Helping a Sensitive Horse get On the Bit

I have an extremely sensitive OTTB mare that I am having trouble with getting on the bit. I have a trainer but she no longer rides and at this point my horse is not responding to her method so I’m looking for an outside opinion! We have been trying to work her back to front with lots of leg but when I add leg and catch the energy like my trainer tells me to she flings her head and stargazes. I have her in a running martingale (she is a confirmed rearer so I don’t feel comfortable having her in a standing martingale) and just a D ring snaffle. Anyone helped a difficult horse to use the correct muscles and get on the bit? Thanks!

Honestly, I had to and still have to work with a dressage trainer. You can also lunge her in loose side reins so she can learn how to use her body properly without a rider on her. You may want to try a soft bit like a nathe or HS Duo. My guy likes the Duo. I am now riding him in an eggbutt snaffle and he is doing well in that. Good luck!

How many joints does the bit have. I’ve found that a single joint can encourage head flinging when there is weigh in the reins. It’s great for a horse that tends to lean but a horse with a sensitive mouth may prefer a double jointed snaffle that won’t poke the roof of the mouth.

I have tried single and double jointed, plus experimented with different metals such as sweet iron, copper alloy, and brass.

My OTTB did this. I could look all the way down his blaze. I then took some lessons from a BNT who made me trot forever on the first day, and he just repeated over and over, “Inside leg, outside rein and leg” until I figured out how to finally put a horse together. I was on a horse I was leasing for an eq final (OTTB was terrified indoors), and I went home and practiced. The key is steady contact and being gentle but unrelenting. Following the head up with your hands (so, here, if you can watch out for your nose, remove the running martingale). After a lot of work, it clicked for that horse (and me), and now I can pretty much get any horse to accept contact after some patience.

Sensitive horses often hold a lot of tension. With horses like that, you need to be careful to not overpace them when trying to get them connected or else they will never give over their back. Be mindful of the training scale and work your way up from the bottom: rhythm, relaxation, suppleness. Focus on getting a quiet trot with a consistent rhythm and then slowly work on asking the horse to bend more around circles and serpentines while keeping that same trot. When in doubt, go a bit slower and allow the head to go lower than you would think to encourage the horse to give and work over the back. Remember, you want the horse to seek the bit, not be trapped by it.

I had a WB/TB that was super sensitive. Not like he didn’t like a bit; he would just not connect to the bit (hold it) and move up to it from my leg. He would drop his nose towards his chest and disappear in front of the jump.

I tried all types of bits and for a time the closest I got was a rubber mullen mouth pelham. I tried a Nathe and that was too soft. He likes a bit of firmness to it with a slight curve. This is the bit he loved -

He started trusting it and my hands. I hope you figure her out :slight_smile:

Use lots of bending exercises. It naturally brings them back when rushing and supples them. I like lots of serpentines or doing 10-15 m circles down the long side every 15m or so.

Also make sure you are not trying to “pull” her into a frame, that just won’t work and she’ll fight it. Bending and leg yields help them become soft just through the nature of the exercise itself and not by “pulling” them into a frame. Note these exercises and riding from inside leg to outside rein, just as you would on the straight away but helps prevent the horse from bracing by introducing bend of lateral movement.

My biggest question, is where is this mare in her training? Is she just getting started in a new career or …?
If a horse is head tossing/stargazing, usually they are not in front of the leg. They can be moving fast and be behind the leg. It sounds like your trainer is encouraging to have you give the horse a ‘kick-pull’ ride to some extent, when you say ‘catch’ the energy. Head tossing and star gazing is something I often interpret (when I am in the saddle) as a middle finger from equine to person. Now, if I am riding a barely broke 4 year old, I would roll my eyes and just keep moving forward like it is no big deal. If my very broke 9 year gelding old does that, which he still does on occasion when he thinks I am asking too much, he gets a big kick and we often spend some time galloping around the arena.
Transitions are (I think) a vital key to getting a horse in front of your leg and paying attention. Upwards, downwards, canter to walk, walk to canter, halt to trot, these are an amazing way to get this. In that time, focusing on a steady, supporting outside rein and a giving inside rein. Let her drop into the contact when she is relaxed.
Working the horse on a lunge in side reins is also a great idea if you are not comfortable (which is totally acceptable!). I would encourage you to find a trainer that can actually school your horse under saddle though. Even if it is an outside trainer that can come once or twice a month to ride the horse.
As far as bits go, I find that finely boned horses do not do as well in the single-joints. However, sometimes they are just being snotty, and if she doesn’t care until you are asking her to move forward and pick up the contact I would wait to get a new bit. (Actually, I wouldn’t, any excuse to buy a new bit is a good excuse :slight_smile: )

I have been working with her for just over a year and a half, she started work after being let out to pasture for 4 years after her racing career. She was doing superb but this is just a recent thing. I will admit that I am not a fan off my trainers methods and I’m looking for a new one, so I have been trying to do some things for myself:)

She doesn’t know how to “get on the bit”. That’s what I get out of your recent past posts about this mare…she’s fine until you take the slack out of the reins and pick her up. Either she once knew how back when she was winning in all those derbies and has forgotten or she never really knew how. You can get away with that on simple courses but if you have to pick up contact to adjust, you’re screwed.

She does not understand what you are asking. That’s why many get tagged “sensitive”, they don’t know how and/or don’t think they have to. Dressage type flatwork with an educated rider and/or quality instructor goes a long way to fix that.

You can change bits but that won’t teach her a thing, they’ll work for awhile but she still won’t know what she’s supposed to do with contact. You need a good instructor and to go back to flatwork-she seems to know how to jump fine, it’s between the jumps you are getting into trouble.

Not sure if you own this horse or not but if you do, is there any way you can access a Pro rider with good flatwork skills to get on her a few times for you? Rider can show you what to do, give you homework.

Horses need confidence from their riders and every time you jump around having problems, they get anxious and looking at the jumps can feed their anxiety to the point they start to dread jumping and they start rushing to be done with it quicker. Because they don’t understand what they are supposed to do, they feel the riders frustration. Vicious circle.

Back her up a few levels and fix the flatwork holes, teach her to accept the bridle. May find a different bit helpful but that still won’t teach her to accept contact.

Just a guess but putting leg in when asking for contact is vita, most of us could use a little refresher on that from time to time. Without it, it’s too much hand which horses hate and they will fall behind the leg to escape it unless that keg us in driving them forward.

Hope this made sense to you. Get some decent help with her and don’t ask for jumps if it’s going to be an unpleasant exoerience for you and confuse/scare her.

My go-to bit also: Nathe or Duo. I have three plastic bits…used for everything.

IMO it’s pretty unfair to label her a difficult horse. She’s not being difficult–she isn’t muscled properly to carry herself along, and she doesn’t understand what you want.

My horse was similar to her–he really struggled with understanding the basics of contact. I spent a lot of time walking him on a loose rein over a lot of hills to help keep him strong through his hind end/back (where the problem starts), and I also took a small break from riding to lunge him in side reins. The sole purpose was so he could feel consistent contact without worrying about the monkey on his back at the same time. I only did it for about 10-15 minutes, mostly W/T. After that, he became perfectly accepting of basic contact. I was able to work him from there to eventually get him working over his back and carrying/“being on” the bit.

He much prefers a double jointed bit (will gape/drag down on a single joint) and is much more comfortable carrying a Happy Mouth vs a traditional metal bit. He also prefers a very stable cheek piece–a full cheek or a beval bit work well for him. Truthfully I doubt this is just a bitting issue with your horse, but these are just some things that helped me.

If this is a recent thing, I highly recommend a thorough vet and dental exam. Always begin with the assumption that there is an undiagnosed physical issue. Could there be ulcers?

Once that is ruled out, look at the horse’s lifestyle. Enough turnout? Being harassed by a buddy? Etc.

Next, go to the tack and make sure the saddle is in good condition and fitted to the horse by a professional fittee. Then the bit rubber mullen mouth pelham is actually a fantastic bit for situations like this in the right hands. Two reins must be used, though.

Lastly, look at the riding. If you can, get the horse to a good eventing or dressage trainer that specializes in OTTBs. If the horse doesn’t understand what you are asking, and you don’t know another way to ask, a pro is the only answer. Otherwise, it will get dangerous for you and the horse…which makes me think of something…

If this horse is a “confirmed rearer”, did he ever fall over with tack on? The tree could have broken and now be causing pain.

I haven’t read any of your previous posts, and I haven’t sat in a lesson with you and listened to your trainer, so I am only going by what you wrote in your original post. Your trainer is telling you to ride leg to hand, and that is not wrong. Now, perhaps the way she is communicating it or incorporating it into your rides isn’t getting through to you and your horse, but it’s the right principle. If you came her looking for a method other than riding back to front, good luck. Apologies for the snark, but this is just one of those really key fundamentals.

Beyond that, I don’t disagree with anything that’s been said here, but I will add a couple more cents, just in case thinking of it a different way is what will turn the lightbulb on for you.

Without seeing you, it’s hard to tell if the problem is more that the mare can’t or won’t accept the contact, or if your contact is not sensitive enough for a sensitive horse. In all likelihood it’s probably a combination of both.

So on your end, it’s vitally important to make sure the contact is elastic. Even if you must hold firmly, there should never be stiffness or locking anywhere in your arm. Further, it must be steady. That is absolutely challenging with these horses. For one, the amount of movement in their head and neck makes it really difficult. But moreover, they goad you into putting a loop in the reins, both when they are bad (because we’re afraid of the fight) and when they are good (because we want to reward). It takes a great amount of tact to give without throwing away the reins, and to hold steady in the battle without pulling back.

Haha…now after my lecture on back to front riding I start with a long paragraph on the arms and reins. So here’s the one on the legs. Use them. Always. Often we tend not to on the hotter horses because we don’t need them to keep moving. Also, we don’t like speeding and scooting off the leg. However, if your leg is steadily present, a little extra squeeze is less likely to cause scooting than putting it on as a surprise. It may help you to remember that the leg can actually slow the horse (through supporting and activating their hind end) rather than thinking of it as the “go” button. It’s also helpful to remember that they are there for direction and straightness as well. While the real straightness comes higher up the training scale than this, when a horse like this runs sideways (and they will) it’s most helpful to contain them within the “chute” of your two legs.

Sassymares- where are you located? My horse is uber sensitive in the mouth. When I got him he was being ridden in a full cheek French link. My trainer did not
like the way he went in it, so we switched to a Nathe which he loves. My trainer also added the rein aids so it makes the reins more elastic with a softer connection no matter how hard I pull! Maybe you are asking too much of her at this point. Does she relax nicely long and low with contact?
I did find out that when he was competing, Intermediate eventer, he jumped in a hackamore! He likes nothing in his mouth! If you do not like your trainers methods look for a new one. Maybe she just does not communicate well. Have you considered sending her out to someone that might be able to help her and then you?

Your trainer is not wrong. I have three suggestions. 1) try something very soft, like a Nathe, Duo, or a good old rubber snaffle. 2) keep the same concept of leg to hand (be sure your hand is offering a steady but following contact. Don’t be rigid), and add in lots of bending. Avoid going around and around on the rail. LOTS of circles and serpentines. Think inside leg to outside rein. 3) be sure you are not clamping your leg down on her. While leg is DEFINITELY needed, if you’re overwhelming her with really powerful leg aids, particularly if your hands are stiff, that can definitely cause the reaction you are getting. Legs should be active, not clamped. I have a horse that runs a bit hot, and while he NEEDS leg, a hard leg or clamped leg winds him way way up. He likes a soft, active leg that is “there” and supporting him.

Other things you can do to help develop the proper muscles: if you have hills, hack her out on them. A big marching walk up and down hills on a loose rein can work miracles. Lungeing with side reins can help a lot, too, though I’m not a huge advocate of tons and tons of lungeing. 20 minutes a couple of times a week and riding the rest, working on her ring work as well as hacking should help.



Sensitive horses often hold a lot of tension. With horses like that, you need to be careful to not overpace them when trying to get them connected or else they will never give over their back. Be mindful of the training scale and work your way up from the bottom: rhythm, relaxation, suppleness. Focus on getting a quiet trot with a consistent rhythm and then slowly work on asking the horse to bend more around circles and serpentines while keeping that same trot. When in doubt, go a bit slower and allow the head to go lower than you would think to encourage the horse to give and work over the back. Remember, you want the horse to seek the bit, not be trapped by it.[/QUOTE]

Love these problems and sensitive horses. :slight_smile:

Start with getting her to give and follow her nose at the walk. Single opening rein asking for big circles and changes of direction. Take away all the pressure and simplify everything for her. This type tends to react instead of think so you’ll have to get her to slow down enough to think. You might spend a week just walking and doing very slow trotting getting her to follow her nose.

Once you feel like she can follow her nose in a relaxed and quiet manner at the walk and trot, you can start to pick up a little outside rein. The added benefit to keeping a bend is that it’s much more difficult for them to rear when they’re bent. Really pay attention to her breathing and make sure that you reward her with a break or “good girl” when she sighs or lets out her air.

It’ll take awhile but over time she’ll learn to be quiet and accept the contact. Then you can really start to do flatwork with her and start adding leg.

If she can handle side reins, I like to use them to also teach them what it means to accept rein contact. I start with them loose and slowly shorten them over time until they accept it.

Also make sure there’s nothing physically wrong (teeth, chiro, etc). I also like rubber or soft snaffles.