When a young horse is learning to accept a bridle, putting the tongue in the right place is a skill that must be taught. The horse must be protected from making mistakes and must be prevented from forming habits that will lead to problems such as the horrors of putting the tongue over the bit.
Bits that drop in the centre, as most snaffles do, will not help in the beginning few weeks of mouthing a youngster. It is very easy for a horse to put the tongue over the bit but, if the bit has been fitted correctly, it should create an immediate reaction of discomfort. If the bit hasn’t been fitted correctly the centre will drop allowing room for the horse’s tongue to move up and over easily and comfortably.
Once the horse has a problem deciding where to put the tongue he will eventually end up trying to put his tongue onto the other side of the bit no matter which side that may be. The question seems to become a habit similar to biting your nails - the horse does it even though he hates doing it. Prevention is better than cure and there are measures which must be taken to ensure that a proper tongue position is achieved from the beginning.
Look carefully at the horse’s mouth before deciding on the bit to use when beginning the mouthing programme. The upper jaw is much wider than the lower jaw (just feel the side of your horse’s face to see the difference). Have a careful look at the tongue because the size and the shape will have an enormous influence on how the bit sits in the lower jaw. The overall placement of the tongue - if you think it through - will give you a good indication of a suitable bit. If the tongue is fat and thick the nutcracker action of a jointed snaffle will constantly pinch the tongue, encouraging the horse to try to put it elsewhere. If the tongue is narrow and/or short the dropped positioning of a jointed snaffle will give too much room for a horse to accidentally flop the tongue to the wrong side and then begin the indecisions referred to in the previous paragraph.
For a thick tongue, choose a double-jointed mouthpiece, such as a ‘french’ snaffle, as there is hardly any nutcracker action with this type of bit. A ‘mullen-mouth’ snaffle will cause problems because it will press more directly onto a fat tongue than the bit was intended to do. The ‘mullen-mouth’, however, is ideal for the horse with the thin and/or short tongue as it sits slightly higher inside the mouth but without compromising the distance to the back molars. For those riders who insist on a single jointed snaffle, a jointed Pelham, used without a chain and with the reins on the top ring only, will give the single-jointed-snaffle effect in the rider’s hand but will give a steadier and higher effect in the horse’s mouth.
As riders of young horses we should question whether choosing a ‘correct’ bit for us to use during the beginning months of riding our youngster warrants sticking with what is 'officially approved' for the competitions that we are training for. If you have found a mouthpiece that gives comfort to the tongue, is positioned to restrict room for accidental mistakes and doesn’t prevent the play required to keep the mouth moist, then use it. Once a habit is formed, the horse will stick with it and, once a good tongue habit is formed, very few horses will change no-matter what bit is used or where it is positioned in the mouth. The rider can then revert to an ‘approved’ model for the required competition. Look, look and look again if you feel a problem beginning. If you constantly question the motives for the behaviour your horse is displaying you will make better choices of which type of bit you need to try.
Next month we will answer the dreaded question of what to do with the older horse who has a well-established tongue-over-the-bit problem.