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Bit for the anxious trail horse

Hi! I have an off-the-track Standardbred that about 12 different people use for trail rides at least 3 times a week. He has some general anxiety issues that we’re trying to figure out how to manage in addition to separation anxiety. On the whole, he’s a pretty stable horse. That being said, when he does have his anxiety moments, he just wants to run and spin. He turns into a noodle with little regard for the bit. Now, if I was the only one riding this horse, I may try him in a slow twist. The problem is I’m not the only one riding him. The team I work with are all aware of this horse’s issues and are willing to work with him. BUT some have harder hands than others and I would be concerned about misuse. We also only have micklem bridles, so setting up a full cheek with keepers is problematic. Any suggestions are welcome haha

Typically when a horse is anxious like this, the bit isn’t going to make him less anxious. You write he has little regard for the bit when he runs and spins. I might try a running martingale with his regular bit so that the rider has a little leverage. I think a slow twist is a pretty small step up, so that’s also not a bad choice, or maybe a universal two ring with a mild mouthpiece. Does he behave this way when he’s with other (calmer) horses? I restarted an OTTB once who had a lot of anxiety issues on the trail when we started. He could back up faster than most horses can go forward! What worked for him was to pony him off a quiet horse for awhile. As an ex racer, he felt comfortable being ponied and he gained confidence from the other horse.

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Hmm, my concern with the running martingale is that since he’s already on edge, inhibitting his movement in such a way could cause him more distress. He also has a habit of tossing his head (in a kind of circular motion) when he’s excited either positively or negatively. We think that this was a learned behavior from before we had him. Since it happens specifically when he’s already nervous - I’m not sure adding in the surprise of inhibitted movement would help the situation. I also have to be concerned about the few riders with harder hands. We have two other boys and our horses go out in pairs. The others are kind of normal mentally. They both have their things that we know they’ll spook at, but they work well. Kash - the nervous horse - has ridden with them for over a year and is turned out with them. It’s actually almost problematic because he now has pretty bad seperation issues :grimacing:

Thanks for the reply though! I’m sorry if it seems like I’m shooting your sugestions down. I do appreciate them!

If this has been going on for a year, then you have a bigger problem than simply acclimatizing him to trail riding. Have you had him checked for a physical problem? Eye sight okay? My current OTTB is also a horse who suffers from separation anxiety when his herd mates leave him (he leaves them without a problem). At the beginning I used to Ace him when taking his friends away because I worried that he’d hurt himself. For some horses, putting them in their stall can break that anxiety; he would have jumped out. I desensitize him by riding his friend off property and then coming back, gradually extending the intervals where we are gone. He eventually figured it out.

How often does this horse have a meltdown? And are there triggers that set him off consistently? Maybe he’s not the kind of horse that can handle the sensory input of 12 different riders per week. How fast are the rides? Maybe this horse needs to walk for a month on a loose rein until he gets the drill? When I’ve restarted horses we walk, walk, walk and then walk some more. Gradually I will introduce some trot work but we don’t do anything exciting until it becomes routine. It took me a year and a half to get my current OTTB settled, but he went on to become my first flight hunt horse, so the time invested paid off.

If I had him (and I’ve restarted five OTTBs), I would test him in the running at home and then take him out myself for a week or two to test his response. I have never had a horse flip out over a running martingale, especially if it’s adjusted correctly. I’d also try the slow twist. What you are describing is a serious safety issue and I’d worry more about him hurting a rider than having someone with harder hands on him occasionally. However, if his brain really shuts off, it won’t matter what kind of bit you have in his mouth.

I’ve had horses that were quite nervous on the trails when I first started them, as they’d never been out in nature, but they all came around with slow, consistent work.

Good luck with him. The people I know with OT Standies usually report they are very steady and forgiving.


This sounds a lot like my youngster. He is an established head tosser (in a circular motion) when anything upsets or excites him - he does it even loose in the field. When I started him under saddle, he would do this at times to the point the reins would flip over his head! I finally decided I needed to try a running martingale as I felt it was a safety issue. I first tried him with it very loosely adjusted on loose side reins attached with baling twine to the surcingle in the round pen. It only took him a couple tosses to realize he was punishing himself and the behavior subsided. I did some ground driving with him using it several times before getting on, just to reassure myself things wouldn’t go sideways (and I made a point for one of those days to be a windy, spooky day so I could see how he would react when agitated). I have been riding in it ever since and it has made a world of difference!

I ride that horse in a single-jointed snaffle with a huge D ring, as that helps with the noodle issue. That may be something worth trying if you have multiple people riding who may be too heavy handed for a stronger mouthpiece.


My OTSTB’s are always started in a Oval link Boucher. I always start with the bit higher in the mouth then I do with other horses. That seems to help with the STB head fling.


He had Lyme at the beginning of the year that we think exacerbated his behavioral issues. When the vet came out she checked him for any physiological issues and saddle fit and didn’t find any notable issues. He has little spooks about as regularly as the average horse and bigger “panic attacks” only once in a while. On the whole though, he just has a good deal of nervous energy. This is also heightened when he has to confront a new rider request (when we tried to teach him to back we would manage one step back before he wigged out and tried to spin - we ended up having someone on the ground to push him) or is separated from a different horse on trail. We pretty much just walk but sometimes trot in our field during training. We may try the martingale then. Even if it just curbs the head tossing, it’ll give the riders less to work against. The vast majority of OTSTBs I’ve worked with are easy to work with and pretty level headed. Kash just seems to have something misfiring between the ears.

Oh thanks for the starting advice! And I like the big D idea. Since we have the micklem we can’t do the full cheek which we initially tried to correct steering.

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Can you use that bit in a micklem (do you use keepers)? Also when you say high, do you mean the port is high?

Sorry I wasn’t clearer! I mean the number of wrinkles. Mine have always done better with 2 1/2 - 3 wrinkles instead of the normal 2. Usually with time and training I can get to 2 wrinkles, but my husband’s last OTSTB was at 3 wrinkles for 22 years and extremely happy about it.

I don’t think Boucher bits work with a Micklem. The one I like also comes on an eggbutt or a Big Hunter D


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Not a problem! We’re a little new to playing with bits haha! Thank you for the clarification and bit recomendation :slight_smile:

I used a baucher with a micklem bridle for years, no problem. You just have to play around with the adjustment of the bit holders.

I’d think, though, that a bit change may not change much. If the horse is truly wigging out, a different bit will have minimal impact. Are there particular things that cause the horse to lose it? Or does it happen at a particular point in the ride (for example, after you’ve been out for an hour, or when you first start out, or if he feels like he’s being left behind)?

I realize that you’re not the only one riding the horse, but the horse could probably benefit from more training to be ridden on the trail. Just one person riding him for the next several weeks, initially only going out with one other, completely steady horse. Calmly working through the wigged out moments and then carrying on. Etc.

Sometimes, if a horse is beginning to lose it, ask the horse to circle slowly, first in one direction and then in the other (obviously if the trail width will accommodate it) can help get the horse to focus again. The circling is not meant to be a punishment, but instead just a way to get the horse to re-focus on the rider. The rider has to be composed, calm and confident, not semi-freaking out him- or herself. (Not saying that’s what you’re doing at all, I’m just trying to emphasize that as the rider you want to take the temperature way down).

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Do you think you could post a pic of your bouchere/micklem setup - if that’s not too big a request?
Mostly it’s being separated from the other horse or when he’s overthinking a new situation. But sometimes we can’t really pinpoint what it is, although, these moments aren’t exceedingly common.
We do imjplement circling a lot. For example, there’s a large field on our typical route that we use to try and work on separation issues. We’ll have the other horse continue walking (staying in direct line of sight) but ask Kash to stop . If he does this calmly, he can continue on. If not, we start doing figure eights around some small trees. He’ll get excited every time he faces the other horse again but we only let him stop if he doesn’t initiate comming off of the pattern. Once, we’re satisfied, we begin walking over to the other horse. Sometimes, Kash will break out of the walk so we start doing the big and small circles to bring him back down. We’ll also use it when he freaks about a new “puzzle” (i.e. backing up, walking straight up to a wall, etc). I think most of our riders are pretty good about staying calm under pressure. They’ve all been riding other horses for a while and also know what to expect from our three boys.

The baucher-Micklem set-up that I used was with my previous horse who has since died. (My current horse goes in a loose ring and a Micklem.)

There’s really nothing unusual, though, about the use of the baucher. Just attach the bit straps to the smaller, upper ring, and the reins to the lower ring. You might have to shorten the bit straps a little to accommodate the baucher, but the attachment itself is straightforward. Here’s a link to a discussion about the baucher:

it sounds like you’re doing a lot of the right things to try to keep the horse calm and steady. Given that the horse had a bout with Lyme disease, has he been re-checked recently? Is he getting any supplements to help him post-Lyme? A lot of horses have lingering issues even after they’ve cleared the disease.

You might try giving him (if he’s not getting something already) some additional vitamin E, and having a thorough check to see if he’s hurting anywhere. It could be that he has some lingering joint pain or body-soreness that he can work through for some period of time, but just a slight up-tick in the stress in a situation brings the pain into the fore for him.


Oh I’m sorry to hear that!
We tried a full cheek with the micklem but since the cheek peice isnt configured the same our standard leather keeper couldn’t reach far back enough. We tried attaching it to the plastic clip (not shown in picture) but it’s fairly loose so I don’t think it’s effective. I’m looking at more pictures of the baucher in action though and it looks like it could work because it sits in a more parralel plane with the horses mouth…
The vet evaluated him after his doxy round. We also have a pretty competent and involved farm care team. But that is an interesting point that we hadn’t considered. We’ve had Kash for a little over a year and he’s always been a little screwy but then again, we have no idea when he got Lyme. We’re trying to treat his issues with tack and training before supplements due to budget constraints. But we’ll look into giving him a soreness check to evalute if some vitamine E or other pain releivers may help.

Cute horse!
One thing I want to add to my post about using a baucher with a Micklem bridle is that I didn’t use the plastic bit clips at all. I just used the leather bit hanger to attach to the upper, smaller loop. I think that a baucher would be better for a micklem than this set up with a full-cheek–it would be more stable and stay oriented correctly in the horse’s mouth.

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If he’s that anxious, I’d try just one calm, easy rider for a bit.

I’ve ridden four off track STBs bitless successfully. That went very smoothly with all of them. It’s my experience that a lot of (not all!) anxiety goes away when you remove the bit. Maybe give it a try, safely. I just ride them in a rolled nose rope halter.


Thanks! :blush: he’s been with us forever and KNOWS it
And thanks for the tip! That makes a lot of sense

Hmmm, I’ve never worked with a bitless… maybe we could give it a go in our field at some point. He’s less anxious from the ground (not completely, but a little). I always assumed it was because we were able to give him more direct aids and manipulate his body better so that he could understand what we’re asking. But maybe it’s the bit :woman_shrugging: You guys are all touching on so many things I never even considered!