One of the big things we focus on with all of our young horses is the ability to move into the bridle. But what does this really mean? Unfortunately it is a hard concept to explain, but it is important enough that it’s worth trying.
I remember my boss in college yelling at me time and time again as I rode around the arena. “Quit pulling him off the bridle and push him into it,” he would say. And naturally I would get a little mad. What the hell are you talking about? I AM pushing him into it. And as far as I was concerned, I was. His head was down, his nose was vertical, and when I picked up the reins he felt soft in my hands. But as most of us that have spent time working for another trainer have done, I would pretend to understand what I was doing wrong, and just continue riding and trying to get a compliment for something I was doing, or at the very least not get yelled at anymore. At some point along the way my timing and my hands must have improved enough that I was in fact pushing the horses into the bridle because the instructions changed to “Push him deeper into the bridle.”
It wasn’t until years later when I found myself yelling the same thing at someone else that I fully grasped the difference. I think I actually sent my old boss a text that day to tell him that I finally understood why he got so frustrated with me in the early days of our working relationship when I was in fact pulling the horses off the bridle instead of pushing them into it. But what is the difference? And why is it important that we do one and not the other?
When a horse willingly and correctly moves into the bridle, his head is level with his withers, his nose is on the vertical, and he feels soft in your hand when you pick up the reins. But many people achieve these three things while still pulling the horse off the bridle. The difference is in the shape of the horse’s body and the movement of their legs when you make contact with your hands. A horse that is being pushed into the bridle not only has his head and neck level with the withers, but his back is round and engaged. When the rider picks up the reins, the length of the horse’s stride should stay the same or get deeper. Conversely, a horse that is being pulled off the bridle, despite having its head level, has a hollow back and is not using himself properly. When the rider picks up the reins in this scenario, the stride will shorten and become less appealing to the eye.
So how do we achieve this? The most important thing to remember when teaching your horse to move into the bridle is that your legs are always the first and strongest cue. Just as the term suggests, you are pushing the horse into your hands with your leg. This means that when you ask the horse to move into the bridle, you first squeeze your legs and second engage your hands. Leg pressure should always be stronger than hand pressure, so if you have to increase your hand pressure make sure you are increasing your leg pressure proportionally. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that your hands should always stay in front of the saddle and your elbows should never pass your sides when you pick up on the reins. If you’re not sure if you are doing this correctly, try riding your horse in draw reins. A draw rein used without a straight rein will keep you and your horse very honest. If you are pulling too hard and not using enough leg, the horse will get behind the bridle and his stride will become noticeably shorter and uncomfortable. When done correctly, you should be able to push your horse into the bridle by applying leg pressure and just squeezing your fingers on the reins.
|SEE BELOW| 3yr old Foxy works on driving through the bridle. We can see her drop her head and drive all the way through for a stride. THAT is what we are looking for. She does it only for a stride because it is hard at first. Over time, it becomes her preferred way to move.
So now the question becomes why is this important? For the show horse the importance is obvious: a horse that moves into the bridle is much more appealing to the eye and will be a better mover than a horse that does not. But what about the type of horses we ride? When I first switched to training polo horses, I thought it would be so easy because it doesn’t really matter how they look, it matters how functional they are. It doesn’t have to be pretty, they just have to do it. Of course, I have since learned that a better moving horse-- even on the polo field-- will catch someone’s eye much more quickly, which is handy when trying to sell horses. So aside from how they look, what are the benefits of teaching your horse to move into the bridle properly?
When a horse is moving into the bridle, his back is elevated, round, and engaged. Think of your horse’s back/frame as his core muscles. In human athletes, having a strong core is extremely important for speed, agility, and preventing injury. Ever wonder why Olympic runners all have 6-pack abs? Because strengthening their core muscles is essential to their running form, and good running form is what wins races and helps prevent injuries. Similarly in horses, and especially the athletes that are polo horses, a strong “core” means better form for all the demanding maneuvers we ask of them. Proper form equals more efficient movement, so that stop and turn is going to happen just a little quicker. And, as we all know, a half of a second quicker in a polo game is often all you need. Your horse will feel softer in the bridle, allowing you to make quick and light movements efficiently. Proper form also means a deeper stride, and a deeper stride at speed will result in a faster horse running down the field. And finally, proper form for all of these things will result in less injuries.
Whenever we show a horse, whether the person buys it or not, we consistently get one comment: “She has a really nice mouth.” I always have to stop myself from making the distinction that she does not have an inherently “good mouth” but rather she has been conditioned to use herself correctly which allows her to be soft in her face. It’s a common term we hear with polo horses and lots of people believe that horses are born with either a good mouth or a bad mouth. I have to disagree. Yes, some horses have the confirmation that allows for a naturally lighter feel in the face while others have a naturally heavier feel. However, all horses can be made to feel softer in the bridle by teaching them to move into your hands correctly and use their bodies more efficiently. It is not going to make a backyard donkey feel like a high goal horse, but it will make the backyard donkey as light as it physically can be. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those horses that are so physically talented that they can beat all the other horses on the field without ever learning this skill. But they might be able to beat them by a half second more if taught to use themselves properly, and what’s the harm in that?