Trainer’s Tip: Bad mouth

October 25, 2019

by Brent Winston, head trainer, Harmony Equine Center

Hello again! I hope everyone had a great summer and is now enjoying the fall colors here in Colorado. The Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center had a very busy summer supporting law enforcement. Now, we have more horses than ever before, and our days are spent training and evaluating them. A common problem that pops up every so often is a horse being bad mouthed or what we call, mouth shy, which can lead to a lot of frustration for both horse and rider.

Mouth shy can cover a multitude of behaviors that can make our experiences less and less enjoyable. Sometimes, these behaviors can include not wanting to take a bit, being bad about worming or medicine, and the list goes on. No matter what is causing our horses to be mouth shy, there are ways that we can help them to get over it without a fight. I feel the common response from us is to put the purpose before the principal, meaning if we are going to put the bit in our horse’s mouth and they resist, quite often we do everything we can to just get the bit in so that we can go ride. When we put the end goal first, our horses start to resist more and more, and the problem compounds itself. We must take the time to make what we are doing a good experience.

It is not an uncommon problem for horses to want to elevate their head or toss it around when we go to bridle them. The first thing we like to do at Harmony when we encounter this problem is teach the horse to give to pressure from our hands. Where we place our hands depends on where the horse is moving its head. If they are elevating straight up, we place our hands between the horse’s ears and lightly put pressure on it until they offer to bring it down. Once they do, even if it’s slight, release the pressure, wait a couple seconds and start again. Slowly work at this until your horse’s head is at a manageable level. Often, once we get to this point, we start working the bit toward their mouth, and this is when the process starts all over. Don’t worry, you are on the right track at this point. Next time keep the bit by their mouth as you are working their head back to a good position. Once your horse stops tossing or settles in a good spot, take the bit away. This approach will start reconditioning your horse’s mind to quit fighting and settle their head for you. Eventually you will be able to work the bit into the mouth. Be careful not to bump their teeth because this might be the root of the problem. Many times, I will just hold the bit there a few moments then take it out, give them a break, and then repeat. Once this is solid, I finish putting on the bridle. I like to extend my headstall out so that it will slide on easily and then adjust it to fit, rather than risking that it might be too tight in a spot and cause more problems. Usually it takes a few times before things start to get noticeably better.

Worming or administering medicine orally can be improved using the same process. Again, usually when people encounter a problem, they keep the end goal of getting the medicine in their horse’s mouth, but if they break down the process, it won’t be a battle. Start again by managing their head by pressure and release, bringing it to where you want it. I like to start with putting my finger on their lips and taking it away once the horse starts to relax. From there I start working my finger or thumb into their mouth. If they accept that, leave your finger in for a couple seconds and take it away as a reward. Repeat this process three or four times until it gets solid. When you get to this point, start introducing the tube or the syringe. Quite often horses know what this is and will go right back to square one. Stay patient and start the process with the tube. Sometimes you might need to start at the jaw, far away from the mouth, taking it away every time the horse stops moving or relaxes. From that point, you can start working toward getting the tube to their mouth. Once you can get the tube in their mouth, it will be very tempting to squeeze it and be done. Your horse might be expecting this and be ready to throw their head at the last minute. Hold the tube in their mouth and take it back out a couple times. In some cases, the horse doesn’t like the feeling of the medicine being shot to the top of their mouth. At Harmony, we always try to ease it down as we slowly plunge the syringe so that it’s not one big hit into their mouth. After you have administered the syringe, leave it in and let them chew on it for a moment. In extreme cases, you might find it beneficial to practice a couple times a week with a syringe of applesauce or molasses to make the experience even more enjoyable for them.

These mouth problems are often very correctable with time and patience. Remember to not be in a hurry and put the end goal before the process of getting there. It is more important that our horses learn to be relaxed and willing, instead of ready to fight and have a bad experience. Take away the pressure when your horse is being good, reinforcing that this is the correct behavior. Patience and process is always the name of the game, and the end will take care of itself. Until next time, keep riding with a loose rein.