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