Horse Illustrated Julie Goodnight Q&As – Bit Tips Logo

Q: I just purchased a seven-year-old gelding. The previous owner was riding him in a single-jointed snaffle bit. Now, I’m looking for a bit for him and he has responded badly to a D-ring snaffle, O-ring snaffle, and a Tom Thumb. He avoids begin bridled then gapes his mouth, yawns and rubs his face on his leg. He won’t bend well to either side and he has even threatened to buck when I ask him to turn. His teeth have been checked. Is he a good candidate for a hackamore? Or what bit would be best?


A: With bits, it’s important to remember that the mouthpiece is what the horse feels, the cheek piece is about how you, the rider will give cues (and how subtle your cues need to be). More simply put, the sidepiece is for the rider and the mouthpiece for the horse. From your question, it seems that you have changed the sidepiece but not the mouthpiece when testing different bits.


The single-jointed mouthpiece can be very unpleasant to many horses. With the snaffle sidepiece (snaffle simply means direct pressure), the single-jointed mouthpiece pinches the jaw and squeezes the tongue. In general, horses hate tongue pressure. Most horses gape open their mouth with the Tom Thumb (a bit that is often mistakenly called a snaffle). The Tom Thumb has the same single-jointed mouthpiece but has a curb-style sidepiece. That means it has more force (leverage) on the horse’s tongue when you pull on the reins.


If this horse has lots of training in the past, I’d look for a mouthpiece that relieves pressure from the tongue. It could be that he is fighting the bit because there is too much tongue pressure with all the bits you have tried. The sidepieces may have made the bits look different, but to the horse, all those bits would feel the same.


Find out what professional training your horse has had. Remember that a bit can’t train your horse or create the movements that you want. Your horse needs to be trained to flex and give to pressure no matter what bit he has in his mouth. Make sure that you’re releasing pressure as soon as he gives at all during lateral flexion work. You’ll need to reward the slightest try when working in any bit.


Since your horse is prone to occasional bouts of disobedience, I’d probably have a bit in his mouth instead of moving to a hackamore. I would be unlikely to use a hackamore on a horse that had refused to turn and tried or threatened to buck.


When getting to know any new horse, it’s great to do some basic, rudimentary training from the ground and the saddle. This time will help you establish leadership from the ground and from the saddle and will help your horse understand how you cue. Take time to make sure the horse understands how to respond correctly to the cues you give.

If you came to me for help, I would use a Myler 3-ring Combination bit with the MB04 mouthpiece. This bit takes pressure off the mouth and puts it on the nose, giving the horse the opportunity to respond before he gets mouth pressure. From what you describe, the horse does not like mouth pressure and needs a relief. The mouthpiece on this bit is double-jointed (so it doesn’t collapse in the middle) and has a very low port, giving a small amount of tongue relief.


Once the horse is responding well and is obedient to my light aids, I would move him to a medium-low ported bit (in the combination format or a snaffle or curb), to give him even more tongue relief. You can change the sidepiece later, but your horse will continue to feel better with the tongue relief.


A side note about hackamores: While many feel that a hackamore is less severe because there is no bit in the mouth, not all hackamores are created equally. There are many different types of hackamores and like bits, they may work either off direct pressure or leverage. The side-pull is a type of training hackamore, like the bosal and is a direct pressure device like the snaffle. It can be used with great effects for horses who are willing and trained. The mechanical hackamore has leverage (like a curb bit) and can be quite severe. The mechanical hackamore is not very useful in training the horse to bend, as you need to be able to work the sides of the horse’s mouth independently as you lift the shoulders.



Why Do Horses Relax And Listen When I Use One Rein At A Time? Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight:
Why do horses relax and listen when I use one rein at a time?

Question: Dear Julie,
My riding instructor and I have a question regarding using one rein while riding. I’ve seen it mentioned in several different articles and books. John Lyons discusses using one rein when starting a young horse. My instructor learned the technique from Karen O’Connor. When we use it on any of our horses – lesson horses to upper level eventers, it seems to calm them and refocus their attention. Can you help explain the equine thought process here and why it seems to be so effective? Also, in what situations would you recommend using it and why?

Answer: Any horse will work better when the reins are used one at a time as opposed to using both reins at the same time. There are several reasons for this. First, when you pull on both reins at the same time, it causes a horse to clench his jaw, stiffen his neck and lean into the pressure. He ends up with a stiff and bracey neck that feels like it has two pieces of rod iron in it.

Secondly, using both reins at once puts you and your horse in a tug-of-war that he will always win because he out weighs you by so much.

We want our horses to stay soft in the jaw and loose in the neck (and body) and that will only happen when you use one rein at a time. The mechanics of the bit are such that when you pull on both reins at the same time, it creates pressure all over his mouth, tongue, jaw and palate; it is too much pressure and the horse’s only concern will be to get away from the pressure however he can– he quits thinking, which is not conducive to learning. You also lose any ability to be articulate with the rein aids or use the reins to influence certain parts of his body, because the pressure is every where and he cannot adjust to subtle rein cues.

Even in a hackamore, rope halter, side-pull, etc., you’ll get the same response if you pull on both reins at the same time. Horses tend to move into static pressure; try leaning on your horse and notice he shifts his weight and starts leaning back. Pulling with two reins simply gives the horse something to brace against and lean on. He cannot do that with one rein.

You’ll have much more control over the horse when his neck is slightly bent than when it is straight. It is when the horse stiffens his neck straight in front of him that we lose control. Using one rein to stop or using both reins alternately, like you do for collection is the ideal. Even when using both reins, you always want to keep a rhythm in the reins so that you are not giving the horse something to lean on.

There is a well-documented behavior that I think helps explain why horses are more responsive to one rein than two. When a horse eats or drinks (from the ground) he is very vulnerable because his vision is so poor at that point that he can only see the ground immediately around him. Therefore, when a horse eats or drinks (in the wild) he will eat a few bites, slowly lift his head, swing it to one side, go back down for another few bites, lift his head, slowly swing it to the other side. This is believed to be an instinctive behavior of horses that helps keep them safe from predators when their head would other wise be down in that vulnerable position. Therefore, it follows that if we can move a horse’s nose gently from side to side and keep his neck loose and relaxed, he stays soft and calm.

When a person pulls relentlessly on both reins in an attempt to bring the horse into control or to get him to come on the bit (something I see in every clinic that I do) it tends to lead to the horse getting more and more out of control and agitated until he begins to “run through the bridle” in an attempt to escape the confusing, painful and relentless pressure on his mouth. The more you pull back, the faster the horse goes (moving into pressure). It is hard for people to understand that they need to release the pressure before they can get the horse to stop or to be responsive at all. Check (with weight and reins) then release, then check, then release.

Using the one-rein stop, you’ll never have this problem, even if your release is not as good as it should be. By and large, the biggest problem that people have riding is not releasing the horse from bit pressure enough.

Finally, using the one rein stop will lead to a disengagement of the hindquarters (occurs when the horse crosses his hind legs) which will always cause the horse to calm down, focus on you and become more submissive.

To execute the one-rein stop, lift up on one rein toward your belly button or opposite shoulder, it causes the horse to disengage as he stops. As soon as you feel the horse’s back bend as his hip comes under you (it is a very distinctive feel) you release the rein entirely. With practice, a slight lift of one rein will cause the horse to stop easily. Use the disengagement any time you lose a horse’s attention or anytime he becomes nervous or fractious. We use the one rein stop on young horses or any horses that are very forward and/or resistant to pressure from the reins. It is really a general practice that you can use on any horse at any time.

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Issues From The Saddle: Tongue Over Bit Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

The question I have is for the Mountain Pleasure horse I bought about six months ago. He is a big sweetie, I love him dearly he has very nice manners and lunges well. The problem I’m having is the first time I rode him before I bought him, the people I bought him from used a headstall that was to big and he got the bit under his tongue I don’t know and can’t find out if he did this before then, but now it continues to be a problem. It seems if we are out on the trail and taking a rest is the time when he starts he can also get it back over his tongue. I have pulled the bit up higher and loosened the curb chain, he has 2 wrinkles with this. He did get spooked by some racing quads the other day and he did this and I still had control all the way home. Even turning him back around and heading away from the barn again.

Thank you for your help.

Answer: Dena,

The problem of a horse putting the tongue over the bit is a big one and it is a difficult habit to break. A horse that is uncomfortable with the bit is generally trying to get the pressure off of his tongue. Since his tongue fills up his entire mouth when he is relaxed and has his mouth shut (as does ours), any time you put a bit in the horse’s mouth, it puts pressure on his tongue—some bits more than others.

In fact, the evasion tactics horses use to get away from bit pressure (throwing the head, rooting the reins, getting behind the bit, opening the mouth, sucking his tongue up in his throat, sticking the tongue out and putting it over the bit) are all in an effort to release pressure from the tongue.

All of these antics give him a momentary release (reward) and unfortunately, with the behaviors of putting his tongue over the bit and sticking his tongue out, he not only gets a release of pressure from his tongue, but he also gets an endorphin release (the natural opiates in our body) and so he essentially gets rewarded twice. Because the endorphins make him feel good, this becomes addictive and habitual behavior.

When the horse gets his tongue over the bit, it causes major problems. For one thing, he will open his mouth and hollow out (raise his head and invert his top-line), usually speeding up in the process. But the biggest problem is that once his tongue is over the bit, you no longer have much control. If you pull on the reins, it is so uncomfortable for your horse that he throws his head up and runs through the pressure.

The ideal scenario is to never let this habit develop in the first place. When bridling a young horse for the very first time, it is a very critical juncture—because in his efforts to spit out the bit he may get his tongue over it and if so, it may become a bad habit that he has the rest of his life. For this reason, when bridling a horse for the first time, it is very important to keep the bit quite high in his mouth. As he becomes more comfortable with the bit and less mouthy, you can begin to drop it down in his mouth. All of this information is covered in detail in my video called “Bit Basics,” as well as a systematic process for training the young horse or an older horse with problems how to respond correctly to bit pressure.

If a horse already has the bad habit of putting his tongue over the bit, the first thing to do is to see if we can make him more comfortable in the mouth. First, you must rule out a physical or medical problem; you’ll need to 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. Once a physical problem has been ruled out, you can look at changing bits to see if that might make the horse more comfortable. It could well be that the bit you are using now is contributing to the problem.

The average bit is made with the mouthpiece straight across from side to side, although no horses have a mouth shaped that way. The traditional snaffle and curb, no matter what type of mouthpiece it has (jointed, solid, ported), is straight across from side piece to side piece. This puts all the pressure on his tongue, where he is least able to tolerate pressure, even when you are not pulling on his mouth.

This is the primary reason I use only Myler bits—because they are all made with an ergonomic shape. They have a curvature that matches the shape of the horse’s mouth and they are all built to relieve tongue pressure. The Myler bits are classified by levels—one through three—and as you go up in level, you also get greater tongue relief. The bit I use on my horse is the “43 mouthpiece” and it has the maximum amount of tongue relief. This is the bit I would probably use on your horse to see if we could make him more comfortable in his mouth.

Since your horse’s habit is already engrained, it may be difficult to break, even if you make him more comfortable. Since he is basically getting a buzz off the endorphin release he is getting when he puts his tongue over the bit, it becomes addictive behavior. I’d keep the bit fairly high in his mouth to make it hard for him to get the tongue over; if he’s more comfortable with the new bit and you keep it high enough that he cannot get it over, it may dissuade him from the behavior.

If that doesn’t stop the behavior, you may have to add a tongue port. This is a small rubber thing that’ll only cost you about $2 and it looks sort of like a pacifier. It is about 3” long and has a loop at one end and a flat thumb-shaped flap at the other end. You loop it onto the center of the mouthpiece of the bit and the flap lays on top of the horse’s tongue and makes it so he can no longer get his tongue over, because he cannot reach his tongue up that high in his mouth.

If your horse slips his tongue over and back, it may not be a huge problem, especially if you feel like you have plenty of control. For serious problems, or when a horse has scarring on his tongue that means he may never be comfortable with a bit in his mouth, you could use a side-pull, hackamore or bitless bridle and probably have adequate control.


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