Since my trail ride with Sheldon I’ve been trying to find ways to get him to relax and stop constantly chomping on the bit and grinding his teeth. Seriously, sometimes he’s moving his mouth so much that it’s a wonder he can still remember how to walk! With most ex-racehorses, I just focus on keeping their feet moving and letting them find a rhythm but Sheldon is a challenge because he shuts down when he gets worried.
I’ve made great strides at reducing his girthiness — the SmartPak clearance section had a very nice Professional Choice girth with double elastic ends. It’s a nice soft girth with plenty of “give” and it’s completely fixed my problem with tacking him up. I’m able to sneak the girth up slowly and, along with a few carrots, it’s made tacking up a whole lot easier.
His mouthiness is harder to fix.
I started Sheldon with a loose ring double jointed snaffle. Not too thick, not too thin. He’s fine with it on the lunge line but if he gets just a little bit anxious he starts to flip it around in his mouth and grind his teeth. I’m using a Micklem bridle on him to help keep the bit stable but leaving the bottom strap fairly loose so he doesn’t feel trapped.
First I tried changing his bit.
I thought that a PeeWee bit might work for him. It has a thin, sweet iron mullen mouthpiece that leaves plenty of room for the tongue and which is comfortable for a lot of horses. It is advertised as a bit ideal for a horse with “mouthing issues”. Too bad that Sheldon didn’t read the brochure! He just hated it. I tried riding him in it twice and he never accepted it at all and became quite balky. Instead of simply freezing and refusing to move, he started backing up!
So, I tried a bitless bridle. I figured that trying something completely different might override any of the problems that he has with bits. I thought the Dr. Cook’s bitless design might work on him. However, I never got the “submit” response that is described on their website. If anything, he seemed confused by the oblique aids. However, riding him sans bit definitely resulted in a more relaxed mouth and gave him something to think about. I’ll probably go back and work with this bridle again and see if I can get a better result by teaching him how to lower his poll when pressure is applied. Interestingly, when I tried this bridle on Kroni, he took offense at the pressure on his poll. Sheldon did not.
Today I tried a hackamore. Once again, it helped to keep his mouth quiet but he was not thrilled about the curb chain. He kept his head and neck very high and hollowed his back — the set up was making him anxious. I was not able to get him to relax so after about 10 minutes I switched him to the Micklem bridle used as a side pull.
So far, this has been the most successful bridling solution. It’s not perfect but he’s relaxed in the mouth and he started to drop his neck and relax his back. We got some very nice trot sets in it today and there was no backing up! He even offered me a few canter steps, which is something he hadn’t done before. Definitely the bit has been overriding his “go button” and making him balky. Steering with the side pull design isn’t great, but it’s not all that much better even with a bit so maybe we just need more practice.
Probably I find the ideal of riding in the sidepull more challenging than Sheldon. The “control” comes from pressure over the nose. While some horses are very sensitive to it, for others, it’s just a minor annoyance. I’ve tried riding Freedom in a sidepull and discovered that I had basically no brakes at all; so far Sheldon hasn’t tried to do much other than stop or back up so maybe having brakes isn’t that important. It’s the “go” that needs work.
The other thing I changed was his saddle. I don’t usually change more than one thing at a time (hard to know what works that way) but I thought that his reluctance to move forward could be saddle fit. I had my A/P saddle fitted to Sheldon after he arrived — but just because it technically fits doesn’t mean that he likes it. Today I rode him in my Wintec Pro Jump. It has a slightly more forward balance point and I think he found it more comfortable. I am very careful with him to ride lightly as I think he’s not used to having a rider really sit on his back but the A/P saddle does position the rider differently.
I was very pleased with Sheldon today and hope that he’s just as good tomorrow. Now that the holidays are over I should be able get him back into a regular program.
5 thoughts on “New strategies for Sheldon”
My OTTB is with a trainer right now to try to get him through some issues I couldn’t manage on my own. He also has the “shut down” reflex, though in his case it comes in particular situations where he feels extra stressed – multiple trailers coming onto our property, going away from home in a situation where he doesn’t feel comfortable, etc. The situations where I already put him on ulcergard to prevent flareups but where he still stresses himself out anyway. It doesn’t always happen even in stressful situations, but it indicates that there’s something going on with him at the foundation of his work we need to work on. The trainer he’s with is using a sidepull designed by Alex Gerding which is basically a crank noseband with rings and a bit at the same time. He’s starting off mostly using the sidepull, but gradually adding in more bit use. My horse is more trained so he has brakes and steering off seat and legs, but the sidepull is allowing him a different way of communicating so he can be less worried about his mouth. He’s learning to reach into contact with that, then gradually feel the bit and associate it with the same feeling, and at the same time learning to have the release through his body he never can figure out for himself when he’s tense. Ultimately, the goal is to get him so instinctively releasing tension forward that it happens even at the times he has himself worked up and upset. He’s also getting groundwork to learn how to release that tension before there’s even a rider, as there’s a lot you can do to get them to release the tightness in their back which causes the other related problems.
It has been really interesting for me learning about all of this!
Interesting to hear of someone else taking the same approach with the sidepull. The Micklem bridle would allow me to add a bit but ride off the side pull . . . or put a second set of reins on the bit and use it only when necessary. It’s something I hadn’t thought of doing. Thanks for sharing your experience.
Do you mineral balance your horses’ diets? Just something you might want to consider.
A magnesium deficiency can cause a lot of “behavioral issues”. I’ve seen it numerous times.
See the first client’s comment on my page (Boji in particular)
Wendy was ready to sell Boji because he was so nervous & unpredictable, until we mineral balanced his diet with a 1.5:1 Ca:Mg ratio rather than a traditional 2:1 ratio.
Just some thing to consider…..
Hi Claire — great suggestion. I have been considering it because I’ve found it helpful in the past but hadn’t gotten around to ordering it yet. With Freedom I fed Quiessence for awhile and found it really made a difference to his overall level of calmness. Sheldon is very quiet on the ground, so he doesn’t have as much general anxiety as Freedom had; his anxiety is more related to riding. But it’s an easy thing to try. I’ll report back!
I had debated whether to consider suggesting magnesium or not, too. I don’t really think of it as a calmer other than some horses are anxious because of the symptoms of Mg deficiency. Extreme tightness in the body can be a sign of Mg deficiency, and they’re also only starting to understand tying up in TBs from what I can tell from online searches – and Mg supplements can help there, plus sucking back can be a sign of tying up supposedly, of which my horse had a few other indicators. Even though he already has a diet which should help increase his magnesium intake, a Mg supplement helped my horse’s entire body feel better in an almost immediate change.