Everywhere you look, people are missing out on three significant "happy horse" signs. I'm not talking about the perky-eared cute faces looking for treats, or the mutual grooming kind of affection horses share with each other. This time, I'm talking about signs you can see while the horse is being ridden.
It is a fact - horses who move well and freely have a better time during the ride. They learn to look forward to their time in the saddle, and they even improve physically and mentally.
Although we often talk about the hind legs being the "engine" of good movement, it is the back of the horse that is the key to all things great in riding. Think about it - picture the horse with the swaying, supple back and you will almost always recognize the beauty and harmony depicted in the horse's overall way of going. It doesn't matter the discipline - a good back means good movement and long-term health of the horse.
Read on to find out all about slobber, snorts and sheath sounds, and how they relate to the horse's back.
Why do some horses have a white lipstick when they're being ridden?
Some people say that slobber happens when a horse has his neck so short and the reins are so tight that he can't swallow. They argue that the horse would be able to prevent drooling if only he could open and close his mouth. Maybe his head and neck is positioned in a way that he can't swallow. Or the problem is the bit that is in his mouth; the piece of metal makes the horse unable to close the lips and swallow.
The reasons go on and on.
But surely you have seen a (maybe nervous or tense) horse ridden with no contact and/or no bit, yet still a dry mouth for an entire ride.
And quite possibly, you've seen the exact opposite:a horse lunged with no side reins or any contact whatsoever, carrying his head any which way he pleases, developing a line of foam in the corner of the mouth and around the lips.
What of the western horse being ridden in a snaffle bit (or any variation of bitless bridles) with very infrequent contact, dripping drool like the highest level dressage horse?
It's All About the Back
I've seen and ridden these horses and experienced their variations of slobber. And I've come to one conclusion: that slobber is connected not so much to the mouth, jaw or swallowing - but to the back of the horse. Develop movement from the hind end, get a nice rhythm and back swing, and presto: discover the path to slobber.
If you think about it, the root to all good in riding rests in the back. If you can encourage an elastic, round, swinging back, you know your horse is on his way to riding pleasure. Not only does he benefit from the work, chances are, he might actually be enjoying it.
However, don't stop there. It's not only the horse's back you have to consider - think about your back too. Because your back can be holding your horse's back back (did you follow that?), which results in tension all around. If your back is resistant or unmoving, the same will happen to your horse. He won't be able to carry your weight effectively, nor will he be able to let the energy flow through his topline. So freeing your back up and developing more mobility will also lead you to slobber from your horse's mouth.
Happy horse sign number two is the snort.
Physically, the snorts happen when the horse takes a deeper breath. He might reach farther underneath the body, work straighter and therefore more through the abs or put in a sudden moment of effort. For whatever reason, he then has to take a deeper breath and then he lets it all out in a body-shaking snort. Sometimes, the snort is accompanied by a neck arching or reaching forward that might catch you off guard if you're not expecting it.
In any case, the snort is a releasing/ relaxing/ letting go of tension and yes, you might notice the horse's eye soften or his gait become more buoyant. Watch a little longer and you might see him settle in his work, find his rhythm or soften in the mouth. You might also see some accompanying slobber!
Now this one is the clincher. Of course, if you ride a mare, you miss out on the most obvious, tell-tale sign of a tight back. In geldings, the tight back causes a tight sheath area, which then results in air movement - that sound you hear EVERY stride the horse takes.
People often say that the sound is caused by a dirty sheath area. But if you own or care for a gelding regularly, chances are that you can honestly say that the sheath has been cleaned and yet the sound continues. So what gives?
Yes, folks, it's all about the back yet again.
Try this: when you hear the sound, go for a 3-5 stride canter from the trot. Then trot again. Make sure you half-halt the trot as you come out of the canter, so that the horse doesn't just trot faster faster faster. Rather, you want to use the canter to add more impulsion to the trot. Feel for more bounce, more air time between strides. See if you can get a snort.
And then listen for the sheath sound. Maybe it stops for a few strides. Maybe it isn't quite as loud. Or maybe it goes away altogether. If you "listen" carefully enough, you will begin to recognize a pattern to what causes the sound.
Maybe you can make it go away for only a couple of strides. Pay attention to what caused the sound to go away. Then try to duplicate it. Maybe your horse is too tense for the sound to ever go away. But give it a good try, every ride. Eventually, you might be able to make it go away just using your riding skills. And you'll know that your horse is using his back in a healthier manner.
So there you have it: three sure-fire ways of knowing if your horse is actually loose in his back!
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.
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Why An Active Stretch is Nothing Like A Neck-Down: The problem with the passive stretch is that it is merely a posture.
Move to Stay Still on Horseback: How do we begin to look like we’re sitting still, doing nothing on the horse’s back?