This is a true story that I would like to start with to illustrate a point:
Bridle lameness is a lack of symmetrical movement simulating a lameness
A client came to my farm some time ago with a horse for me to watch. He was having problems and he thought the horse was lame, yet no one could diagnose or fix his problem. After watching the horse under saddle, (which did have very unsymmetrical movement in front) I thought the horse was bridle lame. I had the client put his horse on a lunge line. He snapped the lunge line to the bit and lunged the horse with no reins attached. I expected to see a sound horse, as the bridle component (I thought) had been removed. Much to my surprise the horse still limped as if he was truly lame. Having a hunch and going with it, I asked the client to take the bridle off and lunge the horse in only his halter. Unbelievably, the horse trotted off completely symmetrical…sound! Even just having the bit hang in his mouth caused the horse such a “crisis in confidence” that he thought he couldn’t stride.
Obviously this is an extreme example, but I wanted to tell it because it helps prove the point that, bridle lameness certainly is real, and because it is both, physical and emotional, it can be a very complicated problem to fix.
Bridle lameness is a lack of symmetrical movement simulating a lameness when, in fact, the horse is actually sound. It can occur in both the front and the hind end simultaneously, or just the front end, or just the hind end. All horses with bridle lameness issues are miss-aligned, or “crooked”. The conundrum is that the world is filled with miss-aligned, crooked horses, that don’t limp.
The question, then, is what causes some misaligned horses to limp, and some, not to limp?
It can be really frustrating when you encounter a bridle lameness such that, if you push the horse forward, the motion becomes more unsymmetrical, and if you don’t push it still stays unsymmetrical. So what do you do? The following are thoughts about methods that work for me.
When and how did the “bridle lameness” start?
A horse held too long in draws has little to gain by continuing to perform at his maximum
The first thing that I do is try to understand how and when the bridle lameness occurred. The how part tells me what to never do with the horse again, and the when part indicates how long it will take to fix. Most bridle lameness conditions come from a horse being trapped and forced into a “head position” or specific frame with no relief of pressure, instead of having this frame develop gradually as a natural balance point given the amount of impulsion and the ability of the horse to respect the rein and seat aids to accomplish self carriage.
Over the years it has been my observation in the show horse world that the number one technique for producing bridle lameness is the use of draw reins while long lining. The number two technique is riding in draw reins, while the rider fails to use his/her legs in an appropriate manner. (As a caveat, I know many horse trainers who are adept at using draw reins and don’t have problems, so please don’t automatically condemn someone you see using draw reins.) That being said, it is really easy to “trap” a horse in draws because the action of a draw more than doubles the force of the riders hands and slows by 2X the release of the reins for a reward. Clearly, a horse held too long in draws has little to gain by continuing to perform at his maximum. When the pressure on the bars of a horse’s mouth becomes too oppressive, the horse becomes convinced that they can no longer go forward because there is no place to go.
The third major cause is being hand ridden in too severe of a bit, and the fourth reason is simply hand riding, or pulling on the horse’s mouth with no attempt by the rider to align the body with the use of leg.
Bridle lameness will involve one side of the mouth or the other, because of the horse’s body brace and misalignment causes him to be “crooked” to the bridle. When this happens, the horse will fail to completely advance one or more legs equally and the symmetry and balance of motion will be destroyed.
Some horses limp because they are laying on the bridle and “braced”, and “heavy” on both sides of the mouth, with one side “heavier” than the other. In this example the hind legs won’t completely follow through and the resulting compensation can show up as a motion deficit in just the rear end, or both, the rear end and the front end.
Some limp because they are braced on one side (cocked jaw), laying on the bit, and not getting to the other side. No contact on one side of the horse’s mouth because of a loss of the horse’s will to go forward to the bit produces unsymmetrical motion, mostly in the front limbs.
Some limp simply from defensive behavior generated by anxiety over the pressure on their mouth. They will protect one side by not moving to it, or by trying to move through it. They simply are not happy to simply exist with it. In this specific case, the horse is telling you that he is defensive and afraid.
The mantra for the rider in the “fix” of the bridle lame horse is, “wait for me”, “let me straighten you or push you to the bridle for simple soft contact, and wait for me again”
Every bridle lame scenario will involve a crooked, miss- aligned body, and a “cocked”, or tilted and somewhat locked jaw. Yet, there are many examples of bridle lameness where the horse stops “limping” because the rider simply, cleverly, connected the horse to the weak side by gently bringing the bridle to him, before the re-alignment process begins. (I just wrote a piece about the “stiff side, soft side” that fits hand in hand with the development of normal motion by overcoming an objection by the horse to contact.) So, before re-alignment, how does normal motion occur? It’s my opinion that the bridle lame horse has had its confidence destroyed, and the horse resents going to the bridle for fear of what the contact will mean. (I’m trapped and this pressure never quits.) When this type of horse is ridden in a sympathetic manner, many will relax and stride more normally. However, if asked immediately to re-engage and “get to work” without being rebalanced, they will again become bridle lame immediately.
As a test for bridle lameness as opposed to a “real” lameness, I will have the rider drop both reins and trot the horse with no contact (if possible). This can be difficult because most horses with bridle lameness are constantly “ahead” of the rider, causing the rider to try to “pull” them in without using any leg. (It’s hard to put a leg on a horse that is taking you “for a ride”, isn’t it?) What I expect to see in the case of no contact is a horse that gradually forgets about his mouth and starts to stride more normally. If this doesn’t happen, and there was truly no contact, it’s time to find a vet. If, however, the limp goes away or fades, the next step is to alternately pick up to contact, one rein at a time to see which rein produces the unsymmetrical motion.
Once it becomes obvious which rein is producing the loss of symmetry, I will try to exactly duplicate the article that I previously wrote, by making the dominant rein be on the side that accepts pressure with no loss of symmetry in the motion. I will then be playful on the off side rein and double, at times, the use of my leg on that side (to keep the horse’s shoulder in line, with my leg and not my hand) and see if the horse will accept the light, intermittent pressure. If he does, we are on our way to normalcy. If he still limps, 9 times out of 10, it will be because the horse is “ahead” of me and I have to pull on him to keep him slow. 90% of all of the bridle lame horses I have helped, didn’t improve until I could actually lay a leg on them and ask them to reposition their body, or move to the bridle (to contact), without them rushing, or trying, again, to get ahead of me. The mantra for the rider in the “fix” of the bridle lame horse is, “wait for me”, “let me straighten you or push you to the bridle for simple soft contact, and wait for me again”. Until this stage is reached, most bridle lame horses continue to limp.
How do you reach this level of acceptance?
It’s different for every horse, but it will involve creating a true, loose rein walk with the horse’s poll lower than the withers (relaxation, particularly the back). The next step will be to ask the horse to move to contact in a relaxed frame and for the rider to honor what he/she has already learned about what side contact produces unsymmetrical motion. I will put the horse to contact, do a few different circles, drop the contact, and re-engage the contact, repeatedly, many times, until the horse is acceptant and “sacked out” to this. If the horse rushes me, I will halt, sometimes rein back, wait, and trot again. To relax the horse such that he no longer rushes can take a day, or several weeks. You may not be able to rush this with more contact because the limp will simply reappear.
It’s 5 times harder to get a horse to trust you after you “promised” him, through your actions, that you would never ride him like that again, and then you do
During this process of teaching the horse to relax and not rush, it will become apparent to you what quarters are positioned where, in the misalignment of the horse. As the horse accepts more leg pressure without “rushing”, you will be better able to “help” (push with a leg) your horse come into alignment and achieve real balance.
(Remember, every horse that rushes or hurries, is on his forehand. This will cause you to pull, or hold him from going faster. 9 times out of 10, this is what caused his bridle lameness in the first place, and when he re-encounters this type of riding, he is already predisposed to limp and he will start limping again.)
Once you have achieved symmetry in a somewhat relaxed frame, you can start to slowly put your horse back to real work, and the frame that results. Be patient and realize that each step forward is something that your horse gave to you. Don’t over ask until he quits trying. It’s 5 times harder to get a horse to trust you after you “promised” him, through your actions, that you would never ride him like that again, and then you do. Take 2-3 steps forward, and 1 step back until your horse is really confident. For the horse, this is a physical and emotional problem. A sympathetic hand will go a long way to helping your horse back to normalcy.
One other note:
The use of a curb bit can really exacerbate this problem because of the leverage. What feels like light contact to you, isn’t light at all for the recipient of pressure from a leverage bit. You may have “fixed” your bridle lame horse, only to have the problem reappear in the double bridle. If this happens, ride him in the bridle with no contact from the curb, or without a curb strap, and repeat your steps until he strides normally. Once he is normal, use the curb sparingly, but don’t be surprised if your horse won’t deal with much curb pressure. He may, in time.
I hope this is helpful to any out there who are struggling with this problem.
Four Skills of Great Teachers
Dressage Today, September, 2013