With the hip bone connected
to the back bone,
and the back bone connected
to the neck bone,
and the neck bone connected
to the head bone,
Oh mercy how they scare!
James Weldon Johnson
Why are we so obsessed with a closed mouth? Could it be because an opened mouth clearly shows all shortcomings in the training? Or perhaps because we fear lack of control? Maybe because our mark for submission will hit rock bottom if our horse plays Ed the Talking Horse throughout our dressage test?
I want to share my views with you but please don’t treat it as a should, ought to do this way type of post. I would like to invite you to explore this issue with me, let’s be open minded together (no pun intended here).
Symptoms vs Causes
Teeth issues aside, the way I see it, a horse that continuously or intermittently works with his mouth open or a tongue out or wriggled over the bit is communicating that the work is either too difficult, too stressful, too uncomfortable or simply painful. If we tighten our nosebands and punch additional holes in our flashes, to me, it’s like trying to cure an upper respiratory infection by taping the coughing person’s mouth shut. Or holding sneezing person’s nose shut (apparently, sneezing is the closest we ever come to death caused by own body functions since all our breathing apparatus shuts so please don’t fiddle with sneezing at home*).
Strapping the horse’s mouth shut is simply fighting the symptom of something we might have no time or inclination to work on.
Symptoms can be positive too..For example, calm and content submission (perhaps cooperation would be a better word?) is a symptom of good, structured, progressive training. Not something “to work on” per se…What’s your take on this?
Not all issues we have with our horse’s mouth come from current training. Many a time I go to teach someone with a new-ish horse who is said to “have always been like this”. Large number of grassroots horses have some issues with their mouths because they have various physical issues that were skipped on, not worked on and continue to not be worked on. Similarly, ex-racehorses have variety of mouth behaviours more or less severe depending on their early training.
I find the best way to deal with the issue, as with many others, is to first of all, detach oneself from the horse’s problem enough as to be able to look at the situation from “the outside” and not take horse’s reactions personally (as many riders do).
Look from the Outside
Have you ever seen a bi-laterally supple, poll supple, elastic horse moving with lovely throughness that works with an open, tense mouth? I personally never have. “Mouthiness” can mean many things:
– I’m only learning
– I’m still unsure of the metal on my tongue
– my poll is tight
– I am not ready for this movement
– I am stressed about what you are about to do
– my poll is twisted the other way, can’t you see?
– your direct rein is too strong, you are pulling me back
– your seat makes me unbalanced so I have to use my neck to help me and so my neck muscles tense and so my sternocephalicus muscle opens my mouth…
– my muscles are contracted on this side so when you pull I want to resist the discomfort I feel
– I’m on the forehand and losing my balance so I am getting worried
– I am scared
– I don’t understand
– I hate the bit pressure on my tongue
There are some fantastically athletic horses with not a dot of pain in their bodies that do have “mouth issues”. If you have a horse like that, it’s the natural body asymmetry that is often the issue.
Assessing the situation
Be a detective. Sherlock if you must. Investigate which muscles in your horse’s body are not doing the work they need to be doing for a riding horse to be able to do his job without discomfort.
Be a therapist. You know these doctors or nurses who look at you like a number on their paperwork and even though they might be very good at what they do, you know very well the difference between them and the other doctor and that other nurse who seem to genuinely want you to get better? Switch that “I want to understand how to help you” attitude in your schooling and I bet you that your horse will feel the difference too…It is also helpful for those riders who are short-tempered or get frustrated easily…
Be a Trainer. Push when you need to push but recognise signs of muscular tiredness. If your giraffe impersonating horse drops his head to the ground after an hour it doesn’t mean he finally understood what to do…it means his neck muscles can no loner support his longissimus dorsi (long back muscle) and although everything slacks and relaxes it’s not the right time to “get to the proper schooling” but time for a pat and rest…
We can still learn a lot from military horse training…they would ride young and older “green” horses with dismounted breaks…They schooled an element but as soon as horses showed discomfort or tiredness of back or neck muscles, they would get off and walk with the horse for a few minutes so the muscles could de-contract, blood flow to them again properly. Then they would get back on and continue.
Nowadays, many instructors are taught to “not let him win”, “go after him until he gives in” and so they pass this knowledge on; many riders can’t feel the minute tension problems because one gadget or another, tight flash or crank noseband are effectively hiding those gentle signs the horse is giving. When little signs are missed, they escalate and become larger and larger. The horse starts shouting in his own way.
Concentration and Connection
Have you ever watched young kids when they try to do something very well but the activity is still fairly new to them?
Bodies and minds of all mammals (and all animals with nervous systems?) are intricately connected. We say, when a horse chews or moves its jaw a little when we work with him, that he is “thinking”. Yet, we see many 4 and 5 year old horses with their mouths strapped shut. Logic?
When you look at horse’s head and neck muscles and realise how tongue muscle eventually connect to front legs’ muscles via neck muscles it is worth asking a question: “How much a mouth problem is really a mouth problem and how much it is a body development process”? How much of a mouth issue is our own “let’s get there faster” problem? When I school a horse I always try to tighten demands on myself as a rider and trainer first, polish my seat, my hands, my arms before rising standards for the horse’s work.
If you are riding and competing for pleasure and results, stay safe and adjust your tack as you think you need to but spare a thought next time you are doing up your noseband or your flash…
What about you? What are your thoughts on this? If you teach, how do you address mouth opening in your clients’ horses? What do you do if you have this issue with horses you ride?
Until next time!
* it's a here-say, I don't know of any proof for that claim ;)