What You Need To Know About Teaching Your Horse To Soften To The Bit

When a horse “softens to the bit”, it means that when you simultaneously squeeze with your legs and pick up your reins, he will tuck in his nose creating slack in those reins. This is a sign that he is listening to you and waiting for your instruction. If you lift his head or tosses it, pulls on the bit and/or braces his neck, it means that he is rebelling and resisting your instruction.

In this article, we share important information to help you teach your horse how to soften to the bit. Read on to learn more on how to get my horse to soften on the bit.

Softness, Lightness And Flexibility Are Important

Teaching your horse to soften to the bit

Teaching your horse to soften to the bit is very important because if his poll (the top of his head) is allowed to rise higher than the level of your saddle horn or the pommel of your saddle, you could easily lose control.

A horse who learns to toss or raise his neck and head and brace himself against the bit can completely ignore your reining cues.

On the other hand, a horse who learns to soften to the bit, maintain flexibility and respond to light handed cues remains within your control and stays in positive communication with you.

This can mean the difference between an enjoyable ride and good partnership and an ongoing struggle and battle.

Is a Bit Absolutely Necessary?

You also want softness, lightness and flexibility when using a bosal, hackamore or other bitless bridle.

The main thing to keep in mind is that both you and your horse need to work on these qualities for the best communication and partnership.

Here is a good demonstration and explanation of using these concepts when riding with a bosal.

Practice This Exercise in an Arena or Round Pen

To develop softness, lightness and flexibility, set aside a four day timeframe when you can work daily.

Begin each training session by doing a full course of ground work with your horse to get him loosened up, relaxed and paying close attention to you.

Good groundwork encourages your horse to utilize the right side (thinking side) of his brain, so it’s good preparation for learning new things.

You’ll need to have a good, safe round pen or arena for this exercise because you will be traveling along beside the fence naturally without having to constantly tell your horse what to do.

Even if your horse is good at neck reining, you’ll want to use a plain snaffle bit (or a bosal or hackamore if this is what you prefer) for this exercise and direct rein (aka: plow rein) with two hands to provide very clear communication.

Once your groundwork is done, saddle up and do a little easy work together to get connected. Walk, trot and canter around the perimeter of the round pen or arena.

Stay on the fence to give your horse the idea that this is where you’re going to be working for these exercises. This frees you up from part of the work of guiding your horse while you’re teaching him a new skill.

Once you’re settled into a routine of working along the perimeter and you are in good communication, keep going at an easy, posting trot with loose reins.

Your inside hand (the one away from the fence side) should be positioned in the middle of the rein, ready to signal your horse to flex his head toward your knee.

Do this by bringing this hand back to the midpoint of your thigh and holding it there to encourage your horse to flex toward your thigh.

Once your horse has learned this skill, you will minimize this action so that you are keeping your hands within the “ten inch box” above the horse’s withers.

When your horse understands what is expected of him, you will be able to communicate your wishes by just tilting your hand slightly.

Work on Having Your Horse Flex While Moving Forward

Work on Having Your Horse Flex While Moving Forward

Once you are moving along at a steady pace, continue practicing your reining cues while simultaneously squeezing with your legs in the center of your horse’s rib cage.

This combination of reining and leg cues should keep him moving steadily forward while flexing his neck to the indicated side slightly.

As soon as you have attained flexion, cue with the opposite rein to straighten your horse’s neck and attain vertical flexion (tucked nose, slightly lowered head and soft mouth).

Remember that all this should be done easily. Don’t pull forcefully. Just apply steady pressure with each cue so that your horse will be able to soften to the bit naturally.

Keep in mind that all the while, you’ll need to apply steady pressure with your legs to keep your horse moving forward.

The goal is to move along at a steady pace and have your horse easily flex from one side to the other, softening vertically to the bit in the center as he moves straight ahead.

Reward Your Horse Naturally

When your horse does soften to the bit vertically with his neck straight (not flexed) you’ll feel the rein slacken slightly.

When this happens, you must respond by providing slack. This is your horse’s reward. When he softens to you and gives you some slack you instantly respond in kind.

Renowned horse trainer, Clinton Anderson, calls this the “hot potato give”. When your horse gives you what you want, you loosen your grip on the reins as if they were a hot potato!

This will convey to your horse very clearly and quickly that he is doing exactly what you want him to and that he has earned a comfortable reward in return.

Practice Flexion on Both Sides

Trot along comfortably with this loose rein for a bit, then reverse and repeat the exercise on the other side.

Repeat this exercise every day for four days and then include it in your regular routines to keep your horse in practice.

As time passes and you both become more and more skilled, you will build the ability to maintain a soft feel and connection at all times with very little movement or effort.

Softening Your Horse: Drills

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the most commonly used horse bit?

Snaffle bits are the most often used bit, especially in English riding. This type of bit is fairly mild and is good for use with two-handed direct reining.

2. Can a snaffle bit be used for single-handed reining?

You could use an O or D ring snaffle for neck reining, but a bit with a shank, or a bosal is more effective for neck reining. Note that a bit with a shank can be very hard on your horse’s mouth if you are heavy handed.

3. What is the best bit for long rides and trail riding?

A bit with short shanks and a slight curve, such as a Mullen bit, is comfortable for your horse while providing you with needed control in case of surprises and emergencies.

4. Should I allow my horse to graze with a bit in his mouth?

No, this is never a good idea, even if your bit is called a “grazing bit”. Your horse should know that when the bit is in his mouth, he needs to pay attention to business. If you are going for a long ride and plan to give your horse time to rest and graze, use a headstall that allows you to remove the bit so that it can be used as a halter or simply take along a halter to allow your horse comfortable grazing.

5. Which is more gentle, a thick bit or a narrow bit?

Surprisingly, thick bits are gentler on a horse’s mouth. A narrow or thin bit can cause pain and even damage, especially with a heavy-handed rider.

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