Bitless Horse Training
Horse Training & Retraining tips without the bit.
( Part One )
By Bonnie J. Hilton (Horse training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)
With consistent, patient, educated handling, the young equine is brought up from in hand, to line, long lines, to harness or saddle, without mouth problems developing.
These time consuming stages are not always the approach taken today and sometimes when the bit is introduced, it is not fully accepted and understood. (Some readers want to know what bit, but I am not going to discuss bitting the youngster here.) If caught in the early stages, going back to the basics of bitting usually stops the problem and training continues without incident.
If bit issues are caused to escalate by impatient hands, it eventually becomes one of the biggest retraining projects faced with an equine who has developed the mental and physical problems that often accompany it. What do you do with a horse that starts chewing and chomping from the minute you put the bit in its mouth? What if this behavior only starts when you take up the reins and try to seek contact with the mouth? Does the horse work itself into such a trance with all the mouth activity that it is not always aware of your aids, your presence on the ground or under saddle? Does the horse have breathing problems while in work due to all the mouth noise?
Recently I challenged readers to try to imitate the mouth behavior themselves and see if they could breathe normally or focus on doing something while chomping, tongue rolling and locking the jaw. I think it would be a good group participation exercise in a training clinic!
Has the bit problem escalated to the point that the horse is inverting, holding its head to one side, boring, head tossing and/or rushing through the bit and aids, or the opposite, of balking and refusing to go forward? Is the answer in spending the time and expense borrowing and buying every type of bit on the market? If you have a bit formula that works, please share it with me and others! There is one thing I would like to note here before I continue.
There is no such thing as a hard mouth. I m just going to state that and leave the reader to ponder the meaning.
In the last several years there have been some new innovations in bit design and some really sharp marketing. As a side note about marketing. The warm and fuzzy approach that has infiltrated the internet and has people believing that bits are bad makes me angry. One of my students brought me some information that had come off a Website and I didn t like what I read. The inference was that bits were inhumane.
We keep going down this road of absurdness and our sport will be limited even more. I don t have the statistics, so I can t back this up, but I think that the majority of equines that are well trained and fit for performance and are being handled by individuals who are well trained and physically capable of performance, don t have bitting issues. Ignorant people cause bitting issues. Bad hands coupled with unfit bodies cause pain and subsequent mouth issues.
Bitting problems are not the fault of the horse and not the fault of the bit. They are results of plain and simple lack of education, knowledge, and experience! I know because I have produced bit problems. I had my ignorant years and I sometimes feel I am still very ignorant when faced with some of the retraining issues I run into. I used to think that the answer had to be in a bit change. The horse was not comfortable with what was being placed in its mouth or what was in its mouth was not working for this horse. Working where? Working how? Even now I am still clueless about bitting a horse that is having mouth problems.
The comfortable approach does seem nice to most people and is part of sharp marketing. This or that bit will make your horse comfortable. In my early years if I found a bit that could make the horse comfortable and still control it, the problem was solved. I didn t think past that day s performance and not much time learning about back to front suppling and conditioning.
Try not to be duped. Do your research, look for root problems with mouth issues and assess what you are requiring for performance and what your needs are for control. Is the problem with the mouth always there or does it just surface in competition when the horse gets excited?
There is nothing wrong with working mild at home and having to put on some extra whoa control when out in competition. However, look at the fitness level and what you are trying to achieve. Fitness can be the big root problem. The inability of the horse to bring its back end into push mode, support its back and come through its body from back to front with a balanced, pain free, performance will make problems surface in the mouth. Is the horse strong enough to hold itself in this frame you want? Over time, the inability of the horse to comply, coupled with the mouth response to your requests, will make it a habitual performance response no matter what you do.
The problem we all face in training, which is elusive and frustrating, is that true engagement has nothing to do with the mouth. I ll repeat again, don t be duped by the slick marketing on any bitting product.
Have you already tried working with various nosebands to supposedly help the horse accept the bit? The drops in all their forms are designed to discourage mouth gaping and avoidance during the formative stages of training and with keen equines that get strong in competition formats. Keen horses that get excited and need a little extra to remind them about your aids will respond better with a drop, it will add a little extra element of control. The drops won t retrain an equine that has developed what I call a bit trigger response. You can t encourage this type of horse to accept the bit with the use of a drop, because they don t understand what you want, nor can they physically do it in most instances. They have probably never understood what was wanted from them with this thing int their mouth. The horse will just tense up more and fight against the new restraint and if it hasn t already, it may start grinding. Then you will really have an endorphin producing problem. As I have mentioned before, what do you think a crank cavesson is for? Please, if your horse is bilateral from the back end you should not be having unilateral problems up front and have an issue with a plain cavesson on your bridle. I doubt that a plain cavesson causes a unilateral development problem and that a crank will correct it! I would look at the unilateral rider first. Here again, research what you read in marketing, don t take it on face value.
Common horse sense should tell you that if your horse has always been a reliable partner with no mouth problems and suddenly you have a mouth problem, something is wrong. I don t care if the dentist came last week, that in itself may be the problem. Get a second opinion and have those teeth checked again. Are there any puffy areas under the jaw line or a weepy eye problem that just started?
There may be something going on with the sinus area or the glands that is causing pain and the horse to fuss. Has the horse just come off some type of layoff, either due to injury or change in schedule? If a horse has fallen out of fitness, for the level of performance that you think it should be in and you attempt to ride at that level and force the performance, the horse may well exhibit rushing issues, one being fussing with the bit and boring against it to protect the back and hocks.
If the horse can t maintain its balance in the performance being asked for because of lack of fitness it will lean on the forehand and into the hand. No bit is going to supposedly solve this problem. I am not going to go into a discussion about fitness training, but think before you ask for a higher level of performance. If the horse is still a baby, teething issues can pop up from time to time until a full set of adult teeth are in place at approximately five years of age. Monitor the teeth of your youngster and be watchful for retained caps and the formation of points.
I was blessed as a child to have ponies and I rode with halter and lead bareback more than with bridle, bit and saddle. I didn t make the bitless connection as a trainer until much later in life. For horses that have minor mouth issues, but are performance fit, going bitless may be a good method to use to ascertain why the issues are manifesting.
Is there something you can change or are the problems just so ingrained now that they are habitual? I just recently put an older TB gelding bitless. He has contact inconsistency issues and his mouth and tongue tense at times. I also wanted to teach his rider how the equipment works, since they are starting to train other horses. If the training sessions go well, we will work the muscles for better range of motion and performance without the bit and hopefully achieve the same with bit in the future. During the first session it was obvious that he was looking for the bit by tongue searching, but overall he was moving more truly forward than usual. Some mouth rigidity came during canter transitions and it seemed what he was doing was habitual, although his work in the trot transitions was much improved and the rider had better results in the lower transitions.
During the second training bitless session, he went around (in open field) with his mouth closed, was notably more flexible and during canter work he was able to be schooled for a true flying lead change. Instead of fighting the half-halt aid by tensing against the bit and changing only in the front, he actually balanced in the bitless equipment and changed from the back end first. Time will tell where this experiment will lead, but if training sessions are productive without the bit and the horse can retain them, hopefully when we bridge back into a bit, things will be less inconsistent.
Return to Horse Training Articles