For many horses, particularly in the winter when the hair coat is very thick, pulling the bridle over the ears is a tight fit and can cause a lot of momentary discomfort in the horse’s mouth. If you drop the cheek piece down a few holes before you bridle, it is much easier to pull the headstall over the ears and then it can be adjusted back up to the right place. It only takes a few seconds to loosen then readjust the cheek piece but it can make a huge difference in the horse’s comfort and may help prevent bridling problems.
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Help for a horse owner whose gelding has less than desirable ground manners.
What to do when your horse fights taking the bit.
Julie Goodnight: How to clean your bit, why bits change color (Myler)
I am currently schooling and riding in a D-ring snaffle bit. I want to start training for Western Pleasure. What kind of shank bit do you recommend for the transition?
In most rule books, horses six years old and up are required to show Western in a curb bit. Horses five and under can be ridden two-handed in a snaffle. As the horse advances in his training and you are doing more advanced stuff, your horse will probably work better in the curb, provided you find the right bit for him.
First, it is important to understand the difference between curbs and snaffles; many people have misconceptions about this. It has nothing to do with the mouthpiece—being jointed doesn’t make it a snaffle. A snaffle is a “direct pressure” bit, meaning the reins are attached directly opposite the mouthpiece and there is a direct, pound-for-pound pressure on the horse’s mouth from a pull on the reins. A snaffle could have a solid mouthpiece and a bit with a joint in the mouthpiece but shanks is not a snaffle—it is a curb bit. Just because it is a snaffle does not mean it is mild and a curb is not necessarily harsh; many curb bits are milder and more comfortable for the horse than snaffles.
A curb bit has a shank on each side which drops down below the mouthpiece and the reins are attached below; a curb strap (or chain) behind the chin creates leverage. It is the ratio between the top part of the shank (the “purchase”) and the bottom part that dictates the amount of leverage; a 1:2 ratio means that for every one pound of pull, the horse gets two pounds of pressure. In general, the curb bit can give you more braking ability. If it has a mild port (a rise in the mouthpiece) it may be more comfortable for your horse than a straight snaffle; the port gives a relief of pressure from the tongue.
You should always ride two-handed in a snaffle. With a curb bit, you may be able to ride one handed or two. If the curb bit is one solid piece, riding two-handed does not do any good because if you pick up on one rein, the whole bit moves. If the bit has articulation from side to side, like Myler bits do, you can ride two-handed when you need to and you are able to work off the sides of the horse’s mouth, giving you greater training ability.
Most likely the bit I would recommend for your horse is the Myler MB04 with an HBT shank and a leather curb strap; it is an excellent bit to transition from snaffle to curb. The HBT shank is quite short and has very little leverage. The MB 04 mouthpiece has a small port which gives the horse a little relief of pressure for his tongue and is more comfortable for him than the D-ring snaffle you are using now.
Any time you change the bit on a horse, give him a little time to get used to the new feel in his mouth. Any different shape will be very noticeable for him, just like it would be for us, and he’ll need 15-20 minutes to get used to the new feel before you start doing anything with the reins. After that, you can start riding as you normally would, being aware that there is now a little leverage, so you may not need as much pressure from your hands.
Start out riding two-handed with a lightly loose rein as the horse gets used to the new bit. Practice keeping your hands closer and closer together and moving them as one; that’s how you’ll work up to riding one-handed. Even once you are riding one-handed, do not hesitate to go to two hands as needed to keep the horse correct (in the right frame and arc). Of course, in the show ring you’ll have to ride with one hand, but when training always keep the horse correct and use two hands as needed.
The Myler bits that I most frequently recommend to people are listed on this web page, along with an explanation of what type of horse I would use them on http://www.juliegoodngiht.com/myler Also, there’s a great new 4-part online free video series from Dale Myler that you can find a link to on the main page of my web site. He talks about his bits and explains the transitions well: http://juliegoodnight.com
Good luck with your horse and I hope your transition to a curb bit is easy!
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
I have a two-year-old mare that’s an eager learner and wants to spend time with me. She readily approaches me and wants to be in on the action when I work with other horses. It’s been snowy and icy here so I have not had the opportunity to do the groundwork I usually do with her. So today I spent time brushing and cleaning her up and I took her for a walk. When I brought her back, I let her loose while I was grooming another horse—a gelding I am bonded to and have worked with for many years. While I was grooming him, the mare put her head on his back and placed her nose on his hoof. I continuously backed her off and returned to grooming. Then she nipped at my arm. To my surprise, I hit her and said “no.” I’m embarrassed to admit what came automatically. How do I teach her to not to interfere when I work on another horse and how to I teach her not to bite to get my attention?
Sick of Envy
Dear Sick of Envy,
First of all, give yourself a break for your reaction to your mare’s nip. You followed your instincts and acted much like a dominant horse would in the same situation. Think about what would happen in the natural herd setting if a subordinate horse bit a dominant one. The dominant horse immediately restates his or her position by biting, kicking and even running the subordinate horse away. Your reaction matches what would have happened naturally—and shows your reflexes are working! When a horse bites or nips she is challenging your dominance and he needs to be immediately and firmly corrected. You’re keeping yourself safe by teaching your horse you’re in charge and won’t put up with aggressive moves.
While we’re talking about safety, I think the scene you described may not be the safest way to teach your young horse or the safest place to groom your older horse. With one horse tied and the other loose in the same area, you’re inviting trouble. There’s no question that this is dangerous—I once saw a person get killed in a similar situation. I’m guessing that the older gelding is dominant over the mare. When he’s tied and can’t react like he usually would, the young mare may find it tempting to challenge him. Tie them both up or move the horse you’re working with to a separate area where you can’t be bothered. If you tie your mare, she’ll learn to stand patiently at the same time you are working on the other horse.
Now lets talk more about horses and jealousy. Horses are emotional animals with feelings more simplistic, but similar to humans’. Horses can certainly be jealous. Some of the behaviors you describe indicate that this horse is jealous of the attention you pay to your older horse. Horses can become very possessive over another horse and will sometimes go to great lengths to keep that horse from interacting with other horses. You may see a horse in the pasture or turnout herding another horse to keep it away from the others and he may even make threatening gestures and aggressive actions towards the others to keep them away from “his” horse. It is always helpful to understand how horses interact in the herd so you know the origins of their behavior and how you fit into the mix. You definitely don’t want your horse to treat you like another horse and you don’t want to be one of your horse’s possessions.
Even though it is pleasing to us when our horses want our attention and interaction, you must be very careful not to give the impression to this filly that she can control your actions and gain your attention any time she wants. Be very clear about not letting her invade your space and do not let her prompt you into giving her attention and learn that she can control your actions.
To start your anti-jealousy training, make sure you only give your mare attention when you choose. In other words, make sure not to give attention when she’s seeking it, but only when she’s calm and relaxed. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Horses will try to get your negative attention if they can–by acting up then causing you to come to them to provide discipline. Even though it’s negative attention, the horse is still in control when she nips, kicks, paws, chews, etc. in an attempt to get a reaction from you. For example, if I have a horse tied and I am doing something with another horse, the first horse may paw in impatience and frustration. If I go over to her and reprimand her, she has successfully won my attention—getting me to stop what I’m doing and move into her space. She’s controlling my actions. The best thing to do is ignore her behavior; it will eventually go away.
Your filly sounds very gregarious and that is a great quality. Just don’t let that turn into her being pushy. Biting is the most dominant behavior of horses and you need to “nip it in the bud,” so to speak.
Until next time,
Question: Dear Julie,
When riding in the arena at the canter, for the first few strides my horse throws his head up in the air. Why is he doing this?
Answer: Dear Puzzled,
This is a very common response from the horse that is afraid of the canter cue. The reason why he is afraid of the transition is that he has been hit in the mouth too many times when a rider asked him to canter. Always rule out a tooth/mouth problem first, but it is likely that if this were a physical problem, it would continue as you cantered.
At the very first stride of canter, and every stride thereafter, the horse’s head drops down as he lifts his hind legs off the ground. If the horse is not given a release when you ask him to canter, then when he drops his head down, he hits the bit and in effect, he is punished for doing what you asked him to do. After a while, he is afraid of the canter cue and either throws his head in the air, runs off or both.
As I said, this is VERY common. I see it in every single clinic I teach. Many riders are a little intimidated by the canter, so they tend to clench up on the reins at the moment the horse departs into the gait. Or, the rider is concerned about the horse going too fast, so she pulls up on the reins at the same time she is asking the horse to go more forward. Or sometimes, the rider’s hands are just not moving with the horse as he drops his head in each stride.
When you cue a horse to canter, you should reach up toward his ears with both hands to give him the release he needs to drop his head in the stride. With each and every stride of the canter, your hands should extend forward as your hips move forward to give the release he needs with every stride.
Your horse has already learned to fear the transition, so you’ll have to really exaggerate the release for some time and eventually he’ll come to trust that you will not hit him in the mouth and he does not have to be afraid and throw his head up in the air.
All of these issues—how to cue, how to ride the canter and dealing with problems—are addressed in volume 4 of my riding DVDs, Canter with Confidence. In addition, it covers refining the canter, lead changes and collection at the canter.
Question: Dear Julie,
My question to you is what is your opinion of Myler bits? I came across a book recently that talked about the Myler comfort snaffle. I was surprised to learn that not all snaffles are exactly what they are supposed to be. The reason I’m asking is my horse Montana is in a D-ring snaffle. I have noticed at times him pulling the reins and opening his mouth. Even when I put him in the round pen with saddle and head stall on he does the same thing and I’m not even on him. It seems to me that it’s bothering him more and more. From what I read, snaffles can keep a horse from swallowing because of the pressure on the tongue. I keep checking my hands to make sure they are not harsh. I even notice it when his head is down and he’s relaxed like Western pleasure…he still opens and gaps his mouth, pulls the reins and goes sideways. I have been working on changing some of his habits from before I had him. Who ever had him before used to put lots of pressure on his mouth so he’d rout out. He’s come a long way from doing that; I just want to make sure I haven’t missed something or over looked anything. There are so many bits on the market how does one decide which is best? If you have any ideas I’d appreciate it. Thanks so much
Answer: Hi Lisa,
There is a lot of confusion about bits and many misconceptions. Many people do not really understand the difference between the two main types of bits, snaffles and curbs (or direct pressure and leverage bits) and many people think a snaffle is automatically mild and a curb is automatically harsh. In reality, nothing can be further from the truth-there are many incredibly harsh snaffles out there and there are many very mild curbs. And the joint in the middle of the bit is not what makes it a snaffle, so a bit with shanks and a jointed mouth piece is not a snaffle-if it has shanks and the reins do not attach directly opposite the mouthpiece, it is not a snaffle (see the Q&A on my website about Tom Thumb bits).
There are other common misconceptions about bits. First, it is not important whether or not the bit is mild or harsh; what’s important is the way the rider uses her hands. The mildest bit in the wrong hands can be harsh and the harshest bit in the right hands can be mild. Also, changing bits will not fix a training problem with a horse. In other words, if you have a horse that is going too fast for instance, putting a stronger bit in his mouth will not fix the problem; only more training will fix it. Going to a harsher bit will often make a training problem worse because it causes more anxiety for the horse and usually exacerbates the problem, especially in the case of the fast horse since horses have a tendency to speed up when they become more anxious.
As for your question on Myler bits, I love them and have a tack room full of them-both snaffle and curb. It’s all I use. I’ve used them since they came on the market 10 years ago and am now lucky to have them as a sponsor. That said, I make sure I like what sponsors have before we talk business. These are the bits I’ve used and recommended for a long time. I like them because they are manufactured with the highest quality materials and craftsmanship, they are ergonomically designed to fit a horse’s mouth comfortably and they are also designed for specific effectiveness. There are a huge range of bits available through Myler and each one is rated for the horse’s level of training, so that your horse can move seamlessly from one bit to another as his training level increases and his needs change. You’re right when you say that there are so many bits on the market that it is sometimes hard for people to make sense of them. Myler has worked hard to educate horse owners about what makes a bit mild or harsh and how it works in the horse’s mouth. So that even a person that knows little or nothing about bits can read the pamphlet that comes with the bit, view the video on bits and look at the rating of the bit to make an informed decision about what bit is best for their horse.
My favorite Myler bits are the comfort snaffle and the jointed curb bits. The snaffles have a curved mouthpiece, so that the bit is actually the shape of the horse’s mouth, giving him tongue and palate relief and making the bit more effective working off the corners of the mouth with the lightest possible pressure. The mouthpiece is made with sweet iron with copper inlays, giving the horse a sweet and saliva-producing taste in his mouth. I like the bit with the copper roller in the middle and this is my bit of choice for the snaffle horses. I have about every level of curb bit too, for the Western horses that need to work in a curb and they are made with the same high quality materials and an effective shape and function.
For your horse, it sounds like changing bits might be helpful. If the horse is fighting the bit without a rider, I would be highly suspicious. Have you checked his tongue for scarring? Have his teeth been checked and have his wolf teeth been removed? Have you tried riding him in a bosal, side pull or rope halter to see if that alleviates the problem? This might help determine how much of the issue is bit fit, how much has to do with the rider’s hands and how much of it is a training issue. If there is a physical problem, obviously that will have to be addressed before you decide on the best bit or bridle for your horse. It is possible that your horse has never been properly bitted out and he does not know the correct way to respond to pressure on the bit. A surprisingly high number of horses were never really trained properly, they just had a bit stuck in their mouth one day and forceful pressure made the horse respond. A horse must be systematically trained what to do when he feels pressure on the bit and how to give both laterally and longitudinally (vertically) when he feels pressure. Or, he may have had his mouth anti-trained from poor riding, learning to be defensive about his mouth and/or to ignore light pressure because he never got a release.
After ruling out a physical problem, I would spend some time with him in the round pen with an elbow- pull biting rig (see the Training Library on my website) and see if the horse can learn to give longitudinally to the bit and be soft in the mouth and jaw. Then we would do some lateral flexes until the horse gives to the side, and then start over from the saddle teaching him to give to light pressure both vertically and laterally and find the release.
Many, if not most bitting problems originate with the rider’s hands-maybe yours or maybe the hands that came before you. No horse wants pressure on his mouth, so he will always look for an escape from the pressure. If doing the right things (dropping his head and giving to the pressure) doesn’t get the release he is looking for, he begins to try other things, like throwing his head or inverting or rooting the reins, until he finds something that does get him a release. If he inadvertently gets a release when he is doing the wrong thing, the wrong thing becomes a learned response.
Without seeing you in action, I can’t really guess whether or not your riding is causing a problem for the horse but it seems like from your description, he is not happy with the bit you are currently using. Certainly putting him in a snaffle that has a more comfortable fit would be a good place to start. Assessing whether or not there are any physical issues preventing him from accepting the bit and better training to teach him the proper response to pressure on the bit are necessary steps as well. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
Using The Goodnight Bitting System
The self-correcting bitting system I use is often called an elbow pull and it is a long harness leather cord with snaps on each end. To use the bitting tool, you place the middle of the cord over the horse’s poll and then run each end through the rings of the bit, between the horse’s legs and up to the saddle. Adjust it so that when the horse is standing square and relaxed, there is no pressure on the bit. The pressure will come as the horse walks or trots; his elbow will cause a pull on that side of his mouth.
It is a self-correcting tool– meaning that when the horse does the right thing (brings his nose down and in), the pressure goes away. It teaches the horse to drop his head, bring his nose in and round his back when he feels pressure on the bit. Since the horse is coming off of the bit pressure, he is required to hold himself in the frame rather than have something to lean against like with side reins. This requires the horse to bring his hind-end up underneath him and lift his back in order to hold himself in the frame while keeping slack in the reins.
I like this training tool much better than other bit-training techniques because it gives an alternating pull on the bit, not pulling on both sides of the bit at the same time, so it keeps the horse very soft and relaxed in the neck and jaw. Also, you can mimic the action of the bitting system from the saddle, by using alternating sponge squeezes in time with the horse’s front legs. Finally, I like this system because it teaches the horse to give to the slightest rein pressure and to seek out the slack in the rein.
I think is very important is to teach the horse to seek out the slack in the rein. From day one, I teach the horse that when he gives to the bit, he will find slack in the rein. Whether the horse is giving laterally (to the side) or vertically (bringing his nose into his chest) you should relax the reins as soon as the horse makes an effort. Again, this will reward the horse for his efforts (all any horse wants is less pressure on his mouth) and will teach him self-carriage.
I am not a big believer is holding a horse in a frame. I believe if you are light and responsive to your horse’s efforts, you can teach him to carry himself in whatever frame you ask of him. This may sound like a simple concept, but I have found that most riders have difficulty with the release. When a rider picks up the reins and asks the horse to give, most riders will continue to apply pressure to the reins even after the horse gives. I think this is in an effort to maintain direct contact, but it is typically done without feel. Therefore the horse gives in some small way but if he does not find a release, he does not know that he has done the right thing. The horse is searching for a way out of the pressure on his mouth. By and large, horses will gladly hold whatever frame you want if they know that in doing so, you will release the pressure on his mouth.
Again, the beauty of this system is threefold. One, the instant the horse gives the right way he gets slack. Two, the elbow-pull creates a rhythmic alternating pull, rather than a static pull on both reins (like side reins), and it is far more effective to use one rein at a time rather than two (a horse stiffens his neck and leans into it when you pull on both reins at the same time). And third, once the horse has learned to respond correctly and carry himself in a collected frame with no contact on his mouth, you can mimic this action on the reins when you are on his back.
This technique is explained thoroughly and demonstrated on my video, Bit Basics. You can also find out more about collection and many other riding skills in my Training Library, JulieGoodnight.com/Academy
Check Your Horse’s Mouth and the Bit
When you are having problems with a horse raising his head, the first thing to check is his mouth. Have your veterinarian examine his mouth to make sure there are no sharp teeth, other dental problems or tongue scaring that could be contributing to the problem. You always have to rule out a physical problem before addressing a training issue.
The second thing to do is to consider the bit you are using. With all evasive techniques (throwing the head, rooting, above and behind the bit, opening the mouth, putting the tongue over the bit, mouth gaping, etc.), the horse is trying to get a relief from the pressure on his tongue. If you are using a straight snaffle, which creates the greatest amount of tongue pressure, he may do better in another bit. You can learn more about how horses evade bit pressure and how bits can be designed to help your horse relax instead of tense at http://juliegoodnight.com/myler. It’s difficult to teach your horse to lower his head unless he can relax and swallow when his head is down.
Teach the Head Down Cue
Once you have ruled out mouth problems and made sure your horse is in the right bit, you can retrain your horse to drop his head when he feels pressure instead of throwing it up. What you want to do is make the horse uncomfortable when his head is up (by increasing bit pressure) and make him comfortable when his head is down (by releasing the pressure).
From the ground: I teach this concept of “seeking out the slack” from the very beginning of training, before we even mount the horse for the first time. When “bitting out” a horse, first I want the horse to just get used to the mild snaffle in his mouth, with no pressure applied to the bit. This may take days or weeks; the horse determines the time frame. Then we will put the horse in an elbow-pull (The Goodnight Bitting System available at http://shop.juliegoodnight.com) to teach him that when he gives to bit pressure, the pressure goes away. The elbow-pull is rigged from a 15-20 cord (I use leather); put the middle of the cord over his poll, run each end through the rings of the bit, between the horse’s legs (behind the elbow) then fasten it to the saddle. It should be adjusted so that when the horse is standing square in a relaxed frame, there is no pressure on his mouth. The pressure will come when the horse walks and his elbow will cause an alternating pull (R-L-R-L) on his mouth.
The beauty of this device is threefold. One, it is self-correcting meaning that the instant the horse gives the right way he gets slack. Two, the elbow-pull creates a rhythmic alternating pull, rather than a static pull on both reins (like side reins) and it is far more effective to use one rein at a time rather than two (a horse stiffens his neck and leans into it when you pull on both reins at the same time). And third, once the horse has learned to respond correctly and carry himself in a collected frame with no contact on his mouth, you can mimic this action on the reins when you are on his back. When he feels the same pressure, he’ll know to lower his head and seek the slack in the reins.
From the saddle: Keep in mind that all your horse wants is a release of pressure. Once you’re in the saddle, you need to create an association in his mind that when he puts his head down, he gets the release. As with all things in training, how good your timing is will determine how quickly your horse can learn this. As soon as his head comes up, you will pick up on the reins to increase the pressure on his mouth and the instant his head begins to drop, you’ll drop your hands clear down to his neck (making sure to touch his neck with your knuckles to give him reassurance).
As you walk, you’ll feel your hips moving in a side-to-side action which causes your leg to close alternately and rhythmically (R-L-R-L) on the horse’s sides. When you want the horse to collect, you’ll first feel the rhythm in your seat and legs and then increase the rhythm in a driving fashion, then add small squeezes with your fingers, alternating R-L-R-L, using the same side hand as leg. Your seat and legs will keep the horse moving forward at the same time your hands are applying resistance to his front end with alternating pressure and causing him to shorten his frame. It is critical that the horse finds a small amount of slack when he makes the slightest effort to collect and it is also critical that you time your hands with your seat and legs. When done properly, the horse will hold himself in this frame. Remember; don’t ask him to hold it too long. You’ll want to release the horse before he becomes uncomfortable and resistant and gradually increase the time you ask him to hold the frame.
With good timing and consistency, your horse will soon learn that when you pick up the reins and increase contact, he should put his head down. Your end of the bargain is to make sure he always gets a release when he does the right thing.
This technique is explained thoroughly and demonstrated on my videos, Bit Basics and Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Volume 5, Collection & Refinement. You can also find out more about collection and many other riding skills at my Training Library: http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php.
Horse Master How To
“Heads Up” Teaching a horse to lower his head and accept the bit and bridle
By Julie Goodnight
In the Horse Master episode we named “Heads Up,” I help a horse learn that the bridling process doesn’t have to be a fearful event and teach his owner how to correct his head-butting behavior. This is a common problem—often times the horse is taught to toss his head and avoid the bit because he’s been knocked in the teeth or felt the bit being pulled from his mouth. It’s important to take your time each time you bridle and unbridle your horse so that he learns to relax and accept the bit with ease.
Read on to find out more about bridling and un-bridling your horse easily and without a fight. The show is part of a whole new series of episodes shot at my ranch. In the new shows, there’s help if your horse refuses to approach obstacles, if you’re a new rider and want help learning how to work with your new horse, if you’re horse shopping, if your horse won’t accept a bit and bridle without raising his head, and if you want help finding the proper bit for your well-trained horse. Here’s more about choosing a bit that will allow your horse to swallow and relax—helping you make precise rein cues without causing undue worry and pressure….
Bridling Without a Fight
If your horse is tossing his head or raising his head so that you can’t place the bit and bridle, it’s time for some training. I recommend using the “advance and retreat” method. First, approach your horse as if you were going through the motions of bridling–but without the bridle. Make sure your horse is not tied. Advance slowly until you reach the point that causes him to resist (toss or raise his head, etc.). When you see his resistance behavior, stop and don’t go on. 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 while watching for his relaxation signals. Do not try to hold his head or confine him, just advance until he resists, then hold that position. The worst thing you can do is to grab at his head or try to hold him still. That will reinforce his instinct to move away from your flighty movements. 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.
Your horse 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. Be patient and give him all the time he needs. He is not just being obstinate, this behavior probably started with an honest fear of being hurt.
The Importance of Patience When Un-bridling
Horses that throw their heads up in the air when un-bridling have learned to be fear being hit in the teeth with the bit. It may have only happened once, but getting a chunk of metal slammed into your teeth is enough to make you wince–and that’s all the horse is doing when he throws his head up in the air when you take the bridle off.
Hitting the horse in the teeth with the bit is usually done unknowingly by pulling the headstall over his ears and pulling the bit out of the horse’s mouth before he has had a chance to spit it out. It then slams into his teeth and gets stuck on his lower teeth, which hurts, so the horse throws his head up in the air, which in turn causes more pressure against his teeth, especially if the person pulls on the bridle at that time. It only has to happen once for the horse to learn to panic every time he is unbridled; then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the horse because every time he throws his head up, the bit hits his teeth.
When you unbridle a horse, you should gently pull the headstall over the ears while lifting up on it, and always hold that upward pressure (slight) until the horse lowers his head. As he drops his head, you slowly release the upward pressure and allow the horse to spit the bit out; at anytime the head comes up, lift up on the head stall again. Experienced trainers know that this is a critical process and spend whatever time it takes in the beginning to teach the horse to drop his head to spit the bit out, so he learns how to protect his teeth.
As you pull the headstall over his ears, lay your forearm on the horse’s neck behind the poll, so that if he raises his head, your hand moves with him and so that your arm is stabilized by the horse. If your arm is free-floating, you will end up jerking the bridle and bit around. Take all the time you need—always bridle and unbridle slowly. When the horse tenses at all, pause what you are doing, hold your ground (neither advancing nor retreating) and wait for the horse to relax (drop his head).
All of training is in the power and timing of the release; it cannot be overstated that the horse needs the release and it has to be instantaneously when the horse begins to respond (not once he has completely done it). In this case, you’ll only release the upward pressure on the bridle when he lowers his head; if you released the pressure while his head was up, you would be training him to raise his head. Move very slowly and wait patiently for him to lower his head and open his mouth to spit the bit out. If he is really clamped down on the bit, you can very gently jiggle the bit in his lips, but do not let it drop too low and take the chance of it hitting his teeth. Do not try and force him to open his mouth, just wait.
Proper Introductions and Training
I describe this process fully on my Bit Basics DVD available at www.JulieGoodnight.com. And for more precise answers to your bitting questions, check out Dale’s multi-part video series online with a link at www.JulieGoodnight.com and visit the Myler’s online bitting questionnaire and guide at: http://mylerbits.com/bitting_assistant.php
I want my pony to carry her head in a low position. . . .
My pony keeps her head up when I’m attempting to ride her in a collected frame. When I first got her she was so nervous about the bit in her mouth and what the rider might do. We outfitted her in a loose-ring snaffle, which has helped her put her head down somewhat. However, she still keeps her head up more then I’d like it to be. She has a wide back, but we worked hard to find a saddle that fits well. I’m pretty certain her head carriage isn’t due to saddle discomfort. I also ride her bareback and she carries her head high even then. What can I do to lower her head?
Dear High Headed,
Horses usually keep their heads up to avoid too much pressure from the bits on their tongues. When a horse puts her head up in the air, it allows the bit to slide to the back of her tongue as the pressure shifts to her lips and relieves the tongue.
You can feel how bad tongue pressure might feel to your horse by pressing your finger into your own tongue. Most horses that evade the bit are trying to find a release to this awkward tongue pressure.
Depending on the design of your pony’s bit, she might be feeling an unbearable amount of pressure. Look for a bit that offers some tongue relief—you’ll want a bit with a port (a convex-shaped bridge in the middle of the bit that allows the tongue relief). A ported bit might look like something that will cause your horse to feel more pressure, but in reality, the design allows the tongue to relax. I’ve used Myler Bits for years and have found that they’re designed to relieve tongue pressure and allow your horse to feel as relaxed as possible. Only when a horse is relaxed can she pay attention to your cues instead of her own discomfort.
Even when they are comfortable, horses must first be trained to respond properly to the bit; responding to the tool that you put into their mouths isn’t something they do naturally. You have to teach them how to find release from the bit’s pressure and how to “give” to the bit both laterally (to the side) and vertically (up and down). I have a new DVD that teaches you how to teach your horse to respond to lateral and vertical bit pressure so that you can use a bit as a kind communication tool (Bit Basics: Accepting and Responding to Bit Pressure). The DVD addresses how to train a young horse that’s never had a bit in her mouth and how to re-train the older confused horse.
I teach young and “rehab” horses to respond to pressure and find the proper release by applying light pressure to the bit through the reins (whatever amount of pressure it takes to make the horse notice and start looking for a way out of the pressure). I then watch the horse’s head closely. At the first instance her head drops—even a fraction of an inch— I release the rein pressure and rub the horse on the neck. Soon she will learn that when she drops her head, the pressure goes away. It’s best to use one rein when applying this constant pressure—ride with two hands, but only ask your horse to respond to the pressure on one side at a time. If you pull on two reins simultaneously you risk her locking her jaw or stiffening her neck. You’ll find an article, “Why one Rein is Better than Two” in my online Training Library (http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php)
Once your pony knows how to give to pressure on the bit, it’s your job to make sure she finds a small release every time she does the right thing and lowers her head. Most people make the mistake of continuing to put pressure on a horse’s mouth once she’s done the right thing. That’s when a horse continues to look for a release of pressure and ends up raising instead of lowering her head—to evade the bit and find a release in her own way. With soft hands and a bit with tongue relief, you can show your horse that there’s a release when she has her head in the proper position. She must have an incentive to drop her head and her incentive and reward is the release of pressure. Good luck with your pony!
We purchased a 6 year old mare approx. 6 months ago. She was previously bridled with a D Ring Snaffle. We have tried transitioning her with other Snaffles and a Touch Plus. She seems to really fight the bit (tossing her head, etc.). I feel part of this is a maturity and confidence issue, but wonder what would be a good bit to move her to? I have had her teeth checked and there seems to be no problems there. Currently we are doing lots & lots of trail riding and just getting her confidence up. Thanks! Kathy
Kathy, The first thing always to do in situations like this is to check for physical causes. Check her teeth to see if she has wolf teeth (very sharp little teeth on the front of the back sets of teeth), which can cause your horse a lot of pain with a bit in their mouth. Not all horses have wolf teeth but the ones that do generally have them removed at a young age. Another thing to check for is scarring in the mouth or on the tongue that may also be causing her pain. Once a physical cause is ruled out, you can assume it’s a training issue. The only reason a horse throws its head and resists the bit’s because the rider is hurting your horse’s mouth and/or the pressure confuses your horse. Therefore, another bit’s unlikely to solve the problem, unless you’re going to a much milder bit. In my experience, about 98% of the time, when a horse has a bitting problem, the rider, not the bit, is causing the problem. Changing bits, strapping your horse’s mouth shut or tying his head down will not resolve the problem, it simply puts a band-aid over the symptom. Most people put relentless pressure on their horse’s mouths, rarely giving an adequate release to your horse. The more pressure on the bit, the more pain in your horse’s mouth, the more your horse becomes anxious and fractious. Often these horses will speed up in an effort to run away from the pressure, which ends up getting them more pressure because the rider gets more tense, and the downward spiral continues.
In this scenario, the rider typically wants to put more bit in your horse’s mouth to control the speed and that generally makes the problem worse. Changing bits will never fix a training problem, only training will. In fact, going to a stronger bit will almost always make a training problem worse, because your horse will have even more anxiety. Taking a fractious, anxious horse to a milder bit and putting a rider up that has good hands and lots of release, will almost always help your horse. To resolve bitting problems, two things have to happen. First, your horse must be taught how he is supposed to respond to pressure: give to pressure and when you give you will find a release. He must learn to give both laterally (to the side) and vertically (dropping his nose down and in). When you put light pressure on the reins, your horse must be taught that as soon as he gives, the pressure goes away. For most people, when your horse gives, they are unaware of it or being greedy and they continue to pull, so your horse loses his incentive to give. Secondly, your horse must be given an escape from the pressure. The release must come within a second of the desired response of your horse; never hold continuous pressure on the reins. So often in clinics I see people applying relentless and meaningless pressure on your horse’s mouth for no reason whatsoever. The rider is oblivious to the pressure, but your horse is not. In fact, there’s a metal bar in your horse’s mouth and he has nerves in his lips, tongue, gums and palate just like we do. No horse anywhere wants pressure on his mouth and he will always look for a way out of it. If giving to the pressure or doing what you asked doesn’t relieve the pressure, he will try something else like gaping his mouth open, tossing his head or running through the bridle. Your horse does not have a bitting problem, he has a rider problem and he will almost always respond immediately to a rider with good hands. I have no idea what a ‘Touch Plus’ bit is, but it sounds like a gadget to me. There are no shortage horse training gadgets on the market because there’s no shortage of people looking to buy a solution to their horse’s problems, rather than consider that the problem is them. If I were you, I would take this horse back to a D-ring snaffle, have her mouth checked for physical causes, and keep her on a lose rein until she learns to trust your hands.
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Just wondering if you could give me some advice. My horse, a six year old mustang had been trained for about ten months. He stops, turns fine, but I cannot get him to slow down. Of course then I get nervous and then he gets nervous and we end up a mess. Any advice? I would love to work it out with him, but cannot figure him out.
Sounds like you’ve got yourself a pretty forward Mustang and I have trained a few Mustangs myself that fall into this category. There are basically two types of horses: one with too much go and one with too much whoa. I just finished a Q&A to someone that has a great Western Pleasure horse, but now she wants to ride English and is frustrated over trying to make the horse move forward. Your horse has the opposite problem and although both are frustrating (for both you and the horse) in my opinion the forward horse is a little more challenging to deal with.
We get a lot of forward horses in training, because they are more challenging, so I’ll share with you some of the techniques that we use to get the horses slowed down a little and to get them steady in their gaits. You’ll never make a Western Pleasure horse out of him, but you should be able to get him to hold a steady pace and slow down and relax.
First let me tell you what definitely will NOT work. It will not work to use a harsher bit or to constantly pull back on the reins to slow the horse down. Any pressure on a horse’s mouth makes him more anxious. Forward horses tend to be more anxious to begin with and they also tend to be very sensitive. More pressure on their mouths almost always makes them faster. The classic scenario with a forward horse is that the rider is constantly pulling on both reins and the horse is getting more and more tense and starts to jig and speed up.
What we want to do with a forward horse is anything that will make him relax, put his head down and slow down. We want him to learn to make an association between relaxing and getting a loose rein, which is what all horses want. Since we cannot slow him down by pulling back on the reins (because the increase of pressure just makes him more anxious), the best option is to work on changing directions. Often people talk about using the circle to slow a horse down, but I find reverses to be much more effective.
For one thing, often when people use a circle to slow a horse down, they pull the horse into a sharp sudden fast circle, which tends to excite and irritate the horse, throwing him onto his forehand and unbalancing him, rather than slow him down. Every time the horse changes direction, he has to slow down as he turns back the other way.
For changes of direction, ride two-handed in a Myler Comfort snaffle or the Myler 3-ring Combination bit, with both hands well in front of the pommel and with a reasonably loose rein. In slow motion, move both hands to the side (in the direction you want to turn) so that the inside rein is a leading rein and the outside rein is a neck rein (see the Q&A about rein-aids). Move your hands as a unit like they are connected; there is NO BACKWARD PULL ON THE REINS.
Do not pull back on the reins and do not try to slow the horse down. Just turn to the left for a moment, and then slowly and gently change your turn to the right, then left, then right, etc. It is critical that you are moving your hands in slow motion and that you are not pulling back on the reins as you do. Your turns should be totally random, half turn, quarter turn, full turn, etc.; don’t let yourself fall into a pattern. You should flex your horses’s neck to about a 45 degree angle as you turn.
Gradually (it may take minutes, hours or days) your horse will begin to slow his trot every time he changes direction. Once this starts happening, let him go straight between turns and then slowly and gently bring him into a turn when you feel him first begin to speed up. Ultimately, you should be going straight between every turn, and then you will let the horse stay straight as long as he is relaxed and slow until he is maintaining a steady relaxed trot without turning.
Make sure your hands are moving together and there is very little or no pressure on the horse’s mouth. Whenever you need to correct the horse’s nose to bring it into the turn, pick up (not back or down) slowly on the inside rein, with a gentle bumping motion and immediately release it when the horse gives his nose. Eventually, you should be able to make these turns and straightness with just the slow movement of your hands on a totally loose rein and without actual contact on the horse’s mouth.
Another thing it would be very useful for your horse to learn is a drop-your-head cue. With nervous horses, this is a very important step. A horse’s head comes up as he tenses and it drops as he relaxes. If you can cue your horse to drop his head, you have succeeded in teaching him a cue to relax, since it is not physically possible for him to drop his head and stay tense.
Start from the ground with a rope halter and training lead. Apply gentle steady pressure down on the halter by pulling on the lead and watch the horse VERY carefully for his head dropping. At the very first fraction of an inch, release the halter and praise the horse. Then ask again, watching very closely for any movement in the right direction, then release and apply copious praise. It is better to err on the side of the release being sooner rather than later. Timing is everything in horse training. The optimal timing for a release is half a second after the desired response. The first few inches down will be a challenge, but the next foot is easy. Once the horse figures it out he will gladly drop his head all the way to the ground every time you ask.
Once he can do this reliably from the ground, it is time to teach the same cue from the saddle. Standing still, you will use one rein, shorten it up to apply light pressure to the horse’s mouth and wait until the head drops the smallest fraction of an inch then drop the rein entirely and give copious praise. Don’t worry if the horse begins to move about, just focus on the head dropping and release whenever it does. In the same process the horse will gradually figure out that when you apply pressure with one rein and he drops his head, the pressure will go away. Again, the first few inches are very hard to get and will require a great deal of patience and concentration on your part, but the next couple feet to the ground will come much more quickly.
What ever you do, don’t succumb to applying more pressure if the horse does not respond. Apply just enough pressure that the horse begins to look for a way out of the pressure. He will guess what to do to find the release. At first, he may put his head up, to the side, etc., but eventually he will try moving his head down and that is the instant he must find the release so that he makes an association between the cue and the right answer. This is a general concept in training that applies to almost anything that you do. More pressure is not usually the answer; you just need enough pressure that the horse begins to look for a way out of it.
Oddly enough, sometimes a very nervous horse can actually become addicted to lowering his heads and relaxing. He doesn’t really want to be nervous and frightened all the time and when he finds the peace by putting his head down, he comes to like it. This can actually become a little bit of a problem in some horses (they want to put their head way down all the time) but that is not very common and it is a far better problem to have than the original one.
I would not expect your horse to become a Western Pleasure horse, but he is capable of slowing down, relaxing and getting steady. Try these exercises, be patient, always move your hands in slow motion and give the exercises considerable time to work. Good luck and let me know how it goes.
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