A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bits, Spurs, Whips - Tools of the Trade

What a lovely horse, right?  She looks like she's working, but is enjoying her work. The rider is quiet, out of her way, and the pair makes a lovely image.

But look closer.

That poor beast is covered in cruel and abusive objects!  She has 2 bits in her mouth, a snaffle and a curb.  The rider is wearing spurs, and I can't really tell, but I think he's using a whip on the far side.

All too often, we hear people speak of things such as spurs, whips, draw reins, and other training devices as if they are made for torture.  In reality, that is far FAR from the truth.  These aids can be used to harm a horse, but so can an ill fitting saddle, yet we don't decry saddles as being abusive, do we?

The reality of course, is some where in the middle, and goes back to how we think about our skills in the saddle.

All too often, people want the HORSE to be trained, but they forget about their own needs for training.  I'm not saying you need to run out and pay some stranger a lot of money.  Rather we as humans need to understand the logic, and practice the use, and be aware of how we affect the horses, before we should touch many of these aids!

And don't think it's just an English thing either.  That roping horse there has on a tie down, bosal, curb bit, the rider has spurs, and I'm not even sure of the name for the device that encourages the horse to keep tension on the rope.  That's a lot of stuff for a horse to deal with.

So why do we do it?  Why all the stuff?  Why can't we just ride our horses with the least amount of tack necessary to keep us all comfortable?

Well, we could, but we wouldn't get the same level of response between the human and the horse.  As sports become more competitive, we work hard to be the best.  In many cases that means refining our technique, and using more subtle, or more specific commands to ask for more nuanced reactions.  In other words, mushing around on the horse's back is a pretty broad signal, but lightly touching in an area the size of a quarter is a very specific question.

And really, that's all aids should do.  They ask a question, and the horse gives an answer.  The problem comes in when the horse answers wrong, and those aids are used for punishment, and most often, when those aids are used by idiots who don't know what they are for.

Remember how I mentioned draw reins?  Well, that is NOT how they should be used.  That is torture!

Over flexing a horse, and forcing it into that position is called Rollkur.  Way back many years ago, Rollkur was a form of stretching, and that is how it was taught to me.  When you have been working your horse hard, and his back starts feeling stiff, you walk him on a loose rein for a bit, and then ask  him to over flex for a few seconds.  Maybe 10 to 15 seconds at most.  This is similar to sitting cross legged, and tucking your chin to your chest, and then pulling on the top of your head.  It stretches all of the muscles down the back, and that stretch feels very good.

Now, some riders (*cough* Anky *cough*) are forcing their horses to work in this frame.  Some western riders are doing the same thing.  The saddest part of this, is that I can drive down the main highway here, and see hundreds of horses being worked in this over flexed position.

So why do they do it?  Because it's winning, and winning makes money, and money feeds their families.  It becomes very easy to justify these techniques when they win, and to convince yourself that because the horse likes you, that all is well with using these methods to train.  It's not.  Horses like humans because they are created to be herd animals.  They follow a strong leader.  That's it.  Their love does not mean that harmful training methods are a good thing.

And yet, rollkur started as a good thing, but became a bad one.  Like so many things in the horse world, there really is no black or white.  It's just all shades of grey.  I will gladly whip my horses in the right situations.  If whipping the horse will prevent it from killing itsself.  If whipping the horse prevents it from killing someone else.  or if whipping the horse might save its life (getting a down horse to stand).  I will not whip my horse because he missed a transition, or is having a bad day. 

So lets talk about whips first.  A whip is a method of touching the horse in a specific area which you can not otherwise touch when riding.  Look at this lady riding side saddle here.  She can't exactly give the horse a cue on the right side, because both of her legs are on the left, so a whip is used instead.

The whip can be touched or tapped, just as your heel can be.  And trust me, horses hit each other a lot harder then any one with a flimsy fiberglass whip can hit them.  I know, I've been hit by both.

Now, most horse people have figured out that a horse will move away from pressure.  So if you want a horse to go forward, you tap it on the hind end.  If you want a horse to go back, you tap it on the front end.  To go over, you tap on the inside so the horse steps away from the touch.  None of this means that you hit the horse hard enough to leave a welt.

When working with young or hot blooded horses, in many cases you can't simply turn or lean and tap them.  Off setting your balance that much is a great way to eat some dirt.  Using a whip allows you to touch more of the horse while staying balanced and out of the horse's way, so the horse can move easily.

Lunge whips are another example.  The whip is a visual aid to the horse.  When you put pressure behind the horse, simply by moving the whip toward it, the horse moves forward.  The speed you move the whip gives the horse an idea of the speed you want it to move at.  Using this visual aid, you can easily teach a horse verbal commands, and no longer need the lunge whip to attain the desired gait.

And then there are spurs.  I often use spurs, and I actually just purchased a set of western type spurs to use in training.  Now, my goal is to train the horses to accept spurs, so I wanted something very mild that would roll.  Needless to say, I also got a bit foofy, and have some etching in the pair I purchased, but they were on sale!

Er, I digress.

So, the purpose of a spur is NOT to make your horse look like that one.  Instead, they should be used to give a more precise aid for a specific movement.  With my horses, they are trained that a touch on the side means to go forward, but a touch further back means to back up.  So what happens if you bobble your legs as you squeeze?

Now, my higher level horses have more commands then that.  Touching more forward means to move the shoulders, a lift means to lift either the shoulder or the back (depending upon where I touch) and a brush means to engage the hind end.  All of these aids might be given in an area the size of my hand, but near my pinky is a very different area then down near my thumb.  If I'm using an aid the size of my boot, how does the horse judge where the point of the aid is?

The biggest problem I see with spurs are riders with no control of their legs.  I often have people complain that their horse "won't go" and ask if they are going to need spurs.  Oh hell no!  If you can't use your butt to make your horse move, then you sure don't need something spikey on your flopping wobbley legs that is going to be jabbing the horse at every step!

If your toes are pointing east and west, then that means your heels, and the spurs that would stick off of those heels, is likely pointing right into your horse's ribs.  If you can't keep your heels pointed away from the horse, and stable, then you have no ability to control your spurs.

I find it very interesting to see the shock on someone's face the first time they wear spurs.  As a rider, you can feel the touch against the horse.  If you've watched westerns, or Olympics only, they make it looks so easy, and you will be shocked at how often you accidentally jab your horse.  I swear the first time I rode in spurs, under my instructor's eye, I spend the whole lesson saying "I'm sorry Boo, Opps... sorry Boo!".

So again, the problem with spurs, is not the use of them.  Rather it's the improper use, and lack of ability by the human.

The same is OH so true of bits!  There are some bits out there which look like torture devices.  Yes, sadly, many of them are made to be torture devices to give more "stop" to a horse.  But initially, these severe bits were created to require less of a command from the human hand.

When the bit lays in the horses mouth, it should be resting easily, and not touching any of the sensitive areas.  A bit with no pressure on it, should be comfortable to wear.  We look at these high port bits, and it boggles our minds, but we forget that as humans, we have a very small mouth.  Our horses mouths are most of their head.  Something 4 inches long wouldn't even gag them, so in their minds, this port isn't that big of a deal..... unless it is used wrong.

The purpose of a more severe bit is that it gives much more signal with much less force.  As an English rider, I tend to keep a tight rein, and contact with my horse's mouth.  Now that I am learning to ride Western, I have had to figure out how to keep contact with a horse's mouth through gravity on the reins.  The weight of the reins them self is what touches the horse, not my physical pressure.  This means that a western bit requires a lot more "oomph" on the horse's side, if used properly.  See, I shouldn't ever take up allof the slack in the reins when riding Western.  If I did, I would slam the port of the bit right into the roof of the horse's mouth, and that would be BAD.  Most of my horses would put me right into the dirt for it too.

Yanking on a bit can seriously hurt a horse's mouth, but when used properly, a bit can actually reduce the pressure on a horse's mouth.  The size of the mouth piece, the angle of the port, the height of port, the break in the snaffle, the angle of the link, the shape of the side rings... it all makes a difference.  Each of these bits works together to either buffer, or strengthen the signal from the rider's hands to the horse's mouth.

A rider with poor hands can not use more severe bits, because as they bobble on the reins, they are constantly "talking" to the horse through the bridle.  A little bounce in the reins here, and the angle of everything changes, causing the bit to move in the horse's mouth.  When the horse reacts to that, the horse is often seen as being "bad" and doing something wrong, simply because the rider isn't aware that he or she was cueing the horse.

In my time as a rider and trainer, I have used many severe devices.  I personally love draw reins to help a horse learn to move properly.  I have used curbs, snaffles, elevator bits, hackamores, bitless bridles, whips, spurs, and more.Very rarely has my riding caused my horse to suffer though.  I can't say never, because like all riders, I have screwed up, and I tend to do it in big ways.  The difference though, is that I have learned how each of these devices works, what they are meant to be used for, and if I use them, I learn to do it properly. 

As I go through my training with Sweetie, I will be tossing in a few blogs about the different training aids, and I promise to be much more specific on each one.  If you know of something that you find cruel, please point it out, and I will do my best to show you the PROPER use of that aid.  Remember, in this day and age of short cuts, not all training devices have a kind and proper use any more, but so many do. 


  1. I enjoyed your post on a topic that sticks in my craw! I hate seeing people wear spurs when they don't have the skill to use them properly. Same with bits and other 'control' devices. The sad thing is that most riders who use the devices have no clue that they don't have the skill to use them.

  2. Another great topic! It's been my experience that those that use the harsh aides improperly are trying to "hurry up" the training instead of taking as long as the horse needs.

    I can't wait to read about Sweetie's training.