Training Advise – Erase the Brace

Published in the May 2008, edition of the Western Horse Review.

BY SUSAN KAUFFMANN

Two trainers talk about why horses brace, and what we can do about it.

Bracing is a problem that many of us encounter at some point, when working with our horses. Bracing can be extremely subtle or blatantly obvious, but in either case, we may not always know what to do about it, or what caused it in the first place. In order to gain some insight into this sometimes baffling problem, we spoke to two well respected Canadian trainers and asked them for their thoughts on the subject. Jesse Thomson of 7P Ranch in Longview, Alberta, is a professional trainer who specializes in the starting of young horses and advancing them into cow horse competition. Josh Nichol is a well respected equine clinician based out of Eagles Wing Ranch, north of Edmonton, Alberta. Both young trainers share their opinions about bracing in this candid debate.

Horse Training

Barely touching the rope, Nichol asks Jai Jai to soften the rest of his body, and Jai Jai responds well by beginning to raise his withers as he starts to step back. Photo by Robin Duncan

WHR: How would you define the term “brace” in a horse? In other words, what does it mean when a horse is bracing?

JESSE THOMSON: Brace is resistance, whether it be in the horse’s face, shoulders, neck, ribs, his, etc. A horse has to be soft and relaxed in order for it to perform to the top of its level. Bracing can show up in anything from catching to leading, loading, and mostly when riding.

JOSH NICHOL: A brace is a tension that runs through the horse, which causes the horse to stiffen in its movement. This tension begins in the horse’s mind, so usually when I refer to the brace in a horse I am speaking to the block in a horse’s mind that inhibits them from using their body correctly. The outside of a horse is the manifestation of the inside. Therefore, a brace in a horse refers to a resistance in a horse’s mind.

WHR: Why is bracing a problem? How does it inhibit performance, safety, communication, etc.?

JESSE THOMSON: When horses are bracy, they get very stiff and will not give or respond to pressure from the rein, bit, leg, and so on. In this state, they cannot move with fluidity and you don’t have the control you need between your reins and between your legs. When the horse is soft, willing and not bracing against your cues, you have total control and the ultimate ability to guide. This allows you to get whatever you need done, whether it be opening and closing a gate, sliding stops, turning on a cow or backing up. I want to be able to put any part of my horse anywhere, at any time, regardless of speed. You don’t have that if the horse is bracy, and this can become very dangerous as you can end up with a lack of steering, no stop, or other issues.

JOSH NICHOL: The most common problem that I see with a horse bracing is that they are “upside down”: their spine is inverted, meaning their back is hollow and the base of their neck is pushed down, causing the majority of their weight to be on their front end. In this state it is impossible for them to move properly, which creates a number of problems. For a horse to effectively perform any type of action, it is important that they use their body correctly. However, when a horse does not understand the question the rider is asking and therefore resists mentally, a brace is created in the body causing the horse to be unable to perform the movement well, if at all. This is one of the most common reasons for injury in horses today. It can also open the door for injuries in people, as a brace in the horse can make their gaits rough and make them generally difficult to ride, and it also means the mind of the horse in not okay with what you are asking them. As a result, you may see fearful reactions in the horse like bolting or bucking, which in turn become a safety issue.

Joch Nicole

Notice that Jai Jai continues to brace, his weight drops even more onto hid forehand. Any weight you feel on a line or in your rein is always a degree of forehandedness – even the weight most people refer to as “contact”. Photo by Robin Duncan

WHR: What parts of the horse do we see bracing in most commonly?

JESSE THOMSON: It’s most common to see bracing in the face, shoulders and ribs, but it can be in the hips or elsewhere.

JOSH NICHOL: A brace is most commonly observed in the neck, with the head held high. As the eye follows the brace through the body one will also see that the back is hollow, the horses weight is on its front end and it cannot get its hindquarters underneath itself.

WHR: Do you feel that some horses are bracing without their rider even knowing it? What should the rider feel or notice if a horse is bracing?

JESSE THOMSON: Definitely there are riders who are not aware that the horse is bracing. What they should be aware of is if they feel the horse getting “fighty” and not doing what is asked of it. Not going in the direction it is reined, not moving off the legs, or not stopping fluidly and instead moving in a real bouncy or “front-endy” fashion.

WHR: What causes the various kinds of bracing we most often see? Is it a “human-derived” problem (poor technique or methods, etc.) or a “horse-derived” problem (stubbornness, willfulness, etc.)?

JESSE THOMSON: When you see a young horse bracy in the face, it is usually a result of confusion, not knowing what is being asked of him when the rider pulls vertically or laterally with the rein. In older horses, this is usually due to fear, and they are protecting themselves from something like a continuous jerk on the reins. When the horse braces in the body, it can be a protective response to overspurring. Some people can be very heavy-handed or have bad riding habits, like riding with the reins too long and snatching the bit. Therefore, the horse becomes accustomed to this and tenses up when a situation is about to happen.

Sometimes bracing is from stubbornness or a poor attitude, and some horses are a little more defiant than others. However, I would say that 90 per cent of the problem is man made. It all starts from the halter breaking and continues into riding. It is the give and release, as well as repetition, that horses learn through. If the horse has time to learn the proper way with the correct guidance while staying relaxed and willing right from the start, everything from then on will be done with a little try on the horse’s part. That goes a long way in my books.

JOSH NICHOL: The major reason for a brace is a lack of communication between the horse and the rider, as the horse does not understand what the rider is asking. This is usually where a brace starts. Many people actually teach their horses to brace because the horse did not understand the question and we quickly overface the horse, putting them into situations that are they are not comfortable with, without giving them a base of support. Since I feel that it is the rider’s job, as the leader, to train the horse in a way the horse understands and take the time that horse needs, I believe that most “problem horses” are actually problem riders. Issues like stubbornness, belligerence and unwillingness all stem from a rider’s inability to communicate to the horse. This does not negate the fact that there are some tough-minded horses out there that are sometimes more then the individual can work with.

WHR: What are some of the common ways that you see people trying to deal with bracing?

JESSE THOMSON: The most common method is to pull harder or kick harder, neither of which is likely to help.

JOSH NICHOL: It is common to see riders attempting to fix a brace in their horse without going back to redefine the definition of their reins, which is where the majority of bracing problems start. Instead, people use many creative methods in order to make the horse lighten to their requests. Bits and tie-downs, along with many other man-made gadgets, have been created to make the horse’s body do what the rider would like. Some people get bigger (add pressure) to make the horse obey, and some people back off. I find this to be a matter of one’s interpretation of the horse.

WHR: What do you feel are some common mistakes that people make in trying to deal with bracing?

JESSE THOMSON: As I mentioned, many people just get stronger in what they’re asking, which doesn’t address the cause of the problem. For example, backing-up is where I see a lot of horses get bracy. People pull with both reins and the horse gets locked up, and the rider pulls harder – and the horse stays locked up. Riders may also not understand how important it is to release when the bracy horse tries to give even a little, or they may not understand how important the timing of that release is. We often expect too much at once or ask for too much, too soon, which can make a horse brace even more.

JOSH NICHOL: I think that the biggest mistake made in attempting to fix a brace is trying to force the horse’s body into a position or make the horse do what you want. The problem is not that the horse does not have the ability to put their body into the position that we are looking for; it is that we do not understand how to make what we are looking for clear to the horse. We must be very clear in defining our aids to the mind of the horse and allow them to find and then display what we have asked of them. It is important to understand that the horse is not openly defying us: 95 per cent of the time a brace is a demonstration of a horse’s confusion or mental uncertainty about the definition of your request, not a defiance to your question.

WHR: What should the rider do in order to help a horse that is bracing, learn not to brace?

JESSE THOMSON: With a horse that gets bracy in the backup, don’t pull on both reins, but instead just use one rein and break him loose in the front end, then release and pull on the other rein until you get some backwards movement. Start small, half-step or maybe even just the thought of backwards, but ensure you release to show your reward – then start again. Same with a horse that is bracing in the body – start small. Don’t ask for a side-pass all the way across the pen the first time. Let your horse tell you when it’s time to step it up. Keep in mind that in most cases, bracing is human related. Therefore, we need to ride with better knowledge of our cues (leg placement, balance, etc.) and better timing of when to give, and especially when to release.

JOSH NICHOL: Usually a brace does not start on the horse’s back but begins on the ground. Therefore, the best way to deal with it is also often to start on the ground and look to earn leadership there. A horse defines leadership as one’s ability to direct the horse’s mind (thoughts) as well as the horse’s space (where its body is in relation to yours). One way to do that is to help the horse understand that the lead rope is something to soften to. Many horses that brace have been taught to brace on the ground through what the lead rope releases on. The horse should soften their head to the lead as well as soften forward calmly at the walk and trot. The horse should also wait on your space, not stepping on you. If you have earned these things from your horse, you can get on their back and think to redefine the aids in a way the horse understands.

The first step with your reins is to ask a question and wait for the horse to soften. Something as simple as a small circle can be a good start. Ask the horse and feel what the definition of the reins is: does your horse soften to the rein or resist the rein (do you feel weight in the rein)? Attempt to release the rein when the horse softens, not just when they turn. In doing this you will begin teaching your horse that the release of the rein pressure comes from the horse’s softening not from their turning.

A turn is simple if the horse is soft, thus one should focus on softness, not lightness, in the beginning of training. What is the difference? Softness is a willing flow of responsiveness, free from any mental or physical resistance, whereas lightness just means that you don’t have to use a lot of pressure to get a response. A horse can be light as a feather but stiff as a board (not soft), but a soft horse will always be light.

WHR: Are there things we can do in working with a young horse to prevent him from learning to brace?

JESSE THOMSON: With colts, the biggest thing is to make the first impression a good one. Avoid getting into a

fight right off the bat because they will remember. An example would be rein pressure (pulling on the bit) from side to side. Ask for a little and work from there. If it is rushed, the colt will remember for a long time and become numb to it. Eventually he will brace against a pull and not give at all. I stress that timing is everything when working with young horses. The quicker you can release when the correct response is achieved, the faster your horse will learn and build from there. If you hold for too long, then the colt thinks that maybe his response wasn’t right and he looks for other ways out – rearing, bracing, and so on. Remember when they give to you, you must to give back. A little goes a long way.

JOSH NICHOL: Teaching a horse not to brace is the first thing I work on with a young horse. A horse cannot separate softness in their body from peace in their mind. Either a horse understands to yield to the aids as the basis of training or the aids are something the horse will simply deal with and brace against as soon as they worry, become uncertain or get confused. If, in the beginning of training, we are able to teach the horse that softness is a way of life, there will be minimal bracing in the training process. Remember that a horse has the ability to move lightly from the aid, but that does not mean they are soft. Releasing on light and not soft is the quickest way to teach a horse to brace. Outwardly, it may appear that you are getting what you want to some degree, but the horse won’t be doing it correctly or to the best of his ability, and he won’t be connected to you or following your leadership. A horse that is light but not soft has basically learned how to get the confusing/worrisome rider to “shut up”, but this is not communication in any real sense.

WHR: Is there anything else you would like to add?

JESSE THOMSON: Don’t overtrain. By this I mean that if I have a horse that tries really hard for me a couple of times in a stop, turnaround, flying lead change, etc., I don’t do it a thousand times until he messes it up. Because then I have to fight with him about it. Do one step at a time and gradually build on that. If he falls out of frame or gets confused then you can go back to where he is comfortable and start again. Remember, a horse that is confident and willing is one you can depend on regardless of the situation.

JOSH NICHOL: Just remember that you are dealing with an animal that has a different language. They speak a language of space (who directs whom in space) to engage in a leadership conversation for the sake of their survival. Being a part of the conversation cannot be an emotional experience for us. With a clear mind we must help a horse understand what we are looking for without taking the horse’s response in a negative way. The brace in a horse usually means that the horse does not understand what you are asking, that they are confused or that they are worried. All of these issues can be fixed by redefining the aids to the horse to mean yield, not just move. However, in order to do that, we must be able to be in charge of our own mind before we can ever hope to truly lead a horse.


this store,which now sprawls over two buildings.

As, are accessories with Mexican detail. . . .

. . . and iron work and tapestries.

Mexican culture often expresses it’s artistry in religious elements. Among my latest obsession – the folk-art like retablos. These are small oil paintings or sculptures on tin, wood, or copper – traditionally displayed on home alters to express devotion to (often) Catholic saints. Nowadays, they are considered collectable pieces of art. I found this one at one of our favorite consignment store stops in Cave Creek – the Lazy Lizard. A wonderful store, filled with cowboy culture, Mexican and western style pieces and charming purveyors. Not to mention – great deals!

A few other favorites – pretty ceramic bird found at Valeries.

This blue chair, modern sleekness with western undertones in the stitching and leather, found at the recently expanded True West Design, now occupying a gorgeous building on Cave Creek Road.

And conveniently located across the street from the Dairy Queen, Wee would add. When she’s not devouring strawberry-marshmallow sundaes and a large order of fries, I can sometimes cajole her into modelling for me (mostly out of boredom, on her part).

This rather interesting armchair that Wee is settin’ upon would make most of my female friends recoil in horror, but I can think of a guy or two who just might treasure it. I would suggest it is very likely one of a kind and for a limited time, or perhaps even a very long time (smile), you can find it at the Red Truck Trading Company.

While still incorporating two man-cave essentials – hide and horn – I sense this bench might enjoy better odds of getting the nod from the opposite gender.

And what would a man-cave be without a guitar or two in the shadows?

We found these beautiful Spanish-style bottles at Valerie’s.

Vintage cowgirl graphics and motifs are resplendent in many items, such as this pillow. . .

. . . or, this Andy-Warhol inspired lampshade, paired with an industrial-type base.

Cowgirl humor, particularly when it pokes a bit of fun at the opposite gender, appears to be universally in style.

What about this western-inspired trash can, found at Big Bronco, a western store popular with tourists.

Or, this Navajo-patterned table runner and pot.

And, finally, I loved these bowls which embody the classic southwestern colors of turquoise, red and earthy browns.

So, I’m curious. What piece pictured in this post tweaked your fancy most? Let me know in the comment section below. Later this week, I’m pulling out two names from all of the comments, and sending each of them a Horse Savvy Annual Planner. These planners are one of the most useful equine record books you’ll ever handle, so be sure to have a chance to win one with your comment!