Author Archives: Minna Tallberg

About Minna Tallberg

Hevostenkouluttaja ja valokuvaaja. Horse trainer and photographer.

International response to the Finnish rule change proposition

Well, apparently the national Dutch rules are in many ways similar to the proposed Finnish changes, so perhaps our club wasn’t so very revolutionary after all. Top Iberian, in Spanish. Denmark. The British Horse & Hound magazine have got a quote from the Equestrian Federation. This Dutch magazine compares the rule change proposition to current Dutch rules. Norway. Eurodressage, the biggest dressage website.
The highly regarded German magazine Reiten St. Georg.
The Swedish magazine Hippson.

We’re very pleased that the proposition has generated so much international interest.


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Posted by on April 17, 2016 in Uncategorized


Finland: Rule changes to be voted on

Operantit Ratsastajat ry (“Operant Riders” OpeRa) has submitted the following propositions to change the competition rules of the Equestrian Federation of Finland (SRL) on February 23th, 2016.

The propositions will be put to the vote at the SRL General Meeting on April 24th, 2016.

The goals of OpeRa are to improve horse and rider welfare and safety. The proposals below for rule changes concerning use of the noseband, draw reins and spurs stem from these same goals.

We hope that our proposals will encourage a debate on these issues well before the General Meeting and we hope that as many SRL member clubs as possible will choose to vote for as many of the proposed rule changes as they see fit.

We’re happy to receive any comments and will be pleased if this link is shared as extensively as possible.

Please note that this is an approximate and amateur translation of the original Finnish document. Any irregularities are the fault of the translator, Minna Tallberg, who assumes no responsibility whatsoever for anything.


Proposed changes to the competition rules of the Equestrian Federation of Finland


Operantit Ratsastajat ry proposes the following changes to the competition rules of SRL:


  1. Use of the noseband to be voluntary in all dressage classes


  1. Determining the greatest allowed tightness of the noseband and measuring noseband tightness at competitions


  1. Allowing the use of bitless bridles in all dressage classes


  1. Allowing the use of snaffle bridles in all dressage classes


  1. Prohibiting the use of draw reins in the warmup at competitions in all disciplines


  1. Use of spurs to be voluntary in all dressage classes


We also propose that the Finnish Equestrian Federation submit the same proposals to the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) for the same rule changes to be made to the FEI international competition rules.

  1. Use of the noseband to be voluntary in all dressage classes

Operantit Ratsastajat proposes that competing without a noseband shall be allowed in dressage.

According to the FEI Code of Conduct the welfare of the horse is paramount. The definition of horse welfare is that the horse may live as naturally as possible, to behave as naturally as possible and live without discomfort or pain, illness or injury and without fear (Hockenhull & Whay 2014). The noseband is an addition to the bridle that is used to balance the bit, keep the horse’s mouth closed (McLean & McGreevy 2010) and to sensitize the horse to the bit (Casey et al 2013 & McGreevy et al 2013).

The noseband is not an essential piece of equipment nor is it used to improve communication between rider and horse. It is possible to ride a horse without a noseband. When additional equipment is used you should always determine why it is used. The reason should not be purely aestethical. If the use of an additional piece of equipment is detrimental to horse welfare, there is no good reason for using it and using it shouldn’t be compulsory.

A tight noseband causes the inside of the horse’s cheeks to be pressed against the edge of the teeth and causes ulceration to the mucous membranes (McLean & McGreevy 2010). Miettinen (2015) found most of the lesions inside the mouth in parts in contact with noseband and bit. The edges of the horse’s molars are supposed to be be sharp to aid in mincing roughage (ie. hay). When a noseband is used it is necessary to prevent injury to the cheeks by using a rasp to make the teeth smooth so as to avoid cheek ulceration, but this interferes with the horse’s ability to chew hay.

A tight noseband has been shown to limit the ability of the mouth and tongue to move, to interfere with swallowing saliva (Manfredi et al 2005, McGreevy et al 2011), with opening the mouth (Manfredi et al 2010) and to weaken the circulation in the head (McGreevy et al 2012). A tight noseband has been shown to sensitize the horse to the bit (Casey et al 2013 and Randle & McGreevy et al 2013) as the horse cannot redistribute the pressure from the bit by moving his mouth and tongue nor alleviate excessive pressure to the sensitive areas of the mouth, as in the interdental space of the lower jaw (Manfredi et al 2010).

By using a tight noseband the false impression that the horse accepts the bit may be given and better marks in a dressage test reached at the expense of the horse’s welfare (McGreevy et al 2012). The discomfort and/or pain caused by a tight noseband causes the horse stress. This can be shown using thermography which has been proved to show an increase in the temperature of the eye and by using a heart rate monitor to indicate increased heart rates (McGreevy et al 2012). Increased stress increases behavioural problems during riding.


  1. Determining the greatest allowed tightness of the noseband and measuring noseband tightness at competitions

Operantit Ratsastajat ry proposes that the noseband taper gauge developed by the International Society of Equitation Science, ISES, is routinely used in all classes and on all horses that uses a noseband, also on horses ridden in bitless bridles. We propose that the tightest allowed noseband is at the “two finger” mark on the ISES gauge.

The FEI dressage rules (2015) states that the noseband should never be so tight as to cause injury to the horse. The rules do not, however, state how to measure the tightness of the noseband nor what the suitable tightness is.

Traditionally it has been considered acceptable to tighten the noseband so that two fingers can be fitted below it. It has never been defined whose fingers should fit below the noseband, a woman’s or man’s, adult or child and how far and at what point the measurement should be taken (McGreevy et al 2012). The tightness will then differ according to who measures it. McGreevy’s (2012) study found an average size of the middle joint of an adult’s index and middle fingers and based on this ISES developed a noseband taper gauge. There are two lines on the ISES gauge, one indicating the width of one finger, the other one two fingers. The ISES gauge guarantees an objective and accurate result and is not prone to wrong interpretation.

The ISES gauge [using the two finger mark] makes sure the horse has enough space to move his mouth and teeth to a certain extent. The horse still isn’t able to fully express his natural behaviour, for instance yawning, so even a loose fitting noseband interferes with the natural behaviour of the horse. Miettinen (2015) found most of the ulcerations to the mouth at the areas influenced by nosebands and bits. An ulceration to the soft tissues of the mouth causes the horse discomfort.

The tightness of the noseband should be measured at all competitions on all the horses using nosebands. The tightness should be measured on top of the nasal bone (McGreevy et al 2012) as the bone isn’t flexible, as opposed to the soft tissues below the jaw. This assures as accurate a measurement as possible. The maximum noseband tightness allowed should be at the two finger mark of the ISES gauge. Any use of a tighter noseband during warm-up and test should be disallowed. Particular attention should be given to the so-called pullback nosebands, where the lever impact makes it possible to tighten the noseband excessively (McGreevy et al 2012).


  1. Allowing the use of bitless bridles in all dressage classes

Operantit Ratsastajat ry proposes that the use of bitless bridles are allowed in all dressage classes and that the dressage rules are changed accordingly, replacing the term “acceptance of the bit” with “acceptance of the bridle”.

To assure horse welfare the rider should be allowed to choose the equipment which is the least detrimental to the health and welfare of the horse. We propose that the following bitless bridles be allowed (images 2 a-g): crossunder, sidepull, cavesson, hackamore/flower hackamore, LG/Star Wheel and Micklem bitless bridle.

The horse doesn’t have an anatomical empty space for the bit, so the bit always takes up the space of some other tissue in the mouth (McLean & McGreevy 2010). The communication using the bit is based on pressure and release of pressure. This uses the very sensitive sense of touch and pain inside the horse’s mouth. The pressure of the bit is distributed in the areas of the corners of the mouth, tongue, the interdental space between premolars and incisors and, through the bridle, to the poll and nose. The bit can also cause pressure to the hard roof of the mouth and it may touch the teeth.

The bitless bridle also uses pressure and release of pressure for communication but the pressure is situated in a less sensitive area of the head. A study has shown that horses halt better when using a crossunder bitless bridle than when using a snaffle bit and even halt as well as when a curb bit is used (Randle & Wright 2013). A bitless bridle is as safe or even safer as a bit for communication and control of the horse.

The bit is a foreign object in the horse’s mouth. A horse not used to the bit will try to get rid of this foreign object by opening his mouth and pushing the bit with his teeth. The bit is suspected of activating the digestive system of the horse and activating saliva production as well as the swallowing reflex (Cook 1999). When the horse becomes habituated to the bit he keeps it still in his mouth unless pressure is applied (Manfredi et al 2010). By moving his tongue the horse can influence which part of the mouth the pressure of the bit is applied to. On the other hand the pressure of the bit influences the ability of the tongue to move and may interfere with swallowing saliva (Cook 1999). It is still not known which amount of pressure causes the horse discomfort. The border between pressure and pain is unclear (McGreevy 2011).

Incorrect use of the bit, including severe long or short term tension of the reins or using a bit which is not completely smooth, can cause ulcerations to the horse’s mouth. Studies have shown that the bit and the noseband are one of the most common cause of ulceration in the mouth (Tell et al 2008, Miettinen 2015). Tell (2008) showed that horses who were ridden with a bit had significantly more ulceration in the cheek and corner of mouth areas than horses not being ridden.

Miettinen (2015) showed in her study that 78% of horses ridden with a bit had changes in pigmentation in the corners of the mouth, caused by the bit, and 78% also had one or more lesions in the areas under the noseband or bit. Björnsdottir et al (2014) found that the use of a curb bit significantly increased risk of injury to the bony interdental space of the lower jaw. When a curb bit was used, 67% of the injuries to the interdental space were severe. The interdental space doesn’t have the ability to distribute pressure as the soft and elastic tongue does.

Miettinen (2015) found that 59% of horses ridden with a bit showed wear of the front and upper sides of the first premolars. The first premolars are damaged when the horse takes the bit between the teeth to avoid the pain from the bit pressure. The wear to the tooth may cause the revelation of the sensitive core of the tooth and may cause the need for a root canal to the tooth. When the horse is ridden in a bitless bridle there is no bit in the mouth that would cause wear to the teeth or pressure to the soft tissue or bony interdental space inside the mouth.

Pressure caused by the bit in the mouth has been suspected to cause many of the problem behaviours seen during riding (Cook 2002). Problem behaviour always indicates a welfare problem. Miettinen (2015) found several common behavioural problems which points to the bit as a cause, including opening the mouth, being heavy on the reins and the tongue hanging out of the horse’s mouth. None of the horses ridden bitless had signs of blood in the mouth nor were they pushing the tongue out of the mouth.

Cook (2002) found that over 50 behavioural problems were solved when the snaffle bit was exchanged for a crossunder bridle. Cook described some of these problems as being heavy in the reins, putting the tongue over the bit, the tongue hanging outside the mouth and head shaking.

It is easier to cause the horse discomfort using a bit than when using a bitless bridle. The bit has been suspected to cause the displacement of the soft palate (DDSPE) (Cook 2002). The displacement of the soft palate causes interference with the airways, a distinctive sound during physical stress and can also interfere with performance.

Some horses get so called wolf teeth in the interdental space in front of the premolars. The bit may hit the wolf teeth and cause discomfort to the horse. It is still recommended to have the wolf teeth removed if they interfere with the use of the bit. If bitless bridles are allowed in competition, the normal anatomy of the mouth can be left intact.

  1. Allowing the use of snaffle bridles in all dressage classes

Operantit Ratsastajat propose that the snaffle bridle is allowed in all dressage classes.

In dressage, the horse’s acceptance of the bit, harmony and lightness are assessed (FEI 2015). The goal of riding is to have the horse trained to obey as small a pressure as possible. On the surface it may seem that the horse accepts the curb bit better than the snaffle bit but in reality the curb bit, because of the lever effect involved, can cause a greater pressure to the horse’s mouth using less tension of the rein (McLean & McGreevy 2010).

A greater pressure increases the risk of pressure injuries and ulceration in the mouth.

The curb bit requires greater skill, lighter contact and quicker reactions than the snaffle bit. This makes the rule prohibiting the use of the double bridle in lower dressage classes well founded. In the upper classes the rider should have the option of choosing whether to use a snaffle or double bridle. The only reason for using a curb bit and double bridle shouldn’t just be aesthetic.

It is contradictory that harsher equipment is favoured at a higher level. The skill of the rider shouldn’t be judged on whether he or she can use harsher equipment correctly but on whether he or she has learned to communicate with as little pressure as possible. The rider should have the option to choose the equipment that is the best for the horse’s welfare.

Fitting a double bridle can be difficult on some horses because of the anatomic conformation of their mouths. Miettinen (2015) measured the space between upper and lower jaw at the level of the bit. This measurement indicates how thick a bit can be used without it causing unneccessarily strong pressure to the tongue or preventing the horse from closing his mouth. The measurements were 24-49 mm (Miettinen 2015).

Normally the tongue fills the whole mouth cavity and the bit always takes up space from the tongue and causes pressure to the tongue (Clayton & Lee 1984, Engelke & Gasse 2003). The thickness of the tongue varies. In reality a horse with a distance of 24 mm between the lower and upper jaw with a legal snaffle bit of 12 mm in his mouth has only 12 mm left for the tongue itself.

Too thick a bit causes compression of the tongue, constant discomfort to the horse and forces the horse to open its mouth or stick the tongue out. A horse who has a small space between the upper and lower jaw may be impossible to fit with a double bridle conforming to current rules without causing discomfort to the horse simply by putting two bits in its mouth. This would make using a thin snaffle bit the better option for a horse like this.

Dressage should reward and aim to use equipment that have the least possible impact on the health of the horse’s mouth and the horse’s welfare. Equipment should not be used to hide communication problems between rider and horse, to prevent the horse from showing discomfort caused by equipment or the rider’s aids. This makes it possible for the judges to accurately assess the level of training and the horse has a possibility to perform in the best way possible.

  1. Prohibiting the use of draw reins in the warmup at competitions in all disciplines

Operantit Ratsastajat proposes that the use of draw reins is prohibited during the warm-up and on the show grounds in all disciplines. Draw reins are additional equipment used to guide the horse into holding a static position. Draw reins use a lever effect which makes a lesser rein pressure cause greater pressure in the horse’s mouth. Draw reins may be used to force the horse into a frame where the horse’s neck shortens, but the highest point of the neck is different to when the horse goes “on the bit” voluntarily and the nose may be behind the vertical (McLean & McGreevy 2010).

When the horse is forced into a position by severe pressure to the mouth, the neck muscles are tense and the normal movement of the head inherent to the gaits are prevented (McLean & McGreevy 2010). Draw reins may be used to induce hyperflexion of the neck during warmup. Hyperflexion is suspected to cause stiffness of neck and back muscles and muscle tension, to cause stress to the intervertebral discs and neck ligament and predispose the horse to lameness.


  1. Use of spurs to be voluntary in all dressage classes

Operantit Ratsastajat proposes that the use of spurs should be voluntary in all dressage classes. Spurs are additional metal equipment which is attached to the boot of the rider and are used to intensify the rider’s leg aids. At the moment the rules of SRL say that spurs made of metal are part of the dressage test dress code. Pony riders may use spurs in pony classes if they wish. All riders shall use spurs in open classes. Fake spurs without knobs are allowed.

In dressage equipment that is the most beneficial for horse welfare should be used and it shouldn’t be compulsory to use equipment which may harm horse welfare. The use of metal spurs cause severe pressure to the side of the horse, as the squeezing action of the leg is concentrated in a very small area. The use of spurs may cause pressure injuries, ulceration and pain to the skin and muscle tissue of the horse. The goal in riding is to train the horse to respond to the lightest possible pressure.

The use of spurs gives the incorrect impression that the horse is responsive to small aids when in reality a small leg aid may cause a great pressure to the horse’s flanks. The correct use of spurs calls for great skill as they may easily be used incorrectly and cause the horse discomfort. The goal of dressage is, however, that the horse should respond to the smallest aid of the rider.


These proposals were drafted by Mirjami Miettinen Lic. Vet. Med. (Licentiate of Veterinary Medicine)


Contact info: Milla Lind, email:


Bennett DG. Bits, bridles and accessories. Teoksessa: Easley J, Dixon PM, Schumacher J (toim.). Equine dentistry. 3. p. Saunders Elsevier. 2011:26-42

Björnsdottir S, Frey R, Lundström T. Bit-related lesions in Icelandic competition horses. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica. 2014;56:40

Casey M. A new understanding of oral and dental pathology of the equine cheek teeth. Vet Clin Equine. 2013;29:301-324

Clayton HM, Lee R. A fluoroscopic study of the position and action of the jointed snaffle bit in the horse’s mouth. J Equine Vet Science. 1984;4 (5):193–196

Cook WR. Pathophysiology of bit control in the horse. J Equine Vet Sci 1999; 19: 196–204. Päivitetty 2007.

Cook WR. Bit-induced asphyxia in the horse: Elevation and dorsal displacement of the soft palate at exercise. J of Equine Vet Science 2002;22:7-14

Engelke E, Gasse H. An anatomical study of the rostral part of the equine oral cavity with respect to position and size of a snaffle bit. Equine Veterinary Education 2003; 15: 158–163

Federation Equestere Internationale (FEI) 2015.

Hawson LA. McLean AN. McGreevy PD. Variability of scores in the 2008 Olympic dressage competition and implications for horse training and welfare. J Vet Behav. 2010;5:170-176

Hockenhull J. Whay HR. A Review of approaches to assessing equine welfare. Equine vet Educ. 2014…. International Society of Equitation Science (ISES)

Ludewig AK. Gauly M, von Borstel UK. Effect of shortened reins on rein tension, stress and discomfort behavior in dressage horses. J Vet Behav. 2013;8:e1-e25

Manfredi J, Clayton HM, Derksen FJ. Effect of different bits and bridles on frequency of induced swallowing in cantering horses. Equine Comp Exerc Physiol. 2005;2:241-244.

Manfredi JM, Rosenstein D, Lanovaz JL, Nauwelaerts S, Clayton HM. Fluroscopic study of oral behaviours in response to the presence of a bit and the effects of rein tension. Comparative Exercise Physiology, Cambridge University Press, 2010:1-6.

McGreevy PD. The advent of equitation science. Vet J. 2007;174:492-500.

McGreevy PD. The Fine line between pressure and pain: Ask the horse. Vet J 2011;188: 250-251.

McGreevy PD, McLean AN, Buckley P, McConaghy F, McLean C. How riding may affect welfare: What the equine veterinarian needs to know. Equine Vet Educ. 2011;23(10):531-539.

McGreevy PD, Warren-Smith A, Guisard Y. The effect of double bridles and jaw-clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses. J Vet Behav: Clin Appl Res. 2012;7:142-148

McLean AN, McGreevy PD. Horse-training techniques that may defy the principles of learning theory and compromise welfare. J Vet Behaviour.2010;5:187-195.

Miettinen M. Kuolaimen ja turpahihnan valinnan, sovituksen ja käytön merkitys ratsuhevosen suun terveydelle. Helsingin Yliopisto, Eläinlääketieteellinen tiedekunta, Kliinisen hevos-ja pieneläinlääketieteen osasto. Eläinlääketieteen lisensiaatin tutkielma. 2015. S. 1-76

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Randle H, Wright H. Rider perception of the severity of different types of bits and bitles bridle using rein tensionometry. J Vet Behavior 2013;8:e1-e25

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Tell A, Egenvall A, Lundström T, Wattle O. The prevalence of oral ulceration in Swedish horses when ridden with a bit and bridle and without. Vet J 2008; 178:405–410

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Zebisch A, May A, Reese S, Gehlen H. Effects of different head-neck positions on the larynges of ridden horses. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr. 2014a;98 (5): 894-900

Zebisch A, May A, Reese S, Gehlen H. Effect of different head-neck positions on physical and physiological stress parameters in the ridden horse. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr. 2014b;98 (5):901-907






Posted by on March 4, 2016 in Uncategorized


Horses: Surviving New Year’s Eve

I thought I’d write and talk a bit more about what kind of an animal the horse really is in 2016. So what kind of an animal is the horse really?

A herd animal

Contrary to many other animals, the horse is truly a herd animal. It feels safer when there are other horses around. Being alone is completely alien to a horse and is one of the things you have to put the most effort into training. You’ve probably seen horses in separate paddocks resting together, even though there are fences in between them? If a horse is kept in a box, it will often hold its head high enough to have visual contact with other horses even when resting.

A prey animal

Horses, unlike people, would never run into a cave and hide in a frightening situation. A horse feels safer in an open space where it can see far. The horse’s instincts tells it to flee if it is frightened and even though you can keep a horse from running by putting walls around it this won’t remove the need to flee.


These two facts about the horse as an animal goes quite far to explain why there are so many trailer loading problems. It also explains why I didn’t lock my horses inside on New Year’s Eve.

The Finnish Hevostietokeskus (Horse Information Center) has an excellent video clip that shows a horse reacting to fireworks:

I’ve heard of several horses who have injured themselves inside during New Year’s Eve. I’ve also heard of several horses who’ve ran through a fence and injured themselves when they were out. Both ways have their risks. Why do I choose to leave my horses out? Apart from the two reasons listed above, it’s also because I trust the horse to be a horse.

Give the horse a chance to learn and habituate

Horses learn surprisingly quickly. If a horse is badly frightened, it may learn from just one repetition. If it isn’t greatly scared, it will still learn from just twenty or so repetitions. Horses are different: some are braver than others, some move more expressively than others. But they have one thing in common: they are remarkably quick learners. I have two, now older (17 and 20) mares that are both fairly brave horses and also luckily the horses that other horses tend to look to.

The first year these mares and the other horses were outside on New Year’s Eve they ran a bit when the first fireworks went off. This was probably a week or two before the last day of the year, as I then lived near a big city and New Year was on the whole a bit like WWIII. But then what happened? Because the rockets didn’t cause fear or pain, the horses habituated. The essential part is this: the new thing (firework) wasn’t followed by punishment.

In a way it was good luck that I wasn’t riding one of the horses when the first bang went off. No matter how good a rider you are – and I’m not – it’s quite impossible not to punish a horse who spooks and runs off. Even an involuntary punishment still works as a punishment learning-wise: it’s completely the same to the horse if the reins are pulled on purpose or by accident. It may still learn that firework = pain.

But if a new, even a slightly frightening stimulus (=firework) is repeated without any bad consequences, the horse usually habituates to it. And this happened to my horses one by one. When New Year’s Eve rolls around again and the world explodes, our horses still behaves more or less like this:


My apologies for the crappy video quality. You do see a lot of interesting things in the clip: even though the horses don’t run around, of course neither are they relaxed. At the most intense point in the evening, even the most greedy horse doesn’t eat. The horses are gathered in an unusually tight group. But even though the group has one draft horse, where there has been systematic selection for less dramatic expression of tension or fear, the group also has an Arab, two PRE Andalusians and a Lusitano, all breeds that are famous for their ability to move.

It has been interesting to see how this behaviour has been passed on to new horses. Yes, new horses, and these older ones too, do run a little when the bombardments begins, but they settle down fairly quickly to eat and gather around in an open area to watch.

Ways to calm

I do the same things every year: I spread a full round bale of good hay all around the paddock, so the horses have some species-specific stuff to do during the night. When we have two kinds of hay, as this year, I give them the better tasting one. If there’s snow, I throw some concentrate feed around for them to sniff out as well. Grazing calms a horse down. I also make sure the horses have room to move if they have the need to, so some years I’ve sacrificed one of the hay fields even though it got muddy.

The horses are also used to being housed in a group and used to each other. I have never seen them go inside when the fireworks go off. I also make sure our fences are sturdy. But it seems like the most essential thing is habituation: giving the horse a chance to learn, that not even fireworks cause punishment. This goes for anything you want your horse to develop a calm attitude towards: walking over a tarp, loading into a trailer or jumping fences. Horses habituate to the most surprising things if you give them a chance to.

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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Uncategorized


Food rewards


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Posted by on November 3, 2014 in Uncategorized


“You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a Good First Impression”

How do you make sure you end up with a trusting, trainable horse? You start right. From the very beginning.

I work with other people’s problem horses a lot, and I think because of this I have a distorted view of horses and their state of mind. I hope. Over half of the horses I work with are some kind of “problem horses” ie. the horse does something else than the owner wants it to.

I see some horses who don’t know what the owner wants them to do. Either they’ve never been trained properly or they’ve learned to do something else over time. Easily fixed, horses are easy to train and learn quickly. Example: A horse doesn’t respond to the rider’s leg. You begin again, reward a little try and gradually increase your demands. Being sure never to nag with your leg again.

I see some horses who don’t want to do what the owner wants them to do. Pretty easy to fix: you only need to figure out how to get the horse to want to do the same thing the owner does. Example: A horse doesn’t want to go into the trailer. You add something the horse wants and train him that whenever he steps towards the trailer, he gets that something. Gradually increase your demands.

(Yes, a lot of horses are nervous around trailers, and with good reason. Now and again, though, I’m asked to see one who genuinely just would rather stay out of the trailer than inside it. Lovely and easy to fix.)

I see some horses who can’t physically do what the owner wants them to do. Usually the vet can help: if you have a horse who otherwise does what you ask but for some reason won’t strike a right canter or just will not trot in one direction when the other is fine, and you try stretching the horse, rewarding the right response and still – after a while – it doesn’t improve, the horse must again be checked by a vet. Kissing spines are terribly common in riding horses, as are ulcers and joint problems too just to name a few.

But to come to the point: I meet a lot of horses who are a bit tense around people. That in itself may not seem like a big deal to the owner, but it is to the horse. Imagine having to work with someone who you’re a bit afraid of. Even for an hour or two every day. You may become a little more tense every day, and if you’re a horse, tension brings with it some problems. For the horse, but also for the owner.


A horse that is tense when being handled or ridden can be considered a difficult horse. If the baseline tension is high, the horse reacts oddly. He may seem unable to focus on work or the handler. He may react too slowly or too little – or hugely, quite out of proportion to small changes in the environment. And at the end of the scale, he may buck, bolt or refuse to let the rider get on – or he may be impossible to shoe, vaccinate or catch in the field. Sometimes it’s all due to being tense around people. Sometimes the reason for the tension goes way back to the first hours or days in the foal’s life.

Horses learn quickly and it seems they don’t forget much at all. They learn from the moment they’re born and that makes their first impression of being touched by a human of vital importance. If that first touch causes fear, it may influence the foal’s opinion of people for the rest of his life. If you wait until the touch is actually pleasant to the foal, it may also influence the foal’s opinion of people for the rest of his life: for the better.


The foal in the above picture is three weeks old and was touched for the first time by a human the previous day. Here he’s getting to know our vet.

The good news is that at some point – usually at the latest around the two week mark, some earlier, some later – the foal will begin to itch. If you have been able to manage the environment well enough so that you haven’t had to catch the foal and try to lead it somewhere (with it possibly learning that people are ever so slightly frightening), now you’ve got the chance of a lifetime. It may take you a few minutes and some ingenuity to get close enough to the foal to be able to scratch him, but once you do, you’re set. It takes one minute or twenty seconds to teach the foal that people are the best thing ever. That memory will carry a long way once you start training your foal. (I suggest the next thing you train is how to move the foal out of your lap.)

Is it really that simple? Yes. No need to be there at birth, no need for imprint training (which brings with it some serious problems, see the list of studies at the bottom of the page) or catching the foal at a day old, putting a halter on (and not being able to catch the foal again to remove the halter, I have seen several of those) – nor, as I’ve even heard, carrying the foal around so that it learns the human is stronger than he is…



The most important thing a foal should learn is how to be a horse. The most important relationship a foal has is with his dam. This foal is four days old and too young to be learning anything else.


Some studies on foal behaviour: (Even when only helped to suckle, foals avoid humans later on) (foals handled immediately after birth show negative effects even after weaning)

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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Animal Training, Horses




Horses are nice people.

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Posted by on February 2, 2014 in Uncategorized


Collected walk

This image is from Equitana, Germany, in 2009. The rider is Marius Schneider.


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Posted by on January 13, 2014 in Uncategorized