Question: I have a 13 year old Arab gelding, which my daughter raised from a baby. (We owned and bred the mother)..it was my daughters teenage project.. he was not used much and spent a lot of time in the pasture, and was sort of a pet. My daughter moved so I let a friend of hers use him and he picked up some bad habits. I can no longer get his bridle on. He just clenches his teeth and will not let me put the bit in his mouth. I have a hold of the headstall over the top and between his ears with my right hand and raise the bit into his mouth with my left hand and gently encourage him to open his mouth with my thumb. He has his teeth clenched tight and just throws his head around until I loose my grip. I do this patiently, over and over until I want to scream (which I don’t, I give up and try again later with the same results.) It is very frustrating because I have always been able to put a bit in his mouth before he spent a year with another person. He is also pulling back on his halter.
Answer from April Reeves: Assuming your Arab had good manners from the start, he may not be as difficult as some horses can be.
Let’s start with the tying problem, assuming the horse use to tie before. Purchase a rope halter if you don’t have one, as they will increase the sensitivity and teach the horse to come off pressure faster. Traditional web halters teach horses to lean and resist, as their pressure points are wider. Make sure your lead rope is at least 12 feet long.
What you don’t want to do is tie him up snug to something right away, as he will pull, and could do permanent damage to his neck and back. Again, our advantage is that the horse was good at being tied prior to his last handler.
This exercise will help remind him that he once came forward on pressure. With the rope halter on and a long lead, stand away from him and apply pressure to ask him to come to you. Continue the pressure until he moves forward. The minute he comes forward, drop all pressure and pulling immediately. However, if he pulls back from this, keep a tight steady pressure on the rope until he releases. Then begin to add additional pressure by pulling on the rope with more force. Keep the pressure steady; don’t release and retry. If your arms get tired, I wrap the rope behind my butt and lean on it. I have had to do this for almost an hour once.
Again, once he releases and moves forward, drop all pressure and pulling. The lesson is in your release, more so than his, as that is his reward and his discovery. After each time he comes forward, let the lead rope rest on the ground in front of him and just hold the other end quietly (reason for long lead line). This will be the beginning stage of training for ground tying. Although you have the other end, he feels the line on the ground and is not aware you are holding him. He may stand quietly to think about this situation. Let him soak it in.
Your job is to keep up the pressure to get him to come forward if he resists, and don’t quit, even if it takes 15 to 20 minutes. The second you get a forward release drop the rope like a hot potato, even if it is just a small release. Humans think horses responses are small, but to the horse, it’s a very big deal.
The lesson is in the timing of YOUR release more than the horse’s.
Over the course of 3 or so days of this, and he is coming off all pressure without hesitation, explosion or resistance, you may try to tie him again with the rope halter. Do invest in this piece of equipment, as it will not work without it. Web halters create resistance with their lack of intentional direction.
Make sure he is tied to something that won’t break or pull out, and that you have a quick release knot with one hand on the end, just in case. Tie him fairly high up so he won’t get a leg over the rope. If he does fight don’t untie him unless he looks as if he is going to get into trouble. Once he releases from the fight, let him stand and think about it. Do not speak or come up to him. This is his lesson alone. He must take responsibility for his pain now. Once he has had 30 seconds to think, untie him and lead him around, with lots of pats and praise. Then repeat each part over again, until he stands tied without resistance.
Humans think horses responses are small, but to the horse, it’s a very big deal.
From your explanation, a large part of his resistance has also come from your giving up. Horses do take enormous amounts of patience and time, and without that dedication from you, results will never happen. I’m not being mean, I’m just telling you the way it is.
Here is a response I sent someone regarding bitting. There are many helpful tips and advice in this, and their situation was much like yours:
The first thing I do when examining a problem is to look for the source. A horse that dances around when you are trying to do anything is doing so out of fear or conditioned response. With fear, the horse will always defend himself (rearing, striking), but your horse sounds as if he is typical of the latter.
The style of bit may or may not matter when you are attempting to bit him. If he tosses his head while riding then it’s time to move into a softer bit, preferably a French link with a roller. These bits are similar to snaffles but have one additional break. The middle looks like a small dog bone, and I like to use bits that have a small roller in the middle. The less severe a bit, the more comfortable a horse will be. Harsher bits only create more problems through increased anxiety and pain anticipation.
Before you start make sure this is not a tooth problem. Geldings have additional teeth that most mares do not (canines, wolf or ‘tushes’, used for fighting). Your vet can check for problems. Many horses refuse bitting from pain issues. Once this is ruled out, assume it is a training issue.
These steps you will take next can be quite difficult, and usually require a qualified trainer. I am not going to tell you this is easy as issues around a horse’s head can be very difficult to work with.
Everything we do with horses is training: everything. Quite often when bitting, owners begin the process, putting the bridle up to the horse and getting the bit near the mouth, but when the horse pulls away the owner stops the process, and the horse was just rewarded for it’s effort. Make the right things easy and the wrong things difficult. In this case, the horse‚s reward has been every time you quit. Let’s reprogram the horse first by changing your reward technique. He’s not a bad horse. He simply learned to dance because he though this is what you were rewarding him for.
Everything we do with horses is training: everything.
Put a halter and long lead shank on the horse (rope halter is preferable).
Next, instead of trying to bit the horse, we are going to teach him to stand quietly and enjoy the process. Take up the bridle (with no reins attached) and bit but make no attempt to put the bit in his mouth. Instead, carry a small treat in the bit hand. Hold it in a way that the horse will not get at the treat until you release it.
Now, this is the part where patience enters and anger leaves. Hold the crown (top) of the bridle in your right hand. You may either hold your right hand over his head through his ears or under his jaw and over the bridge of his nose; whichever method makes him most comfortable. This right hand will not put any pressure on the horse’s head, but just follow the horse‚s movements, always being there with him. It never leaves. The re-programming message is “I will always be there regardless of what you do, but I will never hurt you”. Follow him up and down, side to side quietly, being careful not to hit his face with the bit.
By now he is probably starting to dance. Move with him. The trick here is to not move away or lose your soft contact. Have the treat close to his mouth. Make sure the bit does not make contact with his head. He will likely dance around for quite a while. Patience, keep the hands in place and follow him. I use a handler on the halter, but do not put pressure on the horse. Handlers simply keep the horse from moving left or right too far. Do not attempt to hold the horse in place with the halter. The handler’s job is to direct the horse with little to no pressure. Allow him to back up. Horses need to feel like they can move their feet. Eventually he will tire from this and slow down and stop. Be patient.
If he continues to move, continue to follow. If you get angry and apply any pressure, the lesson is gone and you will have a tougher time as you have just destroyed trust. With horses, less is more. I have followed horses for over an hour, but they eventually stop. Stopping is a survival technique also, which usually kicks in when the horse realizes you are not going anywhere and there is no pain or pressure attached. Once the horse stops, it is a sign he is ready to think. Surrender is thought.
By now your arm is killing you and you want to sell him. Good! The moment of him stopping is almost there. Once that happens, and he is standing quietly, reward him with the treat, take the bridle away and pat him. The timing for this is the instant he is quiet, not two minutes after.
Then stand away and let him think about what just happened. This is the ‘magical’ part of training; this is what I teach in every clinic. It is in this small moment of surrender and reward that you gain trust, and although it may feel small to you, it is a very big deal to the horse. Timing is crucial here. He must be quiet before receiving the reward.
Once you have given him 30 seconds of ‘think’ time, go back to the beginning, keeping the treat in your left hand with the bit and the right hand holding the bridle softly in place. Prepare your arms for another session of pain. Once he stops and softens, treat him again, remove the bridle, stand back and wait 30 seconds. Repeat, repeat and repeat, until this means nothing to him other that “wow, this is great, I get fed”. Normally I do not use treats for most of my training, but this is one place where it works very well. Eventually he will stand still and look for the treat. It may feel like you have replaced the dancing problem with a treat problem, but now we have a horse looking to place his muzzle in the hand with the bit.
Now it’s time to ask him to accept the bit. If you have a rubber bit around, it may be useful to use this at first, so he won’t feel the metal hitting his teeth.
Position yourself again with both hands. When he is quiet, place a finger inside his gum area, moving it around, getting him use to things in his mouth. Do it only for a short second or two at first. Once you stop, stand back for 30 seconds and let him think again. Then go back and do it again. Make sure to keep your finger close to the gum area, do not put it in this mouth; you may get bit accidentally. Once he accepts that quietly, treat him once at the end of it. As he accepts this, ask a bit more of him, putting a little pressure on his gums to ask him to open his mouth. (You should be in this for about one hour at this point. I’m letting you know so that you prepare the necessary time up front.)
At this point I usually put the horse away. The next day I do it again, from the start, and if it’s done correctly, the horse usually settles in quickly. I will move through each process as the horse lets me, until he stands quietly for me to put a finger in his mouth and open it.
If you choose to carry on, and your arms are still attached to your body, and the horse is quiet, has quit dancing (he may still move his feet a bit), and his head is quiet, it’s bitting time.
Most important things to remember here are: 1. Do not hit the bit on his teeth, 2. Time it so that his mouth is open; do not force the bit in.
Stand in usual position with both hands, treat in bit hand. Bring the bit up close, put your finger in his mouth and when it is open slide the bit and treat in. Sounds easy, but it can be tough at first, as he will likely toss his head once he feels the bit. If he does, go back to the very beginning until he is quiet again. Do not attempt to bit him again until he is quiet.
This is very important. When teaching and training a horse, you must always ask “What is it I am teaching here?” At this point, if the horse reverts back to old behavior when the bit is introduced, go back to square one again, and retrain. The lesson is not to get the bit in the mouth; the lesson is to stand quiet when I work around your head. It is also important to always retrain and test. Doing it once or twice and having good results is luck. Re-teaching and re-testing is training.
If you succeed and the bit is in, put the bridle on the horse. Be careful you do not let the bridle drop and lose the bit from his mouth. Once you have the bridle on, stand back for 30 seconds, keeping his head from going to the ground. Go up to him and treat him again. Let him get accustomed to the bit and eating.
When training a horse, the important thing to remember is “What is it I am teaching here?”
Now put your finger in his mouth and see if he will open his mouth with the bit in. Once he does that quietly, you may take the bit out. It’s just as important to take time here, as rushing and hitting his teeth will set you back again. If he is quiet about this, treat him again.
You may feel you have created a ‘treat monster’, but it is only temporary. You must exaggerate to teach, and reward for returns. As the horse gets more and more comfortable with bitting, take the treats away until he bridles quietly with no food reward.
This procedure may take many days as head issues are not always easy to deal with quickly. Just keep in mind: patience, timing, persistence and reward. And give the horse thinking time.
Buying a Bosal is not the answer as they must be fitted properly and require retraining. They also need a soft quiet hand, as a horse can become resistant quickly to the incorrect handling of a bosal.