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Hackamore Training and THE BIG RELEASE by Al Dunning



Al Dunning

Al Dunning

Hackamore Training – Between maneuvers, when standing quietly, you can continue to show your horse that there is reward in giving to the hackamore. Often when his feet are still, his brain has time to relax and simmer down, allowing him to better absorb and process information. In some cases, when a horse’s stress or confusion level has risen, you can avert a fight and accomplish more by taking a time-out, bringing his flight-instinct-laced feet to a standstill. Doing some very elementary work with a big reward not only brings your horse’s focus and willingness back on track, but also carries into other exercises when he again moves and his brain becomes a little busier.

The big release is a simple exercise, more for the horse’s mind than his body, which further instills the laws of cause and effect. Take the reins and bump back and forth, left-right-left-right, perhaps with a little more exaggeration than you normally use when riding. Make your motions obvious, but not intimidating to your horse. When he surrenders his nose and arches his neck and flexes willingly, reward him immediately with a big release of slack in the reins.
Your horse might pull his head and nose right back out of frame. If he does, simply repeat the previous steps. You make the statement that great reward awaits, but only when your horse is in that one position.

When your horse gives his nose and flexes willingly, give him an equally obvious big release of the reins.

When your horse gives his nose and flexes willingly, give him an equally
obvious big release of the reins.

As opposed to making the animal feel trapped, which causes frustration and a fight, the big release concept sets boundaries for your horse, which he can choose to uphold or to disobey. The consequence for your horse not conceding and flexing his poll is made obvious by the more profound bumping action that you, the rider, display. Equally obvious, the release of the rein is dramatic to overemphasize the relief your horse finds when he’s in compliance.

Rather than get into a fight and risk your horse running through the hackamore, you can use this simple release technique to turn off his engine, quiet his mind, and show him why he has reason to do things your way. What he learns through this simplistic form of fairness, consistency, and repetition mortars the foundation of all other performance to come.

Similarly, if you allow yourself to get caught in a moment of frustration and engage in a battle with your horse, rather than bring things down to a controllable level, that frustration also carries into all other areas of training. You cannot force your horse into the hackamore; you must convince him that it’s the only place to be.

Set the Stage

The purpose of the hackamore is to properly prepare your horse for the bridle, a fact that shouldn’t be forgotten along the way. Although not every horse can be a great hackamore horse, or even a good one, what your animal learns from his time in the hackamore is priceless to his outcome as a finished horse. As you build your horse’s athleticism around appropriate carriage of his body, keep in mind that all training must relate to one-handed riding in the end.

To teach your horse that a big-release reward awaits him, bump first one rein and then the other a bit more obviously than usual.

To teach your horse that a big-release reward awaits him, bump first one rein and then the other a bit more obviously than usual.

Once your horse willingly follows the hackamore, with his face connected to his feet in all aspects of slow-riding, you can start to incorporate the building blocks for neck-reining. Although your first inclination is to focus on what you want in your horse, you also must be mindful of what you don’t want. When you envision a good bridle horse, see one that stays between the reins, guiding to the left off a right neck-rein; the soft giving of his nose to the left flows seamlessly through his aligned body. That horse is free of resistance and a graceful depiction of training time well-spent.
Now picture the less-than-ideal horses you’ve seen in the bridle. They cock their heads in a counter-arc toward the neck-rein, mouths open, stiff through their spines. In no way are these horses’ faces connected to their feet, nor are they able to use their bodies properly for any movement. Somewhere in the course of training, these stiff, open-mouthed horses have been hauled off a neck-rein rather than taught to respect guidance by staying between both reins.



Al Dunning is credited with 32 world-championship and reserve-championship titles. The knowledge and passion he shares in his clinics, videos, and lessons have molded not only average students, but also some of today’s most successful professional horse trainers. Dunning’s ability to reach people comes from his love of horses and out of respect to the mentors in his own life. For more information go to




This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 5


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