Saturday, June 26, 2010
Signs your bit might not be fitting
I felt this was an important blog to write because I recently have been teaching a woman who is by far not new to horses yet had no idea her bit was causing her horse problems. She had tried a number of bits on this horse and nothing worked - he was always upset. As a result, she was having a lot of communications issues with him and was only riding him in a hackamore...which is fine, but I don't like it when a rider has to be restricted to a particular piece of tack. This is not a problem unique to her, in fact I find a great many experienced riders have no idea why they're using the bit they are or that it might be causing their horse problems. So what are some signs your bit might not be fitting or might not be appropriate to your horse?
Chewing - signs of excessive chewing can include the horse constantly clanking the bit in his mouth and foaming at the mouth excessively. A horse who is chewing excessively can be expressing anxiety or worry or can simply be growing accustomed to the bit (ie. young horses). Horses who are already mouthy (extroverts) will tend to chew sooner than a horse who does not use its mouth much to begin with (ie. introverts). Chewing when done in moderation is a POSITIVE sign in the horse who is being developed correctly and in a relaxed manner. Such chewing is the result of suppleness and a soft and responsive mouth and will leave some light foaming at the mouth. However chewing can also be a sign of an ill-fitting bit so it is important to rule out the possibility of an ill-fit in the horse who excessively chews.
Head-tossing - head-tossing can also be the sign of an ill-fitting saddle (particularly in the withers area) or bad hands, but if neither of those criteria are present, then check your bit. Head-tossing can be the sign of a horse who desires tongue relief or who is responding to the nutcracker effect of a single-jointed bit or a bit that digs into the hard palate.
Gaping mouth - again, rough hands can also cause a gaping mouth, but if your hands are otherwise soft and your horse's mouth is consistently open, don't just strap it shut - figure out why and try changing bits to see if it makes a difference. Mouthpiece matters - a lack of tongue relief or a bit pinching or digging into the horse's mouth will cause gaping.
Resistance - heavy hands can cause a horse to grow heavier in your hands, but a horse who is constantly fighting your hands may also be fighting the bit. The bit might not necessarily be hurting your horse, but for whatever reason it might not be the right bit for that horse, hence the resistance to your hand. This is the horse who is rooting, who pulls against your hand to drag his nose in the dirt or who is pulling his nose out whenever you ask something with your hands, pulling the reins from your hands. Of course this behaviour may in fact be more training or rider related than bit related, but the type of bit used and its appropriate-ness to that horse is important to also consider.
As a sidenote, how can you fix the horse who is rooting, whose nose is dragging in the dirt, if is NOT bit-related? Set boundaries. First off, a horse who is rooting has to drag the reins out of your hands, right? So when he slips his head down to drag his nose, let him 'hit' your hands. Close your hands and allow your horse to hit the end of rein you have given him. As he does, give him a little squeeze with your seat and legs, so that his haunches engage and his head comes up. If necessary, you can even bump a little with your hands as your horse hits the end of the rein you have given him - this doesn't mean you pull back or that your hands really move much, it simply means that your hands close sharply and maybe twist slightly to apply a bit of a 'bump'. Open and release your hands the minute your horse's head comes back up and is no longer resistant. Lateral work will really lighten a horse's front end and ultimately developing a horse to where he consistently and thoroughly engages from behind will lift his front - his level and consistency of engagement will reflect in his consistency in lightness upfront. This takes a lot of classical dressage! With horses who are heavy on their front ends and love to drag on their rider's hands, I like to remove ALL contact so they have nothing to pull against. Transitions, lateral work, ground poles, hills - all help the horse to develop carriage independent of its rider. Once independent, the rider may re-establish contact.
Please do not however confuse the horse heavy on the forehand and rooting with the horse gently chewing the reins from your hand, or the tired horse seeking relief via lowering his head. These feel very different from the horse using the rider's hands as a 'fifth leg' to lean on and root on, but if you cannot differentiate the difference or are unsure, seek the advice of a professional.
I find a lot of people really have no idea what they are putting in their horses' mouths or why. So when they change a bit because they think the previous bit is not working for their horse, they often end up switching to a bit that is doing the exact same thing as their last bit.
For further information on bits, read my previous quip on bits here. Some general notes:
- single-jointed mouthpieces exert a nutcracker effect on the horse's tongue and also exert pressure on the horse's palate
- double-jointed mouthpieces exert a little more bar and lip pressure but offer some tongue relief, will not have a nutcracker effect on the tongue, and will not poke the top of the horse's pallet
- curved mouthpieces shaped to the horse's mouth (versus a straight mouthpiece) can be a little more comfortable to the horse
- a port under 2'' will not (usually) interfere with the (average) horse's palate but will offer some tongue relief (slightly more bar action however)
If you are going to try another bit, try a double-jointed versus a single-jointed, or something with a small port versus no tongue relief at all - don't simply switch between single-jointed bits (etc) and necessarily expect a change in your horse. Change the type of mouthpiece if it is not working for your horse. Lastly, do your research (books, online, etc) to figure out what action the bit you've chosen will have on your horse's mouth - don't just ask the tack store dealer or your instructor. Consult bit professionals who have done their (extensive) research. Figure out exactly what that bit is doing to your horse and how, so that you can understand the mechanics of what it is doing any time you apply pressure to the reins and why it might be or might not be working for your horse.
Lastly, if your horse seems to be uptight about the bit you are using, also consider adjusting the headstall - the bit should be high enough in the mouth that it is not hitting any teeth (ie. canines) but so that it is not overly tight either (no more than two wrinkles at most!). Preferably, there should be NO wrinkles and the horse should be allowed to pick up the bit in its mouth on its own. Ensure the bit is not so loose however that it is allowed to clank against the horse's teeth. Also, using a bit that has a roller or sweet iron can give a fidgety horse something more constructive to do. Ultimately, developing relaxation and suppleness in the horse is key, as is really engaging his brain.