Introducing the bit to a young horse for the first time does not need to be difficult. All you need is some thoughtful preparation and a clear path: Purpose, Preparation, Process, Progress and Problem-Solving.
Purpose: What's the goal for the horse?
It's really important to start by knowing the goal. Having the outcome in mind helps you make steady progress towards it, and you'll have a clear picture – it's not just putting a bit in the horse's mouth!
In this case, the goal is for the horse to not be afraid of the feeling of a bit and to understand how to respond to it.
Preparation: Thinking ahead
Think about what it is that you want your horse to know and understand. For example:
- To reach for the bit willingly when you bridle him
- To get used to the feeling of wearing it.
- To follow the feel when it moves (rather than avoid or fight it).
Choose a simple snaffle, preferably a little on the thick side at first so it is less likely to hurt your horse's mouth if he was accidentally blocked by it. Use a single or double-jointed snaffle that has a smooth surface, and a simple bridle.
Process: What to do
1. Handling & simulations.
First of all, make sure you can gently handle your horse around the mouth, rub his gums, and cause him to open his mouth by gently pressing on his tongue through the side of his mouth.
Next, simulate bridling using a training string. Tie it in a big loop as if it was a bridle, so it would loosely fit from his mouth to his ears. Ask your horse to lower his head, hold the top of the loop with your hand between his ears, and guide the string into your horse's mouth as if it is a bit. When it touches your horse's lips, wait for him to nibble at it and take it in, rather than pushing it in.
Adjust the size of the loop once it's in his mouth so it is not tight but not loose, and then leave it like that until his mouth is quiet and he seems quiet and undisturbed. At that point, you can take it out again. Now you can start with a bit.
2. Teach your horse to bridle himself.
The goal is to be able to hold the bit out in front of your horse as he reaches forward and takes it into his mouth. Hold a treat behind the bit and wait. Pretty soon your horse will nibble the bit into his mouth and then the treat. It will not take long before your horse can't wait to be bridled! Use the treat every time you bridle for several sessions, and then intermittently.
3. Teach your horse to reach into the bit using "bit isolations."
Many horses get upset when they feel the bit move and end up avoiding it or fighting it. So it is important to teach your horse to stretch forward and down into the feel of the bit.
Put your fingers into the rings of the snaffle and gently lift it upwards into the corners of the horse's lips towards his ears. Even though he may lift his head at first, move his jaw, or even throw his tongue around, wait until he tries to push towards the bit. The moment he does, release the pressure and wait for him to process what just happened.
Repeat these bit isolations until it becomes an automatic response; don't rush. This is an important investment in your horse's confidence and understanding.
4. Using the reins, teach your horse to follow a feel.
Stand alongside him and ask for…
- Lateral flexion
- Hindquarter disengagement
- Hold both reins and ask your horse to back up a little
- Repeat from both sides
This is about yielding to steady pressure, so remember to apply pressure gently, in phases. Go slow. This will help you have better 'feel' and more sensitivity to your horse's responses.
Pressure motivates and release teaches. Horses learn through release, which is why it's important to release the moment your horse tries to give the appropriate response. Patience is the most important element when teaching your horse.
Progress: How to proceed
Ride your horse with a halter and snap reins and the snaffle over the top. This will get your horse used to the feel of wearing the bit first, but without using it. After a few sessions, you'll be ready to snap the reins onto the bit and ride with it.
Here's your checklist: In the hackamore, your horse yields softly and does not brace, resist, fear or fight against the rein when you ask for…
- Lateral flexion
- Hindquarter disengagement
- Backing up
If so, go ahead. Snap the reins on to the bit and ride as usual; don't change how you have already been communicating.
The horse braces against the bit.
Find the point at which your horse braces or resists, and wait until he softens. When you wait for the horse to soften, it will be his idea and therefore he'll be more likely to look for that same solution each time.
You are too tentative.
Many riders act differently when riding with a bit compared to a hackamore; they become tentative and a bit wishy-washy in their leadership. Act as if you are riding in the hackamore but never forget you have a bit. Rein handling should always be graceful and smooth.
The horse tries to pull the reins out of your hands.
This usually happens when the horse feels trapped. Make sure your fingers aren't tight and that your hands aren't fixed in place and jammed down. If your horse pulls, let the reins slide through your fingers without any resistance and then pick them up again, as often as necessary.
Author Linda Parelli met her future husband and partner, Pat Parelli, as a dressage rider "at the end of the road" with a hard-to-handle Thoroughbred she'd been advised to "sell to a man" or put down. She now helps Pat run the Parelli Natural Horsemanship enterprise, which is huge. And she rides that same Thoroughbred sans saddle and bridle with no issues!