Very Best Bridling Etiquite
When your horse learns that opening his mouth gets you to remove your fingers, he’ll open his mouth willingly.
You don’t need a short horse. You need to teach your horse to drop his head to an elevation that’s comfortable for you to work.
The idea is to allow the bridle to hang vertically while you’re putting it on. That way, the bit will be comfortable in the horse’s mouth from the beginning.
While you hold the bridle in position with your right hand, your left index finger raises the horse’s top lip. No sense going beyond this step until the horse holds his head still and relaxed.
Keep your horse’s head down and his neck bent as you bring the bridle over his right ear.
Most of us can manage to bridle our riding horses, even if it doesn’t look pretty. However, this article isn’t simply about getting a bit into your horse’s mouth – or even about solving his teeth-clenching problems – although it will do that, too. It’s about taking an ordinary part of our daily interaction with our horses and making it better.
We’re on a quest to help our horse develop “perfect” ground manners. Remember, a horse’s performance will improve only when our expectations change.
We use “bridlework,” as I term it, to communicate with the horse both from the ground and in the saddle. And even though it may seem backwards to have introduced our ground manners series last month by doing an exercise that required that our horses be bridled, only to come back to the bridling and haltering lessons here, it does, in fact, make sense to your horse.
By teaching our horse the “go forward” cue, we’re now better able to explain to him where we want him to put his head. We faced his shoulder and tapped his hip with a whip to tell him that we wanted something. We may also have kissed to him to encourage our horse to move. When he did the right thing – stepping forward – we stopped tapping and kissing.
We applied our “magic formula” to teaching that cue. We had a motivator – the irritation of a tapping whip. We chose a particular part of the horse that we wanted to move – his feet. We picked a direction to have those feet move (forward), and we had a reward, which was stopping the taps.
Once the horse responded consistently to the cue, we had forward movement, which is the first word in our new language.
The second word, so to speak, had to do with controlling his hindquarters, and we applied the same magic formula. We picked a spot – his tail (or hindquarters). We picked a direction, which was away from us. We had a motivator (pressure on the rein) and a reward (release of rein pressure).
To put it into action, we asked the horse to walk forward. Then we pulled the rein, releasing it when the horse swung his hindquarters away from us and stopped his front feet. Remember the formula – motivator, spot, direction, and reward. We’ll be using it for every cue we develop.
The Third Word
When the horse swung his hindquarters away, he probably bent his neck slightly, turning his nose a little toward us. If he didn’t do it the first time, he was probably doing it by the 10th or 20th time because it’s easier for him to bend slightly than to turn with his neck stiffened. The hips-over action set up the horse so that the third word – turning his nose in response to the rein – happened automatically.
That’s how the training is going to progress. We’re going to set the horse up to be doing the correct action before we introduce the cue.
Tell the horse to go forward and move his hips away from you. Immediately release the rein. Repeat the same thing from the other side.
Now go back to the first side and ask the horse to go forward again. This time, pick up the rein and put light tension on it. The horse may think that you want him to swing his hindquarters over, but you don’t. Use the go forward cue to keep him moving forward as you keep pressure on the rein, but don’t pull him forward. The moment he turns his nose an inch or two toward you, release the rein momentarily.
You don’t want a major turn of the head, just what we’d have called a “baby give” in former years. Allow him to continue walking a step or two. Then pick up the rein, move his hips over, and release the rein. Change sides.
After three or four times, he’ll automatically turn his nose slightly toward you. When he does that consistently, it’s time to raise the bar. Instead of releasing the rein, hold it until he drops his head slightly – about an inch or so. He’ll likely do that as he brings his nose another inch to the side. That’s okay. Focus on the tip of the horse’s ear – a visible marker – and the moment it drops, release the rein.
You don’t want to train the horse to move his head way off to the side. You want a downward move, so be sure to release as soon as you see his head drop. Then end the exercise by asking the horse to move his hips over and release the rein.
After a several-second break, raise the bar even further. When you pick up the rein, the horse will turn his nose to you slightly and drop his head. Instead of releasing the rein, keep light pressure on it and look at the muscle in the middle of your horse’s neck. When it relaxes, release the rein. Keep the horse moving forward, move his hip, and release the rein again.
The relaxation of that muscle is subtle; it’s something you see, feel and sense. Imagine someone shaking hands with you. You feel the squeeze, and then you feel the person’s grip relax a moment before he lets go of your hand.
That relaxation is what we’re looking for in the horse’s neck because it will be our key that the horse is letting go of resistance. Even if you’re in doubt, release and continue to practice the exercise. Relaxation will happen automatically.
Don’t be concerned if your horse gets confused at first. He may turn his hips the moment you pick up the rein, or he may make other decisions, trying to guess what you want. But he’ll quickly figure it out if you’re consistent with your steps. You may even want to say them out loud (that’s what I do) to stay on track.
Teaching your horse to eagerly to accept the bit is one way to improve the relationship.
Position for the Bridle
Now we’re going to apply these skills to get the horse to accept the bridle willingly.
Most likely, at some point in teaching the go forward cue, you kissed or clucked to your horse to encourage him to move, just prior to tapping his hip. Over time, he figured out your vocal “pre-cue,” even if it was unintentional.
The horse is generally eager to please, and he will quickly translate your kiss to mean “move something,” not just “move your feet.” Your kissing sound can become part of the cue to position his head and open his mouth for bridling.
Bring your horse into a controlled space, such as a small corral, since you won’t have him haltered or bridled securely for part of the time. You can even do this in a stall or barn aisle. (It’s a great exercise for nights when it gets dark early, since you can do this indoors.)
If you’ve had bridling difficulties, don’t worry. By now your horse is getting the idea that when you ask him to do something, you’ll reward him when he does it. We’re going to concentrate on the behaviors we want. The behaviors we don’t want will go away on their own.
Put the halter on, pull lightly to ask the horse to turn his nose toward you, and kiss to him. If he doesn’t give to you within two seconds, kiss to him and ask him to step forward, as if you were going to do the bridlework we started with. The moment he steps forward and turns his nose, release the pressure and allow him to stop. Pet him, then bring his nose toward you again.
After a time or two, instead of pulling on the halter, slip your right hand around your horse’s head and use it at the position of the noseband to turn his head toward you. You may only be able to move it about an inch or so before he stiffens his neck and resists.
Position his head again, hold it in place for a moment, and then release it, as you did previously with the rein. Eventually, you want to be able to position the horse’s nose in front of your body. You’ll want him to keep it there for a few seconds.
- We will follow the magic formula of motivator, spot, direction, and reward for each cue we teach.
- Use your right hand or a halter and lead rope to gently position the horse’s head and face.
- Use your fingers rather than the bit on the corner of the horse’s lips to encourage your horse to open his mouth.
- Be courteous of ears and teeth when installing and removing the bridle.
- Support the mouthpiece with the headstall and wait for your horse’s signal that he’s ready to drop the bit.
When the horse pulls his head away, don’t chase his head with your hand. Instead, use halter pressure to ask him to bring his head back toward you. If he resists or tries to step back, counter the move by asking him to step forward.
The kiss isn’t the cue. It’s like the look that your mom gives you that accompanies what she wants you to do. It’s the “I mean it” look. The cue will be whatever you’re doing – moving his head, pulling on the halter, etc. The horse will figure out your pattern. With a little experience, he’ll do whatever comes next without you kissing to him.
Because of the bridlework we did initially, the horse’s head will likely be even with his withers. If it’s much higher than that, or if he raises his head as you begin, ask him to step forward, turn his nose using the lead rope, and drop his head. Release the pressure and allow the horse to stand.
Position your horse’s head and then release it. When he learns that you’re not forcing anything, he’ll relax. With successive tries, you’ll be able to move his head farther and for longer periods.
Keep working with the combination of moves – step forward, turn the nose, and drop the head – until you can ask the horse to put his head in just the right spot. Keeping it there is simply a matter of repositioning it the moment he moves his head. Think of this more in terms of shaping his movements rather than ordering him around.
Next, rest your finger on the corner of the horse’s lips. If he opens his mouth, remove your finger to reward him. If he raises his head, don’t remove your fingers or you’ll be telling him that raising his head is what you wanted. Instead, use pressure on the halter to ask him to bring his head back down.
If he doesn’t open his mouth with one finger in the corner of his lips (and many horses won’t), slip your finger a little farther into his mouth, being careful not to get it bitten. When the horse opens his mouth, remove your finger.
If he doesn’t open his mouth with one finger there, then use two or three, eventually working toward sliding your whole fist into his mouth. Most horses will open their mouths before that time. As soon as the horse learns that opening his mouth will get you to remove your fingers, he’ll open his mouth willingly.
Resist the temptation to dig into the horse’s gums. We’re trying to teach him a cue to open his mouth without throwing his head. Hurting him would be counterproductive.
Next, you’re going to practice a move that you’ll need later on when you put the bit in the horse’s mouth. Position your right arm up on the horse’s neck with your right hand resting between the horse’s ears. It will take a little coordinating to position the horse’s nose and then reposition your arm.
Most likely, the horse will raise his head when your arm gets over his head. If he does, allow the weight of your arm (or a downward pull on the halter) to tell him to drop his head. When he does, keep your arm in position, but relieve the weight. Your goal is for him to allow your arm to be on his head, because it’s your right hand that will control the bridle when you put the bit in his mouth.
When the horse is comfortable with you handling his head in that way, you’re ready for the bridle.
Want to have some fun putting on the halter? You can use the same lesson to raise the bar – teaching your horse to put his own halter on, all but fastening the buckle.
By now you’ve worked through all the preliminaries, and this will be fun.
Stand facing the horse and call him to you. Pet him. Then raise the halter only high enough to touch it to your horse’s nose, and then take it away. You’re teaching him that you only want to pet him with it.
Next, stand as if you were going to bridle your horse, and bring his nose around in front of you, as you did before. When his head is quiet and in position, open the halter as if inviting him to put his nose in it. Kiss to him, asking him to “move something” as you did before.
If he moves his nose a tiny bit down or toward the halter, move the halter out of the way and pet him. If he puts his nose down into the halter, pet him and make a big fuss over him. When he’s done that several times, then you can raise the crownpiece and buckle the halter.