I have a Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse with a sweet, can-do disposition. But he likes to chew and pull on the bit. When I bought him, he came with the bridle and bit, and he was trained. I have had the veterinarian check him out, tried lots of different bits, have had his teeth done, along with a chiropractic adjustment. I have ridden on a tight rein and a loose rein. Nothing seems to help. Looking for suggestions on what to try next.
Name withheld by request
This is a great question. Pain can often cause problems like yours, and I’m glad that you have done your research to ensure that this behavior is not a result of a dental or orthopedic issue. Since a physical problem has been ruled out, we can explore a couple of possible solutions.
First, look at your equipment, and consider how your bit acts on your horse’s mouth. Any kind of bit that collapses completely (you can fold the bit in half, touching the rings or shanks together), like a snaffle or a French link, can act like a nutcracker and pinch the bars of the mouth when you are in contact with both reins. In addition, these mouthpieces and similar ones that lie straight across the tongue can cause a horse discomfort and limit his ability to swallow. Some horses are very sensitive to this pressure. A ported bit—one that lifts up over the tongue between a quarter inch to three quarters of an inch—will offer some relief and in some cases may make a big difference to the horse.
It is difficult to offer specific training advice without watching you work with your horse, but I can offer some general ideas that may help. First, rather than focusing on a loose rein versus a contact, think instead about having a “feel” in your hands and timing your release. Putting steady, continuous pressure on the reins will dull the horse and create a tolerance to that level of pressure. At the other extreme, if you avoid using the reins completely, your horse will become lost because you are not able to direct him effectively.
To help your horse soften and accept the bit, develop some yields at a slow speed. Ask him to move his hindquarters and then his shoulders, using one rein at a time and giving the horse time to respond. Remember to use your body first, and then your rein, so that your horse begins to respond to your seat and the rein comes just after. Pretty soon you will be able to use less rein and more of your seat. This will create a much better connection while riding.
The important concept is to hold; don’t pull. To appreciate its importance, do a practice exercise on the ground with a friend. Each of you can grab an end of the rope and take turns being the horse and the rider. Start by having the “rider” pull on the rope so the “horse” can feel what happens. As the “horse” comes forward, the “rider” keeps pulling. After being pulled around a bit as the “horse,” you might feel the urge to pull back, to anticipate the pressure and create a brace to get in a power position. Next, have the “rider” apply a pressure slowly, and when the rope becomes tight, rather then pulling harder, hold that same pressure. Now, as the “horse” comes forward off the pressure, the rope becomes slack, and the horse finds release. Think of this concept each time you pick up on a rope or a rein, and you will find your real horse becoming more responsive and softer.
Be aware of when you have rein contact, and why. For example, I often see people standing around at rest with a contact on the reins. In many cases, a horse will become annoyed by this pressure, and he will root the reins from the rider’s hands. This behavior may go unnoticed until it becomes a habit, and it creates dullness in horses that will also spread to other parts of your ride. I teach my horse to stand still without having to hold the reins. That way, if he goes to root the rein away, he will find nothing to pull against, and often in a short time, the habit washes away.
Natural horsemanship trainer and clinician
Abbotsford, British Columbia
This month’s expert: Jonathan Field is a trainer and clinician from Abbotsford, British Columbia. His program, Jonathan Field Horsemanship: Inspired by Horses, teaches the skills necessary to build a relationship with horses. Field grew up riding both English and Western and worked as a cowboy on one of the largest cattle ranches in Canada. Field regularly does presentations at events like the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento, California.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #465, June 2016.