Calming Signals: “But My Mare Likes This Bit”

I arrived at the clinic grounds Friday afternoon so I could meet the organizers and check out the facility. They’d also set up a lesson for someone who didn’t get into the clinic. The rider was warming up in the arena when I introduced myself. Her mare was beautiful, strong, with a dappled coat. She also had worried eyes and a bit with long shanks, most likely a high port; the sort commonly called a correction bit.

I hate this part. I always ask that clinic participants wear helmets and use lower-level Dressage-legal bits; a simple snaffle or Mullen, or bitless bridles are fine, too. This rider wore a helmet but maybe she didn’t know. When we’d exchanged greetings, I asked about the bit in the least confronting way I could. Because we are all defensive when it comes to our horses. But the rider smiled and told me she’d searched high and low. This was the first bit her mare liked. The problem she had wasn’t the bit, she said, but that her mare, who used to be rushing all the time, didn’t want to go forward now.

This is what you expect me to say to her: “That harsh bit is cruel.” It is, but that isn’t the real problem. Neither is not wanting to go forward, obviously. What horse would willingly walk into pain? Now the great debate about bit or bitless kicks in and we’ve all become part of the problem. We’re talking about tack instead of listening.

Here’s how it starts. The mare tosses her head, fussy with rein contact. Our immediate instinct is to try to pull her to stillness. Now she’s lost balance, but it’s about now that riders lose confidence, too. It gets worse, so naturally, we try another bit. Traditional training even supports the counterintuitive idea that a horse “progresses” to stronger bits as a natural course. Why would a good rider on an advanced horse need more control? But if our rider asked for advice, this was probably what she got. Add to that, most gaited horses are trained in similar bits. Don’t even ask me how I feel when I see a kid on a horse with one of these bits. Finally, I have a kind memory of one of the most dysfunctionally shut down horses I ever worked with, who years before had come home from starting as a two-year-old, in a spade bit. Take a breath for him.

How many times do we solve one problem by creating another? Head tossing isn’t the mare saying I don’t like this bit. Horses don’t think about snaffles or shank bits. Most obviously, no horse ever asks for a harsher bit. Assuming the vet has confirmed her teeth aren’t sharp and she isn’t in some other pain, the horse tosses her head to say she’s uncomfortable. She’s warning her rider that her confidence is shaky and she needs some help. The horse and her rider aren’t even conversing on the same topic. The rider is talking about bits and just like always, the horse is fearful for her life. They might as well be Abbott and Costello in Who’s on First except that horses have no sense of humor where their emotions are concerned.

In this case, the mare didn’t like this bit better; her head had stopped being fussy because it hurt more to toss. It’s like someone putting duct tape over your mouth. It does succeed in making you quiet until you beat the door or stomp your feet. More rope needed for you.

The real question is how does it happen that the two of us look at the same horse, one seeing a horse who likes her bit and the other one seeing a horse filled with desperation? I teach calming signals, how a horse expresses their feelings, as the most important key to building a partnership with a horse. But there is something I hate about calming signals, too. Learning about them often starts with a bitter pill. Usually, something we read as cute or affectionate or maybe just peaceful is something much darker. Shutting a horse down might be the cruelest thing because we take away the beauty that drew us to horses in the first place.

It takes no special skill to know what pinned ears mean, or when a horse bares his teeth at us. But it isn’t just how many calming signals have we missed before the horse rebels. The challenge is that reading positive signals is harder than the angry ones.

How do we tell horse likes the bit? Bits are metal on bone. Bits take away autonomy; their Horse-God given right to flight. For those of you in bitless side pulls or rope halters, they can be just as intimidating. So far, we’ve blamed bits, our bad advice in the past, or our lack of trust. The biggest cause of anxiety in the horse will always be the poor use of our hands on the reins.

Horses will never enjoy a loss of balance and freedom. At the least, use a bit does not interfere with the natural movement of her head. Learn to read the stoic response as well as the reactive ones. You want to see a soft poll, relaxed lips, and alert curious eyes. You should want your horse’s permission, not resistance. The old domination paradigm was to force a horse to give to pressure. We answer resistance by downsizing the bit and getting riding lessons from a good trainer. The best we can hope for is acceptance. The horse accepts the gentle bit, and we accept that our hands always need to improve. Let the negotiations begin!

These days there are all kinds of photos of people riding without bridles at all, and as usual, each horse has an opinion. Look closely, not all are happy. We need to listen to our horse. It’s not a choice between a brutal bit or nothing at all. It’s about never allowing yourself to become complacent about what a bit means to a horse. We must both agree to give up control.

How did that lesson go? I did what I always do. I tied a neckring about the mare and handed it to the rider with the request that she hold it with her reins, but adjusted so the neckring keeps contact with the mare’s shoulders while the reins remain long, not impacting the bit. The mare doesn’t immediately trust that her mouth won’t hurt and the rider doesn’t immediately trust that she can control her mare, but they are closer to being in the same conversation. Closer to being partners.


Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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34 thoughts on “Calming Signals: “But My Mare Likes This Bit””

  1. I read your post about about “my horse likes this bit” and I smiled the whole way through. What a good reminder that our relationship with the horse should be a conversation – and that does require observation and listening on our part. You touched on looking for the positive signal from the horse and I will admit that is an area I could use some improvement for sure. :))) Thank you for the work you do. It is much needed. I believe it is also relevant to our human relationships as well.
    You are much appreciated and leaving the world a better place. Thank you.

  2. Excellent piece I hope shows up often in search engines when troubled riders confused about their horse communication search for “the right bit for my horse.”

    I learned my Taye tosses to say, “get out of my mouth”, braces to tell me he needs a stretch break, and lifts his head straight up
    When I lose contact, saying literally if he could, it’s so nearly audible, “hey, where’d you go?” I know I’m still oversimplifying but starting to truly hear through my hands far better. I do find in this, the reins matter for a size and flexibility that allows my hands the freedom for minute questions and subtle answers.

  3. Anybody ever heard anyone say “I sure enjoyed getting braces put on my teeth, especially the spacers that came first!” or “I love how it feels when I go in to get my braces tightened”. I doubt it. I wore braces twice, for years, and I never said or heard anything of the sort.
    Horses express their pain and seek relief the only ways they know how but unfortunately too many folks won’t hear what they don’t want to hear; that they are making their horse miserable. I wish horses could cry visible tears that are tangible & undeniable. THAT is something most folks can understand very clearly.

    • Never had braces but they always look like torture. I wonder if tears would stop us? Rearing is a kind of tear, but that seems to make us mad. thanks, Sueann

      • The braces comparison is a great one! I also remember the spacers – and way back when – METAL braces – now I guess they are plastic altho I’m not sure it matters. And they ARE torture – also remember the retainer! Yup does make the whole bit thing close to home.
        I remember when I first got Chico – he was in a high port long shank bit, we graduated to low port, short shank, then used a hackamore for a while then switched to a snaffle (which I think he “liked”). Have seen pictures of spade bits – cant imagine putting something like that in a horse’s mouth. Which makes me think of pictures of race horses with their tongues “tied” down or hanging out of their mouths. Guess people dont comprehend that something like that is NOT humane. But I digress, right?

        • not digressing at all. I hope calming signals make people not be able to look away from normalized torture. We just don’t have to do it that way. Thanks Maggie.

  4. “We are talking about tack instead of listening” in your paragraph about bit or bitless is my favorite line. Thanks for giving me the knowledge to know that maybe the most important thing I can do is watch and listen!! Thanks again for clearing up so many other things as well! Another great post!!!!

  5. Re the bit as control fallacy – my former trainer used to say “a horse can run through a bit made of barbed wire if they want to get away badly enough.” Sorry for the horrible image, but she made her point.

  6. One of my horses acts like a little kid refusing to eat his vegetables when I try to put a bit in his mouth, so I ride him in a side pull and he does great (he has regular dental work and no issues that would suggest pain, I think he just doesn’t like bits, and I can’t say I blame him). My other horse takes a snaffle willingly and has a quiet mouth the whole ride, so we go with that. I’ve taken lessons with trainers who were rather dogmatic on both sides of the bit/bitless debate, but letting my horses decide has made us all happier I think. Thank you for confirming, once again, something I know in my heart but don’t always have the experience to convince my brain that I’m doing the right thing.

  7. Don’t get me started on this…. I have looked for sharp corners umpteen times wanting to hit my head on after (often unsuccessfully) trying to explain to people that they need to learn to trust riding a horse on the buckle first and learn to communicate speed with their seat before attempting to put a horse in “a frame”. Those should only be sitting on one’s mantle!!
    Gerd Heuschmann often quotes Steinbrecht in that the horse must fall in love with the rider’s hands. It takes a lot of skill, time, and feel to develop that. That’s why riding is an art.

  8. Western training starts off with halters, evolves to snaffles and to all kinds of complicated scary looking bits I can’t even name, in the quest for finesse… Never seemed logical and I was told « it’s not about the bits, it’s about the hands ». The neophyte I was (still am ? god) froze in abject despair of ever training my hands and concluded that they were never going to make it. So… I stuck to halters, bitless, baby snaffles (tested first in my mouth – ? random enlightened trainer), neck rings ( ? Linda T-Jones), clicker (? A Kurland), and the epiphany moment with calming signals and affirmative training ( ?? A Blake). It’s not about the hands, is it? It’s all about the ? and ?… the Conversation.

    • Great comment, Prita…. I guess if I were to add one thing, it’s that unaware hands stop the communication. Good hands encourage it.

  9. Anna, this piece made me wonder how many horse “accidents” are caused by bits controlled by misguided, inexperienced, calloused or cruel hands? Why has the horse world perpetuated control over partnership? A buck, a bolt, a rear, after a horse’s refusal, is likely just a louder cry of “Why are you hurting me?”. Listening to the horse, the dog, the person shouldn’t be such a challenge, but it clearly is. Your advocacy and insights are beyond essential, thank you!

  10. Great post, as usual! Just a personal note on why I went bitless (I do agree that bitted, bitless, halter head gear can all be painful to the horse when not used correctly). My QH gelding used to throw his head in the air anytime any amount of pressure was put on the reins, i.e., his mouth – he came to me with a low port, short shank bit. I tried various snaffle bits – some with shanks, some without. Same problem, an ounce of pressure would send his head into the air. I tried a bitless bridle – solved the problem and he was a happier horse. Years later, a body worker showed me where my gelding’s tongue had been scarred (huge scar across the entire tongue!) from being almost completely severed in two. (She said she’s seen this in a lot of horses with scarred/severed tongues from being incorrectly ridden in snaffle bits.) No wonder my horse could not handle any pressure on his mouth, his tongue hurt! When I first got this horse he was so shut down, did anything you asked, and was a jerk. He hid his pain and was one pissed off horse. When he finally realized that I wanted him to be a horse and express his feelings, he then showed me all of his pain from years before me that he had endured. He was an awesome horse with a very subtle humorous personality after he felt safe and I addressed all the places he hurt. Based on my experience, I now check the tongue (in addition to teeth, etc., etc.) if any horse with bit/head tossing issues

    • Oh Lorraine, I’ve seen plenty of those scared tongues. It’s hard to imagine doing something to cause that. Really wonderful job of working through it. Thanks for taking the time with this boy.

  11. As a general practice, I’ve always ridden green horses ( and mature ones, for that matter) in a loose ring snaffle with a bean in the middle. The two horses I acquired when mature (9 and 14, respectively) went in plain snaffles, egg butt or loose ring, sometimes changing to a Mullen mouth tom thumb Pelham on cross-country for a little more control, but still acknowledging that when a 1,400 Appy jumper wants to get strong, no amount of leverage is going to stop.him, and reaching an agreement with him through training, not force, is the better course. I’m no pro, but I’ve never truly understood the desire to overcome resistance (which is misunderstanding by the horse or a failure on my part to communicate correctly) by use of a stronger bit. Fear or frustration, i suppose? My present horse is a big, half Arabian Appaloosa. While he went acceptably in the loose ring that is my usual go-to when he was young, he was occasionally rather fussy and connection was erratic. I switched him to a double jointed Baucher, which hangs in the mouth and puts less pressure on the bars. He was almost instantly steadier with the “quieter” bit. I believe an egg but or full cheek sniffle with keepers would also have worked for him, but the Baucher was what I happened to have. However, while my instructor at the time would never have suggested it, I had numerous onlookers at various times suggest that I should use drawreins or shanked bit (or a tight flash or drop cavesson) to “fix” his fussiness. He,’s kind of a hot horse, and aside from my disagreement with that sort of coercion, I think his temperament is such that he might well have flipped if forced in that fashion. I am so grateful that the instructors I have had all thought along the lines you put forth I this article.

    • Wonderful comment, Sandra. Thanks for finding a better “fix” and it’s always a treat to hear people are working with good instructors. Well done.

  12. What an insightful commentary. I see the way using the neck strap with loose reins can help. My little mare always throws up her head and makes faces getting into a canter which is difficult. She’s been checked by the dentist, chiropractor, even osteopath but no major issues found. No xrays yet though. And I use a snaffle and have a very light hand (my trainers always want me to use more contact..). She was this way when I got her and had been ridden very infrequently on a very very loose rein with that owner, so I have a feeling the problem was already there. I’ve had a couple of trainers, one ex-Olympic dressage rider, that tell me to keep pushing her into the contact but I don’t feel it’s the right approach. She does appear to have some muscle damage in her neck, probably from being roped at one point. Any suggestions? I am flummoxed!

    • Jinx, thank you for commenting and I wish I could give you a lesson in this message box. If that is what an Olympic dressage rider said, they might have done a better job of explaining. Assuming she is sound, and as you say, there is muscle damage, but IF, and only IF, ALL WAS WELL, the challenge is we ride the depart for canter by giving the cue to come back with the cue to go forward, that’s what sounded off about the advice. Let me suggest a different way of saying it. If a horse has to toss his head going to canter, then in a sense, they are using body language, or pulling with their shoulders, lifting themselvles to the gait. Pulling with the shoulders is riding the front and you want to inspire your horse from his hind. When you see a horse canter in the pasture, they push from behind to the canter, leaving their head steady. I’d find a safe place, an arena or pasture, and then leave her head alone, use a neck ring, and just give one pure cue: Forward. Good luck, this is my best guess without a video and in a small comment box.

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