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Using the right bit

16 August 2011 No Comment

Using the right bit
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

Question
From: Diana

I am currently leasing a 28yr. old horse that seems to be a very nice animal. He is very shy about you touching his head, never had his teeth floated, and cannot be cross tied. He has an old wound, hole above one of his eyes, that the woman who has owned him for 21yrs. states that was done to him by someone that had him before she did. He is easy to put a halter on, is getting really pretty good about me touching his face/head, and is very good in taking the bit. So you’re asking what is my concern/question. Here is my concern: This horse is rode western and the bit that she uses on him has a medium port with a rolled in the middle. I noticed that as soon as that bit goes in his mouth, he does not have that relaxed look any more, in fact to me he looks tense. The other thing, is that he is then constantly opening and closing his mouth, like he is trying to push the bit out. He does this the entire time that he has the bit in his mouth. I asked her why he does this and her response was:”Because he gets nervous when you ride him and this bit helps to calm him down with the roller in it”.

This horse has been used to teach young children to ride and has been used a lot as a trail horse by this woman. She doesn’t believe in floating their teeth, she said it’s not necessary and is not open to changing the bit. Would like your input on this because I am giving serious consideration to buying this horse and don’t know whether it’s the horse or the bit that he reacts this way. My gut feeling says it’s the bit. I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you,
Diana

Answer
Thanks for writing!
It sounds like this nice old horse has some negative history and it affects him both physically and psychologically. The old wound on his head could be continuing to be an issue in regard to him being somewhat head-shy because perhaps in the treating of the wound way-back-when, more pain was inflicted in medicating it. If the wound site is no longer sensitive, then continuing to work with him in a patient, consistent way will more then likely continue his improvement in touching these areas. However, I wouldn’t rule out that he could be experiencing pain in his mouth or he might have something in his ears. The fact that he can’t be crosstied leads me to believe that he suffered a pulling back incident that perhaps led to trauma (the hole above his eye maybe) and he is still living with mental scars that he hasn’t overcome in regard to cross-tying. At his age, I wouldn’t try to reschool him to cross-tying because it obviously was a traumatic episode for him and he doesn’t need to go through anymore in that regard.

What concerns me more is the fact that the owner of this horse has not had his teeth attended to and doesn’t believe that dental care is necessary. With better and better dental care available now, studies are showing that good dental care can increase a horses longevity. The nervousness of his mouth when he’s carrying the bit could be due to wolf teeth needing to be extracted, sharp points, ramps, waves, etc., which could cause his “bite” to be uneven. If his teeth aren’t level and in alignment farther back in his mouth, or he has points which are causing lacerations or ulcers in his cheeks or on his tongue, this could cause discomfort and pain more forward where he is carrying the bit. I would advise that before you buy this horse, you should plan on getting a pre-purchase exam which would include checking his eyes, heart, teeth, overall condition and a lameness exam. If you decide to forego a full pre-purchase exam, at the very least, have his eyes and teeth checked. Many older horses not only have dental issues, they also may have optical issues as well. I just rescued an older gelding not too long ago and he needed extensive dental work because his teeth had not been taken care of properly in many, many years. After the dental work, he is doing great.

A few other causes of a “busy” or “nervous” mouth with a horse is that the bit is not fitting properly. It could be pinching him in the corners of his mouth, the port could be bruising his pallet, his bars could be bruised, etc. I wonder if this gelding could be ridden with a hackamore or sidepull? No bit in his mouth at all would take away the issue of bit pain. I know that you explain that the owner is not open to changing the bit, but maybe she could be convinced if she knew that this is a condition to perhaps selling this horse to you.

You also mention that this gelding has been used for little kids lessons. Many horses that have been used for lessons will develop a nervous mouth because their mouths are being pulled on and jerked by beginners hands. Everytime the bit is put in their mouth, they anticipate having their mouth abused, so they begin trying to spit the bit out, clicking their teeth, grinding their teeth, etc. Through developing light, sensitive hands, this horse may learn to relax, but as long as he is ridden by different people who may not be sympathetic to his physical and mental needs, this may not be possible.

My starting point with this horse would definitely be to have a competent veterinarian (preferably one who is also an equine dentist) examine this horse’s mouth thoroughly. Maybe the owner would be willing to go along with this if you offered to pay for it. You’d be doing this nice old gelding a big favor if you try to help him out by having any dental issues addressed ASAP.

Good Luck Diana!
Laura Phelps-Bell

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