It only takes a quick search on the internet to find all kinds of misguided theories on why driving horses wear blinders. The most common reason given is that they are used to keep the horse from being distracted.
Speaking of distractions, the search will no doubt soon lead to a path that will have you reading about how blinders are one of human kind’s great cruelties to horses. These posts will no doubt be countered by those with equal vitriol that no horse should ever be driven without blinders.
To cut through all of the noise and clutter of emotional responses to a practical consideration, let’s take a look at why blinders came into use in the first place.
Why We Use Blinders
A horse’s eye, specifically the retina (the part that turns light into images), is built very different than ours. Rather than using the whole retina to view objects near and far, the horse’s retina has segmented areas, one for near, and one for far vision.
The eye is positioned on the horse’s head such that when the horse is grazing, the far-sighted portion of the eye is higher on the horse’s head. That’s perfect for scanning the horizon for potential threats. Think of it as a motion detector, keeping guard against lions, tigers, and scariest of all… blowing plastic bags! This part of the eye is hard-wired into the horse’s flight response zone.
When the horse’s head is held in a typical stance position, such as when we are working, that far-sighted portion of the eye gets tipped up and back. So the motion detector is primarily pointed behind the horse. Pretty much exactly where the carriage is hitched to him. Of course, that part of his vision is designed for spotting far-off objects, so chances are the carriage is too close to be in focus.
Let’s add to this formula by considering that most successful predators would attack a horse from behind, rather than the side or front. Watch the Discovery Channel sometime, and you’ll see this over and over again. That means the carriage, which he has a hard time seeing clearly, occupies the horse’s mortal threat zone. Wait! There’s more! Once hitched to the horse, the carriage mimics the horse’s every movement, just as a stalking predator would.
With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that most horses are more comfortable being driven in a bridle with blinders. It saves them the trouble of having to outthink their evolutionary instincts.
So Why Drive With An Open Bridle?
I’ll never forget the first horse that I decided to use an open bridle on for driving. He was a fancy Trakehner with a heart of gold and beautiful movement. He had grown up as a ridden dressage horse and had the movement to prove it. His person rightfully thought that combination would be brilliant in a carriage, so we taught him to drive.
He was a good boy for all of his training and took to the carriage fairly well. That said, his attitude and movement in the carriage just weren’t the same as when he was under saddle. He just wasn’t the same horse.
In trying to understand what to attribute the big change to, I did a fair amount of long lining. I was able to observe that on the long lines in an open bridle, he was the same reliable, fancy pony we knew under saddle. The change came when we put the driving bridle on. Despite years of professional advice that I’d been given about never driving a horse in an open bridle, we decided to drive him in his riding bridle. He loved it!
The fact was, that this horse had experienced his entire life without blinders. So he was used to seeing the whole world around him all of the time. He could hear a noise, look at the source, and discount as a non-threatening.
In the decades since that experience, I’ve found this to be the case with many horses who come to driving as a second career. But it’s not just the second career horses that prefer to see the world around them.
I owned an American Saddlebred who was hotter than the sweatband in a fireman’s helmet. Since he had only ever been a driving horse, he never had an open bridle on until I started him under saddle. Still, I used a regular driving bridle for his work in harness. However, his previous owner always insisted that she felt he’d be more comfortable in an open bridle for his driving. Honestly, I thought she was nuts.
One day while tacking him up, a friend put the reins on the harness in the moment just after I had put his driving bridle on. He reacted by throwing his head straight up, and when it return, it landed on the top of my head. When I recovered, I decided it was time to give the open bridle a try.
The open bridle made a huge difference for his comfort and confidence. Sure, he was still a firecracker of a horse, but that was just because he thought that anything he could do would be more fun if he did it faster. However, in the open bridle, he was more relaxed and open to communication. He was just happier. We went on to many years of successful competitive and recreational driving with him wearing the open bridle.
Blinders in Competitive Driving
Many people mistakenly believe that a bridle with blinders is required for competition. However, that is not true! The only mention of blinders in the American Driving Society rulebook is in reference to certain types of harness being the most appropriate harness for certain types of carriages. This is all a matter of presentation, not a matter of requirements. In fact, the only other reference to blinders is that they not be too tight to impair the horse’s forward vision or irritate the eye. Even in that sentence, there is the caveat “if used.”
Of course, those driving in pleasure shows should be aware that the judging can be fairly subjective. Judges tend to prefer the most traditional looking turnout possible, which indicates that blinders would complete the turnout.
Starting New Driving Horses
One of the biggest problems with horses being driven in a bridle with blinders is what happens when a bridle is unseated while the horse is hitched. The bridle doesn’t have to come all the way off to create a problem. A simple head shake or rub can displace the bridle enough for the blinder to be moved out of the horse’s vision. For many horses, this is their first sighting of the horror that has been going on behind them for years. Everything described in the first section of this article drills right into the horse’s flight instinct, and you’re off to the races.
Once my eyes were opened to the possibility of driving horses without blinders, I began to change how I introduce horses to carriage driving. As the horse progresses through the stages of ground driving, dragging tires, and wear false shafts, he does so in an open bridle. In many cases, the horse makes it all the way to the carriage and can be driven comfortably in an open bridle.
All of that said, most horses eventually need blinders. It takes a lot of mental energy to ignore the signals they are getting from their nervous system that there is an object in their predator threat zone. The blinders allow the horse to ignore those instincts and relax as a driving horse. However, if that bridle does become unseated, they are not seeing the carriage as it’s hitched to them for the first time, so their reaction is usually quite reasonable.
Should You Try an Open Bridle?
No… Yes… Maybe
You might make the mistake of reading this article as an advocacy for driving all horses without blinders. That is not what this is at all. It’s simply stating that some horses are more comfortable with blinders while others are not. There’s no hard and fast rule that horses are willing to follow on this matter. It has to be evaluated on a horse by horse basis.
There are a few indicators that a horse may go better in an open bridle. The most obvious sign is that the horse goes from Steady Eddy to Freaky Frank as soon as the driving bridle goes on. If the horse spends excessive time shying from noise and trying to swing his head in the direction any noise, he may just be trying to see the noise and eliminate it as a threat.
WARNING; TREAD CAREFULLY!
It’s one thing to take a horse that has never been driven and go through the steps of starting to drive without blinders. In that scenario, one simply can introduce the horse to each step of the process in an open bridle, and many horses will never question your wisdom. They have no reference point to see this as “not normal.”
However, if you were to go out to the barn today and explain to your long time carriage horse “Andy says you might go better in an open bridle,” you might be in for an unpleasant surprise. Taking the blinders away from a horse who hasn’t learned the sport without blinders can be far more exciting than you bargained for. This could be a source for a horrific runaway that won’t end until the horse gets stuck or completely removes all evidence of a carriage having been attached to him.
If you do have an idea that your horse may go well in an open bridle, you’ll be better served to take careful incremental steps. The simplest step is pushing the blinders as wide as possible. If there is an improvement there, I would move on to using a half blinder. Sometimes that’s all it takes for a horse to feel a little more relaxed. If there seems to be motivation to continue on the project to drive in an open bridle, it’s time to have a full re-boot as a driving horse.
In my practice, I approach this project as if I were teaching the horse how to drive all over again, only this time with an open bridle. I’ll take it down to the most fundamental steps. I will ground drive the horse completely harnessed, however in an open bridle. If that goes well I’ll move on to dragging a tire, using false shafts, and pulling the carriage around behind the horse without hitching it. I frequently drive the horse as a leader in a tandem, to gauge his reaction.
Only when the horse has proven himself to be comfortable with all of those tests in an open bridle would I consider actually hitching to the carriage while the horse is in an open bridle. This isn’t something that I do in an afternoon! It takes many sessions to move through all of the phases of this project safely.
If you choose to go down the open bridle path, keep a close eye on your horse’s reactions through every step of the process. If you see tension building, don’t push your luck. There’s no reward in having a broken horse just because you wanted him to go in an open bridle.
Do What’s Right For Your Horse
In my experience, most horses are more comfortable driving with blinders of some sort. They allow the horse to focus on the job at hand without having to worry about the carriage moving around in their predator warning vision. However, a smaller number of horses just want all of the information they can have about what’s going on in the world around them.
Each of these horses will work more confidently and comfortably with the equipment scenario they prefer. It’s your job to understand your horse’s comfort level. If your horse is going in an open bridle, don’t do a lot of hand-wringing about getting blinders on him. If your horse is more comfortable with blinders or half blinders, let him be comfortable. As always, make it safe and make it fun for both you and your horse.