Answer from April Reeves: There are two kinds of ‘hard mouthed’ horses.
The first is rare. This is the horse who has physical damage from abuse and mishandling of bits over a period of time. This mouth will show scars and hard, dense tissue with no nerve endings left. There are very few horses like this, and in my lifetime I have only seen 2. To get a horse this damaged takes incredibly rough handling. Once the damage is extensive enough, the nerve endings will never come back, and the horse is likely never going to work in a bit again.
The second is where most horses are:
Untrained. A hard mouth is simply an attitude or lack of proper training and suppling. Most horses will avoid pain and pressure, and lift their heads high to avoid this. Some horses have learned to take the bit and hold it firmly to avoid the pressure. While humans often think the horse is just plain bad, the truth is that the human trained the horse to do this, step by step.
“Everything you do with your horse is training.”
If your horse is sensitive to the touch on his lower bars and upper palate, it’s likely his head tossing or high carriage is a conditioned response he has learned, to avoid discomfort.
Careful retraining by a very qualified rider may be necessary, as a rider who already has a horse like this will not have the sensitivity, timing and feel to ‘release’ and ‘take’ appropriately.
An untrained mouth can come back to soft very quickly and easily. I am working with a mare over 30 years old. She started out 6 lessons ago with her head in the air. Her rider is sensitive enough to learn timing and feel, and within this short time, the mare is moving long, down and forward for the first time in her life. Her owner is ecstatic, as she has never been able to ride this mare long and low, and is looking forward to training levels in dressage next spring. This rider simply did not know the lesson to school her horse to be light, but had the sensitivity to pick it up quickly.
You are never too old to learn how to train an old horse. I have never found the ‘older’ horse to be a deterrent in training, other than unsoundness or stiffness.
The photo above shows me and Max working in balance, low and forward, with a soft, responsive mouth. This is what you want to begin with when training for any discipline.