EquiSearch's Ask the Vet: Refuses Bit

Dr. Joyce Harman shares reasons why a horse might not take his bit and how to correct the problem in this edition of EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet.
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Dr. Joyce Harman shares reasons why a horse might not take his bit and how to correct the problem in this edition of EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet.

Question:I have a mare who is about 10 years old. I have had her for almost two years now. Before I had her she went from a show horse to a broodmare and had not been ridden for three to four years. The first year I had her she would take a bit rather easily. It may have taken 15 to 20 minutes to do it, but it always ended in success! Now for some reason we can't get her to take a bit at all. I have had her teeth checked, and they are fine. I have been working with her to lower her head by putting pressure on her poll and rewarding her for doing it. She will lower her head and let me put the bit up to her mouth, but as soon as we attempt to put it in she will raise and throw her head back and forth. What can I do to get her to take the bit?

Answer: Anytime a horse changes from easy to handle, bit, saddle or otherwise interact with, there is a reason. And most of the time, the reason is pain. In some cases an injury or source of pain happens and a habit forms, even if the pain is gone. Issues around bitting also can come from other sources of pain. Some horses hate being ridden because their backs hurt, either from the saddle or another injury. Some horses are confused by the training, or the training techniques are too harsh and cause pain or fear.

Since there was an issue with the bit from the beginning even though it was not a big problem, there may have been something that happened in her past that hurt or scared her. Or, since she was a broodmare, she may not have been trained very well and may have learned that she could get away with fighting the bit.

To solve this problem, the first step is to check your bit. As a bit wears, it is common to find little very sharp burrs around the joints where the side pieces join to the mouthpiece. These may not be big enough to cause a bleeding cut, so you may not see anything. But if you run your fingers along the edges, you could feel a rough or sharp spot. If so, check to see if excessive wear is the problem--if it is, discard the bit. If the bit does not look worn but has a sharp edge, get someone to smooth it out well, then keep an eye on it to be sure it does not come back. Also, check your bit for cleanliness. Many people clean their tack but forget to wash the bit after every ride. The material from the horse's saliva along with bits of grain and grass harden overnight and can form sharp, rough places that the horse feels just as much as it would a sharp piece of metal.

Think about the type of bit and what she needs for control. Do you have too strong a bit? Is the mouthpiece too thick or too thin? Check her mouth or have your veterinarian or horse dentist check the size of her tongue and shape of her palate (roof of her mouth). A horse with a flat palate and a big tongue has no room for a thick mouthpiece and will find it horribly uncomfortable. Another horse with lots of room in his mouth might hate a thin bit and really want a thick bit. Sometimes the metal reacts with the saliva and may taste bad. Try a different metal, plastic or rubber mouthpiece. Many bits are being made with creative shapes to their mouthpieces that are much more comfortable than the traditional snaffle shape. See the Myler Bits website for information, as well as other companies. My personal horse, whom I broke so I know she never had any bad experiences, hated every mouthpiece, metal or plastic until I finally found one metal bit she liked. After years of not voluntarily opening her mouth for the bit, she now takes it happily.

Linda Tellington-Jones has a very useful system of training and retraining horses (see www.ttouch.com). One really great technique from her TTEAM training methods is mouth work, which would be an ideal way to approach your horse. This involves a specific series of touches in and around the mouth. There are many books and videos about the techniques, one of my favorites is TTEAM, Improve your Horse's Wellbeing. Pick one up at your local tack store as well.

Lots of patience is also required, but these types of problems are solvable if you take the time to sort out the causes and reeducate your mare.

Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia. Visit her online shop.

Have you had a similar experience? Chat about it in the EquiSearch.com forum.

Do you have a veterinary or saddle-fit question for Dr. Harman? Send it to asktheexperts@equinetwork.com. Check back for her answers on EquiSearch.com.