Alabama 6 year old Walking bred racking horse ridden in  broken curb with roller 7 inch shanks. Occasional solid curb with oval type shape. With Austrailian and english saddle in Outdoor riding arena by Intermediate amateur trainer.

Question: I have a walking-bred racking horse who I have trained from birth. I show him flat shod on occasion. He has developed a habit of turning his head and neck to the right,
especially when racking up a grade. He doesn't usually do this when on level ground. I had his teeth checked and they are okay. I also gave him a free rein and he still turned
his head and neck to the right while on a free rein. So I do not think it is his mouth. He seems to be right-sided, based on his turning easier to the right and on the fact that when
he used to spook, he usually wheeled to the right. 

I have worked on lateral movements and some circles, more to the left. But that hasn't helped. He is inherently lazy unless he gets excited. I therefore do not work him for long
periods in order to keep him interested and eager to work. But I do ask him to collect somewhat going up the grade. Could he be trying to get out of work and this somehow makes it easier? Or could he have a phsical problem causing pain that this posture would alleviate? Or something else? 

From Panelist Jonathan

First of all I would like to commend the author of this question on 
being well versed and apparently very aware of the many options in tracking 
down the problem .

I'm sure you are also aware of the great difficulty in diagnosing a horse with a possible medical problem using this medium . I agree with your assesment that it is not in the mouth from what you have written nor with your tack . Other than haveing his vision checked i have no experience with your exact problem .

But , your question has sparked my memory concerning a time when I wondered if a horse is left or right handed , which may shed light on this  situation . When I first began training my young stock to to ride , I noticed upon mounting , like you , that their suppleness to the right was a far cry better than to the left . I proceded to do a multitude of exercises along the same lines you have done , to no avail . I then turned back to basics and attempted being more ballanced in my lead ground work to see if I could get better results by leading on the right side as much as possible .  It did help with some but I have yet to train a horse that would turn with equal ease on both sides . Which led me to believe , as you , that most horses do have a preference for the right , maybe ! Not wanting to just settle for that as a fact I proceded to devote much experimentation and thought which led me to one conclusion . Most horse folks I know inevitably lead from the left side of the horse whether it be from show requirements , habbit or just the fact that most folks are right handed . This led me to believe that by doing so we cut off the left side of the horses vision and hence their option of use as a path of escape . A much thought of scenario for a prey animal . I believe after many repeated lessons of doing this , we trainers train them to this , or if i may , we 'create the habbit' of their preference to the right .

So , other than this hopefully entertaining page of my minds diary I'm afraid I haven't much for you except , I would have a vet physical done with emphasis on the eyes as well as a farrier check for good measure and if nothing surfaces , I would just chalk it up to HABBIT .


From Panelist Bob

I would suspect that the primary cause of your problem is the type of bit you are using. Broken mouth curb bits are quite severe. By their design, when you pull back on one the mouthpiece raises up in a "nutcracker" effect and can dig into the roof of their mouth. 

Is it possible that when you are going uphill you are pulling a little more on the reins? Many riders unconsciously will pull themselves forward with the reins when going uphill.

Your horse will need to be retrained to hold his head straight. I would work with him in an arena or other inclosed riding area. I would do your lateral and circling exercises with a true snaffle bit, perhaps even a solid mouth snaffle until he gets over anticipating the effects of the broken mouthpiece. 

I would work him for short periods of time and in both directions.  You can still trailride with him, just be sure that you walk up hills until you get him retrained.


NOTE: Bits 101!  A snaffle bit is not determined by the type of mouth piece. A snaffle bit works on the corners of the mouth, and a little on the bars and tongue. A curb bit is determined by the fact that there are shanks and a curb strap/chain. A curb bit works on the bars, chin, poll, and to a degree the tongue and roof of the mouth. Many bits are misnamed, a "tom thumb", a "cowboy snaffle", "argentine snaffle", etc. are NOT snaffle bits. They are curb bits and are more severe than fixed mouthpiece curb bits.

From Panelist Erica

The first thing you always want to look at is if there is a physical problem, be sure to rule out teeth problems and in this case I might even consider a chiropractor as something may be out of place. Have your saddle checked for fit - while it may have fit him to the T when you first purchased it, his body will be constantly changing and it may have done so just enough so as to make the saddle uncomfortable. 

I might guess that he is uncomfortable in his bit/bridle and may be turning his head to alleviate some pain or discomfort on the opposite side. Try going to a milder bit for a week or so and see if that makes a difference. When you do this though be sure to work him some on the ground to be sure he is okay with the new bit before riding. You could also try a halter or a sidepull and see if he would do better without a bit.

Another thing to look for - pay attention to your seat when riding, are you off balance at all to one side or the other? Do you sit up straight or slouch? Where are your feet in relation to your hips? You want to be sitting evenly on both seatbones without collapsing one side or the other. You also want to be sitting up straight. The back of your heels should create a straight line upwards through your hip bone to your shoulders. I would even recommend you have someone video tape you riding once and then review it, it is easier to see something right in front of you that you yourself at that moment. 

Good luck with your boy.
Erica Frei

From Panelsit Liz

I believe you are on the right track in working to rule out the possibility of a physical problem first. In regards to this horse tipping his head and neck to the right, I would recommend the bars and roof of his mouth be checked for sensitivity. Have him checked to see if his jaws are out of alignments and if so have the neck checked to.

Check after  putting the bit in the mouth, stand in front of your horse to see that the bit is setting level in the mouth (not tipped high on one side). It may be good to try working this horse in a bitless bridle, such as a side pull to see if he will discontinue carrying his head in this manner. If so you may need to  consider a different bit.

It is normal for most horses to be right or left sided. In knowing that this horse has been carrying his head to the right would make him more right sided until this can be corrected. The lateral work you have been doing is good and will be much more productive in making him ambidextrous once he is carrying his head correctly again. Working toward longer sessions over time would be good for building strength and stamina. Being he tends towards the lazy side break up the lateral work with some fun changes in his routine. Such as walking over ground poles, weaving and doing circles around cones, doing his lateral
exercises on a trail ride if possible. 

Being a horse that has a racking gait which is a ventroflexed gait (hollow backed)  he may need some back , shoulder and hindquarters strengthening. A nice relaxed slow walk to get him stretched out and work to a faster collected walk to bring the back up under neither you.I recommend doing this at the start and end of every working session.

Elizabeth Graves

From Panelsits Stella

Horses do have a "hollow" and "stiff" side of their bodies, one weak and one strong, like right and left handedness in humans. Many horses are prone to work  crooked during more difficult tasks in order to "take the load" off the weaker parts of their bodies, and allow stronger parts to compensate. 

The head and neck are the fulcrum of a horse's body, so its position does affect their balance and how other parts of their body are utilized. Lateral work is the means to make them more "ambidextruous," and be able to fully utilize itself correctly,but it sounds like you havent really worked him enough to get the proper degree of conditioning to have some effect.

Remember that its normal, even for humans, not to particularly approach any new or more difficult task with zeal if we're out of shape and/or unfamiliar.  Its only when we manage to endure a few times and succeed, get in better shape to not have any of the uncomfortable sensations of lack of condition, that our attitude changes. Same with horses! YOU need to raise the bar of expectations and make more work become habitual therefore a normal expected and accepted part of riding, enough so that true conditioning can take place. Once the horse is in better condition, and he can remain feeling good (instead of strain),most of his "laziness" will disappear.

The reason horses offer resistence by "setting their necks against the rein," as you describe, is sometimes a matter of sheer willfulness, sometimes in order to put their bodies in a more comfortable position to relieve their weaker side, sometimes developed from the riders'assymetrically moving hands, and sometimes to counteract the restriction of the rein when they need to put their heads and necks in a position of better balance relative to a particular movement or terrain change.And, it can be a little of everything, as seems in your case.

Remember that on an uphill grade, horses will have to utilize their backs and hindquarters more, and generally need to position their heads and necks somewhat more forward as well,to further help themselves due to the effects of gravity. This is generally more pronounced for a horse lacking in condition, particularly of the hindquarters. Use your legs more to help the hindend;this is what collection is really about,but  I imagine you've used 
the term "collect" more so to mean gathering your reins. This is likely what started the problem; your horse was likely not fit enough to have his head restricted yet and still balance himself well.

YOU DO want to free the head and neck,that is what your horse is asking for. Likely this didnt work out for you initially because after a year, your horse already has the habit of anticipating that you will restrict his ability to balance with the rein as usual, and is taking measures to counteract that effect even before it occurs- by setting his head/neck to the right. YOu will need to persist over time with repetition to break this habit. Release, and when he cocks his head, have your left forward to maintain openness, and give short gentle pulls and RELEASES to remind him to put his head straight. It may take some time for him to fully realize that he no longer needs to anticipate your restrictive rein, and that its no 
longer there..of course, if you also work on conditioning, he in turn will have hindquarters and more symmetry to better able to handle uphills and be less dependent on his head position to help him remain balanced.

Remember that its a horse's #1 survival instinct to choose first what is best for their own balance. The rider/trainer that understands and accommodates these needs is better able to develop a confident,more willing and better-moving horse.

Stella Manberg-Wise

From Panelist Steve

Well, there are really two problems here, one the lack of desire to work and second the postural irregularities, especially going up hill.

In my experience, the most common causes of a "lazy" Walking Horse is (1) a horse that is out of shape or (2) a horse that got cranked in the mouth everytime he tried to move forward as a youngster.

Horses that get exhausted easily lose interest in carrying riders around. They aren't rank..just not interested in having those tired feelings. This type of horse needs to be kept in better condition than the average horse, a good brisk 30-40 minute ride PER DAY, at the rack as much as possible.

While some horses that get cranked in the mouth when they go too fast frequently push into the bit and into the pain, many do not, especially if they were discouraged from moving forward in their early training. This is VERY common in Walkers, who are often easily intimidated and stay intimidated. Put him in a simple full cheek snaffle, use light contact (2 ounces is plenty), let him to lift his head and let him go forward as fast and for as long as he wants to. If you are worried about stopping him in a snaffle, then use a Wonder Bit or get back to me and I'll teach you a humane trick that will stop any horse anywhere anytime in just a snaffle.

On the posture problem, you've already started doing some good investigation. While it may not be his mouth (incidentally, the first place I  would look as well !) mouth problems can be difficult to find, especially deep wolf teeth. He is young enough to still have problems with wolf teeth and these can be missed. So I would have a good equine dentist look him over again with the current problem in mind. Don't know where to find a good
dentist? Simple . Ask the serious hunter jumper or dressage people...they demand good dentition.

Also, I would stop using a curb bit on him. There's no *good* reason, none whatsoever, to use a curb on any horse, and certainly not on a racker. Again, if you are afraid of being taken for a ride, then please ask and I'll make sure you understand how to stop a horse in a snaffle. If you can use a snaffle on him, then switch to it. Use a full cheek snaffle and then switch to a curb if you go to show him (many show organizations require a curb bit be used and these certainly are the normal bit used in Alabama ! It is tradition more than sense). If you don't want to use a snaffle for some reason, then just switch to a plain Wonder Bit. I've never had a horse that didn't like a Wonder Bit, and these work well on Racking Horses. 

Saddle: If bad behavior, almost any kind of abnormal behavior starts after the horse has been ridden for 30 minutes or more, suspect a saddle problem (bit problems are also possible but these tend to occur sooner.) Check saddle fit. In the Walker, especially suspect a saddle that is too wide in the gullet and is tipped forward, interfering with the point of a shoulder or withers. This is the most common fitting problem we see. TWH's as a rule are narrow and yet have prominent, active shoulders. A saddle designed for QH's will almost invariably not fit a Walker well. The same goes for most dressage saddles although for a different reason. These are usually not cut back enough to clear the withers. I've never had a Walker that could tolerate an Australian saddle. Don't know why. They just don't work.

Also, try a saddle with flat panels rather than rolled. The latter are fine if the saddle fits but flat panels have more forgiveness. If you use a cut back saddle, always use a high quality cut back saddle such as a Crabtree or Whitman. These saddles are well tolerated by most TWH's contrary to popular opinion of the dressagettes who routinely condemn them. These saddles do come in deep seat models so they can be used on the trails with confidence. My favorite trail saddles are the new Abetta Endurance and top of the line
Abetta Western Saddles. These are reasonably priced (cheap actually), take a beating, and are the most comfortable I've ever used. All of our Walkers love them too. We get great gait

Incidentally,  the fact that the postural changes occur more going up hill suggests that it may not be the front getting pinched but perhaps the back of saddle is digging into the small of the back? I'd check that carefully, as well as overall fit. Walkers are NOT easy to fit as a rule.

In conclusion, the kinds of postural changes you are seeing should never be viewed as a quirk or habit. Almost invariably, it is related to some kind of  pain. The trick is to keep looking until you find it !!

Steve Chasko

From Panelsit Carol


Yes, I think that is a possibility that a physical problem could be causing this horse to bend to the right, and should be evaluated by a chiropractor, and also possibly evaluated by a vet experienced in EPM diagnosis, especially if it gets worse.  You can spend a lot of money delving into these obscure problems, so use your judgement about how far to go with this, but I would at least reccommend that this horse be seen by a chiropractor.  You can also spend a lot of training time trying to correct a problem that won't go away until the horse is free from pain.  

Also, observe to see if he does this wnen using a particular saddle. 

From the training standpoint, I reccommend this excercise:

Using a snaffle bit (yes, that's one with NO shanks), see if he will freely bend his head left and right at the walk or halt.  Remember to let go of the rein on the opposite side of the bend.  If he won't bend freely to the left, repeat asking him for the bend to the left until it gets soft. This bend should be  pronounced with his head almost touching your foot.  

Next, use  leg yeilding to move the horse forward and to the right while bending left, not as pronounced a bend, just a little bit. Push the horse away from your left leg while keeping the bend. Start at the walk, then try to obtain a slight bend at a faster speed.  If he isn't  hurting you should be able to use your lateral work to obtain straightness.

It may take a couple of hours of bending and another couple working on the leg yeilds (not all at one time) to see improvement.  If you don't see improvement, then either it is a physical problem, or  you are not leg yeilding correctly.  

Good luck and let me know how it goes.

Carol Camp Tosh


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