Ask Our Expert - Randy Rieman
This Month's Expert
Randy Rieman lives and works outside of Dillon, Montana, with his wife, Kim. They run Pioneer Mountain Ranch, a horsemanship destination school where he starts and trains horses, and teaches all aspects of horsemanship.
In the March, July and December 2011 issues, Rieman explained the proper way to fit a saddle, breast collar and styles of spurs in "Gear Guidelines."
Q: My horse has always been afraid of flags or banners above his head. I've tried to get him used to them by hanging a few in the barn, but he still spooks when I take him to an arena with banners or flags hanging. What else can I do to get him used to these, because I want to continue taking him to sortings and small horse shows?
Robert, Itasca, Texas
A: The flight mechanism is often the first thing to kick in when a horse is insecure about an object, so rest assured your horse's response is a normal one. However, we can't leave it at that if we hope to get anywhere with our horse. Our job is to replace the fear and flight with confidence and cooperation.
When a horse is worried about any object, it is important to find the edge of the horse's comfort zone in relationship to the object he is trying to avoid. I will allow the horse to escape to the edge of his comfort zone, but I keep the horse working so that avoiding, or escaping, the object becomes more effort than accepting the object. Put the horse to work at the edge of the comfort zone and when the horse is really feeling good, get a little closer to the object, face it and give your horse a little time to relax and get his air. These little recesses are vital. Then you take the horse away from the object before he takes you, put him back to work, and when he is feeling good and feeling willing, get a little closer before you take a rest. When you rest near the object, pet your horse and get him to relax, then you take him away before he takes you! The principle is simple: avoiding the object becomes more work and less comfort than accepting the object.
When I say put him to work, I do not mean wear him out;, rather, I mean do things that require effort and concentration that will pay you dividends later, like moving the hips, framing up, backing circles, doing counter-bends, making maneuvers that will benefit you. Fatigue is not the goal; willingness to follow your feel is. Remember, too, that curiosity in your horse is just as powerful as flight is. So get him interested in investigating the object by giving him a break and comfort by being near it, not by fleeing from it.
Q: I have a Quarter Horse/Arabian cross and I've tried different saddles to fit her, but they continue to rub her withers. I've tried thin blankets and the thicker neoprene saddle pads, but nothing helps. She is great to ride, and wonderful on the trail, but after a long ride I have to stay off her a few days. Do you have any suggestions to keep her withers from getting sore?
Pam, Woodland Hills, California
A: Saddle fit is a huge issue for everyone in the horse industry (See the "Gear Guidelines" article, March 2011). There is more to keeping a horse's withers from getting sore than one might think. Especially important is conditioning—many horses are overweight and under-exercised, basically out of shape.
Many horses get used so seldom that they don't get a chance to get fit. If you carried a 50-pound backpack only once a month, I promise you would get sore every time even if the backpack was a perfect fit. There is a certain amount of conditioning required to keep from getting sore after a big ride.
The breed of the horse isn't really as important as the construction of its back and withers, though some horses are harder to fit than others. There are huge differences in saddle quality, construction and dimensions. Cheap saddles are often poorly made—you could try a hundred of them and still get a poor fit. Handmade saddles are expensive, but worth the cost. Your chances for proper dimensions and fit are much higher in a handmade. A saddle tree with the proper angles and construction is required if you want to avoid trouble. The best way to insure you have the right dimensions by consulting a professional maker, like Jeremiah Watt. Jeremiah has made a science out of getting saddles to fit properly and he would have good advice for someone who is having constant difficulty.
I try to avoid any synthetic materials in saddle pads and stick with wool. Many saddle pads are way too hard, and wool is what I have found to be the best. Thickness is also vital because thicker isn't always better; a thicker pad can put more pressure on the withers by making the withers seem wider and sabotaging the saddle fit.
My advice is to consult with a professional tree and saddle maker to see if your horse has reasonable conformation. But, be sure your horse is not terribly overweight or under-conditioned. Be sure the equipment you are using is appropriate, and try to take shorter rides more often to get your horse fit.
Q: I have a horse that has to lift her head and become uncollected to lope off. What exercises can I use to get her to lope off while staying collected and keep her head down?
Julie, Dos Palos, California
A: What you are describing is really common. The horse uses its head and huge neck muscle to hop, or lift, into the lope. This, of course, is counterproductive because the horse's back sinks when the neck and head lift, and that makes the feet further apart and we lose our frame, or collection. Transitions seem to be where this occurs the most, and a transition to me can be a change in speed, gait or direction. Getting the horse in frame, framed up or collected, or as some of the older riders used to say, shortened up, is really about finding the proper balance point and maintaining that during any transition.
First, the horse needs to be able to find that position when the rider requests it, and hold it for a while. This can take some conditioning; so don't ask for too much too soon. Second, the rider's job is to reward the correct response by softening when the horse gets it right. This will get the horse to find that soft, correct place and hold itself there. It is not the rider's job to hold the horse in the proper place, but to teach the horse to hold itself in the proper place.
I like to work at getting my horse framed up, and then speeding up and slowing down in the same gait, without losing the frame. I also work at changing directions without losing the frame. Accelerating and decelerating in a walk or trot while keeping framed up is simpler than changing gaits, but is also a transition. So practice simple transitions, or speed changes, until the horse can do them without falling out of frame. Making small circles, big circles, straight lines, diagonals, and even sidepassing and counter-bending while framed up, all help build muscle memory.
From the trot to the lope, I give my horse a chance to take lots of time to get the transition made, and I'll see how smoothly I can get a transition, not how quickly. I'll spend a lot of time trotting fast, just below the spot where he might choose to lope, and see if he will choose the lope and then let him. Now, he thinks this is his idea, instead of me trying to make him lope. Remember, all the while I am doing what I need to help keep him in frame. If he takes the lope and stays framed up, then I wind down, and give him a little recess for the reward. I don't make him work at maintaining it for a long time, but instead reward him for making the good transition by resting a bit. You can always add duration later when the horse is surer of himself.
If the horse's muzzle is pointed at the ground and he is flexed a bit at the poll, and if the back is up, then the feet will be closer to his center and it should be easier for him to hold frame. Proper backing can help build muscle memory and endurance because it requires the same basic frame: nose down, poll flexed, back up, feet closer together.
If you'd like to submit a question, please email Assistant Editor Kate Bradley at email@example.com by December 27. Please include your full name, city and state in your inquiry. Depending on the volume of questions received, some questions may not be answered. Western Horseman retains the right to edit submissions for clarity.