Training the Hard-to-Bridle Horse
Refusing to Be Bridled
A horse that is hard to bridle can be a nightmare. The horse may throw his head all the way up and stand there confident that you cannot reach. I have also had horses shove me, spin away in a box stall and even present their rear. One horse was so reluctant that she ran backward in a standing stall and hit her head on the beam between the stall walls. (She was rather easier to bridle after that little incident, but ouch.)
A less extreme reaction is the horse that will simply clamp its mouth shut and refuse to open it for the bit.
What Makes A Horse Hard To Bridle?
There are several possible causes for this behavior.
- A green horse who was not properly 'bitted' or taught to accept the bridle before being broken in. Although many people these days denigrate old fashioned bitting, where the horse is left standing wearing a bit and bridle (with no reins attached) in a stall for periods of time, I have found horses trained in this way are less likely to be hard to bridle, providing the bitting was done correctly.
- People have been bridling the horse incorrectly. School horses often end up reluctant to be bridled after being used to teach students how to do it - older, quiet and patient horses should be used for this, as they're less likely to develop misbehaviors as a result. Some quite experienced riders may also bridle a horse in a manner it doesn't like.
- The bridle doesn't fit. If the bridle is too small, most especially if the browband is too short, then the process of getting it on can be uncomfortable for the horse. Always check the bridle fit first with a horse that is being difficult. Also check that the bit is not too small or too large. In some cases, a horse may be trying to tell you he or she hates the bit you are using.
- The horse is experiencing direct pain when bridled. The most common cause of this is that the horse needs its teeth floating. Sharp edges on the teeth can cause pain when they come up against the bit. Sudden refusal to be bridled is most likely indicative of either a tooth problem or the presence of ear mites.
- The horse is experiencing negative associations with work in general and expressing it by objecting to the bridle. This may indicate low-grade lameness or back soreness. It could also be indicative of a 'sour' horse that is bored or frustrated with training and needs a break. I have also seen a horse refuse to be bridled the day after a close pasture mate died when this was not normal behavior—I can only guess that she was too unhappy to feel much like work that day. Some horses may object to the bridle on hot days.
Bitting or Mouthing a Horse
Some people avoid traditional "bitting" or "mouthing" of young horses but done correctly it can help produce a horse that never has problems accepting the bit and bridle.
You start by putting just the bridle on, with no bit. Some people also leave off the noseband at this stage and add it later. Then, you add a 'mouthing' bit. A mouthing bit looks like a regular bit but has extra, loose pieces of metal called 'keys' attached to it. Mouthing bits are often made with rubber or copper mouthpieces. Smear a bit of molasses or unsweetened applesauce on the bit when introducing it. The horse is left standing in its own, comfortable stall, with the bridle and bit in place for a few minutes, gradually increasing the time, although not to more than an hour or so. The horse should not be left this way for hours and should never be left completely unsupervised.
The next step is to introduce hand walking in the bridle, then I would personally move to ground driving.
By introducing the bit this way it becomes no big deal for the young horse.
Fixing the Problem
If your horse is already hard to bridle, however, then you need to address the problem.
First, understand that a horse may just have a hard to bridle day, like the mare I mentioned who was grieving for her friend and did not feel like working. If it is once in a while, then it probably just means your horse is in a bad mood that day and while they should not be allowed to get away with it, it doesn't indicate a problem.
If you do have a horse that is hard to bridle regularly, you need to first eliminate physical reasons. Make sure the bridle fits. If getting the headpiece over the ears is difficult, then the bridle is probably just a little bit too small. The bit should be fitted so that one crease (no more, no less) is visible in the horse's lips.
Check the horse's teeth, back and ears. If the horse seems startled by the bridle, then you may also want to check his vision.
If all of that checks out, then consider trying a change of bit. Many horses prefer a copper mouthpiece over stainless steel. (Avoid using older, cheap nickel bits - horses can actually have an unpleasant allergic reaction to them). While common wisdom is that thicker bits are milder, horses with smaller mouths may need a thinner bit. Horses with low palates should not be ridden in single jointed bits.
All of this should remove the negative connotations with bridling. The next thing to consider is removing the noseband if you are not using any kind of corrective noseband or tie-down. This makes putting the bridle on easier and may help.
Then, get some molasses or unsweetened apple sauce and smear it on the bit. After a few times of this, most horses will take the bit much more readily. Always bridle slowly and carefully and avoid, as much as possible, touching the horse's ears. Many horses hate having their ears touched and a horse that has had ear mites in the past can have real problems with it. For horses that are particularly ear shy, it might be worth removing the browband, at least temporarily. Always reward the horse when it lets you bridle it without any hassle.
Punishing a horse for refusing to be bridled is counterproductive. Although very occasionally a horse may refuse because it is being dominant or lazy, the vast majority of difficult to bridle horses were either poorly trained in the first place, or are trying to tell you something, or are fed up with the way you are putting the bridle on. Fixing this particular problem requires a lot of positive reinforcement and the building of pleasant associations.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.