The other day I took a sip of coffee and with it I experienced a foreign sensation. I was expecting smooth delicious coffee and there was a lump in it. Within a fraction of a second, I knew it was a fly. I could feel it distinctly, in the middle of my tongue. Yuck. The feeling of its presence in my mouth haunted me for hours afterwards, even though it was only there for an extremely brief moment in time. In a way, I was grateful for the experience because it got me thinking of how a horse feels with the presence of a bit in their mouths. How foreign a lumpy metal object must feel to them.
The most important line of communication we have with our horses is through their extremely sensitive mouths. One of the first places where training most often falls apart is in the contact, or a lack of education about what the bit is supposed to do. This lack of understanding causes a chain reaction that spreads throughout the horses entire body in the form of tension. So much so that when the horse is defensive in the mouth, the jaw and the poll become tight, gaits can become irregular, and relaxation is unattainable. If this cycle continues, we can create chronic discomfort and even pain in our horses. At this point correctly building the necessary muscles for the upper level movements escapes our grasp.
The bit is a vitally important tool to communicate with the horse, and yet we spend so little time educating them to accept its presence in self carriage. In the Philippe Karl school of lightness, training begins with the mouth. We are taught to introduce the bit and educate the horse about it first with ground work. On the ground we can be quicker with the release, and the horse can focus on just the bit, not carrying us at the same time. In this way we can effectively teach them to relax with the bit in his mouth and accept contact. We teach the horse that they can mobilize their jaws to stay relaxed, and with using the bit to achieve jaw mobility we gain access to the rest of the horses body.
There are specific cues that we teach the horse on the ground, to accept pressure on the corners of the lips. The cues that we teach from the ground mobilize the horses jaw, ask for neck position, and flex the poll. This works as a continuous cycle – jaw mobility – neck position – and poll flexion. We teach the horse to self carry in different positions of the head and neck, offering jaw mobility throughout. This education of the bit, first from the ground, between trainer and horse translates to the training of the same under saddle. We maintain consistent cues that the horse understands without pain or discomfort in the mouth. This results in a horse that can maintain relaxation throughout a training session and that can have adjustability of the head and neck within different exercises. These series of ground exercises are performed before each ride and create a strong foundation of basic communication from the rider to the horse through the bit. This is where it begins, in the most logical and progressive of ways, to train a horse to accept contact.
So the next time a foreign object finds its way into your mouth via what was intended to be a soothing beverage, consider the education that you have given to your horse about the foreign object in theirs.