Turn that ‘bit battle’ into a willing act of acceptance
We’ve all seen this movie: The reins are thrown over the shoulder and the bridle hangs from the hand. The rider lurches straight-on toward the horse in high hopes of actually getting the bit into the horse’s mouth and the headstall properly over the ears of the animal.
The horse, however, has a different opinion about all this. He views this person as some kind of challenge with armor draped everywhere, glistening in the sun.
Scene two: Person grabs bit in one hand, throws the reins over his shoulder while letting the bridle droop (he’s sure he can just gather all that up later after the bit is properly inserted). Then he tries to insert bit into horse’s mouth, all the while shouting ‘just open your mouth’ while he maintains a clenched jaw. The metal bit, however, just keeps clanking on the horse’s teeth. The horse can see no reason to cooperate, and in all reality can’t see much at all since the person is directly in front of him (the horse’s eyesight is limited when the object is directly in front of him). So the horse, in its desire to get rid of the person and the hardware, tosses his head. The bit goes flying up and hits the person’s chin, ricochets onto the cheekbone, and the person winds up with a black eye. The horse, in the meantime, has backed away (possibly run away), snorting and unbridled.
So what can you do to avoid this drama? Bridling a horse, even for the first time, can be a simple, smooth, uneventful lesson. Let me tell you how.
Basics are Basics
Whether your horse has issues that are big or small, or the lesson is big or small, Basic Control is a must — especially when you’re teaching the horse something new like being bridled. Basic Control has six fundamental parts: Go, stop, left, right, back and stand still. Getting these controls polished on the ground will give your horse the understanding he needs to progress, and the tools you need to teach your horse something new. Basic Control leads to everything you do with your horse, so don’t overlook these foundation elements.
Basic Control is the first essential step in the bridling lesson, with emphasis on getting the horse to stand still. Make sure that you’re working in a safe area, one in which you can catch the horse in case he gets away from you. After you’ve achieved “stand still” with your horse, teach him to lower his head (both Basic Control and head lowering can be found in my program and in my DVDs).
You’ll need a cotton lead rope, a 3’ dressage whip, and a regular web halter. Of course you’ll also need the bit and bridle. Choose a section of safe fencing or solid wall to work alongside.
After mastering “go forward, stop, turn left, turn right and back up,” ask the horse to stop his feet, say “whoa” or “stand” and then just relax; don’t touch the horse or look at him. Just stand there.
If he begins to charge forward or move away, use the lead rope to give him the cue to back him up to where you started. If he moves away from you in a backward motion, then use the dressage whip at the girth at “spot one” to move him forward.
Continue to put the horse in the right position, saying whoa or stand, until he just willingly stays in one spot. This lesson is essential for proper and safe bridling.
Teaching the horse to lower his head on cue is a valuable training tool and is useful in many applications.
When asking the horse to stop, whether he’s going forward or backward, apply slow, subtle pressure to the lead rope in a downward fashion (don’t jerk or use an abrupt or harsh motion). This will cause the horse to lower his head on cue.
As soon as the horse drops his head even the tiniest amount, release the pressure from the lead rope and halter. On the other hand, if he raises his head, then add gradual pressure, releasing the pressure the moment he lowers his head (even the slightest amount). Your goal is to have the horse’s head at about your waist level.
This application and release of pressure has a certain rhythm — remember to release the pressure the moment the horse responds. The best reward for the horse is the complete release of pressure.
Bit Simulation Using the Lead Rope
After your horse has polished the lessons of standing still and head lowering, get the horse accustomed to activity around his mouth. Place the palm of your hand on the side of the horse’s mouth and rotate your palm in slow circles, using as much pressure as the horse will tolerate. Many horses like this “mouth massage” work. Do the same slow circles on the front of the horse’s mouth too, keeping your hand outside the mouth. Stand alongside the horse’s head, not directly in front of him, when you’re doing the “mouth massage” on both sides of the horse’s mouth (you can work both sides of the mouth from one side of the horse’s head). After he’s learned to accept the mouth work, then gently insert your thumb into his mouth where the bars are (the part of the mouth on the bottom jaw where there are no teeth), asking him to open his mouth. Keep your fingers away from the front teeth. You should also now be able to lift the horse’s lips too.
Once the horse is comfortable with the mouth work, stay standing at the side of the horse (in front of the shoulder and beside the head, facing forward) and use your left thumb to open the horse’s mouth. Your right hand and arm should be over the horse’s poll as though you had the top part of the bridle there. Take a loop of the lead rope and gently slip it into the horse’s mouth, as though it were a bit. Don’t force it up too high in the horse’s mouth — let it rest on the bars of the mouth like a real bit would. The horse will undoubtedly mouth and chew on the rope, which is fine.
Once he’s comfortable with playing with the lead rope in his mouth, then stand alongside him (facing forward) in front of the shoulder and beside his head, open his mouth with your thumb on the bar, and slip the rope from the mouth as though it was a real bit being taken from his mouth. If he pulls away at any point during the process, do not put more pressure on the lead rope! Just let him move back or forward and simply follow along with him, then ask him to stand still. Remember that he should stand still because that was part of the initial lesson here before you started anything with the bridling exercise.
Repeat this process a number of times until the horse thinks it’s no big deal to have something placed inside his mouth and then removed.
If you’re wondering whether you should keep the halter on during this simulation process or during the real bitting process, that’s up to you (but don’t tie the horse!). I find the halter a bit cumbersome to have under the bridle, but it’s a matter of personal preference.
Over the Ears
Now place the lead rope over and around his ears — over and behind the ears, off and around the ears, and repeat a number of times. This will help the horse from becoming ear shy, and help him accept the bridle over his ears once the bit is in his mouth.
If the horse raises his head, lower his head with the ‘head down’ cue (you may need to put one hand on the poll using slight pressure and one hand on the bridge of the horse’s nose to steady him using even slighter pressure).
The Real Deal
Stand on the left side of the horse with the bridle and reins over your left forearm. Ask the horse to lower his head. With the reins now either draped over your left arm or just left to dangle on the ground, put the top part of the bridle in your right hand. You should now have the crest of your horse’s neck (the top of the neck) sort of cradled in your right arm. The bit should be held in your left hand, between a spread of your first two fingers and your thumb. Your ‘pointer’ finger lifts up the horse’s top lip and the second finger pushes down the bottom lip. Don’t bang the horse’s teeth with the bit. Use your thumb to press on the bars to open the horse’s mouth.
At this point, your left hand guides the bit into the mouth and the right hand pulls up slowly and gently on the bridle; that way both hands guide the bit into the horse’s mouth. Grasp the top of the bridle with your right hand and lift up gently, guiding the bit. Put the bridle over the right ear, and then the left ear. The last thing to do after the bridle and bit are in place is to secure the throat latch, but not too tight. Put the reins over the horse’s neck and let him stand there getting comfortable with this new experience. It’s okay to let him mouth and fuss with the bit for the first few times he’s bridled. He’ll get over it!
The most important parts of this bridling lesson are the ‘stand still’ lesson and the ‘head down’ cues. The rest should be fairly easy. Remember to take your time; don’t make the horse wrong for any reaction, and don’t get mad or frustrated. Be patient and persistent.
Simply do the steps described above, only in reverse order. Undo the throat latch first, bring the bridle down over the left ear then the right ear, taking care to not have any part of the bridle poke the horse’s eyes. While holding the bridle in your right hand with enough upward pressure so that it still holds the bit in place in the horse’s mouth, use your left hand to open the horse’s lips, then the mouth, then gently guide and drop the bit out of the horse’s mouth.
Don’t yank the bit out of the horse’s mouth! That’s when the horse will start developing unwanted behavior like pulling away, pulling back, throwing his head, etc. Having the bit clank on his teeth hurts — just think about it. Make sure his lips are open, his mouth is open, and the bit is smoothly dropped from his mouth. Don’t bang and rush . . .
How Do I Know if the Bit Fits?
I use a full cheek snaffle on all my horses. The old Cavalry manual says to make the bit fit with two or three wrinkles at the corners of the horse’s lips. I don’t like that because I think having the bit too tight puts too much pressure on the tissues of the mouth. I’d rather see the bit touching the corners of the mouth, with no wrinkles at all. I think it’s also more comfortable for the horse.
With a D-ring snaffle, many people prefer to ride with a keeper or some kind of curb strap.
I like using a full cheek snaffle because it provides the least amount of pressure necessary to get positive results; it covers a larger area which distributes the pressure. With a full cheek snaffle, however, you need to be careful about working around the horse’s head. If he lifts his head suddenly, the bars on the outside of the bit can catch you — or your hat or clothing.
It’s Kind to be Kind
If the weather is chilly, please warm the horse’s bit before placing it in his mouth, whether it’s the first time he’s worn a bit or the 1000th time. The mouth has very sensitive tissue, and a steel bit can be incredibly cold. I usually put the bridle over my shoulder with the bit inside my jacket before I start grooming or saddling the horse. That way my body heat warms the bit before I bridle the horse.
Rinse your horse’s bit after he’s worn it, even if he’s the only one to wear that bridle.
If you follow these steps methodically, and don’t skip any of them, your horse’s bridling experience should be easy and without drama. Just the way we like it!
As always, stay safe and have fun.
For more information about Ryan Gingerich’s Connective Horsemanship Program, visit www.RyanGingerich.com or call 800.359.4090.