Whether you enjoy a leisurely trail ride or compete at a high level, using a bit that does not work for your horse can not only reduce the quality of their performance but also negatively affect your relationship over time. Chances are good that you’ve experienced bit resistance at some point in your riding relationship with your horse.
What does “Bit Resistance” actually mean?
Resistance is any behavior the horse employs that puts him in conflict with the actions of the rider, often to evade that action. In this article, we’ll go over the most common Signs of Resistance and what they mean, but knowing how to address resistance speaks to the root cause of resistance: excessive tongue pressure.
The primary cause of most bit resistance is essentially tongue pressure, most commonly from a broken bit, such as a single joint or three-piece. When the rider engages the reins on a broken bit, the bit collapses and applies pressure to the tongue. The tongue is a big, thick muscle connected to other muscles in the neck, shoulders and back. When it can’t move, the horse can’t go forward easily (the same is true for people). When it becomes more than he can bear, he will be forced to find a way around that pressure. The result? Resistance.
How to Recognize Bit Resistance
Horses can express bit resistance in many different ways but before you make any changes to the bit, make sure your horse is not experiencing dental or chiropractic issues.
This illustration shows a horse in a good collected frame, with his head perpendicular to the ground for optimal movement. Ideally, this is the position you want your horse to travel in when you are riding. Resistance occurs when the horse leaves this position in reaction to the rider’s rein pressure.
Once dental and medical concerns have been ruled out, you can comfortably conclude that you are dealing with bit resistance. Do you recognize any of these behaviors?
Going Above the Bit
When a horse goes “above the bit,” his head comes up and his nose goes out, often accompanied with head tossing. As a result, the bit slides back over the tongue, freeing the tongue and distributing the rein pressure to the lips and bars of the mouth. He may carry his head high for a few strides and then come back into frame, or he may continue with his head held high. As long as he is traveling above the bit, the rider has little to no control.
Going Behind the Bit
This horse is showing the same type of behavior as the horse Above the Bit, but is avoiding the pressure by tucking his head behind the vertical, allowing the bit to slide over his tongue and applying the pressure to his lips and bars. As long as he has his head tucked behind the vertical, the rider has no recourse but to release the pressure and try to encourage him back on to the bit.
Rooting is a very common sign of bit resistance that also has varies in severity. Some horses seem to reach through the bit and become very heavy in the rider’s hands; others will take the bit in their mouth and pull down towards the ground or run through the bit. This will reposition the bit onto the lips and bar, while the pressure is relieved from the tongue. Severe rooting can easily pull the rider off balance.
Tongue Over, Outside, or In Throat
Moving the tongue around is a very common sign of bit resistance, although these behaviors can be more easily observed from the ground. If a horse chronically puts his tongue over the bit or sticks his tongue out the side of his mouth, it can look comically playful but it signals severe discomfort. More difficult to see is when a horse brings his tongue up behind the bit into his throat—the rider feels as though she’s pulling on a brick because the rein pressure is entirely engaged on the lower jaw.
In all three of these situations, the horse cannot tolerate the amount of tongue pressure being applied to his tongue and he is willing to cause his own discomfort to avoid it. When bringing his tongue back into his throat, he even significantly cuts off his own oxygen supply.
As a precursor to these behaviors, your horse might have a busy mouth, with gaping and chewing. Recognizing this busy mouth as an early indication of bit resistance will go a long way to preventing more severe resistance.
Why is Tongue Movement Important?
No one enjoys going to the dentist and for some people, it can create a lot of anxiety. Imagine being at the dentist office: as they begin working on your teeth, you need to swallow. Instead of allowing you to freely swallow, the dentist holds your tongue down so that they can continue to work on your teeth. Without the ability to move your tongue, you are not able to swallow. At this point, panic and anxiety kick in and you begin to struggle. If the dentist doesn’t allow you to swallow soon, you will begin to panic completely and try to make yourself comfortable by getting away from the pressure. Now imagine that you are running a mile with a 20 pound backpack uphill and you are unable to move your tongue or swallow. Sounds unpleasant?
Riding in a traditional broken snaffle (single joint or three-piece), when you close your hands and make contact, the bit collapses into a “V” and rotates downward onto the tongue. As long as you have that contact, the bit will inhibit any natural movement of the tongue. As your horse salivates and begins to work harder, he struggles to regulate his breathing and swallowing because his tongue is restricted. You might notice you have the hardest time maintaining collection at the trot and canter–these maneuvers will require more effort from your horse, his respiration goes up, and he needs to swallow more frequently. But he can’t because the bit is interfering with his ability to move his tongue. You can test the pressure of a traditional bit using the “arm test.”
What is the solution to bit resistance?
Now that we can recognize the problem, how do we begin to search for a solution? The Mylers’ approach to bitting is that as our horses become better trained, they deserve more tongue relief and freedom to perform the job that they are now educated to do. They earn your trust as they prove themselves more responsible and reliable. It’s much the same as a child learning and growing. You treat a teenager differently from a child in elementary school because that teenager has earned your trust and proven more responsible.
When looking at where to start in regards to bits; there are 5 important points
- Confirm there are no impeding dental or chiropractic issues
- Know what bit you currently are riding in and how they are reacting – this is ground zero to making a better bit choice.
- Know how your horse reacts in stressful situations – Is he reactive? Spooky? Easy-going?
- Be honest about his/her personality and how trustworthy they are under saddle. Is your horse anxious and insecure? Or dominant and challenging?
- Do you compete and have bitting regulations that you must follow?
Knowing how your horse reacts in unusual situations indicates his level of self-control and obedience. This is key to bitting selection because the more tongue relief, the more freedom. Going back to elementary school – if you have taught two children to use scissors, and one tends to be unpredictable and run off and another very cautious and careful – you can relax the amount of supervision you give the cautious child but you will probably increase the amount of supervision with the mischievous child. Again, same goes to your horse.
We try to offer each horse as much tongue relief as that horse can mentally handle. Bitting a horse is always a balance between offering tongue relief but also maintaining communication and control. Understanding your horse’s disposition will go a long way in helping you make a better bit choice for him.
Tune in next Saturday for Part II of this Myler Bitting Series: Myler Bit Levels and How to Use Them for a detailed explanations of what the Myler Levels mean and how you can use them to make a better choice for your horse.