Solving The Puzzle of Horses Who Pull

It’s not a fun feeling: You’re heading down a slight hill toward a cross-country fence, and you realize that you have no brakes and no steering. Your horse isn’t responding at all to your aids, and you feel as if he’s pulling your arms out of your shoulders.

When she raced, Ariel’s downhill gallop wasn’t a problem.

Somehow, you clear that jump and continue on, but nothing changes. He’s still just carting you around the course. You finish and breathe a great sigh of relief, wondering, how do I solve this problem? 

The first step is to analyze why your horse leans on your hands or pulls with such determination. 

Is it over-enthusiasm for the job? Is he just too eager to gallop and jump? These types usually settle down after two or three minutes on the cross-country course or an hour of foxhunting, and they usually relax after they get to know the routine of your sport. Time and exposure generally fix this type of horse, eventually, often with the help of a stronger bit or noseband, or a martingale. 

But, with some horses, a bigger bit causes them to refuse, because the gallop is where they get their courage. In that case, you must learn to ride the horse like he wants to go.

Is it fear? If they’re afraid, what are they afraid of? And why? This can be an extremely difficult question to answer. You have to read their body language and be aware of things around them. Even then, the answer could still prove elusive. 

Is it a physical weakness or stiffness? Is he unable to use his back or hindquarters to lift his shoulders, because of an injury or a weakness? Or is it simply because he’s built downhill, with his head lower than his hindquarters?

We had a horse named Bordeaux, who leaned non-stop on the right rein, whether you were trying to do flatwork, jump or go across country. He was a huge horse, and, although he was young when he came to us, he was unable to bend or swing his back or hindquarters, especially his right hip, so he always pulled left to get away from that hip. We greatly reduced his leaning and pulling with more than a year of chiropractic treatment and training that emphasized developing strength and suppleness (including a lot of trotting and cantering up hills).

Is it actual pain, perhaps in his back or hindquarters? A pulled muscle or ligament, or a neurological problem, or perhaps a saddle that doesn’t fit properly? These factors could cause the horse to appear to be, or feel like he’s trying to, run away from something. It would be unusual, though, for bolting or running off to be the only symptom of these conditions, as such a problem would usually cause other unsoundness symptoms.

Is it your riding? Are you pulling on the mouth of a horse who doesn’t like you to do that? Are you tense or anxious, causing him to be the same? These are the two most common problems.

We’ve had three horses with fairly typical cases of pulling. 

The first was a Quarter Horse gelding named Willie, a horse my sister owned and rode for many years but whom I competed and foxhunted for the better part of a year shortly after she’d purchased him. 

Willie was a hard-core puller; probably the hardest and most determined puller I’ve ever sat on. He could literally grab the bit and run off with you, and the only way to stop him was to put both hands on one rein and pull him in a circle until he stopped.

Fortunately, he didn’t remain a runaway throughout his life. He was never what you’d call light in your hand when cantering or galloping, but he did stop bolting.

We never figured out exactly what caused Willie to take off. Perhaps it was physical—he was built quite downhill, and he may have been unable to hold himself in balance. But I suspect there was a training issue too, from before my sister bought him. My suspicion has been that someone became confusingly rough with their hands (or other aids) when he’d start to pick up the speed he couldn’t control, and the two sensations together scared him.

What did I do in those months I rode him? A lot of transitions, circles, and changes of rein. In the ring and anywhere while hacking—on the side of a hill, in the middle of a field, on a wooded trail, in the middle of a stream. My goal was to develop the muscles in his back and hindquarters and to give him a better understanding of, respect for and confidence in all my aids.

I recall Willy bolting with me several times, during the first six or seven weeks I rode him. Later, I completed three training level horse trials on him with no cross-country jumping faults—and no bolting—riding him in a D-ring Dr. Bristol bit, a figure-eight noseband, and a running martingale.

Ariel was a Thoroughbred mare who’d won 10 races before I purchased her to steeplechase and to foxhunt. I ran her over hurdles and over timber, placing in two or three races, before turning to eventing and competing her through training level. 

Ariel didn’t bolt, but she was built slightly downhill, and could she lean on the bit! During the three years I raced her, this wasn’t a problem, because you want to feel the horse pulling against the reins. That’s why jockeys ride with a “bridge” in their reins—you make sort of a loop so that both hands are holding both reins, and then you press down on the neck with the “bridge” that forms, so that the horse is pulling against himself, not you. I’ve always ridden cross-country courses with a bridge in my reins, taking my hands out of the bridge at the more gymnastically demanding jumps.

Ariel’s low head carriage and strong hold was more of an issue when I started eventing her. With lots of flatwork, with an emphasis on transitions and leg-yields, her gallop did become more “up.”

I also did a great deal of gymnastic jumping exercises that forced her to lift her forehand by putting her hindquarters underneath her. Those exercises also complimented her incredible cleverness and her natural desire to stand up if she made a mistake.

I never used a “big” bit on Ariel, because I thought it would just anger her, plus I felt so comfortable on her. I rode her in a variety of bits, but I mostly jumped her in a double-jointed full-cheek snaffle with a figure-eight noseband. 

Interestingly, to jump Ariel well, you had to be soft with your hands and trust that she’d bring her head up before the jump, which she always did. You also couldn’t try to hold her to a deep distance, because she’d just jump against your hand and leave out a stride or two. She insisted that you leave her alone to do her job. She never fully accepted the discipline that dressage requires, but I always trusted her to jump anything. 

Sam became my wife Heather’s event horse, after he’d developed a reputation as a runaway in the hunting field and with more than one event rider. We determined that Sam’s problem was other people’s riding—they pulled on him, so he pulled back. Heather isn’t a “handsy” rider, so she and Sam were well suited, because Sam didn’t pull if she didn’t pull. 

Heather Always rode Sam in a Happy Mouth snaffle.

But there was more than that to Sam. He was opinionated, and before Heather began to ride him, he’d never learned to respect or trust the aids, either the driving aids or the restraining aids. So she spent the first six months taking him back to the basics, teaching him that the aids are how we communicate: Walk, trot and canter on a circle in a steady rhythm with transitions, responding to the half-halt, and lateral work, again teaching him to respond calmly to the leg.

Until he reached his teenage years, Sam often seemed determined to live up to his runaway reputation on the cross-country course, especially for the first five or six jumps. All Heather could do was point him to the correct jump and then stay out of his way, which made early combinations particularly problematic. Eventually, his hysteria subsided, so that he was rideable after the first or second fence.

Heather always rode Sam in a double-jointed, loose-ring Happy Mouth snaffle, with a flash noseband, because she wanted him to trust to work into the bit, not to just fight its restraint.

If your horse is a confirmed puller or leans resolutely on the bit, it’s likely caused by weakness/pain in the back or hindquarters or a lack of respect for your aids. Training that focuses on developing strength and developing that trust is the most likely prescription, although a physical issue will likely require chiropractic or veterinary care. See also Alba Not A Classic Puller

Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger.

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