The process of starting a horse: The first bridle
In last months article I explained how I saddle a horse for the first time. The next lesson is to introduce the bridle. By the time I am ready to bridle a horse for the first time the round pen lessons should be fairly consistent and the saddle should not be an issue to put on or take off or for the horse to wear. Once a horse has accepted the saddle a few times it is generally a source of little stress barring an incident that scares the horse or poor saddle fit, The bridle is often an easier lesson to teach but can become a long term cause of stress for a horse. Bits and bitting should not be overlooked and although it is not within the scope of this article, consideration should be taken to find and use an appropriate bit for your horse.
To start the lesson I will have the horse haltered and in the round pen. This is when I want to get the horse used to being touched around his head. I will not try to hold his head to stop him from moving but I will move my hands with his head if he has to move. Some horses can be fussy about their head being touched so this can require some patience, especially around their muzzle. When I am touching this area I try to measure the tension in their lips. If their lips are tense he is not ready to accept a bit, I will massage their lips and under their chin until he can relax. Once he does relax I will put my thumb in the corner of his mouth and waggle it around until he opens his mouth. I will repeat this several times until he is not bothered by me doing so. I will then take the lead rope I am holding and pretend it is a bit and put it is his mouth. With the lead rope across the fingers of my left hand I will put the thumb of my left hand in the corner of his mouth. When his mouth opens I will slowly slip it into his mouth. I do this with the lead rope to get the action figured out and to see how he will respond to me actually trying to put a foreign object in his mouth. The lead rope will not bump his teeth and scare him. Once it is in his mouth I let him chew on it or spit it out whichever he decides to do. I will repeat this process holding it in his mouth a little longer each time. Then it is time for the bit.
When putting the bridle on I will hold it from the brow band in my left hand and put his nose through the headstall so the bit is hanging below his chin. I then put my right hand between his ears and reach down so I can then hold the brow band in my right hand. My left hand will now hold the bit and I will repeat the process of putting my thumb in the corner of his mouth, and when he opens his mouth I gently pull up with my right hand which lifts the bit into his mouth. I use my left hand at this point to keep the bit from hitting his teeth. If he will not open his mouth I will try to wait until the lips relax a bit more, if he is tense I do not want to force his mouth to open. It is at this point important to remember that my goal is not to get the bridle on the first time, but to get him ready to comfortably accept a bridle every time. So I will wait longer and not get stronger. Once the bit is in I will hold it for a couple of seconds and then take it out of his mouth by lowering my right hand. If he holds the bit himself I will not pull it out, he will spit it out when he is ready.
I will repeat the process a couple of times and then I will slip the headstall over his ears and let him wear it. I usually take the reins off the bridle and let him pack it around for the next couple of sessions before I will start to apply any pressure to the bit. He needs to be comfortable wearing it before he will be able to handle the feel of the bit being pulled on.
Some horses because of their height are difficult to reach should they decide to lift their head. If I get a horse that is inclined to incline his head I will try to teach him to bring his head down before I proceed with the bridling lesson. I prefer to put my right arm on top of their head and hold the bridle so I can lift it into their mouth but if you are happier using another method it is better to do it the way that you are familiar and comfortable with. Technique is not as important as presentation.
This is not usually a difficult lesson teach a horse. There are horses that can be difficult to handle around the head but the same principles apply, success depends on how much time you are prepared to spend. If you rush things, especially with a horse having a difficult time it will cause things to take much longer.
Remember this is fundamental training, I want to set the stage for success by allowing the horse to learn that a saddle or bridle or rider are within his ability to accept and become comfortable with. I can not make a horse be comfortable with any of those things but I can allow him to become comfortable.
© 2006 Will Clinging