‘MOUTHING’ a horse is a term used mainly to describe a horse being made accustomed to the bit and bridle. Mouthing a horse is one of the most important procedures when training a young horse. It is critical to get this part of the ‘breaking’ process right from the start to ensure a responsive and soft contact through the reins to the rider’s hands. The length of time this takes varies immensely from horse to horse and should not be rushed. A horse’s mouth should be treated with the utmost respect, as there is seldom a second chance to create sensitivity once this area has been damaged during training.
Having recently brought a young horse back into work myself, it has made me look at how we achieve a willingness and acceptance of the bit and if it does, in actual fact, cause a horse to mouth and create a foaming reaction.
Like humans, horses produce saliva primarily to moisten and soften food, which helps the body to digest it efficiently. Horses can produce up to three gallons of saliva a day!
It is believed that a good indication of a horse mouthing well is when the horse chews slightly, moving the bit around the mouth with the tongue, testing out how it feels, which produces foam. Horses can salivate and foam at the mouth for a variety of reasons, but usually excess salivation is desirable when in exercise, as this is thought to indicate a horse that is relaxed through the jaw and working correctly.
It is, however, important to know the difference between your horse mouthing and your horse opening its mouth to evade the contact. Each horse is different in the amount they like to mouth and chew, so it is a good idea to know what’s normal for your horse.
Interestingly, unlike humans and other mammals, horses only produce saliva when chewing. This would suggest that a tense horse that is unhappy in the contact may not produce saliva, as the jaw isn’t relaxed and will be unsettled in the contact or display some other ridden issues.
The general consensus among competitive horse riders/ trainers of young stock is that every horse is different. They believe that every horse should be allowed the time to accept the bit, especially in the beginning, giving the horse time to mouth before anything is added, such as side reins or saddles and making sure each ‘part of the puzzle’ is in place before moving to the next step.
There seems to be an array of training aids available that advertise quick solutions to contact issues, and it can be tempting to buy into these products without giving each horse the time and patience it needs to mouth correctly and gradually accept the bit.
Selecting the right bit from the start is a challenge with a young horse and getting the right combination that suits both you and the horse is very important to encourage the horse to work correctly. 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…