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)