By F. S. Peer
Attention has already been called to the necessity of preserving the sensitiveness of a colt's mouth, when educating him, by the use of a bit covered with leather; when he is having his first lessons with the bit and dumm-jockey, such lessons are commonly known as "mouthing" and are of the greatest importance. When we consider that our every wish or command is to be communicated to a horse along the lines to a bit in his mouth and further, - when we take into account that mere strength with us is as nothing compared with the strength of a horse, - the necessity of preserving a horse's mouth as sensitive as possible is apparent.
Americans, as a rule, are fairly good at anything they undertake, but in the question of "mouthing" colts, and "hands" in driving, they are about as bad as possible. We may be pardoned for dwelling a little on this point, for the want of "good hands" is one of the most universal and most glaring defects in American horsemanship.
By good hands in driving is meant that delicacy of touch that never pulls at a horse's mouth more than is necessary, and never, on any account, when it is not necessary. The reason why Americans have such bad hands is because they do not hold the reins properly when driving. It is a pity that, when we inherited from our English, Scotch and Irish ancestors a love for horses, we left behind us their perfect hands for driving them. Everywhere in Great Britain one sees horses being driven with perfect hands, - farm boys, lads on delivery wagons, cab-drivers, teamsters, everybody; while in America, with the exception of a few coachmen in cities and an occasional gentleman-owner who has been properly instructed, we are about the worst lot of reinsmen to be found in any civilized country. I am well aware that this will possibly be challenged or looked upon as a very severe criticism. The trouble is, our training has been wrong from the start, and as we are, generally speaking, all wrong, we do not know how bad we are.
The American style of holding the reins is distinctly our own; we have neither inherited it nor borrowed it from any other nation. How, then, did we come to possess it? By copying after the style of jockies, sitting in a sulky driving on a race-track. Nor is "hands" the only thing we have copied from the trotting track to no purpose. I refer to the overdraw check. This instrument of torture, as well as the method of holding the reins, has a purpose on the track, but off of it they are alike abominable.
The sole purpose of the overdraw is to extend the nose of a trotter so as to give him a straighter air passage from nose to lungs, which, in races where the fraction of a second wins, is undoubtedly useful, as the volume of air to be pumped in and out under such terrible pressure needs the greatest possible freedom. Thus the overdraw has its legitimate use. To use it for any other purpose is to abuse it. A trotting-horse can stand it during a race lasting a few minutes; but, when a poor dumb brute is made to carry his head out of a natural position for hours, it becomes a torture. So universal has the fashion for overdraws become that, unless it is especially ordered, you can hardly find anything else on a ready-made single harness. It is, as above stated, from this same source, and with no more reason, that Americans have copied the prevailing style in this country of holding the reins when driving. The proper way of holding the reins when driving is to take them in the left hand; the nigh, or left rein coming into the hand over the forefinger, the off, or right rein coming into the hand between the middle and ring finger. The left hand holds the reins; the driving or guiding is to be done by the right hand, which carries the whip and manipulates the reins. The arm of the driver from shoulder to elbow hangs naturally, the forearm nearly at right angles to the same; the hands nearly meet in front of the body in a perfectly natural position, thumbs uppermost. This position of the hands and reins gives to the driver the best possible control of the lines, at the same time enabling him to keep at all times a light touch on the horse's mouth, which is not only the proper way but the way all horses prefer to be driven. A horse properly bitted or mouthed as a colt, and the sensitiveness of the mouth preserved, the slightest touch of either rein with the pressure of a finger will be quite sufficient to quiet him.
The American, or jockey style of holding the reins is not only bad in form but ruinous to a horse's mouth; because, with the arms extended and a grasp of each line in separate hands, the weight of the arms and hands is constantly resting against the horse's mouth. Pulling hands make pulling horses, because, when a man takes hold of the lines with extended hand, although he is not conscious of pulling at his horse's mouth and is not in reality doing so by a muscular effort, the weight of his hands and arms resting on the reins amounts to the same thing. So much for the constant pulling on a horse's mouth; that of necessity makes it calloused or so hardened as to be insensible to pressure, until the driver has simply to pull his head about by main force to let him know what is required. When the driver pulls at a horse's mouth, it hurts. He finds, however, that if he gives in to it he is touched with the whip to make him, as we say, "drive up to the bit," - so we will have something to rest the weight of our arms and hands against. The horse soon learns, also, that the harder he makes the driver pull at his mouth, the less painful it is; because, when the pressure is great enough, it shuts off the circulation and the parts become numb or deadened to the pain. Thus it comes about that pulling hands make pulling horses.
On the plow, we see horses dragging along a plowman who has the reins about his body; again, with a pair of hands as heavy as lead, arms extended, the horses are made to pull the driver along in addition to the harrow, and the driver is by far the most fatiguing pull of the two. You may say that he has to do it, - can't hold them: then it is the fault of their early training. All you can do in such a case is to drop the bit. into a new place and make the best of it. Sometimes the change to a large, smooth rubber curved bit will stop a horse's pulling. The proper mouthing or bitting of a young horse is not half appreciated, and less understood or practiced in this country than in Europe. Anything and everything you can do to preserve the sensitiveness of his mouth should be done.
While there is some excuse for holding on to a horse that is already a puller, there is no excuse whatever for driving him with a slack rein when he comes to a walk. In this way, we teach him that when we pull back we want him to go fast, and when we let up entirely he is to walk, - which is just contrary to what we really intend. Never pull at a horse's mouth an ounce more than is necessary, and never drive him for a rod without a light touch of the reins so you can just feel the bit. You can easily do this, when your hand is in the position recommended (thumbs up), by permitting the wrist to give and take to the forward and backward oscillation of a horse's head when moving.
As to hands in driving, we are the laughing stock of the world.1 No system or form could be devised that could be worse than the American style. It is simply ruinous to a horse's mouth. It is a most difficult thing to find in America a horse of any natural spirit which has not had his mouth damaged, if not ruined, by heavy hands. It is our one common fault, which accounts for the special emphasis placed upon it in this chapter.
1See "Cross Country With Horse and Hound," by F. Sherman Peer.
In teaching a colt to rein, his first lesson, - after a week or two of bitting, - should be with long reins on the barn floor or some other small enclosure. In addition to the reins and a soft, easy, smooth, straight bar-bit, place a non-shurring loop about his under jaw, and pass the rope about his head and down through the loop in his mouth. When he attempts to run or get away, take him in hand by the rope, leaving the reins principally for guiding purposes. This will teach him the lesson you wish to impart, without endangering the sensitiveness of his mouth where the bit naturally comes.