Written by: Anne Gage

Try using positive reinforcement to improve bridling.

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My horse lifts his head when I try to put his bridle on. How can I get him to lower it and keep still?

With any behavioural issue, the first step is making sure pain or a physical problem is not the cause. Eliminate all possible sources of discomfort before taking steps to change the horse’s behaviour through training. With bridling problems, the first place to check is inside the horse’s mouth for sores on the tongue, bars or sides and for sharp teeth. Next, check that the bit fits correctly. Tongue size, palate height and depth of the lips as well as mouth shape and width all affect how comfortably the bit sits in the horse’s mouth.

Finally, consider that if being ridden is uncomfortable or unpleasant in any way for the horse, he will associate being bridled with that negative experience. Sources of discomfort can include:

  • Tack that fits poorly or is in bad condition, creating pressure points
  • Soreness or stiffness in joints or muscles anywhere from nose to tail
  • Rider imbalance, stiffness or poorly timed aids

Once all possible causes of discomfort have been addressed you can focus on re-training your horse for bridling. First, ask your horse to bring his head to you by using his natural bend “button.” Standing at your horse’s side, gently stroke his barrel where his girth would sit. Keep your weight shifted away from his head so that you’re not pushing your body toward it. Patiently wait for your horse to respond to the stroking by gradually bringing his nose toward you. His head will naturally lower as he bends. Reinforce this response by sliding your hand up to scratch his withers.

When he brings his head to you, quietly and gently take your right hand under his head and onto the bridge of his nose using just enough pressure to prevent him from taking his head away. If he doesn’t try to move his head away then your hand just rests there. But if he tries to move his head away you use just enough pressure to prevent it and then release the pressure as soon as he relaxes. If he doesn’t relax or pulls away, just start over without punishing him.

Holding the bridle in your left hand, raise it up until the bit is just below your horse’s mouth. Grasp the middle of both cheek pieces with your right hand and hold the bit with left. (You may want to practice this movement with a halter before doing it with a bridle.)

If your horse refuses to open his mouth to take the bit, training with positive reinforcement and gradual shaping of the behaviour you want can change that behaviour for the long-term.

Start by breaking the behaviour down into the smallest steps possible. Here’s an example of the steps you might need to go through:

1. Your horse doesn’t move his head away from the bit. Even if it only happens for a second, quickly reinforce before he does move. It doesn’t take the horse long to figure out what he’s being rewarded for. A reward can be a small treat or scratches, if he likes that.

2. He touches the bit or allows you to bring the bit to touch his lips. Again, immediately reinforce him for that behaviour with a reward.

3. He touches the bit with his teeth. Reinforce.

4. He opens his mouth slightly without taking the bit. Reinforce.

5. He opens his mouth enough for you to put the bit in and immediately remove it. Reinforce.

6. He keeps the bit in his mouth for one second; three seconds; five seconds. Gradually, extend the length of time before reinforcing the behaviour.

7. Put the bridle over one ear. Reinforce. Take bridle off.

8. Put the bridle over both ears. Reinforce. Take bridle off.

9. Do up the nose band. Reinforce. Take bridle off.

10. Do up the nose band and throat latch. Reinforce. Take bridle off.

As your horse becomes more successful at doing each of the steps, you stop reinforcing for every step. Eventually, you reward only after the bridle is all the way on; and then intermittently from then on.

This may sound like a lot of work. It does take patience and consistency and may take several short sessions before you can get all the way through the 10 steps. But it is very effective for rehabilitating horses that have an aversion to taking the bit. Horses trained this way willingly take the bridle