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Tying horse's head to saddle

From: Patty

My step-dad recently told me while I was working with a mare that you are supposed to tie the rein to the saddle horn real tight so the horse has to bend his head and touch the tip of the saddle to see if he has flexion problems and to teach him to give to the bit. This seems odd to me. He said you should make the horse uncomfortable so he will pay attention to you, and that if you didn't test for flexion he could flip himself over when you ask for it. Isn't this a little harsh? Why should you push the horse so much he feels the need to flip himself over? I know there is another way. He got very mad at me and said he didn't ever want me working another horse if I refused to listen. Please help me! THANKS!!! -Patty

Hi Patty! I've changed your name to keep you out of possible trouble with your family. Sometimes the truth hurts, and there's no way to say this in a way that will make both you and your step-dad happy.

Your step-dad is wrong, and you are right.

Tying the horse's head to the saddle horn is not a "test for flexion" - it's not a test for anything. It's abuse - nothing more, and nothing less. This causes pain and permanent muscle damage to the horse, and the only thing it "teaches" the horse is that humans are wicked and dangerous.

If you're curious about what happens to the jaw, neck, and back of a horse that is treated this way, talk to any good equine vet or chiropractor.

Horses don't flip over because the rider "asks for flexion". Horses that are properly trained are slowly and steadily prepared, physically and mentally, for every step of their training, and are READY to answer each new questions as it is asked. They don't flip over at any point in their training, because they are systematically developed and educated, and they are physically and mentally comfortable with their training. On the other hand, horses can and do flip over when they are being tortured and terrified. Horses can and do flip over (and fall over) when tied up in this way, from muscle cramping (and muscle tearing), fear, agony, and exhaustion. There is no reason for this practice, and no excuse for it, EVER.

So that's the short answer: It's wrong, it's harmful, don't do it.

Now, here's my answer to the subtext of your letter: You need to think very hard about your OWN education.

If you want to work with horses, you will need to find someone else to help you learn to do it. You cannot learn anything useful about horse-handling or training or riding from a person who believes that the way to "get a horse's attention" is to hurt the horse. Unfortunately, not everyone who owns horses likes or understands horses, or cares about treating them properly. Even more unfortunately, there are still a good many self-styled "trainers" who share three (incorrect) beliefs about horses and horse-training: "You have to hurt him to show him who's the boss," "Don't let him get away with anything", and "You can't hurt a horse". If you were asked to define ANTI-horsemanship in three sentences, those would probably suffice. They all add up to something quite appalling: a combination of ignorance and brutality, plus the ability to take pleasure in causing pain. The formula that makes a horseman is entirely different: knowledge, gentleness, and consideration for the animal.

Horse owners have a responsibility to learn as much as they can about horses, treat their horses well, and protect them from abuse. Many horse-owners are sentimental about horses in general, and would be horrified if anyone pointed out that they were condoning abuse, but think nothing of handing their horses over to "trainers" who have no understanding of horses or horsemanship. "Condoning abuse" is exactly what a horse-owner does when he or she puts a horse into the hands of a "trainer" who employs methods such as these.

The "bottom line" here is this: If the only way a person can "get a horse's attention" is to cause the horse pain and permanent muscle damage, that person should not be working with horses. It doesn't matter whether the person is leasing a horse, owns one or two horses, or advertises himself or herself as a "trainer" of horses - this is not someone who can teach you anything that you would ever want to know. Even if, as in this case, the "trainer" is a family member, you need to maintain your own integrity and NOT participate in practices that are wrong and harmful. Education, values, and character all go together. If you follow in the footsteps of someone who brutalizes horses, you will become like that person, because you'll have learned to think of horses in a certain way, and you'll develop the habit of treating them in a certain way. Whilst you're learning and developing your habits, you will be establishing your values and building your character - for good or for ill. Humans find it terribly difficult to think one way and act another way. When they try, the usual result is NOT that their actions change, but that their thinking chantges to match their actions. In other words, if you learn to be physically abusive to horses, you will quickly develop the thought patterns that go along with the physical abuse.

If you want to be involved with horses, you need to think about what sort of human being you want to be, and then go out and find a real trainer whose thoughts and actions are compatible with correct training and the good treatment of horses.

Good luck. I truly hope that, if you want to learn about horses and horse-training, you can find a real trainer to help you learn how to work with horses kindly and correctly. It may not be easy for you, under the circumstances - I know that there's always a temptation to "go along to get along". But there are live animals involved here, so please stop and think before you act. As I so often tell riders, don't even take a single step down a road that's leading somewhere you don't want to go.


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