Last Updated on March 24, 2022 by Allison Price
What causes contact problems?
Horses that are accustomed to working with their mouth open often do so to relieve pain or discomfort.
This discomfort can be caused by:
- Dental problems
- Unsteady hands of the rider (constantly pulling at the horse’s mouth or seeingsawing at it)
- Unfitting bit
- Combination of all the above
Horses can open their mouths when being ridden by tack.
Sometimes, for example, horses riding in draw reins will leave the bit behind them, which opens their mouth to the bit’s expected effect.
Contact issues and their effects
Often the horse who works with his mouth closed displays other evasions or problems in his style of going.
Horses who work above the bit tend to raise their heads away from the contact, which can lead to them working too high. This causes horses to have a hollow back and tighten their hindquarters. The horse will be unable to use his hind leg correctly and his hocks may trail behind him instead of stepping beneath his body.
Others horses try to avoid contact by curling behind their bit and pulling their noses towards their chests, trying to evade the bit or the rider.
These two scenarios result in the horse being unable to move with true impulsion. The horse will most likely also be unbalanced as he can’t bring his hocks under his body. This will make it difficult for the rider to use an half-halt.
- How to ride your horse on the Bit
- What’s “The Correct Way to Go” in Dressage?
- How Your Horse Should Use his Hindquarters
Correction of the open-mouth problem
Horses can easily become habituated to working with their mouth open. It can be very difficult to break this habit once it is established.
Whatever the reason, your horse should not be forced to close his mouth by forcing it to.
Before you can solve the problem, it is important to understand why you horse opens his mouth.
The headcollar exam
Start lurching your horse with a simple headcollar, or cavesson. You should not use side or bit reins. You want to observe the horse’s behavior without any form of tack.
The horse can happily trot along on his hind legs on one rein, his mouth shut and his head pointing forward. This is a sign that there is a bit or bridle.
Next, continue the exercise but this time lunge the horse using a plain cavesson saddle bridle with his usual bit. Pay attention to the horse’s reaction to the bit being placed in his mouth.
If the horse is happy to trot forward and his mouth is closed, then you can fit a pair loose side reins and encourage him to move forward through his back towards the bit. Do you find the horse closing his mouth or opening it?
This exercise will help you to identify the problem. A horse who is silent in his mouth when you do these situations will usually have a problem with his contact with the rider and how that affects his bit action.
Check your teeth
To ensure that your horse is comfortable when handling the bit, it is important to consult a qualified equine dentist.
After any problems have been addressed, you can schedule regular dental exams to help identify potential problems and allow you to take preventative measures in the future.
A poorly fitting bit
If the horse’s bit isn’t fitted correctly, he might open his mouth to relieve the pain.
To make the horse feel comfortable in his mouth, he needs to be able move his jaw from side to side. The horse salivates when he has some food in his mouth. He must be able swallow. The horse lifts his tongue toward his palate when he swallows.
The bit that is too thick or painful is not held tightly by the rider. If the horse’s jaw is closed by a noseband, his jaw will become tight and he will have trouble swallowing. In an effort to make the bit more manageable for swallowing, the horse will push against it with his tongue. This causes tension in the horse’s tongue, neck, and jaw.
The bit should not protrude beyond the horse’s mouth on either side. It should also not be too thick, or too thin. Too small bits can pinch horses’ lips. The bit can cause discomfort if it is too high or too low in the horse’s mouth.
You must fit the bit correctly. Every horse has a unique mouth shape and size.
Ask a bit-fitting professional for help to find the right bit for you horse. Be open to trying different bits. Your horse will quickly tell you which bit he likes and how to fit it for his comfort.
Instead of buying countless bits until you find the perfect one, you can use one the many “bit banks” services available online to borrow a few bits.
- How to Select and Fit a Bit for Dressage (Single bit/Bridle).
- How to introduce your horse to a double bridle
- How to fit your horse’s noseband
You will need to develop a more independent seat if your hands are unsteady. This will allow you to ride with calm hands and a stable balance.
You should never use the controls to balance. Your hands should always be free from your seat.
Play the “bit” game to get a better understanding of how your horse reacts when you give up contact.
Then take the bit and the reins out of the bridle. You can hold the bit in your hands, and ask a friend for the reins. The friend will then apply pulls, seesawing and bumps to your bit, mimicking the movements that you use. Finally, you will ask your horse to turn and stop. This will help you to understand why your horse is having trouble with your hands.
How can you tell if your hands are not steady? You can try dropping your finger on the neck of your horse to see if it can stay there while the horse is cantering and trotting. Your hands may be bouncing if your pinkie is not in contact with the horse’s neck.
After you have improved your riding position and your hands are steady, you can begin to correct your horse’s evasive behavior.
Lunge your horse using side reins that have elastic inserts or “donut rings”. Side reins provide a consistent, elastic contact that helps your horse to learn that reaching for the bit shouldn’t be uncomfortable. A circle encourages relaxation and creates a rhythm.
You can also work your horse on low cavaletti, or poles on ground. This encourages your horse to move forward and down. The horse will soon learn that you can trust his hands and be gentle with him, and he will start reaching for the bit.
- How to Increase Rider Balance
- How Many Contacts Should You Have?
- Maintaining a Consistent Rein contact
Horses can also develop the habit of opening their mouth when there is no discomfort.
Horses that are anxious may show their anxiety by opening their mouths and resisting contact.
This scenario encourages relaxation.
The root cause of tension will determine how you solve it. You may find that desensitization or working with an older horse can help.
You can’t stop horses from opening their mouths by clamping them shut with a flash, drop or crank noseband.
Opening the mouth while riding is usually a sign of an underlying problem such as poor riding, dental issues, or a poorly fitting or inappropriate bit that is causing pain or discomfort in the horse.
Once you have identified the problem, you can begin to solve it. This will result in a happier horse, and a more flexible contact.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!