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“Bit” Of A Problem

What to do when your horse fights taking the bit.


Our horse, a 12-year-old Quarter Horse, has started a bad habit. Recently, we had our vet float his teeth, and since then, he fights taking the bit. He has thrown my daughter, her trainer, others and myself through the air when we try to hold his head. He eats fine and is fine once the bit and bridle go on. Any thoughts? We are not sure how to correct this behavior and don’t want to make it worse.

–Donna Cowden, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

(Note: It is always important to rule out a physical or medical problem first. Have your horse’s mouth examined by a veterinarian or equine dentist to determine if he has any dental issues or scarring in his mouth that may cause pain before addressing this as a training issue.)

If your horse did not have a bridling problem before the teeth floating, he is probably just worried about his teeth getting hurt again. You need to desensitize him to being bridled. I would recommend using the “advance and retreat” method.

First, approach him as if you were going through the motions of bridling, but without the bridle. Make sure he is not tied. Advance slowly until you reach the point that causes him to resist – go no farther, but hold that position quietly until he relaxes, then retreat (walk away a few steps for a moment). Count to five and then approach again in the same way; advance and retreat repeatedly. Do not try to hold his head still or confine his head, just advance until he resists, then hold that position but try to be very still.

The worst things you can do are grab at his head and try to hold him still. You should wait to retreat until there is some small sign of relaxation. That might just be when he stops throwing his head or it might be when he actually drops his head and takes a deep breath. Ideally, that is what you want him to do.

Repeat the advance and retreat many, many times, advancing farther as you can. He will learn that when he relaxes, the thing that causes him fear will go away. Then he will no longer be afraid of it. Gradually advance, but always retreat. Do not approach him with the bridle until you can rub all over his head and mouth with him relaxed. Then start all over with the bridle.

This whole process could take one hour or one week. The fact that you never had a problem before the floating makes me think that he will go back to his old ways sooner rather than later. Be patient and give him all the time he needs. He is not just being obstinate; this behavior started with an honest fear of being hurt. Good luck and let me know how it goes.

— Julie

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