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CORRECTING BRIDLING PROBLEMS

And Preventing Them In The First Place
CORRECTING BRIDLING PROBLEMS

Text by John Moore, Photos by Ralph Prideaux

We’ve all seen them - horses that refuse to open their mouths to accept the bit, or horses that throw their heads in the air to dodge the bridle, or horses that see a person coming with a bridle hanging on their arm and depart the territory. To correct these problems we must first recognize how they got started and take immediate steps to end whatever is causing them. This doesn’t mean the problem will just immediately disappear, since the bad behavior has now become a bad habit or conditioned response, and changing bad habits is a big undertaking. But it does mean that your correction will have a much better chance of replacing the old “bad” behavior with a new, “good” behavior if you are consistent with your new approach and in not repeating what caused the problem. We must remember that “bad” behavior is only viewed as such by us humans, since it goes counter to ourgoals. To a horse, behavior like this is a logical “avoidance” behavior, used to avoid an uncomfortable situation.

So to address this problem, we’ll take a look at what might be its causes and how to eliminate them, then divide our approach to correcting the problem into separate exercises that can be learned and practiced independently. We will then combine these exercises into a bridling technique that aims to erase the old conditioned response of avoidance with a new attitude of acceptance. However, the success of this endeavor will be enormously negatively affected if the root causes of the problem are not eliminated.

It is important to note that this approach to bridling is also excellent for introducing the bit to young horses that have never been bridled. It helps form a good, relaxed attitude toward the bit and bridle along with some very good submissive habits.

 

Possible causes of problems

 

When you think about it, you are asking a horse to accept a piece of steel into one of the two most sensitive areas of its body, the other area being located under the tail. This piece of steel is held in place by the bridle. Attached to this piece of steel are a set of reins leading to a set of hands that may or may not have the sensitivity necessary to communicate lightly, without causing pain or damage, to one of the most sensitive areas of the horse’s body. Mostly likely, given the law of averages, the hands on the other end aren’t nearly as sensitive as they should be. In this article I won’t even go into how rough-handed riders create hard-to-catch horses. I’ll just stick to how they create hard-to-bridle horses for now.

So, we’ll begin our scenario with the horse already caught and standing next to you, wearing a halter and waiting to be bridled. Put yourself in his shoes for a moment. Is he anticipating discomfort from what is coming? Is the bit ice-cold? Does the bit pinch? Is your bridling technique sloppy and upsetting? Do you adjust the bridle so that he has constant, unavoidable discomfort? When you leave for your ride will you be applying constant pressure on his mouth (and I don’t mean contact)? Do you sometimes yank on the bit? Do you do anything that distracts the horse and causes discomfort and therefore dread of the bridle, bit, saddle or anything else? Think long and hard on this. Many people do these things, yet they would answer “no” to these questions because they are doing what everyone else is doing in their stable or riding club. It is “normal” in their world so they think it must be correct. It’s not correct, and your horse is trying to tell you so. There can be other reasons for a horse to avoid the bit or bridle, such as dental problems, so think about everything you do and investigate any possible causes. The things I’ve listed are just the most common ones.

Preparation for bridling

Fig 1.

Fig 2.

Fig 3.

To create a new bridling technique that paves the way for the horse to accept the bit into its mouth and the bridle over its head, I teach the horse the following pre-bridling steps in the following order. First a word of caution: I teach each of these steps to riders and horses at my clinics, and some of these can be difficult and even unsafe with some horses and some people. It’s always best to get hands-on instruction. Doing these things after reading an article in a magazine can lead to varying degrees of success with different horses and people. If you run into trouble, stop and seek qualified help or join me at a clinic. The steps are as follows.  Before bridling a horse, I want to be sure it will…

1) …lower the head.  I start by sliding my hand up the back of the neck toward the head, applying more pressure as I go (fig. 1).This is often much easier said than done, and many people trying this for the first time with a horse that won’t budge will say it is impossible. But it is possible. Just keep this concept in mind: if he’s pushing against you don’t yield to him, and the instant he yields even the slightest amount downward, raise your hand away from his neck. If the horse drops its head even a tiny bit I immediately remove my hand and allow the horse to move away, downward, from the pressure. If the horse hasn’t moved, or actually raises its head against the pressure I will then pinch with my thumb and index finger in the area right behind the skull until the horse yields away and drops its head (fig. 2).

To create a new bridling technique that paves the way for the horse to accept the bit into its mouth and the bridle over its head, I teach the horse the following pre-bridling steps in the following order. First a word of caution: I teach each of these steps to riders and horses at my clinics, and some of these can be difficult and even unsafe with some horses and some people. It’s always best to get hands-on instruction. Doing these things after reading an article in a magazine can lead to varying degrees of success with different horses and people. If you run into trouble, stop and seek qualified help or join me at a clinic. The steps are as follows.  Before bridling a horse, I want to be sure it will…

Remember that it is of utmost importance to allow a horse to move away from pressure. The goal here is to have the horse lower its head at the slightest request, and keep it there, under your hand (fig.3).

Fig 4.

Fig 5.

2) …bend the neck and bring the head around to the side (also called “lateral flexion”). I begin this by standing beside the horse and reaching under its neck to the opposite side and applying pressure to the cheek area (just above the teeth) with my fingertips. If the horse resists or pushes into my fingertips I increase the pressure until I get the slightest yield away from my fingertips, then I instantly remove my fingertips to give release (fig. 4). As with the first exercise, the initial yield may be very small, only a fraction of an inch, but reward it by bringing your hand away and giving release to the pressure. You will build on this by repeating the exercise, being sure to  reward the slightest try with a release, until the horse relaxes and moves its head all the way to the side with a light touch of your fingertips. When this has been accomplished, teach it again using the lead rope. In this case the pressure to the cheek will be applied by the opposite side of the halter in the cheek area. When the horse begins to yield its head toward you, be sure to allow him to move into a release by not continuing to pull, but rather letting the rope go slack as his nose comes toward you (fig 5). If he has trouble making the switch from your fingertips to the lead rope, help him by also using your fingertips in conjunction with the lead rope until he can yield to just the lead rope.


Fig 6.

Fig 7.

3) …do steps one and two simultaneously. For this I use my right elbow and forearm to lower the head, using the same principles of pressure and release. Then, using the lead rope in my left hand I ask the head to come sideways toward my body (fig. 6). I then slide my right hand down to the side of the face and ask the horse to keep his head there (fig. 7). All of this is teaching the horse the position in which we would like him to have his head during bridling, and it is also building trust, submission and an association of relaxation with the process.

 

Fig 8.

Fig 9.

 4) …allow me to massage its gums, above the front incisor teeth, with my fingers. This exercise is very important in replacing his old apprehension about having a foreign object in his mouth with a new association of relaxation.I begin by slipping my fingers into the corner of his mouth, keeping them high and out of the way of the teeth, then along the side of his gums and toward the area above his upper incisors (fig. 8). I begin to massage his upper gums in that area with my index finger. It’s a good idea to wet your finger with the horse’s saliva a bit to lubricate the area and not inadvertently irritate it. The horse may, at first, raise its head and try to avoid the situation out of habit, but this soon ends when he realizes that this massaging actually feels good (fig. 9). In

 

 

 

 

 

Fig 10.

 reality you are causing an endorphin release that relaxes the horse and creates a good association with the activity. I continue this while gently asking for the horse to drop its head and bring its nose toward me (fig.10).  We are creating a relaxed association with good bridling position.

Do this exercise off and on when you are handling the horse on a daily basis or as often as you handle him, not just when you are bridling him. This way the horse learns to view it simply as an enjoyable interaction with you when you come for a visit, and not just something you do when bridling. This will preserve its value in case you need it some day to correct him if he begins to revert back to his old bad habits. If he simply associates it with bridling it will be useless for later corrections – he’ll be wise to you and you won’t be able to trick him into it. 

 

 

 

Fig 11.

 

 5) …open its mouth when I insert my left thumb into the side of the mouth. Standing beside the horse I lower the head with my right elbow and forearm, then slide my right hand down the right side of the horse’s face in order to maintain the laterally flexed head position with my fingertips. Then, holding the horse’s jaw in the palm of my left hand, I insert my left thumb into the mouth in the toothless area in front of the molars, where the mouth-piece of the bit will rest (fig. 11). There isn’t much way for the horse to prevent this, for even with his jaw clenched tight there is still a space in the toothless area in which you can stick your thumb. If he raises his head or tries to escape, lower his head again and return him to proper position. Don’t allow him to escape and rest and regroup his thoughts enough to get a release (reward) before returning him to position. If he tries to escape he should get no release until he is back in position. When my thumb is in place I then wiggle it upward into the roof of the mouth which causes the horse to open its mouth and chew. When this happens, remove your thumb. Occasionally, a horse will give you a hard time with this, but generally this step goes pretty smoothly. If this is repeated several times throughout the day and thereafter, the horse will soon learn that the insertion of your thumb is a cue to open its mouth.

Fig 12.

Fig 13.

Fig 14.

6) …allow me to grasp its tongue and bring it out to the side as the horse relaxes. Caution. This is a dangerous exercise. If you have the slightest doubts about your abilities or your pain threshold, do not continue. I hesitated to include this step in this article because of the inherent danger of having your fingers in the vicinity of a horse’s teeth. This step can be skipped. I included it because it is very helpful in getting a horse to relax its jaw and become at ease with my hands in and around its mouth. It is also very helpful when you need to orally examine a horse or administer de-wormer. But it is not vital to your success in working on a bridling problem, so use good judgment. 

I begin in the same way as the gum massage, but this time I slip my fingers and thumb into the mouth in the toothless area in front of the molars (fig.12). Be extremely careful with this exercise since it is easy to accidentally get your fingers between the teeth, and either have them crushed or lose then completely! I’ve had mine crushed, and I really, really advise that you take my word on this and skip the first hand experience! At this point the horse may retract its tongue, making it hard to grasp, and the darn thing is slippery too! But, keeping your fingers clear of the teeth, reach into the mouth and grasp the tongue. The horse will probably raise its head in avoidance once again, but hang in there (fig. 13). The idea is to get the horse to relax and give you its head laterally and allow you to hold its tongue out to the side. When this has happened and the horse is really relaxed (fig. 14), release the tongue. The horse should stay relaxed and lick and chew for a moment.

With any of these exercises, if the horse jerks away or tries to escape when you finish, your timing is wrong and the horse is getting the wrong idea. The horse must be calm and relaxed at the conclusion of each exercise for it to gain the proper relaxed association. If you are not able to attain this, STOP, and don’t proceed without qualified help. You will make your problems worse!

 7) Repeat and review. Just because a horse does something once doesn’t mean it is locked in his brain, especially when you are trying to replace an old bad habit with a new good one. So, do these exercises as separate games when you are handling your horse at any time, not just when you want to bridle him. Its important to remember that each exercise is built on the previous one, so if you have trouble with an exercise go back to an earlier one and get it solid before moving on.

 

The above exercises can be taught to young horses long before they are ever bridled for the first time. It teaches them to automatically assume the correct position for being bridled, with no “bad” mindset associated with the bit, bridle or the bridling process. This, in conjunction with good riding skills, contributes to the creation of a well balanced horse that doesn’t dread the sight of the bit and bridle.

Bridling

When I am able to perform these pre-bridling exercises smoothly and consistently, I am ready to ask the horse to use these positions and yields in the bridling process.

Keep in mind that a “bad” habit like refusing to accept the bit is actually a “conditioned response” to a stimulus, or cue. A horse with a bad bridling problem has developed and practiced a response of avoidance to the sight of the bridle and / or the bridling process, or even your preparation for bridling (all of these are cues). He wasn’t born this way. He learned to view things negatively from bad experiences, and so he learned how to avoid them. So it is hardly fair to blame the horse.

We now have him to a point where he has learned that these pre-bridling positions are not so bad, and actually rather pleasant. This doesn’t mean that he won’t have a momentary brainless relapse back to an old habit. In fact, you can expect this. But it does mean you have a new replacement behavior to bring him back to his senses. And you will have practiced and will continue to practice these exercises the rest of his and your life, which will gradually make it easier to bring him back to the new habit of acceptance.

Fig 15.

Fig 16.

Step 1. To begin, I get my equipment in order, holding my bridle by its top center with my left hand, with reins hanging off my left arm. I leave the halter on horses during this training process in case I need to get instant control over a horse that might try to escape.  I then stand beside the horse and pass the bridle under his neck with my left hand while I reach over his neck with my right hand and grasp the top of the bridle. The reins are still hanging off my left arm (fig. 15). If the horse tries to raise its head during this process I use my right elbow and forearm to lower the head again. If he tries to escape to the right I use the lead rope to bring him back into position.

Step 2. Holding the bridle by its top center in your right hand, slip the horse’s nose through the bridle, allowing the bit to hang loosely under and behind the chin (fig. 16). This is a point when the old conditioned response of avoidance may pop up, so you should repeat this step numerous times; approach the horse, place him in the proper pre-bridling position with his head low and neck flexed with his nose pointing in toward you, get your bridle in place using step 1, and place his nose through the bridle while he maintains proper position as in fig. 16. You should not proceed with any further steps until everything is working well up to this point. Repeat this several time per day or per handling session until it is second nature to you and the horse.

Fig 17.

Fig 18.

 Step 3. When all the preceding steps are going smoothly, you are ready for the next step of inserting the bit into the horse’s mouth. Begin by lowering the head and placing the horse’s nose through the bridle using the technique explained in Step 2.

Fig 19.

 Hold the horse’s jaw in the palm of your hand and support the mouthpiece of the bit with your fingertips. The actual weight of the bridle is supported by your right hand. Next, insert your left thumb into the side of the mouth and wiggle it, causing the horse to open its mouth (fig. 17). As this is happening, raise the bridle with your right hand and gently guide the bit into the mouth with the fingers of your left hand (fig. 18). Now that the horse is bridled you still have the halter under the bridle. This is actually a good thing while you are working on a bridling problem. I like to leave the halter on when I ride a horse that has a bridling problem in order to maintain control during the bridling and un-bridling process. Unbridling Letting the horse get away from you during either of these steps introduces a whole new problem to deal with, so its best to not let it get started. Many horses with a bridling problem have already developed this “escape” behavior, so the halter is a great tool for teaching a horse how that trick doesn’t work anymore. In time, when you feel that the horse is getting good at the bridling and un-bridling process, and you are not seeing any more fear, resistance or evasion, then you can begin bridling and un-bridling with no halter at all. There is actually a way to remove a rope halter from the horse’s head after the bridle is put on over it, but I’ll have to show you that at a clinic.After the bit slips into the mouth, switch hands and hold the bridle up with your left hand and tip the right ear forward with your right hand as you raise the bridle high enough to insert the ear under the bridle (fig. 19).

Fig 20.

Then do the same with the left ear. Straighten the forelock, adjust the bridle, pet the horse and let him stand awhile with the bit in his mouth (fig. 20). This is an important step. If a horse is not used to wearing a bit and bridle it is important to let him wear it until he’s relaxed before removing it. If you have properly prepared the horse by getting all of the preceding steps well established, the horse should be accepting of this. Once in a great while I encounter a horse so terrified of the bit that I have used a piece of quarter-inch diameter rope instead of a bit, in conjunction with all the preceding steps, to get the horse used to the idea of a foreign object in its mouth before introducing the bit. The rope is soft, so even if it touches the teeth it doesn’t cause any discomfort. This has been a very effective extra step in getting horses through this process, and is one to consider if you encounter a horse like this.With the halter beneath the bridle you have the option of just tying the horse by the lead rope for awhile or taking him on a walk while he wears the bridle and bit without anything being asked of him with the bit. He should be relaxed before you remove it.

I sometimes see people unbridle a horse by dragging the bit out of the horse’s mouth, banging the teeth and as they go. So, often when I am working with a horse that has a bridling problem it has an un-bridling problem as well; throwing its head in the air and shying away when the bit comes out. This is a reaction to the discomfort of the bit hitting the teeth when someone yanks it from the mouth. It is also one reason horses develop a fear of the bit in the first place, and hence a bridling problem. So, NEVER DO THIS! You will destroy everything you have accomplished. Not only will you cause the horse to revert back to its old bridling problem, but throwing the head and shying away will quickly become a conditioned response the horse will associate with un-bridling.

Fig 21.

When unbridling a horse, slip the top of the bridle over the horse’s ears and support the bridle’s weight with your right hand, then slowly lower your right hand enough to allow the horse to drop the bit out of its mouth on his own (fig. 21). ALWAYS ALLOW THE HORSE TO DROP THE BIT ON HIS OWN. Be patient. If it takes him a few seconds it just means he’s relaxed, and this is what you want. He has to relax his jaw to drop the bit. That’s a good thing.

In Conclusion…

Bridling and unbridling, as with any other exercise we do with a horse, should ultimately be a pleasant experience for everyone involved. Horses who have had bad experiences with bits, bridles and heavy handed riders will need your patience, skill and understanding in order to turn what has been a bad experience into a pleasant one. You must stay calm and focused as you work through these exercises and always give release when the horse gives you the desired yield. Always reward the slightest try. You are reprogramming his association with a foreign object in his mouth from one of fear and apprehension to one of calm and relaxation. This is at the heart of success.

 Correcting this problem is not a quick-fix, and handling and training horses is inherently dangerous. Some of these steps can be dangerous. So watch it! Don’t do anything you feel unsafe, uncomfortable or unqualified doing. Seek professional help or visit me at a clinic for hands on help with these steps. All the best to you and your horse and stay safe. 

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