WE have all heard of a horse being described as having a ‘hard mouth’, but what does that mean?
It is thought that a horse that pulls, leans and in other ways fails to respond quietly to rein pressure is called a ‘hard mouthed horse’, whereas a horse that is light and calmly responsive to rein aids is said to have a ‘soft mouth’. No horse is born with a hard mouth or a soft mouth. Whether a horse feels soft or hard through the reins has to do with all sorts of issues that have very little to do with the actual mouth.
We’ve all had that moment when we have been in the field with our horses to feed them or to check on them and they have come galloping at full speed towards us! It looks like they are going to run right over us, but (hopefully) they come skidding to a halt…
Their mouths have nothing to do with creating the halt… It is all sorts of other body parts that create the stop, like the hocks, stifles, back, neck and just about the whole body BUT the mouth! What rein pressure does is create a conditioned response to engage those other body parts that trigger a slowing or stopping response.
As identified in my last column (Mouthing a horse – November 05, 2020 edition), our aim as riders should be to create and maintain a sensitive mouth, so it is important that we ask ourselves when selecting a bit, are we responsible for creating or destroying it?
If a horse isn’t relaxed and supple through the reins and contact, one of the first thoughts is to change the bit or add a training aid. If a horse is difficult to stop or runs through the bridle, again our thoughts turn to bits, but are there other issues we should be considering? Teeth, back and tack are just a few.
According to some of the top trainers of young horses: “Training and schooling are advised to help cement the understanding of rein aids. Using gentle pressure, the rider should spend plenty of time making tiny downward transitions from walk to halt, or slow trot to walk, building into the understanding of the horse that of a light rein restraint. The instant the horse responds, the pressure that induced the slowing is softened”.
This training is made easier when the horse is comfortable in the correctly fitted bit, which is appropriate to the horse’s level of training, conformation of its mouth and rider’s hands. A ‘soft mouth’ is man-made, and so is a ‘hard mouth’, even though neither is a truly accurate description of the physics involved.
Unfortunately, it can be all too common that a horse that is struggling with training, for whatever reason, has its bit changed to something more harsh and stronger to give the rider more control, to a point where some horses and ponies are ridden in Pelhams on a daily basis.
The kind of rider and trainer we choose to be, is up to us.