Recently someone sent me an email asking about their horse’s training issues and she said, “I’ve had has teeth floated and his mouth checked by a vet, we even changed his bit but he’s still throwing his head. I think it’s just that he likes to throw his head.” Sure, that’s it—he likes doing that. I hear people say stuff like this all the time as if a horse’s anxious behavior can be explained by something as simple as, he just likes doing that.
If a horse is throwing his head, rooting the reins, star-gazing, opening his mouth or sticking his tongue out, there is a pretty simple explanation but it has nothing to do with him liking to do that. Once you have ruled out a physical/medical problem (which is always the first question) then you have to look at what is making the horse uncomfortable in his mouth—is it the rider or the bit or, more likely, both.
When horses are uncomfortable with the bit, it is usually a result of too much pressure on their tongues and in all of the behaviors listed above, the horse is simply trying to relieve the pressure from his tongue. Often, people think they are doing their horse a favor by putting the horse in a mild bit, like a basic snaffle, when in fact, they are putting maximum pressure on the tongue.
For our bitting experiment, our two subjects are Cari and Lakota. Cari is an experienced rider and Lakota is well trained but through the years of being used as a school horse and a therapeutic riding horse, he has become hollowed out and travels with his neck stiff and his head up too high. If you saw the first installment, you saw the before footage and the dramatic improvement he made when we switched him to the Myler Combination bit. This particular bit uses nose, chin, and poll pressure and minimizes the pressure on the tongue. Lakota was instantly better. This bit is somewhat of a miracle-maker and helps all sorts of horses relax and get comfortable and helps riders develop a better feel.
The next step in this bitting experiment is to use the Goodnight bitting system to recondition Lakota in a rounded frame, teaching him to relax his neck, drop his head and use his back and hindquarters more from a specific signal from the bit. For this, we put Lakota in my favorite bit, the Myler 33 mouthpiece on an egg-butt. This is the bit I use on my horse (both in the egg-butt if I want to ride 2-handed and with shanks if I am riding one-handed or working cattle) and it gives the maximum amount of tongue relief with the shape of the mouthpiece. You can see it briefly in the video.
Cari told me she was a little intimidated by using a new bitting system (she was on her own—I wasn’t there to help her) but was pleasantly surprised that it was not too complicated. The beauty of this system is that it teaches the horse to search for the release, which comes the instant he breaks at the poll and rounds his back. He learns self-carriage—meaning he holds himself in the frame, not leaning on the bit; so in this system he learns lightness too, while he conditions and strengthens his top line. The best feature of all about this bitting system is that the rider can mimic the feeling the horse gets from the bitting device once she is riding.
In this video, Lakota is in the bitting system for the first time and you can see him searching for where the release is. Watch for the moment when you see him totally round up and get very fluid in his body, using his hind end well and moving with a strong cadence—it’s beautiful! It’ll probably take a few more works before Lakota holds this type of frame for the whole session. I’d like to see Cari work Lakota 2-3 times a weeks in the bitting system for a few weeks and then give us another peak at his progress.
BTW- this process is thoroughly explained in my newest video, Bit Basics. In this video I work with a young filly that’s never had a bit in her mouth as well as an older rope horse who’s had his head tied down and is terribly confused about how to respond to bit pressure. Both horses make excellent progress and you can see the benefit of using this type of bitting system.
Until next time,
For training tips from Julie, visit the Training Library at http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php and check out her online store--full of training tools and DVDs-- at http://juliegoodnight.com/products.html