I had my last practice ride before our show last night, and enlisted the help of my non-horsie husband to come ear Loki up. He’s never done it before (and spent about 10 minutes trying to figure out how to crack the whip while I was grooming him). So after we were done and in the car on the way home, he asked me, “Why do you do that?” I gave him a fairly short answer (“To get him ready for the show”) but that got me thinking about the LONG answer. Because there are a LOT of reasons why we ear horses up, and they are beneficial for both horse a rider as long as it’s done correctly.
“Earing up must always be challenging, but never create fear.”
So before we dive into the reasons why, let’s first talk about how to do it correctly. And I want to say first, and emphatically, that earing up is absolutely NOT “purposely scaring” the horse. In fact, my husband figured that out almost immediately, when his first try was a bit over-enthusiastic and caused Loki to almost stop, and then break into a canter. If the groundsperson is scaring the horse enough that it breaks gait or spins around and goes the other way, it’s too much. Earing up CANNOT EVER cross the line and become scary. It must always be challenging, but never create fear. And different horses are going to react differently to various techniques. Whether it’s a cracking whip, a milk jug with some rocks in it, a whip with a bag on the end, or even a puff of baby powder – each horse is going to have things they are fearful of and things they don’t bat an eyelash at. Some horses prefer visual devices, others react to audible challenges. Your job is finding the thing that makes them rise to the occasion without inciting a fear response.
For the Horse
I firmly believe that proper earing up can be very beneficial for horses, no matter what their personality is!
Timid horses: Being eared up teaches them not to be afraid. It teaches them to think before reacting, and they will start to feel a sense of pride in facing down the scary thing and winning. They will become bolder and more sure in their demeanor. With a timid horse, you always start with very easy challenges. Don’t ask the horse for too much until they are comfortable with simple things (and some horses never need more than the simplest of earing up!). The groundsperson should always gradually back away from the horse and stop the activity before the horse gets close, which the horse interprets as a victory. Eventually, done correctly, earing up can turn a timid horse into a bolder horse.
Bold horses: Brave horses never back down from a challenge, but they can easily become bored with routine. Periodically earing up a bold horse breaks up the monotony of everyday work, and gives them something to “attack” and drive away, solidifying their confidence in themselves. Again, the groundsperson should back off as the horse gets closer. This will make the brave horse even more confident, and they will start to exude a cocky attitude whenever they anticipate a challenge (especially in the show ring!).
Whether timid or bold, when a horse is eared up and comes away with the feeling of bravado, they begin to seek out challenges. You’ll start to see the horse raise up as you come around a turn, looking ahead for anything and anyone in its path. They are ready to face down that challenge, knowing they can defeat it every time.
For the Rider
Earing up a horse can have some great benefits for riders, too, as long as they are teamed up with a horse that responds in a way that helps the rider grow their skills.
Timid riders: Some riders lose confidence when a horse gets big or strong. Having them feel a reliable, safe horse that is being eared up can help them to overcome their fear. The more often they have a positive experience with that “show horse” feeling, the better they’ll ride it and perhaps even come to enjoy it.
Bold riders: A strong rider can also benefit from having their horse eared up. If the horse is timid, they can practice their skills in urging the horse through an unsure situation and helping it learn confidence. If the horse is overly bold, they can work on learning how to channel that bravery into a better performance.
Last night, I had my husband ear up my horse for both my benefit and Loki’s, because he rides very different at a show than he does at home. At home, he is calm, consistent, and doesn’t break gait at any speed. At shows, he gets a little tense and there is a very fine line between over-collection and breaking, especially around the turns. If I try to get more energy from him, he will canter. But if I don’t ask, he will collect more and more until he’s almost trotting in place. And since piaffe is not a required gait…
I had my husband ear Loki up so I could feel that fine line and work on pushing him past it WITHOUT breaking. As a team, we both got to feel that moment of hesitation when he was deciding between piaffe and canter – that elusive millisecond that I only feel in the show ring and never get to work on at home. Our first few attempts resulted in cantering as I fumbled with my timing and his balance. But after a few rounds, when Loki was getting more confident, and I was figuring out how to keep him trotting, it all clicked and we had one of our best rides to date.
Riding a cocky show horse is a rush like none other – and earing up can be a very useful tool in helping create that confidence in any horse.
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