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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us on
the web at www.cwtraining.com
Until next month,