to take her leg off (its desired response) and, in turn, she has trained the horse to hop.

                                      She also talks about bridging of the reins to keep hands still in order to resist the urge to "play" with the mouth.

                                      Might be some useful info in that one for you.

                                      Here's a link to the video on demand.

                                      Proud Member of the "Tidy Rabbit Tinfoil Hat Wearers" clique and the "I'm in my 30's and Hope to be a Good Rider Someday" clique


                                      • Original Poster

                                        He's absolutely not broke to the leg or hand yet (at least not in the way we think of it in our world)! That IS what we are trying to accomplish

                                        I wish he were hopping around. He's not. It's more like he's made this permanent connection with Leg = Forward which is a good thing, he just overreacts to it so it's a lunge forward instead of a subtle moving out. If I can characterize it, his reaction to a squeeze is the same as another horse's reaction to a smack with the crop or a spur. If I were to continue squeezing, I'd probably hit mach speed at around lap 8, and then I'm not sure what would happen. *I* don't have the stamina for that!

                                        I'll watch that video when I'm not at work

                                        Repetition doesn't seem to change that response. I've been working with him for quite awhile, so it's not new.

                                        He does not like hand in a straight or jointed bit, correct.

                                        I guess part of the question is how much do you persist with a horse that hates mouth pressure with a "normal" bit but can handle it in the waterford.

                                        I suspect he's objecting to roof of the mouth pressure and bar pressure. I would assume the waterford does act on the tongue - I can't imagine that it acts much on the bars, the way that the pressure is spread. Maybe I'm envisioning it incorrectly.

                                        If it were truly just not acceptance of hand at all, I would think that would continue with the waterford. If that makes any sense at all. Is there anything else that works like the waterford?