The Mouth Wide Open…The Tongue Out…Solution?

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?

Opening mouth horse 3
Habitually tense horse who opens his mouth even on a rein without contact. This horse normally works in crank noseband and a flash but I asked for it to be removed and noseband loosened so the rider could observe reactions of the horse fully. You can see by the shape of his neck here that he is tense and not really moving through (i.e. not allowing the impulsion of the hind legs travel through his back and neck freely). He also showed avoidance of the bit and fear of the hand in general.

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?

opening mouth horse1
Fairly tightly fitted but correctly placed flash noseband. I often see flash nosebands placed very low and restricting breathing of the horse. Horse is responding with mouth opening to tension in rider’s arms and elbows.

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?

children concentration

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 ;) 

23 thoughts on “The Mouth Wide Open…The Tongue Out…Solution?”

      1. Exactly! My perfect bridle would be one you can buy and upon buying you can choose the noseband, or even be able to buy two (say a cavesson and a grackle) so you can use the same bridle for dressage and jumping without buying a new bridle!

  1. I had to have Rudy’s new bridle made WITHOUT a flash, crazy I think. I have never liked flash or drop nosebands. Much better to work out why the horse is opening it’s mouth, than mask the problem by shutting the mouth and as you mention, I don’t think I have ever seen a properly fitted flash. Great article.

  2. Did not know the military gave horses training breaks. As always, I learn something new from your blog (or on Twitter–#horsehour!). And the picture of the kids with their tongues hanging out is fantastic. I never would have connected that idea with schooling/training a horse. Excellent insights!

    1. Thank you! 🙂
      I admit I don’t actually know whether children and young horses “learn” with their tongues but whatever the answer it certainly is a food for thought as to how our brains and bodies work.
      I really enjoy reading 20′ and 30′ training manuals. Everything we do with horses have already been done, I think the key is to just finding the ways we value and explore them 🙂

  3. I ride both mine without a flash.

    My Andy x does hold his lips open (his teeth are closed and his lips and jaw are relaxed) when ridden but he is not holding any tension, he is working correctly and lovely, light and supple. I have had people say he needs a flash and to tighten up his noseband because of it, but I don’t see the point. He doesn’t open his mouth and evade, he’s not fighting contact and he is reaching forward into the bridle and seeking contact… Isn’t that what dressage is all about? Relaxation, Rhythm and Contact are the first 3 levels. There is nothing in there about forcing a mouth shut because it doesn’t look nice. But that’s just my humble opinion. 🙂

  4. I found this article on anatomy and physiology of the mouth by Myler bits interesting:

    Click to access article_april09.pdf

    Being aware of all the muscles interconnected with horse’s tongues, TMJ, and hyoid bones and their need for all of them to move can only help the horse and the argument to let him move his mouth however he wants to. It also gives me yet another reason to question the current fad in bitless bridles that strap the horse’s whole head shut by putting pressure on the superficial nerves of the head.

    1. That’s a good article Sara, thank you for posting. When I took my part-time equine sports science studies and had an opportunity to see the connections on real body of the horse, it stayed with me!
      Not all Myler bits are Dressage legal in the UK. Here is an excerpt from BD website:

      “Which Myler bits are permitted under BD rules?
      MB09 snaffle, MB01 snaffle, MB02 snaffle wide barrel, MB32 mullen barrel. Cheeks: Loose ring (without sleeve), Dee ring, Eggbut and Full cheek. All must be used WITHOUT hooks. A mix of metals is allowed within the mouthpiece.”

      I am not sure regarding the bitless bridles as I only ever used rather loose ones, a pulley type, and a bog standard hackamore.

      1. Thanks, I should have made it clear I am not an advocate of myler bits. Theirs was just the most succinct discussion on the muscles of the the tongue I have come across. I do wish that more people were aware of the basic information. Then fads like the myler and bitless would not be able to mislead so many by only presenting tiny part of the anatomical picture. Personally I like an eggbutt- snaffle and start off with a well-made padded longe cavesson without metal in the noseband (hard to find any more!).
        I have noted that the relatively ‘new’ breeds with mixed ancestry like the American Quarter Horse and the European Warmbloods often have problems with the structure of their mouths- low palates, narrow bars, and thick tongues etc. Here is hoping breeders start selecting for correct conformation in the mouth as well as everywhere else. Perhaps that would lessen the temptation to strap the horse’s mouth shut.

    1. I also though the child comparison was genius! It showed that an open mouth in a horse isn’t *always* the horse feeling agitated. It makes me think also of young foals showing submission to older horses by opening their mouth and making an open-mouthed chewing motion. It may not be applicable to why your horse is opening its mouth, but it is good for us to have all these facts in our heads for when we work on problem-solving.

  5. have always believed a horse needs to be able to relax and open his ja, especially for him to accept change of bend etc when you want him to work into the new outside rein. We love the Micklem bridle as it allows a very comfortable ‘fit’ on the horse and all ours work comfortably in it with a loosely fitted noseband.

  6. Great article. Less is more! Keeping our tack simple, listening & observing our horses is what is important. Making sure our horse is in the best place possibly mentally & physical to do the work being asked.
    As an Instructor I try to encourage riders to understand their horses better, to listen, to communicate, to work with them & to realise when their horse has done enough for today.
    If we clamp our own jaws tight, notice the effect it has on other parts of our bodies, we would struggle to go about our work & our daily tasks.
    Our horses only want to please us more & work more willingly when we do our best to make it as comfortable as we can for them.
    What does a fitness Instructor say to us when we go to work out!
    Loose comfortable clothing, non restricting!

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