Good training should have about the same activity level as paint drying. How do you get your horse to respond to slight pressure when he only responds to heavy pressure? By that I mean if you pull the reins to the side, does your horse’s head come around with just a few ounces of pull or does it feel like it takes a crane to move his head?
First, what is the value of your horse responding to light pressure? For one, if you’re on a runaway horse and you can’t pull his head around for a one-rein stop, you’re in trouble. Another is it takes far less energy on your part to ride the horse. A horse that needs lots of pressure to respond is a horse that’s tiresome to ride. That’s no fun. Might as well go to the gym.
So let’s take it from the reins pressure. If your horse’s neck is hard to bend from one side to the other, start from the ground. Stay on the ground and teach him to bend. Put on a rope halter. Hook on your lead rope. Stand next to him around the rib area.
Take the slack out of the lead rope then pull a little on the lead rope (to make it taut) and hold it against body just below and just behind the withers. Just hold it there.
Wait. You’re looking for him to bend his head back towards where you are holding the lead rope. Look for the slightest give. Even a 1/4 of an inch. When he gives to the pressure, you give back – immediately. One thing that will really help you with this is when you hold the lead rope on the horse’s body and “keep” it there, you aren’t tempted to keep pulling back and asking for more give.
If your hand is stationary, you automatically give when he gives. Asking for more give when all you want initially is just a slight give is a big no-no. Don’t do it. Each time he gives, pet him a little, talk nice, and say “thank you!”. Repeat this a few more times. Now do it on his other side.
After you do it on both sides, walk him around a minute or two. Then do it again. Now, see how far back he’ll bend his neck as you pull on the lead rope. Just pull with a few ounces. When he resists, that’s how far back he’ll go. So… Hold the lead rope against him like before, add a little bit of pressure to the rope and wait for the give. Repeat a few times and do the other side.
Once you get those gives, then quit for the day. Brush him and make him feel good. Do this the next day and the next. Pretty soon you’ll get him bending nicely. Once you do then go to the bridle with a snaffle bit. Do the same thing with the bridle and snaffle. He may resist this at first because he may be used to resisting with a snaffle. That’s okay. It’s our job to be patient. Simply repeat the process you did with the lead rope and halter.
Now here’s the big secret. One of the tips was that horses are “into pressure animals” meaning that if you push on them, they’ll push back. It’s instinct – not defiance. And frankly, if the horse resists bending his neck, then you have to take a look at your riding skills. Check also this post on how to prepare for disasters.
Are you heavy handed? Do you pull, jerk, or pop on his mouth? If so, he’ll pull and jerk back. That’s something really cool about horses. They teach us that when treated with respect and kindness we get the same back. Sure, we have to be firm at times, but we have to be respectful and kind all the time. Pulling hard or jerking the reins is not respectful or kind. So when we give out that behavior, we get it back. We did it to ourselves.
Isn’t it amazing what horses can teach us?