Bridlework Ballet

Teaching your horse to dance prevents and solves all the problems of him pulling back, crashing into your space, stepping on your feet, leading erratically, refusing to go away from the barn, and so forth.

Imagine that you don’t have a horse. Instead, you have a dance partner. You’re not working in an arena, but on a dance floor. Rather than muscling your partner around, he will read your signals and move his own feet in the direction of the dance.

The better you can dance with your horse, the more fun you’ll both have. Teaching your horse to dance prevents and solves all the problems of him pulling back, crashing into your space, stepping on your feet, leading erratically, refusing to go away from the barn, and so forth. When dancing becomes fun, problems go away. Training from the ground is an investment in your horse’s riding performance, too, because we use the same communication system from the ground that we do from the horse’s back.

Dance Lessons

  • Keep the horse walking forward through the exercise.
  • Ask your dance partner (your horse), for his hand (nose).
  • Teach your horse how you want him to move, using the pattern of giving with the nose, head elevation, and neck relaxation.
  • Focus on the one response you want. Ignore the other things that the horse may be doing.
  • If you don’t get the response you want from the nose, ear or neck, move the hips.

We’ve been working on developing perfect ground manners, using a language I call “bridlework,” to take the stress out of training. With it, we can much more quickly explain to our horse what we want and have him respond consistently.

We worked on some of the basics in previous articles, though we’ll review them briefly here so you can pick up right where we are.

These next steps in the lesson lead us to shoulder control. Teaching the horse how we want him to break at the poll, move his shoulder, and use his body allows us to lead him safely – without getting stepped on or run into. It allows us to work on diagonal movements, which gives us good control as we slow or stop the horse. Shoulder control also allows us to lunge him without him towing us into the next county.

As you work through this lesson, you’ll see a major transformation in your horse. As his performance improves, he will appear more respectful and his movements much more refined.

Since training – or dancing -involves movement, we began our ground manners series by teaching our horse the “go forward” cue. We made a point of teaching him a physical cue that we can use when we need more forward movement or more energy in his steps.

There will be times in this lesson when we have to tell him clearly, “step forward,” because he’ll get confused momentarily or he’ll think he’d like to back up. In those cases, we rhythmically tap the horse’s hip with the whip to indicate that we want him to go forward, and we stop tapping the moment he does. That gives him the idea of request and reward.

Through “bridlework,” we teach the horse that rein pressure means we want him to move a particular part of his body. Releasing the rein tells him that he moved the part we wanted and in the direction we wanted. Every cue involves the same formula:

  • Motivator: Consistent, even pressure on the rein.
  • Spot: A physical spot on the horse’s body that we want him to move.
  • Direction: The direction in which we want that spot to move. The only options are forward, back, left, right, up, or down.
  • Reward: The release of the rein.

Leading our horse in the dance requires that we assume different positions in order to guide him through the various steps.

We stand facing our horse’s left shoulder, with a dressage whip in our right hand. We raise our right hand in order to tap the horse’s hip – to give the “go forward” signal. We don’t nag or threaten our partner with it. We tap, then point the whip to the ground when we aren’t actively using it as a release.

We use our left hand on the rein, four or five inches from the bit or slobber strap. That way, when we pick up the rein, we can hold smooth, even pressure on the bit until we’re ready to release it entirely. Again – it’s either pressure or zero pressure. When we switch sides, our left hand holds the whip and our right hand holds the rein.

Hip, Nose, Ear
The “hips over” cue is the easiest way for the horse to get the connection between doing the right thing and our release of rein pressure. With the horse walking forward, we look at a spot on his left hip. We pick up the left rein and apply steady pressure until he steps his hindquarters to his right, moving his tail away from us. Then we totally release the rein.

It doesn’t take many repetitions to learn that if the tail moves far enough, the front feet stop. So even with this first movement, we have a way to stop our horse. It may not look pretty at first, especially if you try it when your horse is excited. But it gives you a control cue, as well as the basis for more sophisticated communication.

Many people make the mistake of moving the hips a few times, then they go on to other exercises. What they don’t realize is that the combination exercise of “go forward” and then “move the hip” takes the longest to perfect in the whole bridlework language series.

Once the horse does it correctly once or twice, it’s normal to think he can do it that way all the time. He’ll do it correctly a few times, then poorly, then correctly, then perhaps momentarily fight the bit, then do it correctly twice in a row. Gradually, he begins to do it correctly and consistently.

As the horse gets better at the exercise, you’ll notice some changes in how he handles himself. His head will get lower, and he’ll start to turn his nose toward you as you reach for the rein. In the beginning, the horse may have pulled pretty hard on the rein, or you may have had to pull hard (never jerk, though) to get him to move his hips. But as you keep working through the exercise, the horse will anticipate your requests, and it will begin to flow.

We like to talk about the rein as if it were a telephone. With the horse walking forward, we pick up the rein, dial the hip, and tell it to move away from us. When it does, we release the rein – in effect, hanging up the phone. The quicker we release, the faster the horse learns the lesson, because he makes the mental connection between moving his hindquarters and the rein being released.

Now we’re going to use the same phone to call the horse’s nose. Following our formula, we’ll use even, consistent pressure on the rein as the motivator. The nose is “the spot.” The direction is toward you, and the reward is the rein release.

Ask the horse to walk forward, as before. Look at his nose and pick up the left rein. When the nose turns slightly toward you, release the rein (hanging up the phone). Immediately, pick up the rein again and call the hip (with the horse still walking forward). When the hip moves over, hang up the phone. Change sides and repeat the exercise.

So the pattern is: Call the nose, hang up. Call the hip. Hang up to end a mini-lesson.

Head Elevation
When the horse answers your phone call to his nose consistently, you’re ready for the next step. Ask the horse to go forward. Call the nose and hang up when he gives you his nose. With the horse still walking forward, pick up the rein again, this time looking at the tip of the horse’s left ear as a marker of the horse’s head height. When you see the ear go down (the horse drops his head) – even just a half-inch – then hang up the phone.

With the horse still walking, pick up the rein again and call the hips. Hang up the phone when the hips move over. Change sides.

So we’ve inserted one call between the calls to the nose and the hips. We’re going to continue the pattern of inserting steps between that first and last phone/rein call.

You may find that when you ask the horse to drop his head, he bends his neck, bringing his head quite a ways to the side. As he moves his head to the side, his head naturally drops.

So reward the head drop a time or two – even though the neck is more bent than we want – but then change how you use the rein, in order to show him you really want his head down, not turned farther. Instead of pulling the rein toward you, raise the rein, perhaps even pushing it against the horse’s neck, to prevent him from turning his head too far to the side.

He may get confused and raise his head, protesting that what you’re doing doesn’t make sense to him. Just stick with it, and be prepared to release the rein the moment his head goes down. After a few tries, he’ll realize that he can drop his head without bringing it to the side.

Relax the Neck
Imagine that you and I are shaking hands. There’s a moment between when I squeeze your hand and let it go that you can feel the muscle in my arm relax. That muscle is like the long muscle in your horse’s neck.

You’re going to use the same system – go forward, call the nose, release. Call the ear, release. Then call the long muscle on the horse’s neck. When you feel it relax (you’ll normally see some wrinkles in the horse’s neck), then release the rein. Then end each training set, as usual, by phoning the hips and having them move over. Release the rein and change sides.

If at any point the horse isn’t answering your phone call – to his nose, ear or neck – within two seconds, then immediately move his hips. The “hips over” movement will “soften up” the front end.

Set Up a Successful Connection
Now here’s something exciting. You may have noticed that the horse was already sort of doing the next thing you wanted automatically. We don’t make something into a cue until the horse is already doing the movement. That way we don’t get into a battle of wills.

Think of it this way: If you wanted to teach your daughter about snow, you’d take her out into the snow. When she was about to taste or handle the snow, you’d say the word “snow” to help her make the connection.

That’s what we do in teaching our horse a language. When we pick up the rein, the horse moves his nose, getting ready for the “hips over” movement. When we release the rein, he thinks that’s pretty cool – because moving his nose is a whole lot easier than moving his hip. So we make learning to “give” with his nose fun.

Realize that we didn’t ask for the nose until he was already doing it at least 50% of the time. When we were working with the nose, he was already dropping his head. The more we worked on getting a relaxed head elevation, the more his neck muscle was also relaxing. Each new request was easy because we’d set the horse up for it.

Bring Two Spots Together
If you’ve done the lesson thus far, you have a horse who has become much easier to lead. He steps forward willingly when you ask him to, and he probably pulls far less on the lead rope. If you’re also riding him, no doubt you’re seeing results there, too, even though we haven’t talked specifically about riding.

If you’ve done a thorough job up to now, you’re ready to raise the bar and begin to teach the horse how we want him carry himself, to develop shoulder control and to begin to work with collection. We’re going to ask the horse to bring his nose toward the base of his neck near the point of his shoulder, as you see in the photo in the center of page 21.

This is a more difficult movement than we’ve done before, but it will pay big dividends in terms of balance and collection. Imagine that every time you asked your horse to stop, he stopped in a balanced, collected way, not as if his feet suddenly got stuck in cement. Getting him stopped is good. But stopping with collection means he’ll stop without taking additional steps, and without pulling on the rein.

Follow the same pattern you did before:

Go forward.

  • Ask for the nose. Release the rein and keep walking forward.
  • Check for the elevation of the horse’s head. (By this time, the horse’s head may be in the perfect position. If so, no need to ask him to drop it farther. If it’s too high, ask the head to drop and then release the rein.) Keep walking forward.
  • Ask the neck muscle to relax. Release the rein and keep walking forward.
  • Pick up the left rein again and pull it lightly toward the base of the neck. When the horse gives slightly in that direction (it may be only a half-inch or an inch), release the rein. Keep walking forward.
  • Ask the hips to move over. Release the rein. Pet the horse and allow him to stand for a moment.
  • Change sides.

At first, this movement will feel awkward and you’ll wonder if you’re doing it right. Continue to do the part of the exercise that you know, and concentrate on doing it really well. Be sure that the horse is walking forward, then giving, and so forth.

It’s natural for the horse to get confused, and perhaps to volunteer the hips over. That’s when having trained the “go forward” cue comes in handy. When he tries to swing his hips away, tell him to step forward instead.

It’s also natural for the horse to slow down. But he needs to have energy in his walk for the bridlework to flow easily. It’s much harder for both of you if he’s sluggish. (Think “dance.”)

As the horse’s nose moves toward the point of his shoulder/base of his neck, the shoulder closest to you will seem to melt away from you. Be sure to release the rein. That “softening of the shoulders” will result in the horse stepping diagonally away from you.

Bringing the nose toward the base of the neck is tiring for the horse, and it requires him to use muscles in a way that he’s not used to. Be sure to change sides frequently, and don’t practice more than 15 minutes at a time. You can practice longer on the preliminary steps, but limit this more collected step to 15 minutes.

Putting it All Together
Now you have a way to tell your horse to move at any speed. With the “go forward” cue, you can tell him to hurry up. And you can slow him down by moving his hip or having him give to the rein. The “hips over” move gave you half a sidepass, and the “shoulders over” move gives you the front half. Imagine the fun you can have with all those combinations.

Or let’s say that you want to lunge your horse. Do you want him to zoom around, leaning on the line? No. Or do you want him to move in a pretty circle, being obedient to your signals? Yes. You have all the tools you need. The bridlework lesson is like lungeing on a six-inch lungeline.

When your horse does great at that, try getting the same response as you slide your hand out a foot from his bit, then two feet, and so forth, until you’re 20 feet away. Any time you have difficulty, shorten the line and review the earlier lessons. No more dragging you around the dance floor.

Use your imagination to “raise the bar” regarding any leading issue. Is the horse leading too close? Move his shoulder away. Is he leading too far away? Tell him to speed up. Is he too far out ahead of you? Move the hip to tell him, “Wait up, buddy.”

With the bridlework basics under your belt, you and your horse will make quite the dance team.

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