Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Thung ith Ober Tha Bith

Get ready, I'm pretty windy on this one.

- twhlady writes-I have a question about bitting my horse. I ride a TWH and he has started putting his tongue over the bit in an effort to evade it. I had been riding him in a low port short shank grazing bit. I just really don't know what kind of bit to go to because I do not want anything that is very harsh. I have ridden him in a snaffle but then I have turning and no whoa. If you could help I would be appreciative.

Hey twhlady,
I have ridden horses who put their tongue over the bit. I truly don’t believe the horse is evading the bit because a bit under a horse’s tongue causes extreme pain. He’s evading the rider.

I was always taught a horse who gapes or puts his tongue over the bit is unsure of where to put his feet, so all kinds of stiff spots develop.

In the past when I have had a horse who wanted to put his tongue over the bit I have tried a few different approaches.

I have tightened the bridle so the bit is too tight for the horse to get his tongue over the top.

The problem here is I now had a horse who was grinning like a fool, extremely uncomfortable and getting ready to start gaping like a madman.

I have also used a drop nose band. If I cranked it down tight enough it worked for a while. Once my horse rubbed his chin and nose raw trying to open his mouth I gave up on that method.

I have also tried a method taught to me by an old cowboy. I took two pieces of baling twine, and tied one to each side of my ring snaffle. Then I knotted them together over my horse’s nose and tied the ends to the horse’s forelock so the bit was tied to the roof of the horses mouth. It worked but boy did my horse look stupid.

The problem with all of these methods is they are band-aids. None of these fixes will actually cure the horse of flipping his tongue over the bit.

I can guarantee any time a rider tries to fix a vice by force the vice may or may not disappear. But if it does disappear the vice will show up somewhere else. Unless the cause for the vice is corrected the new vice is usually worse than the one before.

If my horse flips his tongue over the bit he’s trying to tell me something. He’s usually stiff through the neck and poll and tight in his jaw. Flipping his tongue over the bit is about the last thing he can come up with to try to get away from being cranked on.

I want to be clear here, I’m not saying the poor owner with the problem is hauling away at the horse (at least I hope not). I am saying that each time the horse created a resistance through his neck (which probably began with a hollowed out back) he didn’t find a way out of it through help from his rider.

So he stacked another resistance on top of another until all he had left was his tongue.

If I tie his mouth shut or tie the bit to the roof of his mouth I’m not helping him work through his stiffness. I’m just tying his mouth shut. So the second I untie his mouth he’ll flip his tongue over the bit.

What I’ve had the most success with in this situation is to go back to the beginning. I work in an arena for awhile, just like I would if he was a baby.

If I have no whoa I don’t leave the arena until I do…

I put him in a ring snaffle. No cavesson, no drop-nose band, just a simple snaffle.

Then I drop the bit so low he can almost, but not quite, spit it out. I start with a simple walk, trot, canter. All on a loose rein with the loose bit.

My horse will play with his bit like crazy, tongue over, under, banging the bit around.

I’m not going to pay any attention to him. I’m especially going to ignore the head, tongue nonsense. I’m going to focus on the feet.

Walk, trot, canter.

When my horse’s feet are going where they are supposed to I’ll reward him with a rest.

Then I’ll start to serpentine at a walk and trot.
I’ll work on softening my horse through the rib and shoulders.
I still won’t be worried about his head or his tongue.

I don’t need a whoa because we’re working on feet.

But most of you know me well enough by now to realise I won’t ask him to stop until he really, really is begging me to stop. Because he will be so-o-o-o-. tired. But stopping is another story for another day.

As I work my horse through the basics with his flopping, banging bit he’s eventually going to pick the bit up on his own.

He will realize the only way to control the dang thing his to hold it himself. He will be sick of it whacking his teeth.

I’m not helping him at all by stopping and readjusting it, or stopping and yelling or stopping and anything.

I just keep working, and yes I’m well aware of how hard it is to get anything done when the bit is over his tongue and I know it hurts, but I don’t really care.

Because my horse can flip that bit back into position any time and hold it himself.

Where his reward use to be stopping work and getting me off to fuss with his bit, now his reward is to find out how pleasant it is to keep the bit in place.

In the mean time I am re-educating him on bending, giving, going and stopping.

I’m schooling myself as much as him.

Is he stiff in the neck? Where are my hands? Am I hanging on him?

Is he muscled up against my leg? How come?

Am I backing off when he challenges my cues?

I use this time to think, evaluate and discover just where my problems originated.

The whole time I am letting my horse carry his own bit around. If he’s holding it he can’t get his tongue over it. I’ve never had one not see the sense of this.

When he’s carrying his bit reliably and I’ve worked out most of his stiffness (or at least I’ve found my answers with my legs instead of my hands) I’ll try the bit I want him riding in.

There are a few things to keep in mind here.

1.If my horse is driving forward from the back he won’t have his tongue over the bit.

2 If he flips his tongue over the bit while we’re working I’ll ignore him and keep working until he gets himself rearranged. Then I’ll stop and rest. Unless of course he has no stop, then I'll have too add the stop reward in later.

3.I won’t ride out of the arena until I have gotten him on the bit.

4. I won’t ride in anything heavier than a ring snaffle until we’ve fixed our problem. A curb is too heavy to make him carry on his own.

Besides, if he won’t go in a ring snaffle, than we both have some learnin’ to do. I'd stay in the snaffle until I was riding the horse I wanted.


  1. Super post! My horse does not flip her tongue over the bit, but I might just try this to help her understand and become much softer in her cues, plus, she has had some time off due to illness and has lost a lot of training and softness.

  2. My "famous" exercise I make riders and young horses I am working with do is serpentine cones. I do them/make them do the serpentines through the cones (spaced about three generous steps apart) up and down the arena at a walk and trot then I take every other one out when/if they are ready for a canter. It gives the rider something consistent to focus their eyes and apply appropriate cues.
    Works every time. Everyone groans when I take the cones out to set up various patterns but believe me you, it helps even the most seasoned of us.

  3. It took me literally years to learn this; that the contact begins in the back, not in the mouth or the hands.

    And I'll be honest, it's so frigging hard to remember it sometimes, especially if you've learnt bad habits!

  4. Drat, chopped off half my comment.

    I agree that nearly all the time it's a contact body issue, but I have come across two horses for whom it wasn't. One because his tongue had been cut in half by a barb wire bit and healed, but with scars. He was initially, and remained almost unbearably sensitive in his mouth. We took the bit away altogether and he went in a mechanical hackamore instead which it suited him nicely, although I have to note he was very reactive to contact even in that.

    T'other one apparently just hated a bit; he was as sweet a horse to ride as you could imagine in a makeshift crossover halter imitation of a side-pull. He was beautifully supple and responsive; he'd had one owner from the beginning and had never had any traumas or injuries, but try as the owner (and a number of other people) might he never really went well in a bit. He'd just never really relax into the contact even when his tongue was in his mouth, although he didn't generally overtly resist; he was always just that bit stiff and less fluent and responsive.
    The owner felt that she couldn't bear to compete him knowing he wouldn't ever be at his best and took up showjumping instead.

  5. FD- Both of these horses obviously had issues other than putting their tongue over the bit.
    I'll stick to my guns here, if a horse has a chronic habit of putting his tongue over the bit then it is a man made situation.From the hands.
    I'm well aware I'm opening the door for a bitless bridle arguement here, which is fine, but I would like to keep my point clear, it's about the hands.

  6. That was a very good post, Mugs,
    both in describing the cause and the solution.
    I have not heard about "letting the bit down"- method before, interesting.

    I hope this rider understands that she is not alone.
    Problems in the front end of the horse often originates in the back and/or in the hind quarters, whether it is a tongue problem or a general contact problem.

    Going through the check list of bending, supplying and feeling can help a lot to find out where the real problems is.

    And it helps you to become a more sensitive rider too!

  7. interesting... Cant say I've ever had a horse that flipped their tongue over, but now I know what to do if it ever happens!

  8. Thank you for this post. I can't tell you how often I see mouths strapped shut without anyone asking WHY the mouth was open! Sure, they say, well the horse is evading me so I will prevent his evasion. But there is always a REASON the evasion is occurring and it seems there is often little interest in finding out what exactly is being evaded. Perhaps because this would slow down training and delay competition?

    I am very big on being thoughtful about training and riding and finding out WHY the horse is doing (or not doing) what he is. Of course, this is easier for me with one horse than a trainer with a string of projects, as I get to know my horse intimately. But I think that this problem of tying mouths shut is very pervasive in the horse community and one that with a little more thoughtfullness, we could lessen the incidence of and have happier horses.

  9. I have a young OTTB with this problem. I too tried tightening the bridle up. He would either manage to get the tip of his tongue over it anyway or would just suck it way back into his head.

    I tired loosening it so it was hanging, but maybe I need to do it more. It wasn't as low as his teeth. He happily went around with his tongue over the bit, but quietly.

    He's very soft and willing. He really responds to weight and position, you hardly need to use the reins at all. I don't use a noseband because I don't want to put a bandaid on the the problem, but after a nice ride with upward and downward transitions, serpentines, and spirals I'll get off and poke my fingers in his mouth and his tongue is sitting on top of the bit. He now keeps it very quietly there and doesn't stick it out. We've even done some cross country jumping and I didn't have any trouble with control.

    Afer trying a ton of bits, including one that cost $120, I'm using a thin loose ring french link. I got the thinnest one I could find because he seems to have a low palate and thick tongue.
    My question is, have you ever heard of a horse that goes around just fine with his tongue over the bit??

  10. eventer- it happens in the western world as much as in yours.
    I have seen horses in spade bits ridden with their mouth tied shut until they walk in the arena...I rode poor Mort in his Pelham bit with a drop nose band for years.
    I finally had the light go off with Sonita. I never tied her mouth shut and learned the hard way why she would gape. We did eventually get it sorted out.

  11. This blog makes me so happy. I would never have known so much neat stuff, and most importantly, that I am not a lonely nut, there are others!
    OK, what about the tongue happy horse? Not evading, not over the bit, but wagging in the breeze like a dog, but with more muscular wig wagging. My trainer HATED it, tried caveson, (I was unconvinced it did anything but make my trainer feel better). Tried different bits. I am not sure as long as we aren't showing that it is a big problem. It looks funny...I always thought he just needed some gum and he would have been fine. (Except for blowing bubbles!)

  12. While I'm clarifying here, I guess I should bring up the tongue waggers, you know, the horses who chronically waggle their tongues all over? They are always kind of spitty, especially at dinner time. I've always kind of considered them the mouth breathers of the horse world.
    You can't cure the waggle, but you can get this type of horse to carry a bit.

  13. Albigears-I would want to put a nice, thick, heavy, clangy bit in there.Then keep riding loose and low until he carries it.This can take months. I am not one to promote quick fixes.

    You found the easiest bit you could for your horse to carry under his tongue. You've made your horse happy.If it doesn't bother you, than I'd say you're fine, but
    I'd be concerned about what would happen as you progress. Your horse will not be able to learn properly or perform at higher levels this way.

    nagon- Fine minds run alike! The tongue wagging has nothing to do with the bit. It's a mannerism. I've seen it passed from mare to foal. From what I've seen it comes from anxiety, like, "Where's my dinner?" To, "man I wish she would take off this cavesson."
    I think it's kind of cute. I have never tried to correct it and have never had it interfere with the horse I'm riding. I have taught a horse who was a maniac tongue wagger and who also put her tongue over the bit, to carry her bit quite nicely. She still wagged like a loon though.

  14. I love your common sense answers. Keep them coming!

  15. nagon-I haven't ever had a judge at a horse show knock me down because my horse wags her tongue.

  16. I have been screwing around with different bits, with not touching my horse's face at all and making him *move*, with a drop noseband (didn't bother with that long), and nothing has done a damn thing, but THIS got him to stop *gaping*! (I tried it right after I read the post) I am so happy!

  17. Man, I can't tell you how many people told me I was completely insane for starting my horse in a halter and then going to a very simple French link snaffle hanging from a simple little one eared western headstall. Everyone and their brother tried to insist he needed a cavasson or drop noseband or something to "keep his mouth shut". Why?!?

    Yes, the first few weeks of wearing the bit he did all sorts of weird things with his mouth until he got used to wearing it, but I WANT to know if he feels the need to gape or do anything odd with his mouth. To me, stuff like that tells me I'm doing something wrong. That he's not understanding something or is hurting somewhere. Both are problems I'd like to FIX not just cover up. Then again, I like training the old way - from the ground up piece by piece until I have a horse than can do anything I ask him to do anytime, anywhere and I don't really care how long it takes to get there.

  18. My guy tongue-wags at the extended trot; only in his full cheek snaffle going huntseat, and he will switch which side his tongue hangs out based on where his audience is. No kidding. The freakshow won't do it at horse shows, though...only at home during lessons, and only if there is someone to see him.

  19. By 'wagging' do you also mean the horses who stick their tongues out the sides of their mouths and leave them there, flopping in the breeze, as they're doing, say, an extended trot or tempe changes?

    Unfortunately, this is considered 'resistance' in dressage (or was 5-10 years ago, at any rate--I haven't asked a judge about it in a few years).

    I myself don't have issues with it. (I see it as a "hey, yeah, thinking here" sort of absent-minded mannerism, but then I'm the girl who chews the insides of her mouth when concentrating really hard. Which is not a great habit when riding colts.) That said, I'm thinking that the techniques described here might also help with this issue.

    Very cool. Thanks!

  20. My friend got their walker when he was basically a starvation, being ridden in a western gag or a long shanked curb. They were told he put his tongue over the bit a fair amount. When he was up to weight and ready to ride, they found he was very slingy with the head, fussy with the tongue, etc, and asked me for help.
    I've only done walkers on trail, so by no means have any clue as to best way to get the best gait, etc. But since a horse is a horse, I recommended putting the least in his mouth they could get away with. I rode him in a simple three piece eggbutt. He sorta slung his head, and fussed. I put the long shanked port on. He slung and fussed.
    He was controlable in both. I recommended they thus go with the easier bit, and see how much of the learned slinging stopped when he realized it didn't hurt.

    Within a few rides that all stopped. He developed good brakes in a simple old snaffle, stopped the tongue thing, etc. The problem is he is a bit pacy, a curb might help, but he really doesn't like it now that he's grown to like his snaffle.

    Another thing to consider, I think, is how shallow your horse's mouth is, between top of tongue and roof. Some ports don't actually provide any tongue relief, and some hollow mouth or big diameter snaffles are harder on the horse than a smaller diameter one that allows him more "room". I like a three piece for snaffles because it conforms around the tongue better and is less likely than a single jointed to hit the roof of the mouth when flexed.

    I agree with eventer79 (woohoo eventers!) that too many people tie their mouths closed. It is HARD to find a bridle that doesn't have a flash attachment. What about when those dressage horses get to the upper levels? The Weymouth's have cranks to get around not being able to use a flash or figure 8. Sigh.

    I don't worry about what a youngster does when learning about the bit; they yaw to let you know "You, the rider, are wrong." Perhaps you don't ask him the same way each time, perhaps he doesn't understand what your asking. Both, your fault, as a trainer, and input is good! And if it's resistance as in opinionated equine, as always, fix it from the back, your legs, not by correct the mouth. Always work from back to front, don't ask too much too soon, and they turn out well, without needing their mouths strapped closed.

    My run-on opinion ;-)

  21. Hi again,

    He has been doing this since I got him. He will do it at a stand still right after you bridle him up. I have made sure he has his tounge under the bit when I bridle I double check it and within two seconds his bit is under his tongue. It is not just when he is being ridden. If you are riding him he will be going along just fine and then out comes the tongue and complete loss of control.

  22. You are right, Bif -- I shopped for over a year to try and find a nice black bridle that didn't have a flash. It's like trying to find a whale in a farm pond -- ain't gonna happen. So return to my standby approach -- pull out flash strap, throw away flash strap, and cut off little loop with dissecting kit (well, I am a biologist, I do have such nerdy things around). Much better! Actually, for schooling, I don't use any cavesson at all, I only put it on for shows when they make me. Hunter people think I am very weird, which makes me giggle.

  23. eventer79~
    yeah, I found VTOsaddlery.com's Nunn Finer event bridle is the way to go, since you can have it in brown or black (and without a flash tab thingy to hack off). For a few bucks more, they'll customize it how you want, aka cob cheeks on otherwise horse bridle, like my guy needs. Interchange sizing on the browband, cavesson, whatever! My friend's horse has a funny head, she has one bridle with pony cheeks and everything else full size...

  24. Off to find a nice big fat bit...

  25. The only one I had that would put the tongue over the bit was the OTTB that would do it straight after you put the bridle on - out of habit as far as I could tell, she was raced in a tounge tie - and she was a 'fiddler" with the bit and her tounge then once she got her tongue over the bit she got upset because it was uncomfortable!
    Since she was doing it with no contact I decided against the local wisdom of shutting her mouth and putting up with it and dug out a split racing noseband - which worked similar to the baling twine method I think - when she opened her mouth the bit was held close to the top jaw so she couldn't put her tongue over. I initally worked her on the lunge line until she got over the immediate frustration with not being able to do it then rode her on a loose rein - lucky she was smart and the problem went in a few days to a week. I did find that she liked her bit to be lower than conventional wisdom suggested as she could then play with it a bit more

    I did eventaually find that when we started showjumping over 3ft she needed to be jumped in a drop/flash noseband at competition - especially against the clock as she sometimes throught she should have way more fun than I wanted and be allowed to gallop around the course because its so much fun... and would open her mouth and pull like a train and try to jump the nearest jump rather than the one you want to go to - it didn't matter if she'd be jumping it backwards, forwards or sideways - if you had a drop/flash on so loose that it only just sat there she wouldn't even try...
    Horses are funny!

  26. Great post for an annoying and frustrating problem...
    "I'd stay in the snaffle until I was riding the horse I wanted."
    I really like this. I agree with it 100%. So if you stay in the snaffle when problems arise what are other bits for? Have you already done a post on bit specializations? I have always been curious when is the right time to "bit up". As I hang out in the lower level dressage and hunter disciplines I have not ever seen a reason to change to anything but a snaffle.

  27. I second Golden the Pony Girl's question! Would love to see an answer to that.

    And I will take it a step further - and this is not meant to start a bitted vs. bitless debate, but what advantage does a snaffle have over riding in a hackamore, or in a halter? Certainly, some rule books require certain tack in competition, but if you're simply riding for the fun of it, why choose a curb or snaffle or hackamore or halter?

  28. Nicole,

    I expect my horse to ride in his rope halter every bit as sanely as when he's in his French link or his pelham. I can do trails, I can jump, I can do whatever in that rope halter. However, the bits give me a finer level of communication with him. I don't think its a 'control' issue at all. I can take him anywhere I want in that rope halter (its got rings on the nose knots for the reins or I can clip both reins under his chin like a hackamore), but the bit just gives me a little something extra at least for right now.

    Anyway, that's my take on the bit versus no bit thing.

  29. "However, the bits give me a finer level of communication with him."

    Candy's Girl: This is exactly why you would "bit up" as well. Going from a snaffle to something else means you can use lighter and more precise cues as the bit is more sensitive. At least that's my opinion! :)

    Awesome post as usual Mugs!

  30. mlk-when I talk about judges I talk about the ones I am judged by.....
    twhlady-I understand, I hope you don't think I blamed you for starting this problem. I wasn't. But no matter how it started or how ingrained the problem, the solution I offered is the only one I have.
    Nicole-what Jasmine said.
    I think I have written about the bits I ride with. Some of you halter riding folks would have a stroke if you saw the thing my bridle horses pack around.
    I'll think some more on it and come back to it.

  31. Thankfully I haven't had too many horses with the tongue problem to that extent.

    When I start a young one, they start carrying around a snaffle almost from day one. It's over the top of the halter and nothing is attached to it (which could be at least a week or two). They just learn how to carry it by figuring out the spot that feels the best. (I don't mean foals or yearlings here. I'm talking about starting them under saddle.)

    Great post Mugs!

  32. Mugwump - As a halter rider - I think that the bridle horse's bits are extremely cool - the level of training those horses have to have is just awesome. I know a guy who's got a finished bridle horse. He barely breathes and his mare is doing all kinds of things. I think if you take the time and do it right its one of the coolest things ever. Spade bits and whatnot look really horrific, but if you know what you're doing and the horse has the training to handle it they're extremely cool. I'm not capable of training to that level, but I admire anyone who is!

    I ride in a halter sometimes because I expect my horse to behave himself no matter what he's got on his head or in his mouth. His job, when it comes down to it, is to go where I point him, when I point him there, at the speed I ask for. Riding occasionally in a halter tends to make any holes in his training stand out frighteningly well. At least for me, its a good way to find places I need to improve.

    I also ride in a halter because sometimes I'm just too lazy to pull out real tack. Sometimes I just want to hop on and fool around so I tie up my lead rope for reins and away we go.

    Also, I've got to admit, its extremely satisfying to be able to ride him bareback in a halter in front of all the people who told me I was totally insane for A.) getting an Arab B.) getting a stud colt and C.) training him myself.

    A semi-related aside - how do you go about teaching neck reining? It is something I have utterly zero experience in teaching and the only way I can come up with to go about it is to just over exaggerate the putting the reins on his neck motion paired with leg cues he already knows. I think that'd pretty much just yield a horse that has very rudimentary rein cues though and I'd love for him to have much more refined cues than that.

  33. Candy's Girl-Go down my list of labels - to neckreining- that's how I do it.

  34. Awesome! I missed that tag somehow. I'll be trying that when its a little warmer out.


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