When a horse avoids the bit

I sometimes get asked training questions via e-mail. Although nothing can replace hands-on individual training, I appreciate the chance to help people working with their own horses to find a kinder, gentler, and more effective approach to developing a true partnership. I will be posting some of these questions and answers on this blog. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see covered, please comment or email!

QUESTION: Sandi, I have been watching your site for a while. I got an OTTB a couple of years ago and am in the process of re-training him. I started out taking some Natural Horsemanship lessons. I am now trying to work with my horse to develop fitness and working with him doing dressage. He has a problem accepting the bit – I am using a loose ring snaffle. He opens his mouth and chews. My instructor says he is avoiding the bit by opening his mouth – he tightened the nose strap and then added a caveson. It makes me uncomfortable – how can we work through this without harsh tools? Any suggestions?

ANSWER: Hello! Since you’ve been to my website you may have read my article on Cavesons. I am very much against any device used to keep a horse’s mouth closed. This is not beneficial in any way in creating a healthy working relationship with your horse. It causes discomfort and makes him unable to use his mouth in natural movement. It also inhibits salivary gland function. If a horse is in discomfort, he will connect it with his work. Attitude and behavior problems can follow, or just general apathy towards his work.

You stated you were uncomfortable with the technique, and I feel you are correct to listen to your instincts. Regardless of who you work with, it is your horse, and ultimately your responsibility to keep him happy and healthy. Do not be hesitant in asserting your position. If your instructor does not respect your view she/he may also not respect your horse. We expect a horse to respect us and yet many people do not respect the horse equally.

Horses chew, chomp, and open their mouths for a variety of reasons. Being a TB, he may be a bit high strung and somewhat nervous of his new job. If so, the process of retraining him may need to be done slower, carefully watching his body language to know if you’re on the right track. Busy mouths can mean discomfort. Perhaps the bit is wrong for his mouth conformation, or it may be fitted incorrectly. Have his teeth been maintained? Mouthing can be a result of another physical discomfort, such as his back or limb soreness. It can be caused by hands that are too tight, unstable, or too busy. It can be caused by simply asking too much of the horse. Mouthing is simply an expression, but it’s an expression of discomfort. I urge you to take the caveson off, loosen your regular noseband and rethink all of the above. Herm Sprenger makes a wonderful training snaffle. I always suggest an eggbutt or a “D” ring versus a free round ring that can pinch lips easily. It’s important to know your horse’s mouth conformation. Some horses have a low pallet, some high. Lower pallets are harder to fit comfortably. Also, is the width of the bit correct? And how thick is the mouth piece?

Normally, I would start with checking the bit, the mouth, and the bridle for any possible problems. Then I check the saddle for a correct fit. I like to see the horse move freely on a lunge with a halter, then watch the horse being worked. Most often the problem can be evaluated through this process.

Without seeing your horse I cannot tell you exactly what the root of the problem is. Going through each of the above steps should bring clarity to you. Regardless of how you chose to proceed, I encourage you to trust yourself. If your trainer does not wish to be flexible in his thinking and open to possibilities, you will have to make a decision as to how to continue your training.

I often say “listen to your horse, he is the best teacher of all!” Please let me know if you have other questions or if I can be of any further assistance. I would also be interested in knowing your progress, and wish you much success!

2 Comments on “When a horse avoids the bit

  1. Great entries so far! I look forward to reading more! I too just started a blog, and I find that it is really helping me clarify my teaching concepts. I will refer my students to your blog!

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