Monday, October 7, 2019

Using the Minimum to get the Most: Tack and its Restrictions

by Mary Gallagher

I came home from the show I describe below inspired to tell the world about our 'less is more' approach to tack, though feeling like a voice in the wilderness. I fired up my computer and opened my email to find an excellent blog post on that very subject by someone I respect--Karen Rohlf [link at end of article]. It seems I'm in good company! Hopefully, we are part of a growing movement. Thank you for reading. - MG

At a recent horse show, I was struck by the common use of restricting tack—tight nosebands and martingales used with best intentions, in the name of safety and balance. I guess I’ve changed—twenty years ago I would not have given it a second thought. Of course we used nosebands and martingales as training aids to support our horses’ shape and carriage; now however, all I could see was the horses’ unnatural movement and bracing. The horses were using their martingales as part of their shape and balance—which is the idea, right? But their mouths were clamped shut, restricting their ability to relax in motion through working their jaw and tongue, releasing crucial endorphins. Many horses’ eyes told a clear story of physical and emotional stress.

The horse uses his neck as a primary support to balance his whole body. A standing martingale restricts that ability, setting up an unnatural brace as he attempts to carry himself and the weight of the rider. Restrictive tack such as a martingales encourage an artificial—as in unnatural—manner of carrying himself. Over time, the constant bracing puts excess strain on muscles and tissues that support his thoracic spine where the rider sits, as well as on the lumbar spine and joints. Once formed, this habitual bracing can cause pain and unsoundness throughout the horse’s body.

At that horse show, I was surprised to see a young horse I’d trained ridden into the show ring by an unfamiliar young rider, who had tightened his noseband and put a martingale on. The bit was also more severe than I’d used with him. (Later in the day I approached this rider’s trainer, who explained that it had been a safety concern, given a new horse.) Their performance was difficult for me to watch, knowing the horse as well as I did. I squirmed inside as I saw them miscommunicate; I could see the horse bobbing his head in reaction to the harsher bit, bracing himself, testing the limits forced upon him by the tight noseband, and unable to adapt to the false head carriage imposed by the martingale. My willing, sensitive horse was now forced to hold a position and posture unfamiliar to him and his natural way of moving. 

Nature has evolved horses to move freely and expressively. So with each well-intended restriction, we lose a bit more of the beauty and true essence of the horse. Harmony between horse and riders can be seen in the use of the minimal tack necessary for balance and communication—the right bit and headstall, the right saddle for horse and rider.  Contrarily, the use of additional equipment to achieve a LOOK of lightness and cooperation tends to mask the very lack of either.

The race for the win is too often prioritized over cooperation, communication, and the quality of life for the horse. Putting competitive aspirations aside while we develop our relationship with a horse is, I believe, the more satisfying and successful path. My preference is to see less tack and more harmony—defined as connection, communication, and cooperation—taking the time it takes to allow horse and rider to develop and grow their relationship over time.

Back to the show: In the next class, the situation was corrected with a more experienced rider who knew the horse and removed the restrictions, returning to his familiar bit, relaxed noseband, and no martingale. It was a pleasure to watch the horse’s effortless appeal restored. He returned to form, his withers and back were up, his neck extended, and poll once again above the withers allowing him to adjust his own balance. It did my heart good to see them do very well together, going on to win their division.

Allowing a horse to be the best he can be in our equestrian world may mean putting our agenda on pause. Horses accept the limitations we offer, good or bad, because they seek and accept leadership. So it’s up to us to become the best kind of leaders for them, synchronizing the efforts of human and horse, naturally and seamlessly, rather than us requiring them to labor under multiple restrictions.

The self-carriage and balance we long for is already present in the freedom of movement found in a natural lifestyle of herd socializing over varying terrain. Taking time to develop the horse’s natural balance in all areas of life will show up in superior performance over the long term—along with his actual longevity. The winning edge is found in understanding and working with, not against, the true nature of the horse.

Our newest herd - two young show horses and a mustang.
For those curious about the Karen Rohlf article, you can find it here. Karen is a master clinician in dressage, through a natural horsemanship lens.

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