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15 August 2011 No Comment

Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

Dear Ms. Phelps. We are working a six-year-old mare. We have been doing a combination of ground andsaddle work in a variety of settings. She is a smart and bold Horse. Very little truly spooks her. She has a habit of rearing when she can’t move forward at her will ! We have checked her teeth and her bridles (long reins & riding). Currently when she rears, I back her immediately when her front feet hit the ground – whether I’m in the saddle or on the ground. This is not correcting it. I don’t want ” beat” her as it has been recommended, because she is a fabulous horse otherwise & I don’t follow that philosophy. Help !


Hi Jennifer, You read my mind by having her teeth checked and also checking her bit and bridle set-up. I would however take it a step further just to be on the safe side. I would get your veterinarian back out, or better yet, an equine chiropractor if you have one practicing in your area, and have them thoroughly check to make sure that she hasn’t somehow, someway, suffered a neck or back injury. I would also thoroughly check the fit of her saddle. Quite often, horses that are having problems with sore backs due to injury or improperly fitting saddles, will rear to try and escape the pain. If after thoroughly checking these areas and finding nothing wrong, and also making sure that her saddle fits properly with no areas where the saddle is pinching or maybe falling on her withers, then we can confidently go forward with helping solve this training issue that you have encountered .

Since I do “lunging-with-purpose” with all of the horses that I start, I don’t ever have a problem with horses rearing when finally involved in mounted work. However, I do re-start a lot of horses that have various issues ranging from simple balking to a few that have had the very dangerous habit of rearing over backwards with a rider up. Your mare certainly does not sound like she is at this point, but unfortunately, rearing over backwards can occur sometimes even if the horse didn’t set out to do that. They may rear and if the rider loses their balance and grabs the horse in the mouth via the reins and bit, they can pull the horse over on them.

I will explain what I would do if you and your mare came into training with me. Since I only accept horse/owner teams into training, I would be teaching this approach as a method of re-starting to re-organize the way that your mare thinks and to teach her about choices and the possible consequences in regard to the bad choices that she might make. I would first go back to the ground level and leave the riding completely alone for a while. I would teach her to “lunge-with-purpose”, an approach that uses lunging more as a mental work-out then a physical one. Lunging-with-purpose involves teaching the horse a set of cues that will then transfer to the mounted level later on. It also involves lunging with LONG sidereins and allowing the horse to “self-teach” giving to the pressure on their mouth that they themselves create. In the case of your mare, you would be asking her to have moments of “being still” and letting her discover what happens if she chooses to rear while wearing long sidereins. I usually start, and restart horses for my clients, using my lightweight western cordura saddle or my close contact huntseat saddle, a “no pinch” or full cheek medium thickness snaffle or frenchlink snaffle and the sidereins with elastic inserts for lunging purposes only. I don’t use them after I have a horse going under saddle in mounted training. I find that by putting the sidereins on the green horses that are just getting their start under saddle, and also on the horses that I am re-starting because of manmade problems and big holes in their training, it allows them to work through some issues in a way in which they are the ones deciding on where their comfort zone is and how they will feel depending on the choices that they make. The sidereins are adjusted very long so that the horse has to really overextend up, down or out before they come into contact. As the horse tests the boundaries, they discover where they are most comfortable and they also learn that by yielding in their jaw and their poll and rounding their back slightly instead of trying to run through the pressure they are creating, they find relief and a comfortable spot. If a horse wants to overextend in any direction, that’s fine with me. With your mare, she might even rear when asked to stand and “be still” for a few moments. If they don’t mind the discomfort of tension and pressure on their mouth or head, then they can carry themselves that way. If your mare rears and decides that being bumped hard in the mouth when she rears doesn’t bother her, then that’s fine too, but my guess is that she won’t think that’s too cool when she rears and her mouth gets hit by her own actions and nothing that you’re doing.

By putting the sidereins on very long, your horse is in no way being restricted into a “frame”, she will really have to overextend to come to the end of the reins. Every single horse that I’ve ever started this way (numbering in the hundreds) has made the choice, or decision, to loosen their jaw and “give” at the poll, thus going to slack reins. If they come into training as a re-start with a rearing problem, they to also make the decision and choice that rearing is not something that is very comfortable or positive, so they quit doing it. The purpose is not the horse coming into “frame”, the purpose is for the horse to learn to go forward, or in your horse’s case, to “be still” and then “give” to the pressure they are creating and not fight it instead. Unlike humans, who may make errors in their timing of when to “give” when the horse gives, sidereins are either there (either in contact or tension), or they are not (when they are slack). “On the bit” is not my goal, the horse learning to go forward, loosen their jaw, “give” to pressure, relax at the poll and round the topline slightly is the goal. When your mare finally stands quiet, she will stand with her neck slightly round, with her poll and jaw relaxed, which will help carry over into her being relaxed throughout her body and also in her mind. The other nice thing about doing it this way is that there is no conflict or combat between horse and human. The person isn’t put in the position of being the villain if they accidentally don’t “lighten” their hands at the precise moment the horse “gives” and relaxes their poll and jaw. The horse has a chance to think things through and decide how they wish to feel. Once the horse has learned these basics and also understands the various sound cues for walk, trot, canter (going forward) and then the sound cues for the transitions back down through the gaits and then halting and standing, then we are ready to add the rider, but without the sidereins. I’m able to act as ground support for the rider (the owner) who is usually the first person to ever ride the horse in the case of the young horses. With the full understanding of lunging, the horses most always progress very smoothly and positively in whatever direction their riding careers are headed. This also holds true for most horses that I recondition/restart too. There is a lot more education in place before we ever get on the horse. A key issue here is that I never progress to the riding until the ground training is correctly in place. Lunging sessions are usually about 25 minutes, tops. I’m working on the mental aspects more then the physical .

With your mare, you will go in the direction at the ground level first of teaching her to go forward and then to “be still” and stand quiet. She will learn at the ground level to not be hyper-sensitive regarding standing still. Teaching quiet, calm and standing still are a more difficult process then most people realize, especially if you have a very bold, forward horse, or a horse that’s a little more “hot”. You need to re-organize how your mare thinks and also draw focus to what you are asking her to do, which right now is teaching her to stand still. Once you have addressed the issue at the ground level via “lunging-with-purpose”, I would then begin the mounted training again with a ground support person to hold the end of the lungeline. Your mare will understand the lunging by this time, so she will remain relaxed, and we are now just adding the rider again while maintaining a relaxed training atmosphere. Rearing, bucking, running backwards, etc, are all evasions that have a basis of underlying tension, stress, lack of focus and lack of relaxation. Once your mare complies with all of your requests at the ground level during “lunging-with-purpose” with long sidereins and she is going with relaxation and focus, the addition of a rider should not cause her to become tense again. The rider will now ask for all of the same things that are asked for at the ground level lunging and because your mare will now be in a relaxed and focused frame of mind, she will more then likely comply willingly.

When you are first working on the mounted training again, only ask for her to stand for mere seconds and then you make the decision to go forward again before she begins to tense up. Your mare is only 6-years-old (fairly young as far as I’m concerned) so I don’t expect a huge attention span from her. You don’t say what breed she is, but my guess is that she’s probably has some “hotter” breeding in her. While I really like more sensitive, hotter horses’, sometimes the issue of teaching relaxed and quiet can be more challenging then with a less “hot” horse. You need to make your requests short-and-sweet and move on before your mare tenses. Timing is everything and that includes on making decisions of what to work on during training sessions, when to move onto other things and when to quit for the day on a positive note. I would say that if I were riding this mare and I got one good halt for a matter of several seconds, I in the beginnings of mounted restart training would quit on the positive note and not take a chance that things unravel. If by chance your mare does revert somewhat when you are off the lungeline doing mounted work, then put her right to work doing a large circle, simulating lunging-with-purpose but with you holding the reins instead of there being sidereins on, with transitions between gaits and also some halts again for a few seconds. She will soon discover that standing still does at times have its benefits in terms of “being still” and being relaxed, quiet and focused rather then going forward and doing transitions and figures and such. Yes, people may tell you about other, more extreme ways of dealing with the rearing issue, but I feel that if by offering her the choice of “this or that” and then depending on what she decides to do, you can then do whatever it is that you need to do will correct the problem, we should not have to resort to roughness. Hopefully, your mare will respond and relax and you will be telling her how wonderful she is for standing quiet and “being still”, getting off of her and rewarding her with nice scratches on her neck for being a very good girl!

Good Luck!

Laura Phelps-Bell

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