Responsive or Reactive?

I think we often are asking ourselves... is my pony being responsive or reacting to what I'm asking?



For some time now when I lift my lines and pick up some connection with Zorro he will do one of two things-


1. He will bend at the poll and bring his nose in close to his chest or

2. He will open his mouth, push his nose out straight and bring the bit as far back in his mouth as he can, then CHOMP and CHOMP it.


This really had me confused. I didn't know how to help him or why he started doing it. He has always been EXTREMELY mouthy, putting everything in his mouth. BUT he has also been very defensive about his nose and mouth when it comes to haltering or putting a bit in his mouth. I found it so interesting!


When we went to my favorite natural horsemanship instructors place this summer we spent a lot of time working on this issue. Ethan pointed out that Zorro did not understand, when I pick up my lines and have contact with his mouth (aka the bit) it is connected to his feet, not just about his mouth. So, in essence, I would ask for contact and he would lean on my hands but not move his feet. At all. It was quite a fight to get him to back up.


Ethan gave me some good exercises to do when we got home. We have been practicing and practicing. I've been working on myself and my hands and together we have been piecing together an understanding of what contact means.


We have good days and bad days. For a while it felt like all we had were bad days.


I like to pepper in ground work, ground driving and long lining in my sessions with Zorro and not just always drive him. Long lining and ground driving have been an excellent way to really help him understand contact because he doesn't have to worry about pushing myself and the cart back when I ask him for some backwards steps, helping connect that contact is talking to his feet and not his mouth.


The other night Zorro had such a great ground driving session. He really blew me away with his consistency. This, after we had several very bad sessions in which he didn't have a single break through.


I decided to try a different bit, even though I always hear it's not about the bit (or the horse trailer or the ??). I switched him to a half cheek mullen roller mouth bit and right away he stopped chomping the bit. Instead, if he got confused he would roll the roller! I would much rather he roll the roller at this point than CHOMP the bit in his molars. Rolling the bit doesn't seem to effect our communication like the chomping was doing. He hasn't chomped the bit one time since we switched.



The other night when we were out on the track, our neighbor was out going for a walk. This brought Zorro's anxiety up because it was something different. Normally this would have caused him to CHOMP and CHOMP but last night his mouth was quiet! He didn't even roll the roller!! I was so excited. I kept asking him to do his walk/trot transitions and walk to whoa transitions and even had him back up. He was light and soft and responsive.


Then we went into one of the arenas where we did some trot/canter transitions and he stayed light and responsive even as we got faster and faster! And whenever I would ask for him to whoa from a trot he would SLIDE to a stop. Then when I lifted the lines for a back up, he would softly back up. And he offered some lovely stretching forward and down. I ended our session on this note.



Tonight when I drove him in the bike he was so soft and responsive! He would whoa right away, if he got excited when trotting and wanted to canter, I would allow a few steps and then ask him to trot and he would come RIGHT back down to the trot. When I asked for the back up it took a little more ask, but he did NOT chomp the bit at all, just rolled the roller until he got situated enough to push the bike backward. I will say he seemed to understand, when I lifted my lines he was to back up, so the bit was connected to his feet.



It was so rewarding to see this understanding come over him these last few days. All the days leading up to this breakthrough have felt so frustrating and I've been so sad that I couldn't seem to help him. Our last 5 or 6 sessions (before I switched bits) ended with me feeling terrible and Zorro tired and frustrated.


(Though I will say he has been meeting me at the gate every day! So our unharnessing and groom time must have made up for the confusion the bit was causing. Thank goodness for putting in the time for those things!)


I think that looking at things from afar, on the internet, can cause people to think others don't have any problems, things always work perfectly for everyone BUT us. And certainly Zorro does many things so well that it may seem that he is perfect. But perfect he is not. We both have our issues and I struggle to be the best I can be for him all the time. But when these break throughs happen, things feel so good! The communication feels effortless. It feels like he is reading my mind. That connection is so worth the struggle. I'm grateful that I have felt that many times in my life, so I know exactly what I am working toward.


I guess this brings me full circle, back to trying different things. If something isn't working, work hard on yourself, change how you do things, but also, sometimes, take a look at your tack and see if there is something else you can try.


I don't recommend going to a larger, harsher bit, especially with a young horse, but trying a different mouth piece that doesn't cause pain is a good idea! Try things, experiment. Make sure you are doing all you can to communicate clearly first, but then try something else and see if it helps.

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© 2023 by The Essential Horse. Mindy Schroder.