It is a good idea with a young, inexperienced horse to work with his mouth before introducing a bit. Play with his lips. Put your fingers into his mouth, massage his bars, rub his palate. This can be done with newborn foals during the imprinting process or on an older horse who has not had it done before. Of course, this has more advantages than just bitting. It helps with vet exams, worming, dental checks etc.
Rule of thumb is to fit your bit with one or two wrinkles at the corner of your horse’s mouth. It is common to put the bit a little lower in a green colt’s mouth so that he learns to pick it up himself and carry it (usually with his tongue arched against it). Later it should be lifted a little to the standard position. (see the article about Bit Fit for measuring the width of the new bit.
Watch for wolf teeth in the young horse. They are the vestigial teeth thought to be the evolved useless “tusks” from early horses – called wolf teeth because they look much like a small fang. Most common in colts, they are also frequently found in fillies. Most young horses lose their wolf teeth by 4 years of age. They can be an irritant to a horse wearing a bit.
Whether bitting your horse for the first time or transitioning to a new bit, put the headstall and bit onto your horse in a comfortable, confined space such as his stall, and let him wear it daily – slowly working the time up to several hours – before you add reins or pressure. He can eat with it. He can drink with it. He can play with it with his tongue. He can figure out that there is no way to get away from it.
After a couple of days (a few hours) of passive work, put his rope halter under his headstall and take him to the round pen, wearing his reinless-bit but using his halter to lunge and practice gaiting exercises. If he has to think while he wears it, he can’t concentrate on how to get rid of it. He will learn to “carry” his bit before any pressure is applied.
Work through all of his ground training exercises in this fashion for a few days.
(The optimal solution for this stage is a side-pull with the option of bit or no bit, but they are very hard to find, thus the rope halter UNDER the headstall.)
After your horse has worn his bit with no pressure, attach the reins to the bit instead of the halter. Start from the beginning as if he were just learning to wear his halter. The routine is the same for transitioning to a new bit as for experiencing one for the first time. Either way, the feel is different than he has experienced previously, and he must learn how to understand the new pressures.
Changing Sides: Practiced without a bit, this exercise sensitizes his muzzle to pressure that moves him away from the pressure and into the turn.
See More about sensitizing your horse to direct bit pressure on the ground
Lateral Flex: Put reins on the bit and stand at your horse’s girth. Lay the reins over his neck. Pull the rein on the near side toward the saddle cinch area, forcing his head to his girth. (This should not be as difficult as it was the first time you tried it with a halter see Flex Training). He may object at first, feeling the bit pull on his mouth for the first time. Expect a head toss or two, but hold on until he actually comes toward your pull with his own motion and then drop the pressure on the rein like a hot potato (release). After doing this two or three times, he should become a master at bit-induced lateral softening. Don’t forget to do it on both sides.
Poll Flex: Will your horse lower his head when you request it by moving away from your pressure on his poll? If so, you are half way to lowering his head using the bit.
Leave your lead rope attached to the under-lying halter just draped over your arm loosely.
Stand in at your horse’s shoulder facing his side. Grab both reins under his throat at his neck, pull them back until his head is on the vertical, simulating the rider pulling back. If you can’t get his head to come down at all and he starts to object by backing away or throwing his head up (expected at first), use the halter to bring him down simultaneously with the reins. The two requests, reins then immediately halter, will help him associate the draw-down of the bit with the lowering of his face.
Hold the reins until he relents, gives up pulling against the bit and comes in to you (brings his head into his chest). Release instantly!! Take a “baby step” of just 2 inches of head-lowering if that’s all he gives you the first couple of times, then shape it into a fully vertical face.
Expect him to try to force the reins to relax by tossing his head. Or he may try to walk through the bit by moving forward. Control him but don’t let go until he lowers his head. (If he gets too crazy, he is not ready for this exercise. He needs more Yield training)
This exercise will show him that bringing his head down in response to pull-back bit pressure will release the pressure. After a couple of times when you release, you will find that he doesn’t spring back instantly. With just a slight pull-back he will lower his face by himself – releasing the pressure by himself. He will have found the “sweet spot” head position.
After learning to both flex laterally and come back to you with his head, he is ready to practice the same exercises with you on his back. (assuming he is rideable at this stage of training)
The whole goal of introducing in stages is to develop a horse who accepts his bit as just another day at the ranch – no trauma, no worries.
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