Q: My 15-year-old Lusitano mare is extremely sensitive to the plain double-jointed snaffle I use. She curls and chews nervously on it. To try to help her learn to be less reactive, I have started riding her in a bitless bridle. Is this an appropriate way to desensitize my Lusitano over time? —Maya O’Neill of Peoria, Illinois
A: First we need to take a look at the whole horse. Your mare’s lack of acceptance of the bit could come from many sources. It is easy to become obsessed with a horse’s head when we are riding because that is what we see from the saddle. But a problem elsewhere in her body—for instance, tenseness or soreness in her back or somewhere else—can also show up in front.
Make sure your mare’s saddle fits properly and that she has no problems with her teeth. See that you are riding her in a way that does not disturb her balance. Your seat and hands should be sufficiently independent that you don’t rely on the reins to keep your balance.
Also remember that your mare’s bad habits probably have been there for several years, and it will take time and patience to change them. Riding her without a bit could help. I have ridden a few horses bitless for different reasons. I found that it goes well at first, but after some time the horse tends to lean on the reins and get heavy on the forehand. As long as you notice an improvement with the bitless bridle, continue to use it. If, however, your mare starts to get heavy or ignore the reins, put a bit back in her mouth. Start with a rubber or plastic bit—preferably a single-jointed one or a straight bar. This will give her less to play with and should help her learn to become quieter in the contact. Eventually, you could go back to a metal bit.
Every horse is an individual with his or her own history and experiences. Be patient and listen to your mare. Try different things, beyond a change of bits, to discover what makes her feel the most content. If, for instance, she is extremely nervous, ride her just at a walk for some time. If she is happier when you give her more movements and exercises, then do that. Maybe take her on trail rides, where she won’t worry so much. However, if she is more nervous on trails, ride her in the ring.
David de Wispelaere is an international dressage trainer who lives in Belgium. A two-time U.S. freestyle champion, he has competed successfully throughout the United States and Europe. (dwdewispelaere.com).