Keys to a light-mouthed horse. Part 1

Visiting a western art museum recently, I was captivated by the Russell and Remington paintings of horses and riders. The harsh realities of cowboy life were portrayed by hard riding and bronco busting. Horses in action -vehicles of transportation and battle – seemed a sharp contrast to  horses in our modern western cultures as companions or partners in sport.  Though enchanted by the artistry, I was unsettled by the common denominator in every painting – every rider hauling on the reins; every horse a picture of mouth-gaping tension.

Today our everyday bit evasions might not be so dramatic but every evasion or lack of response must be addressed in our quest for the light horse.

Riding effectively can be distilled to a system of signals and responses – pressures and releases.

Your hands telegraph signals through your rein technique – as slow, turn or flex. I regularly ask riders I coach to describe what type of rein aid they’re using – direct, opening, indirect rein?

  As your horse responds correctly to each request, you respond with a reward, releasing the pressure and offering freedom. If he offers the wrong answer, you keep the pressure steady or even increase it. It’s like a conversation with your horse. By trial and error, he learns that a certain response yields consistent release.

When your horse shows resistance, he’s likely tried a few options to find relief from the pressure and none seem to shut it off.

Are you and your horse communicating? Your horse may signal he’s missing, or resenting, your message in some of these ways:

  1. Dull mouth. Your horse habituates to rein tension if he can’t figure out how to make it go away. He adapts to the pressure by bracing against it or tuning it out altogether.
  2. Rooting. The horse opens his mouth and thrusts his head and neck forward, yanking the reins out of the rider’s hands and tugging her out of the saddle. It’s a horse’s frustrated attempt to find peace from the rein pressure. School horses are quick to learn this trick – the unstable body position of a novice rider makes them easy to unseat.
  3. Above or behind the bit.  By trial and error, a horse discovers that curling behind the contact or raising, even tossing, his head above the contact buys some momentary  slack, similar to a drowning person gasping for air above the water line. Alas, an unwanted habit is born.
  4. Bit evasions. A busy mouth – chomping, gapping and grinding; rolling the tongue or sliding it over the bit. Horses have a menu of ways to relieve or reposition bit pressure.

“So, should I try another bit?”

In some cases, a bit change is the magic bullet. But rarely.  In most cases, there’s another source of physical discomfort or confusion overshadowing a bit issue.  In watching hundreds of horse and rider conversations, I’m convinced that the hands at the other end of the reins have the most dramatic effect in achieving the light horse. My job as the “bit operator” is to precisely time my release to the behaviour I’m after.

Next post – my 5 most common bit operator errors and suggestions to improve communication with the hands at the other end of the reins: