Why Pulling on your Horse’s Face Doesn’t Work… and How to Stop

We’ve all been there before…  in an exhausting tug-of-war with a 1000 lb. animal who has decided that he’s suddenly going to go right when you want to go left.  Or that time you nearly had your arms ripped out of your sockets because your horse wants you to carry his head for him, or feels like picking up the pace when you want to slow down.  And my personal favorite, when your horse doesn’t want to stay round and on the bit, surly holding your horse’s head in place would help him to learn exactly where you want him to put it.

It makes perfect sense.  If your horse is going the wrong way, the answer would be to pull his head toward the direction you want to go.  If your horse is going too fast that you should pull against his mouth to get him to slow down.  If your horse wants to pull his bit to the ground and make you carry his head, what else do you do but pull up and against him with the reins to explain to him that he should pull his head up.   It’s our brain’s first and logical reaction, especially in a desperate situation where you have little or no control that the right decision would be to grab his face.

Sometimes we struggle to let go of our horse’s face out of fear or fitness.  A nervous rider tends to feel more comfortable and more in control with shorter reins.  Many like to hold or grab their horse’s face out of insecurity.  Other riders may take a hold on their horse’s face out of sheer balance.  Their fitness level doesn’t allow them to stay centered and balanced on a forward or heavy horse that is constantly pulling them out of the saddle or moving too fast for them to catch up and ride without relying on the reins.

I went through this very same struggle in my riding as I fought daily in my lessons with a heavy, green horse who loved not not only grab the bit and pull, he loved to throw his shoulder, lean on my inside leg and become unbalanced and quick.   It was a terrible cycle.  My horse would become heavy, and he’d pull my arms straight and my body out of the saddle.  I’d fight to regain my position and he’d start going faster and I’d lose all ability to steer or stop, just at the trot.  The more I tried to pull him up, steer and get him off my hands by using my hands, the worse it got.  Eventually we would end up in a small circle in the middle of the ring where my leg and seat were nonexistent and I clung onto my inside rein for dear life, to end up with a horse who’s head was up and pulled in, shoulder was pushed out, my arms were strained from exhaustion from our tug of war and then I would give up for sake of my horse’s sanity and just go back into the indoor where my steering worked better.

In my mind, along with the mind of others the idea of letting go of my fast, unbalanced horse’s face, and adding more leg to a horse who was already moving quicker than I was comfortable with, just seemed like the complete opposite of what was logically going to work.  I needed to hang on for balance, out of fear that we’d end up leaving the ring, and out of not being able to get my head around the fact that it was my pulling that was actually making the issue worse.  Months of this and I just could’t understand why we couldn’t get it all together.  I just couldn’t get off his face.  Depending on which way he was leaning I was pulling on the inside rein or the out, or half-halting with every muscle in my body.  Still didn’t make an ounce of difference.  I couldn’t slow, steer, balance or straighten out my horse.  I was sort of releasing during my half-halts but wasn’t totally giving with my reins as much as I needed to.  I didn’t feel comfortable without some type of hold on his face.

Then one day a trainer had said words to me that I’d never forget, “The response comes in the release.”

The response comes in the release.  You mean that to get the response I want from my horse I need to actually release and let go of his face or my aids?   Yep.  That’s exactly what it meant.  That until I was able to let go and give with my hands nothing positive was going to come out of it.  I wasn’t going to get anywhere.  It meant that no matter how much I pulled my horse that we would continue to just fight with each other until I released my hands and gave him the opportunity to respond.  MIND BLOWN.

Why Pulling Doesn’t Work on Your Horse

Horses are trained to move away or respond to pressure.  Think about it.  When you want your horse to move over so you can pick his feet, you push him.  You don’t go on the other side of him and try to pull his body the direction you’re going.  You put pressure on him from the opposite side and he gives you a response by moving away.  Horses react to your pressure by looking for a way to relieve the pressure.  If there is no relief to the pressure, your horse eventually learns to “tolerate” that pressure.  So for example… the first time you put a saddle on a horse he may rush forward, buck, and move around in attempt to relieve the pressure the girth and saddle are creating on his body.  As time goes by, he learns to accept this pressure because he’s become tolerant of it and used to it.  He learns to ignore and accept it.

Many animals are also trained by using either positive or negative reinforcement, or sometimes both.  In positive reinforcement, you ask the animal to do something and then reward them for doing it.  In negative reinforcement, you ask the animal to do something and then apply negative pressure or a “correction” when the animal does the wrong thing, and release the pressure when the animal makes the right choice.  Horses are taught similarly.  The horse learns through a series of corrections and rewards what behaviors or reactions are allowed and what is unacceptable.  Your horse becomes trained as he quickly begins to adapt the responses that avoid bringing on either a “correction” or pressure.

Also know that their is a different between a “communication aid” and a “negative reinforcement” or “correction aid”.   The communication aid is a light aid you give to your horse when you ask for something.  You may softly close your legs to initiate the trot.  You’re adding pressure, the horse responds by moving forward and you take off the pressure because your horse is doing what you asked.  If your horse starts to slow down, you may use your leg aid again to remind them that they need to keep moving forward.   Still a communication aid.  You’re communicating, “please keep going”.   When you close your leg to ask your horse to move forward and he either ignores you or bulges into your leg, you use a negative reinforcement to correct your horses behavior.  This comes in the form of a stronger aid, such as a kick, or a spur or a whip to teach the horse that his reaction is wrong.  It’s an aid used to make it even clearer that the horse should probably make the right decision and there will be pressure if they continue to make the wrong one.   But you can only use a negative reenforcement aid if the horse understands what wrong decision is causing it, and what right decision will relieve it.

Now going with that thought that a horse is trained to react in response to pressure, in hopes to relieve it, sometimes a horse may not know what the correct response is.  They may react, but not necessarily in a way you want them to.  But the key here is that the “response” a horse will give you when you apply pressure doesn’t come until you give them the opportunity to respond to the pressure.   The “response” actually comes when you “release” the pressure.  It comes in first you “asking”, but then you “giving” them a second to figure out what it is you want them to do.  Giving them a second to actually respond.  When they respond correctly, their reward is the fact that you’ve stopped putting pressure on them.  If they give you an incorrect response, you apply the pressure again and release and say “no, that’s not it, try again…”  and the horse will look for another answer until he finds or understands what the correct response is, and it doesn’t come through a constant, nonstop pressure of the aid.  It comes in the release of pressure, giving your horse the opportunity to make a choice.   If he doesn’t, the pressure comes back and the horse tries again.  But you need to let go of your aid so your horse begins to understand that there is a path of less pressure and resistance, and to give him a chance to give you his answer to your command or correction.

Think about it this way – what do you find more annoying or more likely to make you react in a certain way or to or throw you off your balance?   Pretend you’re wearing a backpack on your back and your little brother grabs onto it and pulls backwards steadily.  Would you stop?  No.  You’d lean forward and against him and push through to balance yourself and keep him from dragging you backwards.   Your horse wants to balance himself and since his trainer has spent the first part of his life teaching him that “forward” is always a correct response, if you hang on your horse he’s going to hang back to balance himself and continue to move forward, sometimes even stronger and faster.

Now imagine if your little brother was grabbing your backpack, and instead of just pulling back with all his weight, he was pulling back, and throwing off your balance, and then letting go… and the second you started forward again, he’d repeat the quick jerk that caused your body to realign for balance. You can’t bear down against him, because the contact is released.  You get jolted for a second and need to stabilize.  During this moment you get two choices – 1. to move forward again and resume heavy contact in which his response would be to “half-halt” you again and release, getting you off your balance, or to readjust.  Or 2. instead of bearing down and pulling against him with heavy contact, you’d actually change your posture and your gait to upright yourself, slow down and better balance in between his pulls and releases so you didn’t fall flat on your face when he pulled again and let go.   If every time you tried to move forward you would get an immediate “half-halt” sending your energy back and up, you would consider readjusting your balance and carrying yourself differently to avoid another reminder.  BUT- you can’t do this if he’s pulling against constantly you because you need to use your own forward force to balance yourself.  If he just keeps pulling you back, you have to pull against him to stay balanced.  You aren’t being given an opportunity or a moment of relief to balance yourself without an outside force dragging you in one direction, or  change something or to realize that the correct decision will cease the pressure, and the wrong one will reinstate it.  If he pulls harder, you are going to pull more forward to keep steady.  It’s only in that brief period of “release” where you are free of pressure that you can respond and readjust and balance yourself.

If you apply a constant pressure on your horse, whether it’s nonstop leg aid, or nonstop, heavy rein aids pulling back or in a certain direction, you are doing several things:  

1. You are teaching your horse that there is no relief to the pressure by not giving him a chance to respond

2. You are teaching your horse to both accept or become dull to the pressure

3. You are teaching your horse to seek relief or balance through pushing against the pressure instead of moving away from it or responding correctly to it.

For the same reason your horse will become dead to your leg if you try to squeeze him nonstop like a tube of toothpaste, your horse will become very heavy and dull to your hands and rein aids if you are constantly pulling on him.

The more you pull without releasing, the more your horse is going to pull back to find more relief and balance.  When you pull on your horse’s face and don’t let go you are not applying a communication aid, you are applying a constant negative reinforcement to the horse who is not given a chance to give you a correct response.  So many times nervous or experienced riders will become intimidated by their horse’s forward pace and they choke up on the reins and hang on their mouths, only creating a horse who uses that force as leverage, learns to tolerate the constant pressure or moves out even faster or throws their head or shoulder in attempts to relieve the constant tension.

So when you use your rein aids to slow your horse down or get him on the bit, usually in the form of a half-halt, if you do not release and allow the horse to respond to your aid, you are training your horse to find relief from the pressure by pushing against it instead of finding relief from another decision such as slowing down, engaging his hind end, or redirecting their balance or their own energy.  Instead you are giving him solid leverage in which to just do what he wants, an advantage to avoiding your correction aid, or negative reinforcement that he doesn’t understand how to alleviate that he tries to either lessen or get the upper hand against.

The more you hang and pull, the more opportunity you are giving your horse to pull back and push against you.  Your horse can’t pull against you if you’re not giving him anything to pull against.  If you give your horse time to respond, he’s going to give you an answer – that answer is his response immediately following your aid or correction.  The answer may be wrong, but it gives you the opportunity to ask him or correct him again so that the horse understands that the response he just gave you is wrong.  When you keep pulling he loses sight of what it is you are asking him, or why you are pulling on his face in the first place because you aren’t letting him answer.  He can’t associate his action with a correction that won’t let him make a choice.  Here you are holding his head, you’re helping him to balance (in a negative way) so that he can go even faster and continue to blow through your aids.   A “half-halt” is not a “hold” or “pull” in your outside until your horse responds…  its a “hold and release”… see if he responds correctly.  If yes, reward him with the light contact.  If not, ask again by applying pressure in the form of a “hold and release”.   Repeat until he understands that his “correct” decision relieves the pressure, and his poor decision creates it again.  When you just hold your horse’s face he forgets or doesn’t understand exactly what action he did to make you hold his face in the first place, and he isn’t being given a chance to figure out what response will make it go away.  He goes into a state of mind where all he wants to do is alleviate the pressure by pulling back against you and using his body in ways that help to take it off.  When he wears you out or pulls you forward or takes the reins out of your hands, your horse thinks that it was his pulling that allowed him to get rid of the pressure.

The hardest part of it all is really trusting in the process.  Getting over your own fear and common sense, going against what your brain believes is right and actually giving the release to a horse that is pulling you.  You will always have a hard time believing that letting go of your horse’s face works better to steer, control and maintain your speed, until you actually try it and really get the hang of the timing of the release so that it works and creates the reaction you are looking for.

Still confused about why pulling doesn’t work?  Here’s an even easier way to explain how your horse communicates with you.

Your reins, and your aids in general are a series of communication tools in a way that you may play a game of “Warmer” or Colder” with a child.  Your reins are not necessarily used as tools for correction as they are truly tools of guidance and direction to your horse’s reaction.  Your horse’s reaction is either “hot” or “cold” or right, or more right or wrong.  The game is played usually by hiding an object that the child needs to find.  Each time the child takes a step in the wrong direction away from the object, you say colder.  When the child takes a step in the right direction toward an object, you say “hotter”.   Your horse understands your aids the same way.  When a horse does something or responds to something in the wrong way, you say “colder” and apply a correction aid and wait for the horse to take a step in the right direction.  If they don’t, you reapply the aid and say “colder” again.  Then when the horse takes a step in the right direction, whether he slows down, comes on the bit, stops throwing his head, your release of pressure is you telling your horse they’re “getting warmer”.  When your horse is doing something completely correct you not applying any pressure is them being “hot” and right on target.  The second they lean or pull their head or speed up, you half-halt again and release and say “colder” giving them a chance to make a decision or understand that doing the right thing allows them to go back to the warmer response.   If you were to just grab on your horse’s reins and pull and keep pulling until your horse slowed down, you are really just yelling “Coooooooooolllllllldddddddddd” for 30 seconds straight in your horse’s ear in which case your horse can’t figure out which way is hot because you won’t take the pressure off so they can readjust their efforts and make a different choice.  They’re too distracted by your nonstop yelling they push against you to get away from it, because it now seems like a punishment they don’t understand.  You’re not giving them clues,  you’re not giving them a chance.  They forget why they were cold in the first place and become frustrated or determined to evade your aids because you’re simply not giving them a fair opportunity or hot second to get it right.

How Do You Get off Your Horse’s Face?  

There are many reasons both intentional and unintentional riders hang on their horse’s face.  These range from inexperience or ineffective use or understanding of the aids, lack of use of other aids such as leg, riders balance and fitness, or even the rider’s fear or low level of confidence.

 1. You will never stop pulling on your horse’s face if you do not have the fitness to carry your own body and not rely on your horse’s face for balance.  

I can’t express how important this is.  If you are not able to balance and stay centered, you are always going to be catching your horse or pulling on his mouth no matter what – over fences, during transitions, if he goes faster…  Fitness, or rather, lack of fitness is one of the main reasons riders cannot let go of their horse’s face.  You need to strengthen your riding muscles both in and out of the saddle.  Lunge line lessons without the use of your reins will be one of the most invaluable ways to get off your horse’s face.  Until you are completely comfortable riding around with no reins, and not giving up your position, you will always have moments where you are inadvertently pulling on your horse.  Your own ability to stay balanced and ride independently of your horse’s mouth will leave you unable to give with your reins when you need to because of lack of stability in the saddle.  Have your instructor take your reins away so that you cannot use it as a crutch while you build up your core and ability to maintain balance without relying on your hands.

Nothing helped me more to get off my horse’s face, or to even feel comfortable releasing his face when he was fast or heavy, than my stability and leverage in the saddle.  The strength of my leg, back and core to own my position and remain balanced no matter what my horse was doing was critical.  Anytime I lacked the ability to ride out of my legs, seat and core, I immediately used my hands for balance and pulled on my horse’s face out of security.  Until you no longer need your hands to balance, you will always be at risk of catching or holding your horse’s face, especially over fences or during upward transitions.

2. You will never get off of your horse’s face if you are intimidated or afraid of him.  

This one is difficult.  If you’ve had a bad experience or are riding a horse that is not always well behaved, or even if your horse is just more forward than you like him to be, fear can most certainly and understandably cause you to choke up on your reins, hang or catch him in the mouth.  Common sense tells you to pull back both for balance and to put the brakes on, but its in the ability to balance and release and use your body and aids correctly that your horse will actually come back to you.  You need to build your confidence and work on letting go.  Sometimes people are actually incapable of this until you realize it really does work.  You will need to work with a trainer to really get the understanding and the mechanics down, as well as the confidence and security in your own seat to be able to give with the reins and still maintain control.  Its a really tough safety blanket to give up, but once you see the improvement in control the correct use of your aids can give you, your fears will subside.    Sometimes your fear of your horse is actually a direct result of a lack of fitness.  The more unstable and unbalanced you are in the saddle, the more intimidated and nervous you will become when your horse is being difficult and pulling you out of your position.  Confidence and fitness are essential when it comes to learning to balance and use your hands independently and correctly from your legs and seat.

3. You will never get off your horse’s face if you do not use enough leg.  

The use of your leg and rein aids go “hand-in-foot”.   To be most effective, they’re usually used together, or one right before the other.  To get “off our horse’s mouth” there are times we need to get our horse “off our hands”.  This comes from the use of a driving aid, telling your horse to move forward and carry himself, while your reins redirect the energy up into the bridle.   Sometimes a horse who’s going too fast or is pulling down on his rider is really being lazy and leaning into them, or is simply unbalanced.  They need you to use your leg first to help them or tell them to balance so they can stop leaning in, carry themselves and get off your hands.   For riders who tend to only ride with their hands, especially for support, security or balance when their horse is being difficult, this one will be a struggle.  Believe it or not, the only way to balance, slow down and get a horse off your hands is sometimes to add MORE leg with your rein aid.  While pulling back or up may feel like the logical solution to a horse dragging you down, you’re really still only carrying your horse’s head for him.  By using a strong inside leg, followed by a half-halt and release you are telling your horse to pick himself up, bring the energy back to his hind end, and carry himself.  If you only use your reins and hold your horse’s face in place, you are just telling your horse that you’re going to hold their head a little higher, but it’s OK to keep leaning.   If you only use your hands you are just giving your horse more to pull against.  You’re not driving him UP and OFF your hands into a self-carriage mode.  You need energy (or leg) to help you convert and redirect your horse’s forward energy upwards onto his hind end and into the bit.  The difficulty of a horse carrying himself and using his hind end, balancing and redirecting his energy will slow him down in general.  Your horse cannot carry himself just because you are pulling his head up.  He needs to engage the back end and sit down on his haunches in order to lift up the front end and find balance in it.  Your leg is essential.  Your leg and your core play an essential part in redirecting your horse’s energy and getting him light in the bit.  Equally important is the release you have to give in your horse’s mouth to allow him to respond and redirect his energy during your half-halt.  Your horse will not carry his own head if you continue to carry it for him.  He will also not carry his head if you don’t push him forward and up with enough energy to do so.

Whether it’s fitness, balance, fear, or an understanding of how horses learn and how to properly use the aids remember that a constant death grip on your horse’s face is going to create the exact response you don’t want.

Remember – the response comes in the release of the aids.  It comes after you ask the question, and give the horse an opportunity to figure out what the right answer is.   If a teacher asks a question and continues to repeat it non stop, he’s not giving the students time to give him the answer, or even know if one of the answers he’s given was actually right.  Eventually students stop answering and tune out their teacher.   However, if he waits for the right answer and then rewards his students for their correctness, effort and participation, he will continue to get more and more positive and correct responses from his students.  Sometimes you even need to add energy to your classroom to wake up your students and energize or boost their responses.  Yes, sometimes you’ll still get a wrong answer, and a student will have to be reminded with more homework or another question, but if you do not get off your horse’s face and give him the time, motivation or energy he needs to give you any response, your horse is going to either not bother responding at all, or respond in the most negative way possible.

Make sure your own fitness level, balance and riding capabilities give the horse an opportunity to respond.  Make sure you are not hanging or pulling on your horse’s face out of insecurity or balance.  It is your responsibility to stay within the gaits and situations you are most comfortable with and make sure you are not using your horse’s mouth as a balancing aid.  He’s only going to end up using your arms as a balancing aid in return.  Strength and conditioning as well as balance are a critical part in improving your effectiveness as a rider.   Until you gain the ability to carry and use your body separately from your hands, and not rely on your hands for balance or support, you have to be extra certain that you are not leaning or pulling on his face every time you ride.  Work on strengthening your core and endurance and work on effectively releasing your aids to wait for a response.  You are not going to win a pulling match with a 1000 lb. animal.  Stop the pulling match.  Start by getting off his face and he will reward you by giving you clearer responses to your aids in which you can truly build your communication together in a series of “yes” or “no”, “warmer” or “cooler” requests and responses.  The more consistent and deliberate you are with your release and your reward, the more your horse will begin to understand what you want.