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Barrel Racing Advice - Tied-down to the truth

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

Two Truths and a Lie

Do you remember this game from grade school? Find the false statement below as they relate to horsemanship:

1. Horses respond to pressure and release.

2. Tack makes horses to listen to us.

3. Slow and right beats fast and wrong.

Did you find the lie?

Tack makes horses to listen to us.

The truth is – if we heavily depend on tack to do the talking without in-depth understanding on our end on how to (and how not to) use equipment to advance our horse’s education, we’re in deep trouble… or will be eventually.

We would never just lay a piece of tack on the ground, walk our horse next to it and expect it to bark orders at him, and especially not communicate with timing and feel.

But many use tie downs about as effectively as if they were lying on the ground as an inanimate object. They may serve as a barrier, but if we don’t address the reason why a horse has a tendency to run into or through barriers, then it’s only a superficial and/or temporary solution (among other drawbacks I’ve shared below).

Tack and tools do NOT cause horses to respond to us, but the way we communicate does.

Communication is Natural

You’re probably already implementing communication with horses in ways that coincide with their natural instincts. Leading a horse with a halter for example is just one of many ways a horse yields to pressure and situates their body in response to what we ask.

Before we go further though, let’s clarify exactly what communication is: two or more individuals sharing and understanding an idea. Communication is not telling. It is not demanding. It’s not presumptuous. It’s not demeaning. It’s not harmful if done well.

The feet go where the mind goes. And we affect the mind with COMMUNICATION.

We’ve all seen a horse round the 2nd barrel only to bee-line it home instead of to the 3rd. In cases like this, the horse’s mind was not on finishing the pattern – so his feet literally left it.

From page 104 of Charmayne James on Barrel Racing

We’ve all seen Charmayne’s bridleless phenomena – a case of the horse’s mind hard at work on the pattern, and his feet dedicated to finishing it. If you rely on your tack – it might just let you down. But your horse’s heart and mind is less likely to – if developed properly!

If we strive for understanding the horse’s mind (psychology) before we strive for shaping the body, it will make shaping their body much easier. And if we can enable them with trust for control versus devices for control, we will have a deep and dignified partnership.

Horse Headaches

Not only can tie-downs (and other restraints) give us a ‘false positive’ on our horsemanship – but they can give our horses ‘text-neck.’ Yes. Text neck. The same syndrome that humans have from texting too much or looking down into their phone in their lap! Our human head is over 8 lbs. of weight hinging in one vertebra the size of a quarter. Horse’s heads on the other hand can weigh over 100 lbs.

When a tie down, or martingale, draw reins or any rigging is geared up to maintain a constant or consistent position of the head or body you are adding force to the occipital, temporo-mandibular joint, and first two cervical vertebrae.

Without any type of restraint on the head, the body in whole can move and release tension naturally. With well-timed pressure and release we can train the mind and body together to achieve correct form and positioning – as the horse is ready for it. As he advances, the horse is better able to mentally understand and then voluntarily carry good form on his own, and will eventually even seek out the healthy posture we want him to have – because we’ve rewarded him for it, AND because it FEELS GOOD! With no place for tension to escape, restrictive head gear puts a kink in the system as resistance takes hold in the horse’s body.

We should also ponder how much we value lightness. If purchasing different bits is getting exhausting and expensive, it doesn’t have to be. Horses are adaptive creatures by nature. Once they figure out they can’t move comfortably in restrictive training aids, they can get “hard” in those setupes, tempting us to move on to the next one.

Riding consistently in a tie down (or any other restraint) can be putting the horse at risk for disrupting fascia, nerve endings, and promoting scar tissue. A horse can physically become dull because they literally have less feeling in and around their face, head and neck.

So take heed when upon a rigged-up steed! Horses also have something called ‘proprioceptors’ (pro-pree-oh-septors); which are special fibers in muscles that give the equine brain feedback of the animal’s limbs in time and space.

If an artificial head set is causing havoc on the TMJ (where one certain proprioceptor lives) his sense of balance is off, and if his balance is off, you could be too (as in – on the ground pinned under your horse). Not only is it dangerous to ride a horse that doesn’t know where his feet are, but it could be giving you another false lead on training methods you are perusing out of what’s easily perceived as the horse’s problem.

The Truth

Tie downs are becoming less and less common because training techniques and human education is becoming better and better. No one is beyond applying fresh techniques to create new habits (even with old horses), as long as they are willing to learn.

Effectively controlling a horse’s body is the easy part – that’s just scratching the surface. Anyone can buy a tie-down and slap it on. But someone who wants to be a true horseman listens to their horse and learns to support their equine partner mentally, physically and emotionally through education, communication and psychology.

Rather than forcing a horse ‘not to go there’ with mechanical means, we really can prepare our horses to have no reason to want to go there, and in the process prevent them from developing an unhealthy and potentially dangerous dependence on on artificial aids.

WHY Tie Downs and What To Do Instead

Head Set: A horse that is educated thoroughly with a solid foundation, responds appropriately to steady pressure, and has emotional fitness and confidence in his jockey will naturally carry a level head set. Horses who are confused, worried, impulsive, scared, resistant, uneducuated or in pain will have an unreliable head carriage.

High or crooked head carriage should first be evaluated as pain forward of the 2nd cervical vertebrae. Worried horses that want to run forward with a high head and mouth the bit, should be developed into a confident partner through excellent horsemanship vs. masked with a fake headset.

Keep in mind that when horses sense danger they actually lift their heads high in order to better see out of the lower part of their eyes. A horse that resists communication via the bit should also have their teeth examined and may be in need of reeducation to accept a mouthpiece and yield softly to pressure (which includes doing so even speed).

Control: If a horse cannot stop in response to halter and body language, one should not proceed to ride. If a horse cannot stop responsibly in a snaffle bit, one should not proceed to pattern on the barrels. If a horse cannot stop with rider body language (NO bit pressure) while being ridden at a slow lope, one should not be running at high speeds. Having a tie-down for sake of a safety net of stopping and turning is dangerous and an irresponsible short cut to the responsiveness a horse is able have that we are all responsible for developing.

Balance: In the famous words of Ed Wright, “If a horse needed a tie down to balance, God would have connected a tendon from his jaw to his sternum and covered it in hair. Tie downs are an excuse for bad horsemanship.” Many folks aren’t familiar with what authentic, athletic balance looks like: a horse in 4-wheel drive with his hind end engaged and his belly on the ground. When a horse “balances” on a tie down, he is ACTUALLY pushing his nose and head into the equipment, uses his hind end inefficiently, and in the process often becomes heavy on the front end and less responsive in the face. Putting this type of head gear on a horse that needs to reach his full stride can also prevent this from actually occurring.

Collection: Again a horse that is mentally connected and has been taught to move with quality through pressure and release, seek and reward, and feel and timing, etc. will understand what is expected at a deeper level as compared to being PUT in the proper position. We offer this education by making it make it difficult/uncomfortable to be in the incorrect position and easy/desirable to be correct – causing the horse’s mental wheels to turn for a level of understanding that goes much deeper than a superficial level, allowing collection and quality movement to become something the horse voluntarily takes responsibility for maintaining himself.

The most ideal way of achieving this is through conveying to the horse (starting with his foundational training) that it is more harmonious to travel correctly with his rider (again – “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult”), than not. We convey this to him by making sure he understands our idea, but we need to understand his frame of mind first!

Tie downs and other head gear are commonly misused and overused in consequence to riders believing it’s for ‘control’ or ‘balance’ for the horse, when in fact it’s the development of the mind and authentic body position that is what leads to consistent respect, responsiveness and balanced movement.

Some training aids then aren’t really aids at all if they only superficially fill gaps in the foundation WE offer our horses. We’ll always get further faster on a foundation that’s built to last and stand on it’s own.

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