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Training Conflicts - Giving To The Bit
WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor   [July 23, 2000]

Training Question:

I have read your other articles regarding horses that pull on the bit. I still have some questions. I have a 9 yr old Arab mare that is very high energy and always wants to go, go, go. She also has been allowed to pull on the bit and shake her head and get away with it for years. I am working with a trainer now to get her to learn to respect and give to the bit and travel in a rounded frame. She is ridden in smooth loose ring snaffle. When she is asked to go on the bit she fights and fights but will eventually give her head and round up if we maintain the pressure. The problem comes when it is time to reward her for giving by releasing the reins. She immediately takes that opportunity to surge forward again and resume the pulling on the bit. The trainer is telling me to maintain the pressure even after she has dropped her head and reward her by only giving just very slight release of pressure by only opening my fingers - but there is still pressure - I can feel it!

I can't seem to get my mare to stay on the bit on a loose rein, and I feel that it's wrong to ride her with pressure on her mouth at all times. But if I don't, she'll have me accross the arena in half a second! Is what my trainer telling me correct? He said that just opening my fingers on the reins is enough of a release for her to feel some relief and reward. To me, it still feels like I'm hauling on her mouth. I don't want to have to ride this mare on a shortened rein pulling on her mouth for the rest of her life, just to get her head down and maintain collection. Any advice or opinions would be greatly appreciated!
From: Jennifer

Trainer's Response:

I'd like to start off by saying congratulations on your decision to ride using a simple snaffle bit. Many owners don't realize that training solutions cannot be found in the bit. A simple, gentle bit is all that is needed for any horse.

I cannot tell you if your trainer is giving you advice that is "correct" or "incorrect". What I believe is that everyone has their own training solutions. Some may work faster than others, or may be retained more permanently that others, but I don't think that there is any "right" or "wrong" way to train a horse. It is the owner/rider's responsibility to evaluate the training methods they are presented with. Get the information you need, test it out, and decide if it works for you and your horse.

If you are concerned about the instruction your trainer is giving you, ask her to explain in detail why her specific teaching method works. Be sure that she can explain her methods in a way that that makes sense to you. Also beware of trainers who explain their training methods by saying "It just works", or "because I've been using this method for years". By using that type of explanation, it shows that the trainer really doesn't know the methods she is teaching.

In my opinion and experience as a trainer, the reason your mare continues to fight the bit is because her reward is not good enough. Your mare's reason to fight the bit is much greater than her reason not to. Her reason to fight the bit is the fact that the pressure is hardly released from the rein. Her reason not to fight the bit is that there is a very small release. By her actions of continuing to fight the bit, she is telling you that your reward is not a good enough reason for her to change her behavior.

No horse enjoys having consistent pressure on the bit. Many horses have been taught to "put up" with the pressure, or to ignore the pressure, but they sure don't like it. The process of training a horse to ignore the pressure is known as "desensitization". Through desensitization, the horse learns that pressure on the bit means "do nothing".

In your situation, we want to "sensitize" the horse. When a horse is sensitized to the bit, she learns that pressure on the bit means to "do something" instead of "do nothing". When pressure is placed on the bit, all she wants at that given moment is for you to take the pressure off of her mouth. This is why she may resort to fighting the bit and tossing her head. From what you have mentioned in your letter to us, your mare has learned in the past that the only way to get the pressure off the bit is to fight it.

She will continue to exhibit these behaviors until you teach her that they are not the "correct answer" to your cue. The biggest reward you can give her at the moment she does give you the "correct answer" is to release the rein completely. The bigger the reward, the more likely she is to repeat the requested action again and again.

Since you are only slightly releasing the rein, your mare continues to fight the bit. This is because she knows that either way (whether she fights or gives), the pressure will not be released. She knows that the pressure will still be there (the same as you do). It most likely confuses her, and she may not know what behavior is the "correct" one.

This is why I completely release the rein when teaching a horse to give to the bit. I want my horses to really know when they have given me the correct answer to a cue. I don't want to keep them guessing. I also take special caution to make sure that I am consistent in both my cue and my reward. When I am specific and consistent in my cues and rewards, my horse soon begins to be specific and consistent in his response.

When you begin to show your mare that the reward will always be there when she responds correctly (and with equal importance, that the reward will not be given when she exhibits behaviors other than the "correct" one), she will begin to enjoy giving you the correct answer. She will no longer be confused, and will also no longer need to guess whether she gave you the correct answer or not.

One more very important part to my training is to start by using only one rein at a time. By using one rein at a time, it becomes much easier for the horse to learn the task at hand. This is because she no longer has 2 reins to worry about, but only one. This teaches the horse to bend and give to the bit to the side. It is much, much easier to begin asking a horse to give to the bit to the side than when the horse's head and neck are in a straight line. The reason for this is because the horse's vertebrae become "disconnected" and "soft" when her neck is bent to the side. Therefore, it is much easier for her to resist your cue when her head and neck are in a straight line (since all her vertebrae would be lined up).

Once the horse learns to give to the bit using one rein, all you have to do to ask her to give to the bit in a straight line is to straighten out her body by asking for a small "give" on the other side. (But, don't ask your horse to give to the bit in a straight line until she has first mastered it and can be 100% consistent when asked to give to the bit to the side.)

When teaching a horse to perform any action, I first teach it at the halt. Once the horse has mastered it at the halt, I then teach it at the walk. Once he has mastered it at the walk, I then move on to teach it at the trot, and finally the canter. Once I have taught it at the canter, I then introduce the horse to more distracting situations while working on the same exercises again. This way, I have not only taught the horse to give to the bit in all gaits, I have also taught the horse to give to the bit in any situation, and with many distractions.

Here is the exact process I go through when teaching a horse to give to the bit: Let both reins hang loose. Then, slowly pick up on one rein (still leaving the other one hanging loose), and put light pressure on the bit. Hold the pressure consistently until the horse shows any effort to move her nose to the side. Once she has shown this effort (even if it is a 1/2 inch), reward her by completely releasing the rein. Wait at least 3 seconds and repeat the exercise. Be sure to repeat the exercise until the horse responds correctly 100% of the time. And, most importantly, use this exercise on both sides of the horse.

On to your problem with the horse taking advantage of the reward (loose rein) by running away with you... I use the same exact method as outlined in the above two paragraphs, except on thing: instead of releasing the pressure (rewarding the horse) when she turns her nose, I continue with consistent pressure until the horse slows to a halt. The horse will be travelling in a small circle. This circle will soon become uncomfortable for the horse (along with the pressure that is on her mouth). The instant the horse stops, I release the rein completely. This rewards the horse for standing still. This exercise should be repeated until the horse learns to stand still until asked to do otherwise (she should only move forward or move faster when asked to do so).

The amazing part to all this, is that once the horse learns the cue to "give to the bit", after you have asked a couple times in a row, she will begin to keep her head in the correct position for longer periods of time. She will begin to learn that it is no longer uncomfortable to hold her head and neck collected, and that it is actually rewarding.

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This article was published on: July 23, 2000. Last updated on: July 23, 2000.