Gadgets and Gizmos

Twenty years ago draw reins, market harboroughs, and other gadgets were all the rage, causing uneducated riders to tie their horse’s heads to their chests. Now word is slowly spreading that horses need to be worked from the hindquarters forwards, and need freedom in the head and neck, with the nose on the vertical. And a new type of gadget has evolved.

There are hundreds of lunging gadgets on the market today – the Pessoa, the Whittaker training aid, the equi-ami, to name a few. All of them have a strap that goes from the roller around the hindquarters, encouraging them to step under and push themselves forwards. Then there is some gizmo that runs from the roller, to the bit and then back to the roller in various positions according to the horse’s level of training. 

Now I’ve used both the Pessoa and the equi-ami with success on horses, but I do worry that in the wrong hands horses are still being tied down, but instead of head to chest it is now chest to bum.

Let’s look at how these gadgets work, because they are all very similar. The horse is encouraged to push from behind, step under with the hind leg, lift their abdominal muscles, lift their back and wither,  and the under neck muscles relaxed. It’s that upside down bowl, or a strung bow that we all strive for.

However, problems can occur if these gadgets are too tight for the horse. The horse feels the pressure from the back strap, but if their tummy and topline aren’t developed enough they can’t engage sufficiently and as they lift their head to find their balance the gadget puts pressure on their mouth. Often causing horses to lift their head even higher, or stop travelling forwards. Some will stop and rear.

In this situation, the best thing is to back off. Loosen all straps so the horse has more leeway to find their balance and they are encouraged to work correctly, rather than being forced to. When the pressure is reduced the horse will be happier and more relaxed, so is more likely to learn from the gadget. Once the horse has muscled up and developed the correct muscles it may be that the gadget needs adjusting because the horse is moving away from the long and low frame and towards a more collected frame, however it is so detrimental to their bodies to try and run before they can walk and expect them to move in a collected outline.

This happened to me this week. I lunged a horse, who has used the equi-ami before, and he started off nicely, stretching his topline and swinging over his back. But then I don’t know what happened, maybe he had a mis-step, but he lifted his head to balance himself. The equi-aid put pressure on his mouth and he felt trapped. He stopped, lifted his head and all in all looked uncomfortable. So I loosened the gadget until it was too loose, and then took him back a step and just walked until he’d relaxed. Then he trotted for the rest of the session happily, working really well. I don’t think I had the gadget too tight, but I think his tolerance of pressure is low. Perhaps to do with something in his history? I cantered him without the gadget, even though last time he’d accepted the gadget in trot and canter, there’s no point this time because he’s obviously not quite as comfortable with it.

I dare say a lesser knowledgable or experienced rider or owner would have kept on lunging, creating a tense horse who accommodated the gadget by holding tension and not coming through from behind. Said horse could become shut down, learned helplessness I think it’s called, and allow themselves to be tied in from nose to tail.

When I use the Pessoa on any horse I am always on the lookout for them becoming overbent, and cheating the gadget. If they do then I’ll change the setting, lengthen the ropes, or take it away for a bit.

I like using the gadgets when needed to help guide the horse into the correct frame, but as soon as they start getting over bent or going behind the vertical I change it. But it’s important to remember that gadgets are for pointing the horse in the right direct, not fixing them in place, and when instructors or trainers recommend their use they should make sure the owner understands how these gadgets work otherwise we could recreate the problem we had two decades of horses being over bent and working incorrectly.

A good test of whether a horse knows and understands how to carry themselves is to lunge them “naked” and see if they find their own balance and self carriage.

9 thoughts on “Gadgets and Gizmos

  1. EquiPepper Feb 24, 2017 / 10:47 am

    I think it’s interesting that you found that the pessoa after a trip/spook etc made the situation worse. I’ve been lunging Scottie in a pessoa for nearly 3 years, building him up slowly.

    When I first got him he was very anxious on the lunge and would just trot round like a pacers out of stress. From early on I found that because gagets do restrict him to a degree, that he relaxes much quicker after an incident than if he was ‘naked’.

    Even now, if he gets something wrong, his knee jerk reaction on the lunge is to speed up and go round and round with his nose in the air. When he is naked this goes on for much longer than when he is in his pessoa. He usually lasts a couples of circles in his pessoa rather than up to 2 mins without it!. So in situations I think might be stressful, I always opt for a pessoa rather than naked lunging!

    But then we also have a theory that once he gets his head to a certain height it cuts off the blood to his brain as he can just become unreachable until he calms down!!

    • therubbercurrycomb Feb 24, 2017 / 10:58 am

      I guess it depends on the conformation of a horse and their pressure threshold. The horse who tripped, is very upside down, albeit getting much better but is also very sensitive so I think he couldn’t handle the the equi aid telling him to drop his head when his instinct was to lift it. And his body is stronger upside down. Does that make sense?
      I guess the important bit to remember about gadgets is that they can restrict slightly to encourage a more correct way of going but the horse still needs the ability choose to do it or not. I think it also depends if they’re panickers or not – some horses accept a bit of pressure and work with it whilst others can’t handle it! They’re all individuals!!

      • EquiPepper Feb 24, 2017 / 11:02 am

        I totally understand what you mean! I think for Scottie its more of a case of he finds the restriction almost comforting as it feels like someone is there with him.
        A bit like when horses feel like their pulling and you drop the reins and they panic. But it completely depends on the horse.

      • therubbercurrycomb Feb 24, 2017 / 11:08 am

        Exactly! Some horses, like Scottie, feel lost when you drop the reins and others hate you having short reins 😃

      • EquiPepper Feb 24, 2017 / 11:17 am

        Yes! Interestingly, riding he prefers a longer/loser contact. So must be to do with how anxious he can get lunging and being asked to think for himself!

      • therubbercurrycomb Feb 24, 2017 / 1:45 pm

        I was just thinking about how they all react and one of the mares I ride is claustrophobic but on the forehand and I would like to try lunging her in a Pessoa but I think she’ll freak, so it’s back to polework and hillwork to engage her hind legs.
        I think she might accept the back strap after a few tries but I can’t see her being happy with the front part. Good job she has good neck conformation!

      • EquiPepper Feb 24, 2017 / 1:48 pm

        Its so hard to predict what they will and wont be okay with. And if they are a sensitive soul doing too much can really overwhelm them!
        Scotties had a bit of a cold recently so only doing light work. Last week put his pessoa on but didn’t end up clipping the bit clips on… The Muppet panicked thinking the back strap was a monster and did a few pretty impressive bucks before realizing what it was and looking rather sheepish 😂😂

      • therubbercurrycomb Feb 24, 2017 / 1:51 pm

        Haha silly pony! And do you find sometimes the things you think they’ll freak at, such as the wind, they’re often ok with. Yesterday I decided to lunge the Diva as he can be a right pansy cos of the wind, but he was totally non plussed by it! 🙈😂

      • EquiPepper Feb 24, 2017 / 1:54 pm

        Tell me about it! I don’t understand Scottie at all! So illogical.

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