Monday, December 20, 2010


In 1877 a book called Black beauty was published by an english writer Anna Sewell. Just months after the novel was published she passed away. I think every single one of us horse people have either read the book or seen the movie so we can relate. The message of this book carries on over one hundred years after its debut; treating others with the kindness and respect you would like in return, especially when it comes to animal welfare.
Wile reading the many reviews of the book I have heard time and time again the book was not written for children but rather ""to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses"- Anna Sewell. Are we really that far off these days from from what Anna wanted the world to know those many years ago?
The truth is sometimes we are farther from it.

Something the book was said to have helped abolish was the use of the "bearing rein".

The bearing rein was what we modernly call a check (over check, side check, check rein etc. etc.). In Anna's time the rein was tightened as to cause the horse to carry his head unnaturally high in the air. This was mainly for fashion because the horse was a tool in those days. A tool to show ones status, a tool to make money, a tool that could be disposed of and replaced.
A bearing rein or check is traditionally run from the center of the back pad, either between the ears and down the face or on the sides of the bridle and to the bit or on a completely separate bit.

Back in the day the bearing rein was shown to cause many ailments in the horse, even going as far as causing some to become crippled for life. To be able to pull a horse has to be able to push his weight into the collar or breast strap which requires putting his head down, much like how we lean forward to push something heavy ourselves. The bearing rein, or modern check tightened keeping a horse from pulling properly causes improper muscle development, fatigue and as mentioned, long lasting physical ailments.
Now everyone has a different use for a check. In show for pleasure you are not permitted to have a check on your horse. However normally when I am driving on grass or using a collar I use a check for several reasons.
The first being if a horse gets his head down say to eat grass (Indigo) they can put a foot over a line, then your in trouble. Some horses learn early on that eating is not an option and some learn that early on but continue to test it every single time (Indigo).
The second being when you drive with a collar and do not have a check on the horse can put his head down. The horse puts his head down and if there isn't enough tension on the tugs the collar can actually slide down their neck. I had this happen once with Indigo, I had her in the barn after driving, un-did her check and she put her head down. Before I could grab it the collar slid down her neck and bonked her in the head, giving her a good scare.
Having said I drive with a check I do so loosely. I want my horse to be able to put it's head down, pull if necessary and relax when I ask them to stop rather than having to lean on the check. My horse normally cannot get their head lower than their withers without putting tension on the check. When we walk or trot normally it is very loose, not putting any pressure on the bridle.

Take this example of Indigo driving in the sleigh last winter. Shes relaxed, the check is loose yet it prevents her from putting her head down lower than her withers to eat the dead alfalfa (theres a lot more snow in the field than there looks)

A lot of draft breeds want the head in the air and the nose pointing out.
Is there a terribly large variation between this Percheron and the horse in the first image in this post?
Personally a horse travels more correctly and comfortably if he is engaged from the hind end, driving into the bridle and forward. He can see ahead of himself properly and would not have the muscle fatigue.

Then of course sometimes in show according to breed regulations you can have a very tight overcheck to keep the horses head up and a running martingale to keep them from tossing it higher.
It's been a pretty recent topic around here with fellow drivers. Fashion vs correctly traveling. What wins in the big show rings where it counts? Take a wild guess because it starts with an F.

Within the last month I have adjusted the check's on three horses and stopped their head tossing. Two were ponies and the other a horse who recently started the habit. After lengthy talks with the three ponies/horse owners and three follow ups all three stopped their head tossing and are more engaged because they can put their heads down and pull. They are all more relaxed and focused on their work.

So call me a modern day Anna Sewell but things done in the name of fashion or getting quick results that go against the way a horse naturally travels make the horse "loving" population seem a bit behind on times. Other things in the human race that have been around for thousands of years but within the last hundred or so years have evolved tremendously. Why are horse people so stuck in the past with different training methods and other practices of horse husbandry? Perhaps status is more important than we thought because to some the horse is still a tool, subject to fashion and not a living thing. It goes on way beyond the use of a check on a driving horse and into every single discipline. I bet we can all think of some.

(All images minus Indigo and I were from google images and belong to their respective owners)


Sarah said...

Thanks for doing your part to educate people. Of course I remember Black Beauty; I loved that book as a child, but it also really scared me and horrified me with the tales of suffering and abuse Beauty and her friends (especially poor Ginger) suffered. I honestly think some show ring fads are the worst thing to happen to horses. Everything from Rollkur to people who tie up their horse's head for hours so they will drop it below their withers for western pleasure, and those driving pictures? Awful. Why would you want your horse to travel in such a manner, with the overdeveloped under-neck and hollow in the back as all get-out? Ugh.
Anyway, great post. We have so, so far to go.

Dom said...

I was worried about where this post was going. I've seen the check used in harness racing in moderation for years with no lasting effects that I know of. Sure, there are people who abuse it, but it has its place. All tools have a proper way to use them. It's a matter of being properly educated.

Sydney_bitless said...

I didn't touch harness racing because I want to focus mainly on the pleasure/show aspects of horses for this post but a lot of checks are abused in harness racing too. My aunt had standardbreds and I helped a lot in the barns and on race night. Too many things there I do not agree on. But you learn something from every horse person you meet: how you want to do something or how you would never do it.

Crystal said...

Great post, not sure why anyone would want thier horses nose in the air like that? I think it looks awful and would be horrible to pull for the horse.

Anonymous said...

Almost everything done for "fashion" in horses is a bad idea from the horse's point of view. I always drove Norman with a check (just enough to keep him from diving for grass), but the idea of forcing horse's heads into unnatural positions, whether it's dressage, driving, Western pleasure or anything else, just plain makes me sick.

juliette said...

Thank you for the insightful post. I love something you said in the comments - You learn something from every horse person you meet: how you want to do something or how you would never do it. That is profound and something I want to remember. My goal while riding is to make sure my horse is as happy or happier than me. I don't drive, but I would do the same there. Thank you again for sharing this.

Laura M. said...

Excellent post Sydney, thank you. I drove multiples years ago when I rode at a barn with Friesians. Thinking back, I honestly cannot remember if they had over-checks but I'm pretty sure they did. Loose though, because those guys certainly dropped their heads and pulled with some of the hills we worked on!

Jessie McCandless said...

Wow, I learned something new today! :) It's so sad, though, that we're still doing things to horses for the sake of fads that end up hurting the horses in the long run, though. Guess people have always done it and always will.

Kristen Eleni Shellenbarger said...

Loved and still love that book. Very true about what points you bring up. It is a good tip to learn something from everyone; what to do and what not to do.
Thanks for sharing this :)

achieve1dream said...

That is so sad that they are still using them tight like that. How horribly uncomfortable for the horse. That last picture is like check plus rolkur. How does the poor thing breathe??

Jame said...

Sometimes I definitely think our drafts have a better life with us then with their previous owners, who only used them for show. We helped them out at one show to be nice, & I saw a lot of things I hated. The current fashion in the draft horse show world is checks, a hitch of 6 barely in control horses, horses only worked for 6 weeks out of the year & Scotch Bottom Shoes.
Now our horses are beautifully barefoot & sound, worked (at best) 5 days a week, & no longer have checks, which mostly cured Tucker's head tossing, I think he does it mostly out of habit now, or when he really needs to pee! Also, thanks to you Sydney, I'm working on getting Tristan to do a trial run on bitless! For Bobby first, because he seems to be the horse to take new things in stride.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin