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Horse flings head when bridle is removed

From: Beth

Hi Jessica,

I recently purchased my first horse - a sweet 5 year old Pinto. I am perplexed by a situation that occurs when I unbridle her. I unbuckle the cavesson, slide the top of the bridle over her head and, rather than simply release the bit, she immediately flings her head in the air. This causes the bit to remain in her mouth, which then causes her to panic because she can't get it out. I try to lower her head with the reins, but this just seems to make her panic more. I'm not sure what I am doing wrong. I am using a large snaffle bit (not sure if this matters). Any advice, thoughts, etc. would be wonderful. Thanks! Bethany

Hi Bethany! I can already tell you one thing you're doing right: you've identified a problem, you realize that your mare is afraid, and you're not blaming her. That tells me that your mare is in good hands, because you're not thinking about punishing her, you're thinking in terms of solving her problem and putting her fears to rest. Good on you!

If you haven't already had your vet check your mare's teeth, mouth and tongue, begin there. There may be no physical reason for her to be experiencing pain when you remove the bridle, but IF there's something wrong somewhere, no amount of kindness and re-training will solve the problem - and that's why I'd like you to begin by having the vet check her over. While he's doing that, ask him to take a close look at her ears and the base of her ears, because although the mouth is the logical place to begin looking for a cause of a problem like this, not all bridle/bit problems are due to mouth pain.

Once you're sure that her teeth aren't a problem, that she has no sores in her mouth, and that she isn't sore in or around her ears, take a close look at your bridle. The bit is an obvious place to start: Does it fit her mouth well and is she comfortable wearing it? If the bit isn't a problem, look elsewhere. Is the leather smooth, and does the headstall fit her head? If the headstall is too small, it may be rubbing against her ears; if the browband is too short, it may be rubbing her forehead AND her ears. These things are painful, and horses typically attempt to escape the pain by flinging their heads up in an attempt to get away from the bridle as soon as possible. The fact that she does this at the end of the ride and not at the beginning makes me think that the problem might be a tack-fitting or adjustment issue involving something that doesn't hurt when the bridle is first put on, but begins to hurt after she has been wearing it for a while. (Most of us can relate to that - have you ever owned a pair of shoes that you could put on easily and wear comfortably for ten or twenty minutes, but that became horribly uncomfortable quickly thereafter?)

Investigate the length of the cheekpieces, too, and look at how the bit hangs in her mouth. A comfortable, soft leather bridle and a perfectly-chosen bit can cause great discomfort if the cheekpieces are adjusted so that the bit is riding too high in the horse's mouth, creating wrinkles and putting constant pressure on the horse's lips. The opposite problem is just as bad, though - some people drop the bit so low in the horse's mouth that the horse has to pick it up and carry it by pushing the bit and its tongue against the roof of its mouth, just to keep the bit from banging against its teeth. This means that the horse will be tense in its mouth, jaw, neck, and back ALL of the time, and that's not conducive to equine happiness. Start with your snaffle (and be sure that it IS a snaffle - not just a curb bit with a broken mouthpiece!) just touching the corners of your mare's mouth, and then pay attention as you ride and let her tell you whether she would prefer to have the bit adjusted a little higher or a little lower.

Also, watch yourself carefully. When you remove the bridle, what are you doing? When you slide the headstall and cavesson over her ears, do you keep your hand up against her forehead so that the bit stays in the same place in her mouth? If you do, she will feel more comfortable opening her mouth and dropping the bit; if you just slide the headstall and cavesson over her ears and DON'T hold the headstall in place, you may be causing the bit to drop suddenly and hit her teeth.

In the short term, if you've had her checked by the vet and then you've carefully investigatged all the issues of bit and headstall fit and adjustment, your best move may be to leave the headstall on, undo a cheekpiece first and gently ease the bit out of her mouth, and only THEN remove the headstall itself. To get her to open her mouth, you can either slide your thumb in the side of her mouth in the gap where the bit fits, and touch her tongue (just as you would do if you were asking her to open her mouth to take the bit when you're putting the bridle ON), or you could offer her a small treat. If she begins to associate the bit removal with (a) no pain anywhere and (b) a treat, she'll be halfway to lowering her head and opening her mouth to drop the bit.

Whatever you do, don't try to pull her head down with the reins, whether the bit is in her mouth or not. If you pull on the bit, it will hurt and her reaction will be to fling her head into the air. If you pull on her poll and ears - as will happen if the bit is no longer in her mouth but the headstall is still in place - it will hurt and her reaction will be to fling her head into the air. Give her a reason to WANT to put her head down and open her mouth.

It's very possible that you haven't been doing anything wrong, but it's very likely that someone else - a previous owner, rider, or handler - DID do something wrong. Your mare's previous experience may have taught her to expect pain when the bridle is removed, either because someone jerked the bit out of her mouth or jerked the headstall roughly off her head, or because someone was in the habit of leaving the cavesson fastened and pulling the bridle off, which absolutely guarantees that the bit will slam against the horse's teeth. YOU would probably never do any of those things, but all your mare knows to expect is what she's already experienced. Your job, then, is to teach her a new set of expectations: that you will be calm, move slowly, give her a reason to drop her head and open her mouth, and teach her, over time, that nothing hurts when YOU are the one removing her bridle.

You might enjoy doing some clicker training with your mare. It's a grand way to give a horse a fresh start when it has learned to associate any process with pain or unpleasantness. Clicker training can give you a new way to teach your mare to stand quietly, lower her head, and open her mouth to let the bit drop out - provided, of course, that you are careful not to let the bit bang against her teeth on the way out. If you're interested, two excellent resources are Alexandra Kurland's "Clicker Training for Your Horse" and "The Click That Teaches."

Part of my philosophy of horsemanship is that "it's always the rider." This means that you are ultimately responsible for your horse's comfort, and that not only are you responsible for doing everything right yourself, but you are also responsible for making up for the wrong things that others have done in the past. It's a big responsibility, but it's one that we all take on with each of our horses. Any time you take on a horse that you haven't bred and raised yourself, you're likely to discover some problems that have unknown causes. You may have to make quite an effort over quite a lot of time to correct problems that other people have caused. That's the bad news, but it's accompanied by very good news: every single time you identify a problem, sympathize with the horse, and make it a point to dig for the underlying cause and then find a real solution, your horsemanship improves.


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