• Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Shut-Down Horses



Recently I went to view a horse as a potential purchase for a client. The current owner ran the horse around a round yard for a few minutes and then rode him. He was an enormous horse standing at 18hh and seemed to have a lovely personality. But under saddle this all changed. He refused to go forward, or backwards, or turn; in fact, he gave the current owner troubles with everything she asked. When she asked for reinback he did not budge. She pulled harder and harder on the bit and I could see the mouthpiece coming out the sides of his mouth as she leaned all her body weight into it. He just ignored her. I could not stand watching it, so I said it was ok I did not need to see the reinback, and she stopped. Then she wanted to show me his trot. She kicked and kicked and eventually he gave her a small jog for a while. It was strange to me that she thought it was ok to use such aggressive aids with her horse to get the most basic of things happening.


Then it was my turn to do a ‘test ride’. I must admit by this stage I had pretty much decided he was not suitable for my client but felt it worth having a feel of him myself in case there was something I was missing. And I also wanted to give him a chance, it would be nice to take him out of this environment. Normally I would never ride with a bit, but in this situation, it was the only fair way to assess the horse. Trying to do an instant transition to the bitless bridle for an assessment is not fair on the horse.


I mounted and settled for a while so he could feel me, and I could feel him. Then I asked him to go forward and after a while he walked off. He was resistant with steering, going, and stopping. It felt like there was absolutely nothing he was willing to offer. Everything had to be forced out of him. I commented to her that I was unaccustomed to feeling a horse like this. That with the bitless horses I ride I just pick up the weight of the rein and they turn. This seemed a novel idea to her. I started to feel an uncomfortable familiarity. This forcing the horse to do things using strong coercers such as bits, whips, and spurs, with stronger and stronger aids, is where I had been many years ago. This also at one point was my reality. I remembered fighting with every horse I rode, dominating and forcing them to my will. I felt compassion for the horse and the woman, as I understood where they both were. It is not a happy place.


This was a great reminder for me of the power of riding without pain. Horses are so incredibly different to ride when all the pain and forcing is removed, it is light worlds away from where these two were. I remember when my husband first rode one of my horses. He had ridden when younger but not for many years. His understanding of riding was that you tell the horse what to do and they do it. If they do not do it you get stronger. After his first ride with me he commented that he had never experienced anything like it. He said that the information coming from the horse almost overloaded his ability to respond. He was not accustomed to horses communicating with their riders to that degree. His experience in the past had all been one way, human to horse. But my horses were accustomed to two-way communication. It is a constant back and forward conversation with them. I had gotten to the point where I took this for granted as normal, so it was great to be reminded of what a gift this is.


And when I rode this other woman’s horse, I felt nothing coming from the horse. An absolute zero. He had shut down to such a degree he was not even in the room anymore. Another name for this condition is ‘learned helplessness’. When the horse has no say in their reality and nothing they do changes anything, they give up and shut down. I am so happy I found another way to be with horses and am grateful for this reminder that I am on my right path.

Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Happy Horses Bitless

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Bitless Bridle Associate Clinician