energy groundwork learning people tack and equipment training

The Use Of Tools

This article by Mark Rashid is a typically insightful look at the use of tools in training.

There are tools I always use – rope halters with a spliced 12′ line – and tools I sometimes use such as flags, training sticks, dressage whips, crops or lariats. These aren’t things I use every day, but I find it very useful to keep them in the toolbox.

At various stages in my development as a horseman I have needed these things. I simply couldn’t get whatever I was working on at the time to work without them. That still happens – sometimes with a new horse I will use a flag to amplify the energy I am producing so the horse I am working with can figure out it would be useful for them to tune into me. I suspect that part of the reason that Mark doesn’t need tools like that is that he has so much more control over his energy and intent that he can get by on those alone, and it is my intention to be the same one day. I remember watching Steve Halfpenny demonstrate something and then drop the training stick and say “I need you to see that this is coming from me and not the tools” – it is really easy for us, as we learn, to see someone using a tool and assume that the tool is how they are achieving their goal. Whenever I am using a training tool of some kind, I am trying to see ways to avoid needing it next time around, learning to let go of them is part of the process of refinement.

In the opposite direction, I will often suggest my students try using a particular tool because they haven’t yet got the level of refinement that I have and I’m not a good enough teacher to pass on my expertise immediately. I want people I am helping to be able to feel what it is like when something is working correctly. Once they have that feeling we can begin working on using the tools less, until we are working from feel alone, but a lot of the time if we don’t start with something to make up for that lack of refinement, it makes their job harder. I always try to make the point that the training tool is Plan B and that once we get everything working according to Plan A we should be able to dispense with it altogether. Training tools are typically a physical solution to a communication problem and those are somewhat different domains, so they are seldom the best fit if you are interested in getting to how your horse feels.

As for me, although I do still go back to that toolbox, it feels as though the more I do, the less necessary it becomes. These days I don’t mind going back to things that I have used in the past because it happens increasingly infrequently. I think of it as something like the progress to recovery after a broken leg- you might start out needing a wheelchair, then crutches, then maybe a stick and later you only need the stick occasionally, but you need all those things until you get to where you can walk unassisted and if you need to use one of them again for some reason, there is no shame in that. You just can’t let yourself become dependent on it.

tack and equipment the horse's mind

How tight should you fit that noseband?

Anybody who has bought a bridle in this country in the last few years will be aware of the baffling selection of nosebands available to you. In fact one would probably need to go to a western tack store to find one without and there aren’t a whole lot of those in the home counties.

The main purpose of most noseband designs is to hold the horse’s mouth closed. In some cases there is a safety reason for this- if your horse somersaults at speed and their mouth is open then there is a risk of a broken jaw, so for hunting or riding cross-country there is a clear and sensible reason for having a tightly fitted noseband. Most of the time, however, that isn’t how I see them used – mostly they are utilised to stop the horse opening their mouth in response to the bit.

To my mind, this is using a physical mechanism to prevent the horse expressing their feelings about the bit, using physical resistance to counteract the horse’s physical resistance. I have no disagreement with the use of bits – they are a great tool that allows us amazingly subtle communication with our horses  – but I place a lot of emphasis on teaching a horse to carry the bit and to be comfortable and willing following the rein. If a horse is gaping their mouth open when the bit is applied or getting their  tongue over it they are showing a lack of understanding.

Zorro's head, from horseback.
You can see that the bit is not hanging from the bridle, Zorro is carrying it on his tongue.

If you are riding with a bit then it is so much easier to develop relaxation in the mouth and on through the rest of the body if the horse understands the bit and follows it willingly.  This is part of the foundation that every riding horse should have and unfortunately it is one of the parts that is missing most frequently. When a horse is really carrying the bit correctly they will lift it and hold it in place with their tongue, putting it in the most comfortable place in their mouth and it is then easy for them to respond to the most subtle signals. It seems to me that a horse who is doing that is really taking responsibility for their end of the rein so as long as I take equal responsibility for my end we have a lot of communication available to us.

I don’t use a noseband at all – this is something that I take from the western side of my riding background – but I know a lot of people like the look of them on their horse. That is as good a reason as any to use a piece of equipment; by all means have it there but leave it loose and treat it as decoration.