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May 31, 2008

Improve Response to the Bit

  2008 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information


Dear Cherry,

I have been reading and referencing your books for years.

I have recently been given a 20 year old Morgan mare (the previous owner liked how I was able to ride her with no problem as she had her for 7 years and did nothing with her). She is a great horse but has a few issues that I don’t know how to appropriately fix. I have been working on her ground manners and they have greatly improved.

The big issue is her mouth. The lady who gave her to me said that her grandkids rode her and only in a hackamore. I rode her in one and she had no respect for it so I tried a bit. I can ride her and semi-work with her. I use my seat and legs to get most of the response like you recommend but she does not hear ANY communication in the mouth and hasn’t quite figured out about leg pressure yet. She will not bend or give to the bit. We are working on this currently and have gotten a bit better.

I had the vet out and she has had her teeth floated and the vet also commented that she had scarring that looked like past bit abuse. How can I get this mare to better respond to the bit other than upgrading the severity of it? Also, not knowing her past, it seems that all she wants to do is go, go ,go and not slow down until she is dead tired, how do I fix that without riding her into the ground first? I really like this horse and would love to be able for my husband and daughter to ride without her issue, but with their lack of experience and riding skills I can’t until she becomes more responsive. If you need further clarification on anything please don’t hesitate to ask.

Thanks for your help, Karen S


Hi Karen,

Please tell me what kind of bit you tried. Did you try bending her to the left and right when you are standing still, mounted? What did she do?

Also what kind of hackamore you tried and what she did - pushed through, wouldn't bend........

Tell me what you are feeding her.

Anything else that would be helpful? Then I'll give you some suggestions.


Thanks for getting back to me!!

I have tried the following bits, a plain D-ring snaffle, a full cheek with a slight twist to the mouth piece, a full cheek Dr. Bristol and the hack was from her original owner and it is one with a 1 ½’” leather band over the nose with a curb chain. With the hack, she didn’t regard it at all and I haven’t tried it since. I have been contemplating trying a kimberwicke with a low port, a short shank tom thumb and a side pull. I can ride her with the plain snaffle, but getting her to whoa or slow down which is also what I am trying to accomplish takes a lot of seat, back bracing and VERY firm hands, which the kids can’t do yet because they aren’t as heavy as an adult and I don’t really like. I have done the bending exercises both on the ground and in the saddle. I also feel that I have to be in her mouth constantly. She is more stiff to right than the left and very reluctant to even try. When she does respond is just a bit with her nose. When we practice after the first few times she seems to get better, I also think she has no idea what I am asking her to do. I have also worked with her and lowering her head with poll pressure which she does readily.

Currently, I am feeding her 2 flakes of orchard grass hay twice per day as well as a 50%-50% mix of 12% sweet feed and complete pellets twice a day at 3 quarts each. Also 1 cup rice bran twice a day and 1 quart (dry measure) beet pulp in the evening. Her weight is good and due to age slightly sway backed.

She is also up to date on her vet care, farrier work, vaccinations and worming. I had her teeth floated about 2 months ago and the vet thinks she may have been bit abused due to scarring in her mouth. I have also been working on her ground manners and is now less pushy, but still gets antsy when I bring the saddle and pad out, we are still working on that. She is easy to bridle and have had no issues there. I have also corrected her walking off while mounting. I think a lot of her problem is that her prior owner let her do what she wanted and was not corrected. She was a very beginning rider and I think she was too much horse. Let me know if you need any more specifics.

Thanks, Karen

Hi Karen,

I'm going to respond to things in the order of importance according to my experience. Keep in mind, I can't see your horse - her weight or condition or how she reacts when handled or ridden.

First of all, unless you are riding her very hard every day and/or she is a very hard keeper, it sounds like she is getting a lot of grain - too much in my opinion. Grain is energy and part of her pushiness and wanting to "go, go, go" is probably related to her feed. I'd gradually change her ration to almost all the grass hay she wants (preferably in 3 meals) plus a beet pulp mash twice a day that has added to it any supplements she requires - due to her age, I'd probably give her an antioxidant vitamin blend.

I applaud your focus on her ground training and manners. That is where all of the saddle work will start to get better. You've made some good progress but here's what I would do.

101 Horsekeeping Tips DVDUsing a rope halter that fits her well, that is, stays up on her poll and is positioned as I recommend in my books and DVD (at the end of this email, I'll insert links to the appropriate articles, books and DVD so you can view the Table of Contents). Use this halter to establish better in hand manners, such as trot to walk, walk to halt and trot to halt, also whoa on the long line. Between these lessons, you will want to work on lateral bending her in hand. The key to vertical bending (for stopping) is lateral bending, to the side. I like to take a horse into my arena, stop the horse along the rail, then stand near the girth area and apply pressure to the lead rope so the horse curls her head around to me. This is something the horse will learn by degrees and you will earn bending and suppleness in degrees. Another good exercise is longeing her on a 15 foot lead rope at the walk where you are standing 15 feet from the arena rail. That way, at one time in every circle she will have to pass by the rail. The exercise is for you to have her change direction from left to right and right to left at various points in the circle. This will teach her to bend.

Once she has a lot of respect for this halter, you can choose to ride her with it (preferably in a small enclosed area such as a round pen first) or you could move to a bitless bridle. This is different than a mechanical hackamore. Only after all of this has been accomplished, would I begin again with a bit and I'd start out with a D ring or full cheek snaffle at that time.

Making Not Breaking by Cherry HillAs far as antsy when the pad and saddle are brought out, I'd work a lot on "sacking out" - plan to take a lot of time with this because horses usually get worse before they get better but you don't want to quit until they are relaxed about it. If you fashion your sacking out program to follow these guidelines, adapting to the particular article and portion of her body where she is antsy about it, you will have success.

Proceed like this:

Choose one item and one area of her body to work on. If she flinches or moves away when you put the pad on her back, then put the pad on and take it off repeatedly until she no longer flinches or moves away. This may take many repetitions and your arm might get tired. You'll know she is relaxed about it when she lowers her head and exhales or licks her lips.

Do this for every item and every part of her body she requires.

You have raised many issues and although you have accomplished a great deal, there is much work yet to be done. Try to break things down into small, doable goals so you will see progress. You'll find that if you are thorough and successful with one small issue, it will carry over into the next problem area, so eventually it will require less and less effort to control the horse - she will have a change in attitude overall.

Best of luck,


Sacking Out

How to Think Like a Horse

Longeing Book Set

101 Horsekeeping Tips DVD

There are also a lot of good ground training exercises illustrated in Trailering Your Horse

When you get to riding, refer to

Making Not Breaking

101 Longeing and Long Lining Exeercises  

 101 Arena Exercises

Ask Cherry Hill

  2008 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information

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