Begin riding your horse with a simple task in mind. Riding a small circle is a good place to start. If you’ve done your homework, your horse should be adequately prepared and willing to follow the rein when you are in the saddle.
Using soft, open fingers, start moving your horse forward at a walk. Follow the sequence of closing your grip, sliding your hand down the rein, and finally engaging the hackamore to communicate the desired lateral flexion to your horse and shape him on the circle.
When your horse gives his nose and seeks a relief point by yielding, reward him by opening your fingers. Give back to your horse only the slack that he does not take from you. In other words, if you soften the rein and he begins to take that slack by pulling in the other direction, take him around again in a circle to show him that he must maintain his carriage, his frame. When he can hold a lateral bend on a soft rein, without taking away the slack you have given, your horse truly is carrying himself in the proper frame.
This simple procedure needs to be solid at the walk before progressing to the jog, and then consistently solid at the jog before you ever lope. You might be tempted to rush ahead, but remember that if your horse learns he can escape you in the hackamore, he never “unlearns” that.
Take the time to lay a solid foundation by “slow-riding” your horse. Slow-riding means just that—slow, confidence-building training that allows your horse to develop the skill set he needs for every other upcoming maneuver. Pushing ahead to turns, stops, and faster speeds without this sound base in place can be the undoing of your hackamore horse.
Each animal progresses at a different rate, with some settling in to the slow-riding with softness and appropriate carriage and form in a matter of a few rides. Other horses continue to try to take the slack from the rein when you soften your hands, and such horses need more miles of the basics before advancing in their training.
Punishing a horse for not absorbing these concepts by riding him hard or jerking him around only sets him further behind, potentially ruining him to the hackamore. Intimidation cannot replace true, sound training. A horse that gives to his rider from fear is not yielding to his rider’s hands, but merely hiding —and he can hide for only so long before trying to escape.
Once your horse follows your grip-and-slide lateral rein cue and moves willingly at all three gaits, you can introduce vertical flexion by way of the rocking or bumping motion. At the walk, rock your hands, one hand and then the other, in a motion complimentary to the walk’s four-beat stride, moving the hackamore on the horse’s nose until he wants to get away from the bumping by flexing at the poll and tucking in his nose.
Use your legs to drive your horse up and into the hackamore. If you’re accustomed to applying strong leg cues when your horse is in a snaffle, you might find that a more delicate leg aid is required. You want to encourage your horse to ride up into the hackamore, yet not go through it.
Handling the hackamore requires rhythm and timing that mirrors the movement, speed, and action unique to each horse at each gait. At the jog, both hands bump in harmony with the two-beat stride. Remember that you want your horse to seek the center of the hackamore and to yield his nose to the motion.
When loping, your hands take on a rolling action, with your inside rein a little high and with you bumping that rein a little more than the outside rein to elevate your horse’s leading shoulder. Just as with the walk and jog, utilize a rhythm compatible with the gait, a three-beat lope. Your horse should give his face to the hackamore, tucking his nose in an effort to keep the hackamore cheeks from contacting his jawbone. In this position, he should feel absolutely light, never hanging heavily on your hands.
Until the next issue when we will discuss a proper headset.
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 www.AlDunning.com
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 3