“My horse has a hard mouth!” I’ve heard well-meaning riders use this phrase to justify their need to pull or fiddle on the reins “to get him to soften up,” or to use a more severe bit “because he won’t respect the mild one.” I’ve seen other, even more well-meaning riders use nothing but a sidepull or a rope halter on their horses, because they fear that using a bit “will make his mouth hard.”
I think both of these statements could use reframing. First, pulling on a horse definitely won’t make his mouth softer. Many years ago, when I worked as the assistant trainer at a Quarter Horse show barn, I spent a lot of time watching the head trainers jerk horses backwards or into small circles. Day after day, week after week, they yanked on their horses, often using twisted-wire bits, gags, or draw reins. When I asked why, goal of making the horses softbut the horses never seemed to get the message, or reach a point of not needing such treatment anymore. After doing my own share of yanking on the second-string horses I was in charge of training, I became convinced that there had to be a better way. I quit the world of western show horses and went back to my dressage roots. But while working at a dressage barn, I found myself riding horses who had learned to lean on the bit, to the point where they felt like they would fall on their noses if I ever let go of the reins. See-sawing with my hands did not make them lighter - it only made their heads wag from side to side. I learned something useful from these experiences: a soft mouth does not come from strong, constant contact, or from pulling, jerking, or see-sawing on the reins, or from using twisted-wire bits.
But a soft mouth also does not come from riding horses without bits. When I started a lot of colts, I often used a side-pull for the early rides, because I did not want to hurt their sensitive mouths. Other people I know start young horses in rope halters, or use bitless bridles for their horses’ entire riding career. There is nothing inherently wrong with bitless riding. I know lots of people who practice it and find it works well. Any well-trained horse should be able to steer and stop in a halter. That said, I’ve found that there is a level of nuanced horse-rider communication that’s difficult to reach in a bitless bridle. Once you start using a bit, and using it correctly, the horse’s mouth can and will become softer over time, not harder.
So, what makes a horse’s mouth soft? Two things:
First, a soft mouth is a trusting mouth. A horse can’t be soft if the rider’s hands, or the bit itself, cause discomfort (see above). Trust is earned. The first phase of contact I teach a horse is therefore the kind that follows his mouth, wherever his mouth goes. The horse’s outline is not important at that stage. If he wants to carry his head lower, my reins will be longer. If he wants to carry his head higher, my reins will be shorter. Over time, the balance shifts toward the horse doing what I suggest, which is carry himself in a higher frame when I half-halt shorten the reins, and stretch down when I make them longer. But until I’ve earned this privilege, I follow him, not the other way around.
Second, a soft mouth is an educated mouth. Light contact with the horse’s mouth is like an old-fashioned telegraph wire: information travels back and forth, from horse to rider and vice versa. When both parties understand the signals they send each other, their conversation becomes meaningful and pleasant, its tone respectful and low in volume. True softness is just that: an ongoing dialogue between the horse’s trusting mouth and the rider’s respectful hands.