Monday, December 21, 2009

Don't Lean On Me ~ Softening The Hard Mouthed Horse

Well, let's start by saying there really isn't such a thing as a "hard mouth". Some horses do, however, become unresponsive for various reasons, normally caused by things as simple as the rider constantly pulling on his mouth while riding.

Pulling and hanging on the reins creates a horse that will lean on you and ultimately begin ignoring more subtle bit cues or even ignoring the bit (and rider) altogether. A mantra of mine during lessons, don't get into a pulling contest with your horse, you will not win. With that in mind, why would you even try?

More often that not, an owner or rider's answer to dealing with the issue is to put an ever increasingly severe bit in the horse's mouth. Unfortunately, that is never the correct answer and only serves to reinforce his aversion to the bit, often leading to a far worse problem than you had in the first place.

Sometimes an owner will bring a horse to me where the major complaint is the horse being difficult to control because he fails to respond to the bit. Your stereotypical hard mouthed horse. Since control really never is the issue, it's important to make sure the horse has the raw foundation of training and I spend a little time reinforcing those early steps. So, I go back to the basics and concentrate on a lot of lateral work, coupled with staying out of the horse's mouth.

Now, it does indeed depend on why the horse is "hard" to begin with, be it simply an issue of helping the horse understand that no one is going to pull on his mouth, a lack of training or whatever else may have caused him to shut down and refuse to respond. I want the horse to tell me how to proceed. Let's assume the horse is just shutting down and tuning his rider out.

If possible, I prefer to use a round pen because it gives me more of an opportunity to let the horse learn to carry himself instead of relying on the bit. I firmly believe in the concept of one rein stops, teaching them is important in getting the horse more soft. Also, using almost exclusively seat and leg cues along with a shifting of weight is imperative in helping the horse to learn the process of becoming "weaned" off his dependence on the bit.

With some horses, they'll 'get it' fairly quickly. Others take more time. One important factor to remember is any time you take hold of the horse's mouth, there must be a good, solid reason (as opposed to grabbing for control or picking at the horse) and you need to follow through with release so the horse begins to comprehend you're not going to be yanking or hanging on him like before.

All that said, I do expect and allow some horses (depending on the discipline) to work on the bit with contact. How can that be accomplished with a horse who's had a "hard mouth" issue? By offering release whenever possible. It's really as simple as that.



  1. No results without reward. Another way of saying "offering release." I had a dressage "trainer" who made a mess of every horse she got in training (unless the owners wised up and took the horse home). She used to tell me to "ride every stride," and what that meant to HER was "nag, nag, snatch, pick, jerk, grab, hang, gig" every stride which of COURSE made the horses object (sometimes strongly and dangerously) to her "methods."

    The horse has to know when it is doing things RIGHT. That is the value of "reward," which means Let It Just Go Forward (or Laterally) and correct or remind again if necessary.

  2. Very well said. I frequently see riders (and trainers alike) who seem to think picking at their horses is the answer. Unfortunately, all that does is create a horse that either leans more or is hesitant to accept contact at all.

  3. True. I mean, you HAVE to "be there" for the horse, which means maintain some form of contact. The horse has to know where you are and that you are going to be there and HE has to come to YOU (the dressage "mantra" ;o) Pretty soon the horse will become immune (or numb) to the constant nagging/picking. I can imagine you get a lot of horses where the best way to start with them is "back at the beginning," which means "back to basics."

    I ride with a gal who had a horse broke to probably 4th level and he was turned down by several professional riders/trainers because he would piaffe/passage from side to side, rocking instead of stepping evenly. Her husband liked the horse (she preferred another one) but they ended up bringing both of the horses home. With the "rocker," she put him back in a snaffle and started him as if he was Intro A. You should see him today. He is absolutely GORGEOUS, no more rocking, and he travels in the most beautiful frame.

    She hasn't been an open rider very long, but she is so talented. Anyone who watched that horse before and who sees him now is amazed, and I just love to watch him school. (He has always had that "glint" in his eye, but it's a GOOD glint. He loves his job ;o) She's going to bring him out at PSG, and he is going to be fantastic.

  4. Oh, probably a majority of horses I personally get in need some form of retraining and with a majority of them I entirely re-start them.

    With show horses in particular, there is so much pressure to get them in the ring in the shortest possible time (and I blame both owners and trainers for this) for a return on the dollars spent in purchase, training fees and show entry that frequently major holes are left in that training, with shortcuts and gimmicks taking precedent over good, solid training.

    Trainers are to blame for implementing these practices in the first place. Owners are to blame for not being more proactive in their horses' lives while they are in training. Both need to take responsibility for the benefit of the horses. :)

  5. I agree whole heartedly. I have a trainer who I ride with and she expects them to be show ready in 180 days. I took my newest colt to a young man who said he would work them at their pace and not push them beyond their two year old limits and this boy is riding fantastic. My other trainer was pushing me to get 60 days on him so I could ranch sort on him, but I didn't feel he was ready and so his progress has been outstanding with the new guy.

    I go to all of the big reining competitions and I see them all riding the young horses hard and driving them hard and they don't look happy. My show mare was one and we went all the way back to the beginning and turns out she hates reining, but loves pleasure. Go figure, relaxed and no jerking.

  6. I can testify to the bad trainers. My show mare was with 5 trainers and had many owners before I purchased her at 9 years old. Three years later we are just beginning to work quiet and she loves the days we just lope loose in our snaffle bit and she responds 75% better than she did.

    My trainer pushes me to get my two year olds in the green horse competitions earlier and earlier every year, this year our twos went to the ranch to check cows and just ride. They can show when they are three and ready to sort or rein.


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