Generally, a horse is said to have a “hard” mouth when he has developed callouses in the corners of his mouth or dead spots on the bars of his mouth where nerve endings have been damaged. The more callouses or dead spots, the more pain he can take and the harder you will have to pull on him to get the response you want.
However, there is another perspective. Many “Hard Mouthed” horses still have plenty of nerves and bars. In fact, it is their current or previous experience with a bit (or bits) that is too harsh or a rider who is hanging on a bit that has made them difficult to turn and stop.
In an effort to get their horse to “pay attention” and “respond”, many, many riders resort to more and more harsh bits. In an effort to avoid the pain of the bit, the horse develops a stiff head, poll, neck and general front end. The moment they anticipate the pull of the rein, they stiffen and brace against the impending unpleasant consequences. Even if changed to another bit or rider, they have developed both a set psychological reactions and the physiology that reinforces the strength of the posture.
A rider trying to pit his strength against a runaway horse whose head and neck are thrust forward and whose front is braced against the pull is lost. The horse simply cannot be stopped until he feels like rating back of his own accord.
Additionally, a horse who either turns stiffly on his front or (worse) actually turns with his head on the outside of a turn is off balance and could even be dangerous.
What to do?
This type of horse (a significant percentage of the “hard mouth” horses out there), needs to be taught how to give to pressure and how to be supple in both lateral and vertical flex. His habitual stiffening must be reduced and replaced with a supple body and mind.
Re-training starts on the ground in the round pen, progresses to under saddle in the arena or pasture. It starts at the walk, and ends up with a horse who is supple and compliant in both the stop and the turn – even at the canter or gallop. In the end you have a horse who is responsive, relaxed, reliable and a pleasure to ride.
How long this will take depends on how long he has suffered under bad bits or poor riders, and how frequently he is practiced and how consistent the new training. We will address the re-training needs of the horse here, not the needs of the rider. (It is most possible that the rider should also be getting instruction from a professional who can get them balanced and centered on top of their horse and make sure that the rider is not cuing a runaway by leg-gripping his barrel and pressuring him forward.)
On the Ground, in the Round Pen:
You will need all of the aids available to re-train this horse. You will need a verbal cue to stop, a seat cue to stop and a rein cue to stop.
Begin teaching the verbal whoa on the ground, using it during lunging and also as you walk the horse around the property.
Under Saddle in the Round Pen
At the same time as you practice on the ground, saddle up to brush up the “whoa” using your seat and reins.
What head gear? This is where less is more. You are in a very controlled area. Take his usual head gear off and replace with a side-pull or knotted halter with side rings. No chance of a mouth problem here. (Even a forward horse can usually do these exercises safely in the round pen)
Ride across the round pen from one side to the other. About 3/4 of the way across, plant your seat bones into his back muscles (see: Pressure Points), say “whoa”, count one-one thousand (1 second) and pull back on the reins until he stops. When he stops (which he must or he will run into the fence), immediately relax your posture and the reins and allow him to rest. Repeat.
When you have done this enough times that your seat cue is beginning to slow his forward progress even before you pick up the reins, then begin traveling along the rail, circling the inside of the pen.
When you decide to stop, plant your seat, say “whoa”, and then pull back on the reins. Relax IMMEDIATELY when forward movement has stopped. The sequence is important: Seat, Verbal Request, Reins, RELAX.
He has two chances to stop BEFORE the reins are used. And if you have to use the reins, there is no pain – rather the immediate satisfaction of relaxation at the stop.
He needs to learn the cues AND stop anticipating pain.
On the Ground in the Round Pen – More Simultaneous Exercises
Start teaching him to flex his head and neck laterally. A horse who has been stiff and resistant for a long period of time may take some very gradual training. He has not given in to the lateral pressure by bringing his head around to his girth, and he has developed specific muscle structures that make it even more difficult for you to force the issue. Start with a very tiny baby step response: just a couple of inches that he gives you voluntarily will be called a success. Then ask for further and further swings.
It is not that he CANNOT bring his head around. If he had a fly on his hip or an itch on his barrel, he would whip his head right around where you want it. But he has learned to resist flexing when the halter or bridle are used to request it.
This exercise is of PARAMOUNT importance to make him supple and compliant.
Once this is conquered on both sides, begin to practice it under saddle.
Move to the Arena or a Small Pasture.
Now the birds come home to roost. Still in a confined space but not so small as the round pen, and using his new “less-is-more” headgear, repeat the same maneuvers you practiced in the round pen. It is of paramount importance that EVERY ride starts with 10 flexes to the right and 10 to the left. No moving forward until that is accomplished.
First across the small side of the arena. Perfect? Now practice along the rail. Walk, seat cue, “whoa”, reins, stop, relax. We are teaching the WHOA. Turning is less important until WHOA is accomplished.
First perfect the whoa at a walk, then a slow trot, and then a canter (when the other gaits have perfect stops). Anything you cannot do at a slow pace will be 10 times more difficult at a faster one, and we do NOT want to reinforce his habit of stiffening into your pull.
Now We Move into Suppling into a Turn
Because you have been practicing the lateral flex, he is prepared with a more supple and responsive turn of his head and neck toward his girth when you apply lateral pressure to the reins. Let’s now start to practice turning during a walking trip around the arena rail.
Walk the rail. At a mid point of your choosing, apply pressure to the inside rein while applying pressure to his outside front with your outside leg and taking pressure off your inside leg. (Taking your inside leg off his barrel will give him “room” to step to the inside.) When he brings his head to the inside and you can see the corner of his eye, his direction of travel should alter. He should follow his face.
Keep the rein and leg pressure on until his direction changes. At that point, IMMEDIATELY release the pressure and allow him to travel in a straight line for a few more steps. “Whoa”, relax. You have accomplished his first lateral turn with some flex in his neck. You have also combined the turn and the whoa.
Proceed back to a rail.
While moving along the rail at a walk, ask for a turn again exactly the same way. When it seems easy, continue the pressure for him to make 2, 3, or 4 steps toward the inside. Soon you will be able to make a complete circle in a controlled, gentle turn. Then “Whoa”. RELAX.
Now, straight across the arena to the other side, make a circle and go back to the starting side. Each trip gets a little longer between the whoa’s: First stopping after each circle and then making two or three trips across before stopping.
Now, at a walk, try some patterns. Look at your space and make a visual map in your head of a triangle – much like a barrel racing pattern. Then a cloverleaf.
If all is going well, you are getting bored and he is getting easy.
Repeat all of this at a trot. When PERFECT, repeat at a canter. How is his “hard mouth” now?
The Emergency Stop
Before you can trust his responses outside the pasture or in an emergency situation, you need to teach him the “emergency stop”, which involves bringing his head nearly all the way to your leg while moving. It forces him to circle tightly into a stop. This was impossible before. You couldn’t get him to even turn his head when you put pressure on his bit.
Now, if he is being flexed laterally multiple times during a lesson, he is getting used to keeping his balance while being tightly flexed and walking into a turn with some flex.
Walking along the rail, ask him to “whoa”. If he is the least bit tardy at stopping, immediately flex him to the inside and make him circle tightly and repeatedly by urging him on with your outside leg as you hold the inside rein tight. Make him wish he had stopped.
At last, stop urging, ask for the “whoa” again. You will probably get it quickly. Now rest and relax.
Practice this until his “whoa” is perfect at the walk. Practice the circle until you feel him gaining confidence in his own balance. Then proceed to the trot with the same procedure. He is gaining both a quick stop, and a circle with good balance. Each bump in speed requires a slightly larger circle.
Don’t wait to perform this maneuver until there is an emergency. A horse who is panicked or running straight ahead and is suddenly thrown into a tight circle can lose his balance and fall on you. While having a panicked horse fall with you might be preferable to a worse wreck, it is seldom a good solution. Practice. Practice. Practice. Get a feel for his abilities and your strength in high-speed circling situations. Tighten the circle only so far as his balance will maintain.
On the Trail
Riding the trails should be a re-training session in disguise. Find opportunities to practice each of these maneuvers – first at slow pace and then faster – every time you go out. Over weeks and months of practice his old “hard mouth” habits will be shed and a new horse will be emerge.