Mouthing and Bitting - Old Fashioned Equitation Advice
Lots of postings on bits and mouths and bridles and hands have brought me to one of my favourite topics with regards to horses. (I know! I need to get out more!!!)
In my opinion this is a fundamental area of knowledge that is somewhat lacking nowadays. So many people who can afford to acquire horses can’t really be bothered with all the trouble of training them.
So many have important ommissions in their early training and groundwork and a lot stems from mouthing, bitting and use of hands.
As a multiples carriage driver as well as a classical horse trainer I well know how critical this subject matter is. When I drive 2, 3, 4 or even occasionally 6 horses, all I have to rely on is my hands and voice. Light harness horse instructors typically use reining machines to train drivers. In effect this is something whereby the pupil can see the effect their hand has on the horses mouth (because it uses pulleys and weights) and before they ever get near the horse. It’s critical for a driver because all you have is your hands and reins ….. and a lot of power in front of you and where it goes – if you’re lucky, you’re going too.
I was very fortunate in being mentored when I was a boy and through to adulthood by some great horsemen. In those days “mentoring” meant “Nothing worth doing is easy and you’ll work at it and boy, I’ll make you work!”
Over the decades I’ve come to appreciate that what I learned was invaluable and somewhat difficult to pass on because it’s become instinctive to me. I often fall into the trap of thinking “duhhhhh don’t all riders/horse owners know that”.
Bitting is a difficult thing to write about because a bitting expert is somewhat an instinctive thing. It’s something that I’ve a reputation for and am often sought out for advice but I find it difficult to put into words.
But postings on forums have motivated me to give it a go.
First rule: It’s really really really rare to have a horse born with a spoiled mouth. Aside from those exceptionally rare horses with conformational mouth or dentition deformity, I’d contend that no horse is born with a bad mouth. I’d also assert that no horse is ever foaled that has a one sided mouth.
It’s my absolute conviction that “hard mouths”, “one-sided mouths” and the majority of horses that pull, bolt, rear and nap are made by ham-fisted, heavy handed men and women and that these things originate from pain and fear of pain.
So a strong statement of opinion but one to make folks think that you make a good mouth on your young horse or else you remake a good mouth on an old horse that pulls and has a “hard mouth”
I can assure you that it can be done. I’ve done it not once or a couple of times but countless times.
Mentoring younger trainers myself has made me think about it and appreciate that there’s a lot to it though.
Hand position: (for riding) wrists rounded, elbows lightly touching your sides and thumbs across the body and on top. And light, light light contact. Take up washing lines means just that. It doesn’t mean pulling and picking up the weight.
Mouthing the horse: I've explained how I initially accustom a horse to something in it’s mouth previously. It seems it’s become an “old fashioned way” to mouth a horse by getting it so it’s totally comfortable about having something in it’s mouth. AND ensuring that it’s got no chance of hurting him. I either bridle a horse and put a straight bit in or else – really old fashioned! I use curb chains for mouthing and particularly for re-mouthing. On older “heavy or dry mouthed” horses I sometimes use 2 or 3 curb chains that they can chomp and play with. I either attach them to the bridle or to a head collar.
I start youngsters by letting them have 20 minutes when they’re alone and loose in their box and increase it slowly and gradually and so it’s up to 3 hours morning and afternoon. I’m looking for the horse to be working – playing and chomping on – the bit. I need them to be doing that and IMO when they’re not doing anything then it’s doing them no good. That’s why I don’t leave it on too long at first. I don’t want their jaws to get tired and for them to stop mouthing and therefore get into the habit of never mouthing.
That’s also the reason why I vary the height and sometimes what is actually in the youngsters mouth. I don’t want him to get used to them and not play with them.
Remaking a mouth is just the same only I often then use say 2 or 3 curb chains. So those ones never stand in a stable doing nothing. They’re often standing mouthing chains. I sometimes drop them quite low too and to down within an inch of the horse’s front teeth. Again I vary with an older hard mouthed horse say with the nose band loose or the chain low or higher.
I’m a huge advocate for free mouthing in this way but I’m also a great believer in pillar reins. I actually just attach a couple of pieces of light cord to the posts in the door of the stable and then attach to each side of the head collar or bridle, tight enough for the horse not to be able to get them in his mouth and chew them. And just let them stand there and mouth.
Bitting: A lot of folks concentrate on bits. So much so that I think some people think you can make a horse do anything with the right bit. For me the single word to be used when thinking of bits is…… COMFORT.
You have to understand the action of the bit you select and have to appreciate it’s effect in combination with the hands of the rider. So a nice plain jointed snaffle is often considered the best. NOT ALWAYS. If you happen to have it in the middle of the mouth and you’re active rising and lowering your hands then it is a pinching action on the bars or lower jaw caused by the joint in the bit. It it’s not in the middle there’s pressure of the ring against one side and a pinching of the ring against the other side and from which it’s difficult for the horse to escape.
Straight bar – if it’s in the middle it’s a level pressure. If not in the middle then just like the jointed snaffle it’s a pressure of the ring against the outside on the one side. But a level pressure on the other and the difference is that the moment the horse drops his head the straight barred snaffle falls into place in his mouth. That makes it quite good for say leading and why so many stud farms use it when leading stallions.
In my opinion though a lot of folks think that a snaffle is the “mildest” that’s not the case at all. Truth be told a lot of folks don’t ride a horse with hands so light that a snaffle is the most comfortable.
Gob-straps: Is the colloquial name that English Horsemen give anything that is designed to hold the horse’s mouth shut. They’re very much the vogue nowadays and I HATE them. If a horse is opening it’s mouth, then it’s not comfortable and a gob-strap is just stopping it from opening it’s mouth. It’s not going to make it more comfortable.
When you have a difficulty it’s best to try to trace it’s origin. So go back to use of hands, bridle fit, bitting and bit position. I know gob-straps keep the mouth shut but it’s prevention not cure. The cure must come from the bit and he’s holding his mouth open to avoid pain. DON’T JUST STRAP IT’S MOUTH SHUT!!
Horse Leaning, One Sided or Heavy: A lot of horses are described as “one-sided” or heavy or leaning on one side. I put all my pupils in front of a reining machine and ask them to close their eyes and feel the reins and pick up contact. It’s a rare treat to find someone that isn’t left or right hand orientated. Generally it’s left rein here and I’m convinced that’s also due to the English rule of the road. Most riders here ride on roads and I’m convinced get comfort from hanging on to the left rein. When doing arena work a heck of a lot try to main the horse on the circle by hanging on to the outside rein – away from where they think their instructor might see!
Tongue over bit: Always bad breaking is responsible for this. If a horse has got into the habit of putting his tongue over the bit or else has rolled his tongue back to try to alleviate the pain the bit is causing him then that’s down to bad mouthing and bad bitting and breaking. If it’s established as a habit over a long period of time it can be tricky to stop. But it’s back to basics and starting all over again thinking: COMFORT, HANDS, COMFORT, MOUTHING, COMFORT, BITTING, COMFORT. When all that’s sorted and it’s just become habitual then when all else has failed, using a tongue tape high can stop the habit. Then the bit needs to be a little higher than the norm when the tape is first taken off.
Pulling - It takes two to pull. If your horse pulls it's because you're allowing it. It may well have been trained over time to lean on the bit. Either "accidentally" because it takes hold to evade or avoid discomfort or deliberately because it's been trained say for something that requires it to lean on the bit. Ex race horses ordinarily lean on the bit. It's what they've been trained to do when they race.
The contact is pretty firm and the racehorse virtually leans into the bit almost to the point of tipping over if you release it. Same for such as scurry driving ponies.
IF a horse is strong or pulling then rather than looking to increasing the severity and force and action of the bit, much better to stop playing the game of pulling and give the horse a new mouth and IME often working much better is reducing severity and going to something milder and adopting a style of riding whereby there's no one to pull against.
Before leaving bitting, another old fashioned and extremely effective thing I was taught and still often do is I always take a bit of baler twine or spare curb chain in my pocket. (I’ve had a few photos of me eventing and hunting with baler twine flapping and been asked why on forums.) If a horse isn’t going comfortably in his bridle I put the spare curb in his mouth and make him mouth and play with the bit and chain.