I`m not a huge fan of changing tack; wearing a particular type of bit because everyone else is, or having coloured stirrups because all showjumpers have them, or having a martingale because you`re jumping, when your horse doesn`t need one. But there is a huge variety of tack out th
But recently I made a change to that tack of one of the mares I school. She can be behind the leg yet also has quite a lot of attitude so she`s not the easiest to ride. However, once on your side and focused she can work very nicely. I usually begin each session by trotting and cantering on a light but consistent contact (she`s far more resistant to the hand if she works on a long rein initially, so I like to make sure she`s aware of the rein and hand from the beginning) and I use upwards transitions to get her off the leg and moving forwards.
Now that her work is coming together and feeling more consistent I`ve been fine tuning aspects of her way of going and most recently been working on the quality of the transitions.
The downward transitions are her real weakness because she tends to tip onto her forehand, and forget about her hindquarters, which means that she can`t push off into an active gait, which puts her onto the forehand and so the cycle repeats itself.
Now I`m sure you are wondering what this has to do with tack? Quite a lot really. I played around with the transition walk to halt, adjusting the weight of my aids to try to improve her. I found having a light seat encouraged her to keep her hindlegs underneath her a bit more, the leg lifted her up to the halt, but regardless of how little hand I used she still set her brachiocephalic muscle, gaped her mouth wide, and started twisting her head to gaze around her. Once I`d established that her behaviour wasn`t anything to do with my hands, I started wondering what I could do to correct her as it seemed to be an evasion.
I insisted on her softening her neck, standing straight, and relaxing her jaw before any upwards transitions, and I also changed her noseband from a flash to a grackle. I seemed to me that she needed to have a bit of pressure from the noseband slightly higher up her jaw because she just worked against the flash strap and subsequently has stretched it.
The next time I rode I fitted a grackle to her. The expression on her face was a picture. I warmed her up as normal and then started asking for some transitions. As she made the downward transition she tried to evade by gaping wide her mouth, only to feel pressure high up on her jaw. She immediately stopped, shocked, and halted for the first time in a relaxed way. After a moment I praised her and we set off again. All I worked on that day was the consistency of the transitions; I expected her to use her back, stay soft to the contact, stand as close to square as possible, and move off with an active hind leg. It seemed to really work with her, I think that because the pressure was higher up on her jaw it stopped the beginnings of the gape, which the flash hadn`t been able to.
Now that the progressive downward transitions were becoming more established I introduced some direct transitions. I`d already done a bit of work with direct upwards transitions to get her using her hindquarters, but now they felt a lot better because the initial starting position was much improved. I also found the direct downwards transitions improved her progressive downwards transitions as she became more balanced. With the evasion stopped she is less likely to tense her underneck muscles and stays much straighter – although it does have a lot to do with whatever is going on (blinkers next?!).
The grackle noseband is right for this mare, and hopefully she`ll continue to make progress in her way of going with it. It is not restrictive in any way, but seems to encourage her to stay relaxed and not to fight any rein aids.
It did make me think though, that there is a definite skill involved in knowing which pieces of tack will help you as a trainer improve and educate the horse rather than masking the problem. A lot of people put flash nosebands on horses to stop them opening their mouth, but in reality a horse could be opening his mouth for a multitude of other reasons – bit is too big, hands are too harsh, he is unbalanced, his teeth or mouth are sore – and a good trainer will consider all the other options or potential reasons before going for a quick-fix.