If a horse is sticking out his tongue only when bridled, it’s most likely because the bit is bothering his mouth, explains top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
If a horse is sticking out his tongue only when bridled, it’s most likely because the bit is bothering his mouth, explains top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
My colt is now 11 hands and 275# and he’ll be 5 weeks old on Monday. He’s learning what ‘no’ means and understands he’s not supposed to bite, but he still is invading my space. When he comes too close, I bump into him with my whole body until he moves back. He does move back, but then starts all over again. The mouth thing is better as far as putting it on me, although he tries every second to get his mouth on me, when he’s not doing that, he’s got the shank of the lead or the lead rope itself in his mouth. That pacifies him but I can’t let him do it forever.
So, any suggestions? I use my elbow, the stick, and have always pinched him when he disobeys, but what of this mouth/biting/putting stuff in it? Unfortunately his mother does not discipline him and neither does his grandmother, my mare’s dam. It seems like I’m always correcting him and I feel he’s going to resent me. But, he cannot be allowed to bite or always have his mouth on something.
Lee Ann Hull
Hi Lee Ann,
Well, the good news is that at some point, your horse will grow up and these juvenile behaviors will diminish. Young horses (like young humans) are very mouthy and will push their boundaries until they find the limit.
You must persist in corrections and moving him out of your space. If you seem to not be making progress at all, it probably means you are not using enough pressure; that your corrections are not harsh enough to motivate the horse to change. Horses love to play games, especially the younger ones, so be careful that he doesn’t think you are just playing a game with him. Remember, when male horses play, it is called sparring. They play fight, practicing important skills they will need later on in life (in the wild). Your colt could easily think your corrections are just play and that may be why he persists. If this is the case, you need to make it clear to him that you are not playing and be careful not to let him engage you or start a game.
There is a concept in training that says that however a horse is behaving at the moment, is the way he is most motivated to act. In order to change his behavior, you must apply enough pressure to motivate him to change. Depending upon how motivated he is to act that way to begin with, that will dictate how much pressure is required to motivate him to change. With feisty colts, that is sometimes a considerable amount of pressure.
As for mouthing the lead, nothing works better than the old cayenne pepper trick. Sacrifice a lead or two and coat it with cayenne pepper mixed with Vaseline. This will break him of the habit (this will also break the habit of chewing on the mare’s tail, if you coat it with cayenne). Also, make sure he has plenty of ways to use his mouth effectively by munching on all the grass hay he wants, letting him play with other colts and/or giving him stall toys to play with.
Raising horses is a lot like raising kids. They both do better with rules to obey, lots of structure and consistent discipline. My DVD called Lead Line Leadership will show you how to take a horse, young or old, through a systematic process that teaches him good ground manners and to respect your space and authority. Good luck with your colt!
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: Hi Julie:
I just recently purchased a horse in October this is my first horse and boy I am not starting off very well. This horse was 200lbs underweight when I got him so to say the least I baby him (oops). He has successfully gained 100lbs and I am very excited. He is a very loveable horse and has no bad habits except for the following. My first problem is every time I saddle him I cannot get him to walk as soon as I say walk he will for only a second and he immediately goes into a trot. Now that the winter has set in on warm days I walk him on the roads (I am not mounted on him) and just keep saying walk good boy…Now this weekend I am going to try and ride again but I am getting nervous and discouraged. My second problem is I cannot for the life of me get him in a trailer it takes me about 1 to 1 1/2 hours but once he is in he is fine. I am now at the point where I am putting grain and hay in the trailer but he will not go in for it. Any advice would be greatly appreciated…
Thanks for your email and it sounds like you are going through some fairly common scenarios with your new horse. Most often, horses are jigging because of the anxiety over the pressure on their mouth. It could be that your bit is too harsh or that you are holding too much contact on the bit and not giving a release in a timely fashion (about 95% of the horses I see jig for the latter reason). This Q&A will give you some food for thought.
As for the trailering issue, my first question is, did he load well when you got him? If so, he may have just learned to be disobedient and what you’ll need to do is basic groundwork to establish yourself as the leader of your horse. If he did not load well when you got him, he needs to be trained. There are many good techniques for training horses to load and I can share with you the technique I have found the most success with. However, it will be difficult to really explain this thoroughly enough to address all the variances that can occur with an individual horse when it comes to trailer loading. You may be better off enlisting some help from a qualified trainer and perhaps some of the things I mention may help you determine if the techniques you or the trainer use are effective. We recently did a Horse Master TV episode and DVD called “Loaded Up” that might help you understand the whole process.
First, let me mention the things I would definitely NOT do. Do not use butt ropes, whips, chains, tie a horse to the trailer or hit him on the rear with any objects. Most horses do not load because they are afraid of the confinement. Forceful techniques generally increase the horse’s anxiety, not alleviate it. Also, when you start forcing a horse with ropes, chains, whips, etc, the chances of him getting hurt are greatly increased and if he gets hurt in the process of loading, you’ll really have a big job ahead of you and you’ll never be able to undo the fear memory that was logged in his brain from getting hurt trailer loading (this is documented research). Finally, I do not like to put pressure on the horse’s rear-end in anyway. I want his attention focused forward and if you start hitting him or putting a butt rope on him, his attention is focused back and he is thinking about defending himself, not moving forward.
What we want the horse to do is move forward, willingly and calmly. It is important before you train a horse to do anything that you know exactly what the desired response is and design a training plan that leads the horse to the correct response. There are a few fundamental principles that I like to keep in mind when training a horse to load. One is that he has no choice except to go where his nose is pointed. So I will do my best to eliminate all other options for the horse by backing the trailer into an enclosure or up close to a fence, to eliminate as many escape routes as possible. Also, I must be able to keep total control over the horse’s nose and make dead certain his nose is pointed toward the trailer at all times once I am asking him to load. Once I begin to approach the trailer, I will not take him away for any reason, until he has loaded. I will keep the nose pointed at the trailer and make it clear to the horse that there is only one option for him- and that is get in the trailer.
Secondly, I need to keep in mind what the right thing is and what the wrong thing is. The right thing is to move forward when asked; the wrong thing is to move backward. Then I will make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard (one of the fundamental principles of natural horsemanship).
As I approach the trailer with the horse, I will ask him to move a few steps forward then ask him to stop. Then reward him with a rub on the neck and give him a moment to relax and look at the trailer. It is important to ask the horse to stop before he stops himself, that way you maintain control. If you ask the horse to move too close to the trailer too soon and he balks and slams on the brakes, he is now being disobedient and we want him to stay in an obedient frame of mind. So ask him to take a few steps forward then stop and relax and praise. At no time is he allowed to turn his nose even slightly to the side. Hopefully, if you have done good groundwork with your horse, you will have control over his nose. If not, you may need to work on some more basic things first (see my website for more info on groundwork and my Lead Line Leadership and Roundpen Reasoning DVDs). Give him all the time he needs to be comfortable where he is and do not ask him to step forward until he is calm. Every horse is different; for some you may be stopping 100 feet away, others won’t get nervous until they are closer to the trailer.
I like to use a rope halter with a 12′ training lead for this type of work, because it gives you much better control. I do not like to use a chain on the horse’s nose or chin, because that will add to his anxiety and it is much more difficult to release the pressure on his face. You can order a rope halter and lead from my website if you need one.
The next part of the equation will require some capable assistance for you. You’ll need someone to operate a flag, which is simply a stick of some sort with a plastic bag or piece of tarp on the end. The helper will stand very quietly back behind the horse, some distance away so as not to distract the horse. The assistant’s only job is to watch the horse’s feet VERY closely and at any time the horse begins to move backward, the helper will vigorously shake the flag, stopping the instant the horse moves forward at all. This actually takes a lot of concentration and excellent timing. You must shake the flag the INSTANT the horse moves back and stop the INSTANT the horse moves forward. The shaking, rattling plastic will be an aversive stimulus to the horse and it will scare him. He will quickly learn that he can make the scary thing go away by moving forward and that he can avoid it altogether by not moving back.
Through the use of the flag, the horse will learn that moving back is not an option, only moving forward is. If you have good control of the horse’s nose and he cannot move back, he will, in short order, realize that moving forward into the trailer is the only option for him. Do NOT use the flag to make him move forward. You ONLY use the flag to discourage backward movement. I cannot over-emphasize that the flagger must concentrate carefully on the horse’s feet and must have perfect timing with the flag, both starting and stopping the flag. In my experience, the flag is harder to do well than controlling the horse’s nose, but both are hard. Although the flag is hard, leading the horse is the most dangerous position so you must be very careful not to get hurt.
The first time you flag the horse, he is likely to explode forward, so be prepared and be careful and make sure you keep his nose pointed toward the trailer. This may be too big a job for a novice horse handler. Let him stop and settle before you ask him to move forward again. After he has stepped back a few times and gotten the fright of the flag, he’ll quit backing up and start thinking about what his other options are.
If your trailer is small, you won’t want to lead the horse into the trailer so you’ll need to have a long rope to run up through the trailer and back around to where you are standing beside the horse encouraging him to move forward. Take whatever time you need as you are training the horse. Don’t get in a hurry and give yourself plenty of time; the horse needs to know you will out last him. Once he accepts that backwards and sideways are not options, and that you will be persistent but patient, he will give in and load right up.
Once he gets in, he should find a grain reward so that his efforts are rewarded. But do not use the grain to bribe him into the trailer. When the flagging technique is done correctly, you’ll have the horse, no matter how bad he was, loading right up in no time. Keep loading him a few times a day, with him finding grain in the trailer each time and soon he will see the trailer and trot right in.
Again, I want to stress that this is very dangerous stuff and it is very easy for you or your horse to get hurt. It is advisable to get qualified help, but do not let anyone beat or force your horse into the trailer. With this technique, the horse decides on his own that getting in the trailer is his best option and when you can train a horse this way, you’ll always have a calmer and more cooperative horse. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
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.
Does Your Horse Fear the Canter Cue?
At my clinics and during the TV show shoots, I often see horses that are fearful of the canter cue. 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. No matter which of these riding errors occur, the horse can feel pain and quickly learn to fear the canter transition. Here’s why: 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 isn’t given a release when asked to canter, 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.
Some horses have been hurt so many times in the canter departure by the rider hitting him them in the mouth and slamming down on their backs, that they become emotional train wrecks when asked to canter. They throw their heads up in the air and run off; running in fear of the pain they are sure is coming. It’s a self-defeating behavior that soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for the horse because it causes the rider to stiffen and hold the reins tighter, which in turn causes the rider to hit the horse in the mouth and back. However, before starting on a training solution, you’ll have to rule out any physical cause for the problem, which is also very common in canter departure problems. It could be a saddle fit issue, a chiropractic issue or even lameness. Have your vet or another qualified professional examine your horse and saddle fit and once you have ruled out any physical cause, you can look to a training solution.
If I work with a horse that seems scared to move into the canter, here’s what I do: First, I work the horse at the walk to trot transition until I can trot on a totally loose rein with the horse’s head down and with him working at a slow, steady speed (if this is a problem, you’ll need to back up and work more at the trot with the exercises for slowing down you’ll find in my Training Library, http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php). Then I give my canter cue softly and in slow motion, (apply pressure with the outside leg, lift my inside hand slightly then push with my seat for the cue to canter as I make the kissing noise with my voice). Throughout the process, I leave the reins loose. If the horse throws his head up in the air and takes off, I let him go (so that he learns that he won’t be punished during the transition), then gently and slowly pick up on the inside rein to bring him gradually onto a large circle, which will discourage his speed (be careful not to get into the habit of turning your horse as soon as he begins to canter because it will teach him to drop his shoulder and come off the rail each time you cue him). I continue at the canter until the horse slows down and relaxes, then let him come back to a nice easy trot.
I repeat this exercise on a loose rein again and again until he learns to trust that his mouth will not be hurt in the upward transition to the canter and therefore loses his fear of the transition. Surprisingly, some horses will figure it out right away with the right rider, but if it’s an engrained pattern in both horse and rider, this problem can be difficult to overcome. It will help if the horse can learn the correct response from a skilled rider. This isn’t an easy problem to fix unless you have solid riding skills and confidence riding at speed.
If you need more help and a visual demonstration, check out my Canter with Confidence DVD and the Refinement and Collection edition, too (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827).
Once you have fixed the canter departure, and your horse is stepping smoothly into the canter, you can start thinking about collection. Before working on collection at the canter, you should be able to work your horse on a loose rein in an extended frame or on a short rein in a collected frame at the walk and trot, and have him maintain a steady speed, rhythm and frame.
You’ll need to have the ability to sit the trot and canter well and feel the rhythm of the gait in your seat and legs. You’ll need steady hands and to learn to use your reins in an alternating rhythm in timing with your seat and legs and your horse’s hind legs. If you can do all of this, you’re ready to work on collection once you’ve entered the canter gait. It will take time and patience for your horse to gain confidence in the canter departure and you’ll have to work to improve your riding at the same time. But if you work with patience and persistence, you’ll get there.
A Bit of Comfort
“When connecting reins to the bit, I prefer to use a leather to leather connection for softness and a better feel. While having metal snaps in the ends of your reins is convenient for changing reins and repositioning your reins, the constant clinking of metal on metal can be irritating to your horse and makes it difficult to have a soft and steady feel on the reins. Some leather reins have a quick connect feature made of leather, which may not be as quick and convenient as a snap, but will give you a better feel on your horse’s mouth.”
I have a question regarding using one rein, versus two, while riding and stopping your horse. When I ride with two hands or use the one-rein stop on my horses, it seems to calm them and refocus their attention. Can you help explain why direct rein pressure seems to be so effective?
Any horse will work better when the reins are used one at a time or with alternating pressure as opposed to applying pressure to both reins at the same time. There are several reasons for this and all have to do with the horse’s comfort.
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. It also puts constricting pressure on his tongue, making it impossible for him to swallow and gives him a choking sensation; this will cause him to lift his head and hollow in the neck and back.
Secondly, using both reins at once puts you and your horse in a tug-of-war with you that he will always win because he out weighs you by so much. In a sense, it gives the horse something to lean on or brace against.
We want our horses to stay soft in the jaw and relaxed in the neck with his topline slightly rounded. 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, jaw and palate; clamping his tongue down.
It is too much pressure and the horse’s only concern will be to get away from the pressure however he can. You also lose any ability to be articulate with the rein aids and use the reins to influence certain parts of his body, because the pressure is everywhere and is relentless.
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 and statically. It simply gives the horse something to brace against and lean on. He cannot lean one rein because it focalizes the pressure and keeps his neck bent instead of poking out straight.
You’ll always have 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 with his jaw clenched that we lose control.
Using one rein to stop or using both reins alternately 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 pulling on both reins at the same time—this rhythm should match the movement of the horse’s hind legs.
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. It is theorized that this is 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, if we can move a horse’s nose 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 everywhere I go) 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.
It is hard for people to grasp that they need to release the pressure before they can get the horse to stop or be responsive at all. 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 (disengagement occurs when the horse crosses his hind legs) which will always cause the horse to calm down, focus on you and accept your authority. Again, this is a natural behavior of horses but one that is only seen in neo-natal foals (foals under one month of age). If the mother disciplines the foal, he will sometimes drop his head and cross his hind legs in contrition.
When a horse crosses his hind legs it takes away his flight response, leaving him in a more cooperative mood. When you lift up 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.
We use disengagement any time we lose a horse’s attention or anytime he becomes nervous or fractious—from the ground or from the saddle. We use the one rein stop on young horses or any horses that are very forward and/or resistant to pressure from the reins. The finished horses stop off your seat, without any rein pressure at all. Disengagement and the one-rein stop are generally techniques that you can use on any horse at any time.
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
My horse is fussy with his head.
Help keep your horse from shaking his mane with these anti-head tossing tips from Julie Goodnight.
When you ride, does your horse fuss with his head, throwing his nose up in the air and tossing his mane? Does he root down on the reins, jerking you out of the saddle? Does he shake his head, grind his teeth and snarl his lips whenever you pick up the reins? Or worse, does he take off with you when you ask him to stop, running through the bridle no matter how much you pull?
If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and dangerous behavior then give you steps to take to help your horse to accept your hands and find relief on his mouth. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that’s happy and responsive to your aids.
Tossing and shaking the head, rooting the reins, grinding teeth and snarling lips while being ridden are all indications that a horse has a great deal of anxiety about the bit and pressure put on it. Unless he tosses and shakes his head when you are not riding or when he is not bridled, it’s safe to assume that there is an external cause for his anxiety—either the bit or your hands.
Examining your horse’s mouth will reveal if there are wolf teeth present—these are nasty little shark-like teeth that can be razor sharp and may interfere with the bit and/or cut your horse’s lips; they should be pulled when your horse is young.
Also look in his mouth for evidence of scarring on the tongue and in the corners of his mouth. This could indicate previous abuse with a bit or evidence of an accident (like running off with the reins loose or getting a rein caught on something). The scars may be hyper-sensitive to the bit and could be the root of the problem.
Once you rule out physical issues, we have to look to training problems and how much quality education your horse has over the years. Has your horse ever been taught how to respond properly to pressure on the bit? Does he know how to give softly both laterally and vertically when he feels the lightest pressure? This has to be systematically taught to a horse—preferably before he is ever ridden. Sadly, this stage of training is frequently skipped and many horses, young and old are hopelessly confused about how to find the release.
If your horse never learned how to properly respond to the bit, he has been searching for a way to get a release of pressure and has mistakenly learned that the only way to get it’s to throw his head, root the reins or whatever antic works. If he can’t get a release by any means, he’ll digress into more fractious behavior or just shut down mentally and run through the pressure.
Many horses know perfectly well how to respond properly to pressure on the bit, but have become anxious and fractious because the rider has uneducated or unrelenting hands. Either the release on his mouth comes at inappropriate times or never comes at all, no matter how your horse performs. Your horse is working for the release; if it never comes, he loses his incentive to respond.
The bit can be a huge factor in creating or relieving anxiety for a horse. Many riders switch to a harsher bit because they want more control over their horse. If the cause of the problems is related to anxiety over the bit, going to a harsher bit will only make matters worse. Typically going to a milder bit will give better results.
Amazingly, most horses tolerate un-giving, uneducated and harsh hands from the rider—they cannot perform to their potential, but they take it—day in and day out. Other horses are too sensitive or too volatile to handle it and exhibit undesirable behavior ranging from head tossing to bucking, rearing or worse.
Whether your horse shows a minor amount of irritation and resistance from pressure on the bit or devolves into a head-tossing fit, there are some actions you can take to fix this common complaint.
First, you have to rule out physical issues that may be causing your horse pain, unrelated to the rider’s hands. Have a vet thoroughly examine his mouth for teeth problems and/or scarring. If you find physical issues, they must be resolved or consideration given to alternative bridles, like the Bitless bridle, side pull or a mild hackamore.
If your horse shows no sign of physical problems, we have to look to his training and the rider’s hands. Either or both can be causing your problems. Your horse may need to go back to basics and learn the proper response to pressure on the bit. You’ll have to teach him to give laterally (to the side) and vertically (tucking his chin and flexing at the poll, with his face approaching vertical).
To teach him to give laterally, it’s best to start from the ground with your horse saddled and in a snaffle bridle. Slide your hand down one rein toward the bit about 1/3 of the distance from the pommel to his mouth (the other rein should be totally slack). Then slowly lift your hand up to the pommel of the saddle and lock your fist on the saddle so that he cannot pull on your arm and find a little release.
Wait until your horse bends his nose back toward your hand and voluntarily puts slack in the rein—then give him a big release and rub him on the neck and ask again. Work repeatedly on one side before switching to the other. When your horse gives softly as you slowly pick up the rein, bending his nose around before the pull comes on his mouth, he knows how to give laterally to pressure on one rein and you are ready to try it mounted (begin standing still).
Once your horse learns to give laterally on both sides, he can learn to give vertically by tucking his chin and breaking at the poll when he feels pressure on both reins. A trainer with skilled hands can teach this to your horse while mounted, but it’s best taught from the ground with the use of an elbow pull bitting rig. For information on how to use this bitting device, see the article on my website, http://www.juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=63 .
Most trained horses that have been confused by the rider’s hands and are acting out their frustration with problem behavior, will respond immediately to a rider with good hands. If your horse has been confused and ridden in a counter-productive way for some time, he may need time with the elbow-pull bitting rig to rehabilitate his training and recondition his muscles.
The critical factor for this type of horse is to retrain the rider to use her hands effectively and ride more often on a loose rein. Riders must learn to have giving hands that move rhythmically with your horse and adjust automatically with his head position. Until the rider is balanced with an independent seat and hands, she should ride on a loose rein.
By addressing the needs of your horse, teaching him the proper response to bit pressure and educating the rider, it will relieve your horse’s anxiety about the bit so he can happily perform his job. For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit www.juliegoodnight.com.
Question: Dear Julie,
My horse has an odor coming from his mouth. There is no evidence of tooth decay or abscess. What could be the problem??? Thanks for taking time to answer my question.
This is probably a question that your vet is better able to answer. In my experience, a bad odor from the mouth is usually caused by a dental problem, sores caused by foxtail or barley hay or bad breath emanating from his stomach. It sounds like you have already ruled out the dental problem. I have seen horses that eat either hay with foxtail grass or barley hay get festering sores in their mouth because the seed head burrow into the horse’s gums and this can give them a very rank breath.
I have also known of horses that are dealing with colic or have chronic gastritis to have a bad odor coming from their mouth. Gastritis can be caused by colic, long-standing ingestion of poor quality feed, cribbing, and infection from bots or ingestion of foreign materials such as bedding, sand, and stones. Horses in kidney failure will have an ammonia odor to their breath, but this is not likely since your horse would have other significant symptoms.
The only other thing that comes to mind is if the horse is eating his own manure; it is called copraphagy. You would have probably observed this by now. Hopefully your horse just has chronic bad breath and not medical condition.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer
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