Horse welfare: breaking-in, restraint, tack and gear

Horse welfare: breaking-in, restraint, tack and gear

[Breaking-in][Jeffery Method][Restraint][Tack and Gear]

General principles of breaking-in horses

To break or break-in a horse is to teach it to accept a rider or driver and once the process is complete, the horse is then described as broken-in or broken. The terminology is largely inappropriate now, being a hangover from the old unenlightened days when horses were roped and choked down while gear and a rider were secured aboard, then let rip until exhausted - broken physically and mentally. This of course is a worst case scenario, because there were and are many variations that are much less severe, even amongst the force-’em-into-submission-through-pain brigade.

The big turnaround in recent years has been towards natural methods of “starting” horses and then continuing their training and education throughout life. Natural horsemanship or resistance-free training is based on using the body language of the horse to create a relationship in which the human becomes the herd leader and the horse subservient, all without the use of pain or any real force.

Not everyone has the ability to use natural horsemanship methods effectively. There are some people who associate with horses all their lives yet never acquire the ability to read body language adequately. Then right at the opposite end of the spectrum are the horse whisperers, those people who seem to have special powers of communication far above and beyond what we understand by “getting on well” or “having a way” with horses. Their secret lies not in mysticism or the supernatural but probably in a unique ability to read the smallest nuances of body language and being able to respond accordingly - in other words they are extreme exponents of natural horsemanship.

There have been some famous instances in years gone by of out-and-out rogue horses that were eventually tamed, sometimes using methods never disclosed. Obviously some of the “tamers” were horse whisperers, also drugs probably played a part in some cases, because long before the isolation of the active principles and the large scale production of tranquillizers in a laboratory, certain plant and plant extracts were well known for their calming properties. There are other reports of vicious horses being tamed that had been locked up for more than a year because no one could get near them except presumably to feed and water them. The longer they were locked up the more vicious they became. It does not take a genius to figure out what was happening here. No doubt the first thing the horse whisperer did was let these horses out and give them the chance to revert to more normal behaviour.

Some horse breakers and horse whisperers achieve world-wide acclaim, while others just as deserving sink into oblivion. Such is the case with Kel Jeffery, hardly a household name in Australia and virtually unknown outside this country. Yet the Jeffery Method of horse handling is equal to the best that ever came before or since. He was an exponent of natural horsemanship practices long before the term was even coined.

Many years ago Kel Jeffery travelled the country preaching a new way to break-in horses, in fact it was revolutionary for those times. The two salient features of his method were a) to stop what you were doing and retreat as soon as the horse showed unease, and b) to mount bareback the first time you got on the horse. He called it his “advance and retreat” method and it is based on understanding the psychology of personal space and flight distance.

All animals including ourselves have personal space - an area of space around us that we call our own. This is the reason we feel uncomfortable and want to step back if someone other than an intimate friend gets too close. If approaching an animal in a paddock, it will do nothing for awhile except watch you, but there will come a point at which that animal will turn and move away. This turning point is the flight distance (which is actually the same as personal space in terms of how close that particular animal will allow you to approach). An unbroken horse will respond in exactly the same manner - it will turn or move away as soon as an approaching handler invades its flight distance. The secret of the Kel Jeffery method is to anticipate the flight distance and retreat before the horse does. The handler then advances once more very slowly, always managing to get a little closer to the horse before having to retreat again. In this way the flight distance/personal space is very gradually eroded until it becomes non-existent and the handler can actually place a hand on the horse.

Horses use advance and retreat methods themselves when investigating strange or frightening objects in their environment, so this method of handling suits their psychology. Almost anything that you do with horses, from putting a bridle on for the first time to picking up feet, can be done using an advance and retreat approach. The method works just as well on foals and weanlings. People who are true exponents of the Jeffery Method never have to use any real force or engage in battles of strength with horses. The key is to be able to anticipate that very first sign of resistance on the part of the horse and stop what you are doing and start again.

Sometimes an unbroken horse will attack a handler who invades the flight distance too quickly. If not confined the horse would simply run away (flight response), but being in a roundyard or similar the horse has no resource but to employ the second line of defence, which is attack. The point at which this occurs is called the fight distance.

Kel Jeffery always mounted horses bareback for the first time and slid about all over them, including down over their hindquarters. They seldom objected, certainly not to the point of bucking, though they still might buck when first saddled but only due to the girth. Some horses remain irritated by girths (“girth proud” or “girthy”) all their lives, though they learn to cope with it. There is some evidence that many of these horses actually experience pain when the girth is tightened during saddling, originating from pressure on the joints between the ribs and vertebrae - unless, of course, it is due to a badly fitting saddle to start with, which puts pressure on the withers or elsewhere. There are chiropractic treatments available that may help these conditions, also not girthing up these horses so tightly will assist, too.

Horse restraint methods and equipment

[Bits][Chain leads/war bridles][Crushes][Twitches][Limb restraint][Hobbles][Sideline][Kneestraps]

All tack and gear used on horses restrains or controls them or enhances their usefulness in some way. However, there are situations when restraint methods beyond the normal may be required. It might never be necessary to use them on a well-educated horse that respects and trusts a competent handler, but there are circumstances when they have a real place. These include emergency situations where the horse must be restrained in a hurry to prevent further injury to itself or a handler; or for treatment procedures or hoof trimming or shoeing, where it is not the vet’s or farrier’s job to first teach the horse to stand; or where groups of horses have to have some procedure done to them in a limited period of time or with limited manpower, for example, worming and hoof trimming of half-handled young horses, also broodmares that have been around the studs and learned plenty of avoidance techniques.

Physical restraints if properly and sympathetically applied allow a procedure to be over with quickly. Gentle persuasion over a period of time is always preferable if it is going to achieve the desired outcome and circumstances permit, but horses fiddled with and coddled to for ages can quite quickly learn evasion tactics if the handler is less than competent, which can lead to injury for both the horse and the handler. In some situations chemical restraints such as tranquillizers administered under veterinary supervision are the best alternative.

Some general points about applying physical restraints. Firstly, half-applied restraints are dangerous. Always apply them properly and purposefully, but not roughly, and do not leave them on longer than required. Ensure that all preparations are made before applying a restraint then promptly remove it when the procedure is finished. The person doing the restraining must never let his/her attention wander from the horse. This person should stand on the same side as whoever is carrying out the procedure. Horses can react unpredictably to restraints, so avoid enclosed spaces if possible and make sure there are no obstacles around which could cause injury. Finally, if a procedure is going to be painful for the horse rather than just strange or uncomfortable, an analgesic or anaesthetic should be given by a vet.

Bits. Any bit will help restrain a horse more effectively than a halter, but the standard in-hand restraint bit is the rearing (antirearing) bit. There are some that are just a thick round ring (sometimes called a yearling bit) but the common rearing bit is thin and has a downward-facing port and should always be clipped to the halter as well to limit the severity. Overuse of this bit or constant jabbing at the mouth with it is counterproductive and will make the horse rear and possibly strike.

Chain lead shanks and war bridles are more severe forms of restraint than bits and are also counterproductive if incorrectly applied. There are various types of chain lead shanks but they all work by applying pressure with a lightweight chain over, under or around the muzzle area. A war bridle is basically a loop of thin cord that passes under the top lip and behind the back of the ears and can be tightened on itself. It is said that the acupuncture effects of applying pressure in these two areas releases endorphins that have a calming effect. A more sophisticated form of war bridle with the trade name of Stableizer has attracted controversy, with some authorities recommending it, others saying it is cruel. Probably the true story is the same as for other restraint devices - if properly and sympathetically applied they work well.

Crushes. Horses can be handled in a cattle crush or race but they can also panic in them and go down and be horribly injured if not released in a hurry - and often the only way to do this is with a chain saw or oxy torch. Horses are not like cattle, able to cope with all manner of indignities with stoicism. Even if cattle do go down in a crush, they seldom panic or get badly injured. The best crush for horses is one that is solid-sided and as unrestrictive as possible, with just a bar in front and a bar or solid gate behind and little in the way of superstructure. Most mare crushes on studs are built to this design.

Twitches. These are devices that screw up skin or a top lip and have a calming influence on the horse. There is much debate about just how twitches work, ranging from simple distraction through to the release of endorphins, but work they do and most effectively, if correctly applied. The simplest twitch of all is your hand. Tightly grasping a good handful of skin on the horse’s neck may be sufficient, otherwise an ear can be gripped and screwed a good half turn or more. Many horses resent this initially by trying to rear and pull away, but provided the handler has a really firm grip the horse usually relaxes and accepts it quite well.

Nose twitches are the commonest form of restraint used on horses. If you are really strong in the hands, grasping and twisting the top lip may suffice, but usually some variation of a loop of cord on the end of a stick is used. The loop is eased over the top lip and the stick twisted quickly to screw it up. A “humane” twitch is also available, a metal device that can be clamped on the top lip.

There is an art in applying a twitch properly - too loose and it is ineffective or will come off easily, too tight and all horses will resent it. Some horses go berserk at the mere sight of a twitch or are harder to control with one than without, in which case some other form of restraint should be used. Never stand directly in front of a horse when applying a twitch because striking is a common defence. Also if you are forced to let it go, a twitch can become a dangerous airborne missile. A final word about nose twitches - they should never be applied to the ear because they can damage the ear cartilage.

Limb restraint. Limb restraint is an effective way of keeping horses still for many purposes, especially hoof trimming and shoeing. Horses will usually test out a limb restraint the first time it is applied, and this is a negative because they can get hurt, as can the handler or other people in the vicinity. Therefore limb restraints should be kept supple and in good condition, have quick-release securing devices and be applied in a clear, safe area free of stones and sharp objects. Also, horses should never be tied up either with a leg restraint on or when applying one. They can absolutely panic and forget all previous training about not pulling back when tied up, and can badly injure themselves and a human handler.

Hobbles are the simplest limb restraint. The drover’s type are a leather loop around each fetlock connected by a chain long enough to let the horse move about. Knee hobbles are applied above the knee and are much more restrictive, not allowing the horse to take even a small step forward, though they can still jump forward and even strike with both legs together. Spider hobbles consist of straps around all four fetlocks connected by chains so that the horse can stand in a normal position but not move. They can cause serious injury if the horse tries to fight them and are not recommended, certainly not unless they have a highly efficient quick-release mechanism. Finally, serving hobbles are quite a mild and safe form of restraint and can be used in any situation where kicking is to be prevented. They consist of a strap around each hock connected by a cord that runs through a pulley on a neck collar, thus permitting normal forward movement.

A sideline is the most useful hindlimb restraint. The simplest form is a cotton rope looped around the neck, tied with a non-slip knot then looped around a hind fetlock, twisted on itself a couple of times then passed back up through the neck collar and tied in a half hitch, or held onto so that the hindlimb can be raised or lowered according to the procedure being carried out. Some sidelines have leather straps that buckle around the fetlocks and leather or webbing neck collars. The main thing when applying a sideline is to make sure the horse is standing square and able to support itself on three legs if necessary.

Kneestraps are very handy for procedures like hoof trimming and hoof treatment if time or an emergency situation do not allow for restraint-free methods. A stirrup leather is suitable, buckled in figure of eight fashion between the fetlock and the upper arm once the leg is picked up. Horses so restrained should have knee boots on and be in a grassy area free of hazards. A better alternative is to use a soft cotton rope in the same way but hold onto the end so that the leg can be released immediately if required.

Horse tack and gear

[Halters or headcollars][Leads or lead ropes][Bits and bridles][Martingales][Breastplates][Nosebands][Saddles]

The horse scenes in those old western movies on television are not really how it is. In real life, horses are more often ridden at a walk or trot than a flat gallop, and very seldom are they yanked to skidding stops or jaw-breaking changes of direction by big, heavy-handed men. And never should they be galloped through creek crossings with their hidden obstacles. Though some stunt horses are very well trained indeed, it is obvious many others are not and are forced to perform on cue for the camera through the use of severe tack or gear. The expressions on the faces of some these movie horses says it all: they are hurting.

Horses that hurt eventually rebel in a variety of ways, so unless you are in the movie-making business, and probably even then as well, the basic rule regarding gear is this: the simpler the better. There is a bewildering array of horse tack and gear available, but most of it works through the same basic mechanisms. It is a big mistake to try an item of tack because it looks fancy or is used on some well-known horse. Always begin with the simplest and mildest equipment and stay with it if it works well on your horse. Many horses are turned into pullers and bolters or develop other behavioural problems because gear used on them, especially bits and bit accessories, has been much too severe or has been inappropriately or incompetently applied.

Halters or headcollars are made from a variety of materials, but for everyday use it is hard to beat a soft cotton rope halter, provided the rope used is of reasonable diameter. They are strong and can be made entirely without any metal fittings, which is even more comfortable for the horse and avoids the risk of cuts or abrasions from the fittings themselves. The coarse jute halters used on cattle are not recommended for horses. They are quite abrasive to the skin and can break a horse’s jaw if not properly tied with a half-hitch locking knot where the lead comes away.

Halters should not habitually be left on in a stable and certainly not in the paddock, even if it makes a horse easier to catch. They have been the cause of many injuries and death, including strangulation.

Leads or lead ropes can be made of many different materials, but again, soft cotton rope is safe, strong and will not burn the hands. The end of a lead should never be allowed to trail on the ground - it is amazing how quickly it can whip about and snare your legs if the horse takes fright and gets away. People have been dragged and seriously injured in this way.

A lead rope is only as strong and reliable as the clip which attaches it. If in a situation where it is imperative the horse does not get away if you can possibly help it, reverse the lead rope and attach it to the halter with a bowline or similar non-slip, quick release knot. Clips are notorious for releasing themselves due to weakening of the spring. Alternatively, use a lead that buckles to the halter.

Bits and bridles. As with halters, bridles come in different materials and sizes. Although bitless bridles are available, most are designed to support a bit in the mouth for riding and driving purposes, also they can be used for in-hand control.

Bits can be stainless steel (which may be hollow in the middle and therefore lighter), chrome-plated, nickel-plated (withdrawn from sale in some countries because of toxicity concerns), rubber- or nylon-coated, solid brass, or copper alloy, the latter being very popular because it is said to have a sweet taste and makes horses salivate more, meaning they are more responsive in the mouth. Bits come in sizes ranging from draft horse to miniature pony or they can be specially made. A correctly fitting bit just sits nicely in the mouth without sticking out on either side. The corners of the horse’s mouth should barely be wrinkled if the cheek straps are properly adjusted. Bits vary in thickness, with thick bits being less severe. However, some small-mouthed horses may find a thick bit uncomfortable. All bits are prone to wear, particularly at the joints, and should be regularly cleaned and checked. New bits should be examined before purchase for fine cracks and air bubbles in the metal - these are points of weakness.

Bridles are commonly named the same as the bit they habitually carry, e.g., a snaffle bit and snaffle bridle, a pelham bit and pelham bridle, or they may be broadly categorised according to their main use, e.g., hunt, dressage, western and show bridles, which may be independent of the bit normally used with them. A classification into six basic types based on function and mode of action is probably more meaningful, as follows.

i) Plain, simple or snaffle bridle. This is the everyday bridle used for most general riding purposes. It may be the lighter English type usually incorporating a cavesson noseband, or the heavier Australian type. Snaffle bridles normally carry a snaffle bit , which works through direct action without leverage - pulling back on both reins will stop the horse, while pulling one rein or the other will turn the horse. Snaffle bits may be jointed, straight or half-moon, with opinions varying about which is the most severe, though as with all bits it is the person holding the reins who ultimately dictates the severity. Snaffles can be loose ring (the cheek ring is free to slide through the ends of the mouthpiece, which may enhance the action), or eggbutt (sleeves prevent pinching of the corners of the mouth but make the bit more rigid), or they can have various cheek pieces and bars that prevent the bit being pulled through the mouth or help to hold it in a better position - the Tom Thumb snaffle and the FM snaffle are popular examples.
ii) Pelham bridle. This is often called a show bridle because it is usually only used for showing a horse under saddle in hack or dressage events, not for general riding. There is nothing special about the bridle itself, in fact it is often indistinguishable from a good quality English snaffle bridle, but the bit makes the action quite different. The pelham bit is a single bit which may be jointed or straight or some variation in between, but it has a curb chain beneath the jaw and takes two reins. The heavier top rein works through direct action like a snaffle to stop and turn the horse, but the thinner lower rein or curb rein works by leverage of the curb chain against the jaw, making the horse flex at the poll. This adds to the collected appearance of a show ring hack. Handling the double reins of a pelham bridle requires dexterity; only the pressure of the little finger is exerted on the curb. The pelham is not designed to be used as a curb alone, western style, but if it is, the chain should be replaced by a leather strap to make it less severe.
iii) Double bridle. Also called a weymouth bridle or a show bridle, it has a similar function to a pelham but the action is more refined and direct because there are two separate bits. The bridle has two cheek straps on each side to support the bits, which are known collectively as a bit-and-bridoon. The bridoon is basically just a normal snaffle, while the separate thin “bit” or weymouth acts as a curb.
iv) Hackamore. This is a bitless bridle that works through leverage. Long shanks are attached to a nose piece and there is a curb chain or strap under the jaw. Pulling on the reins operates the curb and stops the horse, while neck reining is required for turning purposes, that is, pressure of one rein or the other against the neck.
v) Bosal. A non-leverage bitless bridle. Pulling back on the reins exerts direct pressure on the nose piece, and again neck reining is required for turning.
vi) Western bridle. There are American in origin and there are many types, some of which are quite ornate incorporating fancy stitching and silver fittings. The basic western bridle is a single light piece of leather running up behind the ears to support the bit in the mouth. It may have a full headband or just a partial headband through which one ear fits - the split-ear bridle. The traditional bit is a curb, either grazing or spade, and the horse is neck reined. Spade bits are banned in many areas of competition because of their severity. In addition to a curb strap or chain, they have a piece inside the mouth that presses up against the hard palate when the reins are pulled to stop the horse. Enormous and damaging pressure can be exerted by a spade bit in the wrong hands or in the heat of competition.

Martingales come in two types - standing and running. A standing martingale (tie-down) is a light strap running from the bottom of the girth, between the front legs then up to the nose band, via a supporting loop around the neck. It is designed to prevent horses getting their heads in the air and “star gazing” thus decreasing the effectiveness of the bit, but should be adjusted so that it does not prevent normal upward movement of the head, which may cause extreme discomfort to the horse as well as interfering with normal action. Standing martingales are banned in some areas of competition where full freedom of the head may at times be required. A running martingale or rings seldom causes any problem because it is difficult to apply too restrictively.

Breastplates. Horses with high withers often need a breastplate. Also girth proud horses may benefit from them because then the girth does not have to be done up so tightly. Care must be taken to ensure that breastplates, especially the strap across the chest types, are fitted so that they do not interfere with shoulder action, or even worse, impede movement of the forelimbs. The position of breastplates should be checked when weight is in the saddle and when the horse is in motion. It is particularly important to check driving harness in this regard, it is not uncommon to see some poor horse struggling to pull a load of sightseers with the breastplate dangling half way down its forelimbs.

Nosebands can fit above or below the bit, the “dropped “ types being more effective than the above-the-bit cavesson types. However, none of them should be done up too tightly, certainly not to the extent of restricting the horse’s breathing for control purposes.

Saddles. There have been some remarkable feats of distance riding performed by bareback riders, but most would agree that a saddle is more comfortable and probably for the horse as well. Worldwide there are a great many types and varieties of saddles, some little more than a sheepskin or woollen blanket with or without stirrups, while others are highly ornate monsters of expensively tooled leather, more like small armchairs and heavier than many riders. Most saddles in common use are of leather, although there are synthetics available that are claimed to match leather for performance and are lighter in weight and easier to maintain.

Saddles must be comfortable for the horse as well as the rider. An uncomfortable or unsuitable saddle is not conducive to a good riding style, and from the horse’s point-of-view, poorly fitting saddles lead to sore backs and withers, pinching, pressure on rib/vertebrae joints, girth galls, temperament changes and behavioural problems. A check list for correctly fitting a saddle ensuring comfort for both horse and rider is as follows -

1. Tree. The basis of every saddle is its tree. This is commonly wood reinforced with steel, though fibreglass and other materials are used. If the tree is broken the saddle will not sit clear of the withers and backline as it should. Check for a broken tree by exerting some pressure, off the horse, to see if there is any give in the pommel or waist area.

2. Gullet. When the saddle is on the horse, the gullet space should be keeping the saddle well clear of the wither. If doubtful, mount the horse and feel with your hand to make sure your weight is not causing the saddle to contact the wither.

3. Counterlining. This is the stuffing underneath the saddle. Check for lumps and make sure both sides are even, because if they are not, the rider will sit crookedly. Saddles can and should be recounterlined periodically.

4. Girth and surcingle. The main thing to check is the length. A girth should be long enough to buckle on the sweat flap on both sides, otherwise it will pinch the horse. Girths should be kept supple and cleaned of mud, sweat and dead hair after every use. Cord girths can be washed. All stitching, elastic inserts, buckles and other attachments must be checked frequently to ensure safety. It is important to make sure that when done up, the surcingle of a stock saddle sits properly on top of the main girth or it will cause pinching.

5. Stirrup leathers. Stirrup length very much depends on personal preference and type of saddle. From a safety point of view, worn stirrup leathers are disasters waiting to happen. Even very capable riders have been thrown as the result of breaking a stirrup leather. The part most likely to weaken and then finally break is the bend supporting the stirrup, so if this is starting to show signs of thinness and wear, new leathers are a smart investment.

6. Saddle blankets. Saddle blankets or cloths go beneath the saddle to protect it from sweat and provide additional padding. They should be of a washable material because they can become stiff with dirt and dried-up sweat. They come in a wide range of materials and styles. The fitted type used with English saddles is called a numnah or pad, and can be of sheepskin. The traditional Australian saddle blanket is of checked kersey folded one third along its length. Quilted saddle blankets containing fibre or horsehair are popular for general riding, the best of them have breathable qualities and provide plenty of padding. Corn and chaff bags are not really recommended, though they are better than nothing. All saddle blankets should be thoroughly checked before use to ensure there are no burrs or anything else that will cause discomfort to the horse.

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