Solving Problems through Foundation Training


Ride! contest winner Jan Whitlow asked what steps I would recommend to correct head tossing and pulling on the bit when riding. As this is a very common problem that can also be easily solved, I thought it would be a terrific topic for a column.

With a lot of the common problems with horses, there is often a physical reason behind the behavior. Before we address changing the behavior through training, I believe firmly in ruling out any possible physical causes.

With head tossing and bit pulling, I believe it is valuable to start out by having an equine dentist check your horse’s teeth. Sometimes your horse has the caps off his teeth, or his wolf teeth will cause the head tossing or bit pulling. If the teeth check out as fine, then it’s a good idea to have the chiropractor come out for a visit. The vertebrae can sometimes be out of alignment, especially the first or second vertebrae, and when we make contact with the bit, it can really bother the horse.

If however it appears there are no medical issues, then it becomes time to check the equipment you are using. First thing to consider is if you are using the wrong bit. Is it too severe? Is your horse really ready for a higher level of bit (more leverage)? Bits should not be changed out lightly. There is an appropriate use and level of training for each different type of bit. The more leverage on the bit, the more critical it becomes that your horse truly understands giving to the bit, and that the rider has light hands, is riding with the proper amount of contact, and is releasing consistently at the right time.

Alternately, you may be riding in a bit that is appropriate, but simply does not fit the horse correctly. Is the bit too loose or tight, and therefore resting improperly against the teeth? The correct fit for a bit is critical.

When in doubt – I always recommend going to a properly fitted snaffle. If you find the horse is still doing head tossing or bit pulling, then one of two things is happening. First, it may well be that the horse has not been properly trained to accept/give to the bit. If this may be the case, then you can check out the April 2003 issue of Ride!, where I wrote a column specifically on training your horse to yield and give easily to the bit. If you cannot get a back issue, the column is also located on my website. If your horse has gone through the right training to give to the bit, then it’s clearly behavioral and almost certainly induced by humans. We are going to assume that is the case here and address the problem accordingly.

How many of you have witnessed wonderfully trained horses that were light and responsive become lesson horses for young or novice riders, and seen them start to develop bad habits very quickly… like head tossing, slow to go forward or slow to stop? It’s not the horse’s fault nor is it really the newer riders’ “fault” – it simply comes down to that all critical issue of timing and feel. Timing and feel take….. well, time to develop! It’s a lot of practice and doing it wrong at first. And very subtle gives by a horse can be especially hard to recognize and reward. Also as newer (or unfocused) riders, we can often be concentrating on one part of our bodies while another part “lets us down” so to speak How many of us have in the past have kicked the horse while simultaneously pulling back on the reins? Or ridden with a lot of contact on the reins because we were nervous, without really ever letting up on it?

It’s very easy to give horses mixed messages or to simply train them to perform the problem behavior because we released (rewarded) right at the moment they were doing the wrong behavior. It’s not their fault. Horses seek relief from pressure. If we do not give them the release when they expect it – they will search for it. When riding this often means throwing their head or pulling at the bit.

Now make no mistake, you can absolutely ride with contact, but you have to teach them that – you don’t start out this way! When the horse gives you have to soften every single time. There has to be a consistent reward when they are doing it right by giving them the release from the pressure they seek.

Fortunately there is one very simple and very effective exercise to work on this problem with your horse. You can do this with either one or two reins (and you should be prepared to “play” with the length, contact and anchor point a bit until you get the right feel). The next time your horse starts tossing its head, pickup on one rein, take out the slack and fasten your hand to the saddle, and I mean really anchor it there. With your hand anchored, the horse will keep bumping up against the contact as it throws its head around. When your horse finally quiets its head, even for a second, then immediately release. And then once again anchor and repeat the exercise until the horse realizes it’s far more comfortable to keep its head quiet than to be throwing it about. Do the exercise on one side for many repetitions until you can see the horse is really getting it, and then switch hands and work the other side the next time the head tossing begins.

The real trick to making this exercise work is that we have to educate our hands - otherwise the problem will come back. It’s all about timing and communication with the reins. You have to remain focused at all times on releasing/softening when his head is quiet.

Pulling on the bit is the same issue. And why we firmly anchor our hand is so it does not become a pulling contest. Because if it does – guess who will win? We let the horse do all the pulling and we simply hold hard to keep the position consistent. And then anytime the horse softens or gives – we release immediately.

If this is a truly chronic problem for your horse, it may takes dozens and dozens of repetitions over several days for your horse to really correct the behavior – but I assure everyone out there – this is a very fixable problem!

Next month we have a bit of a longer column. Ride! contest winner Carrie Stalsberg has requested that I write a column on how to evaluate and purchase the “right” horse for oneself. And also a reminder for the many folks with PMU or other foals, we do have that special “babies” clinic being held in December at the ranch. The clinic is designed for weanlings and yearlings, and covers foundation training basics that will get your youngster started off right. Foals can be a huge challenge no matter how cute they are! In the meanwhile, if you have any questions, please feel free to email at or visit us on the web at

Until next month,

Charles Wilhelm