Q: I have a Thoroughbred who has been showing in the Baby Green Hunters. He nearly constantly chews on his bit. We've tried many types of bits with no improvement. He's currently working in a flash noseband, and we have to keep punching holes because he stretches the leather. We've had him fully checked out by a vet and a chiropractor. Is there anything else I can do to break this habit of bit chewing? Since he's a hunter, there's a limit to the equipment I can use at shows.
Liza Towell Boyd
A: It sounds as if your horse is trying to tell you something. Constant bit chewing is often a sign of nervousness, particularly in younger horses, or discomfort. Consulting your vet and chiropractor is a good start, but you may need to dig deeper to discover the root of the bit chewing problem. Ask for second opinions, do your own research and experiment. Here are some avenues to explore.
If your horse is young, his bit chewing may result from immaturity or unfamiliarity with the bit. He might need more time getting accustomed to the feel of the bit in his mouth without also having to focus on a rider on his back. Remove the noseband and reins, and put the bridle on him in his stall for an hour or so, staying nearby to keep an eye on him. (Make sure there is nothing in the stall he can catch the bridle on. Never do this with a bit that can hook onto things, such as a full-cheek snaffle.) Repeat this daily until he seems to get tired of bit chewing.
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Next, longe him with the bridle on, either feeding the longe line through the bit ring, over his poll and attaching it to the ring on the other side, or putting a halter or longing cavesson over the bridle and attaching the longe line to that. When his chewing decreases significantly on the longe line, begin riding him again.
In horses of any age, bit chewing can signify anxiety. Different horses mature at different rates. Even if your horse seems physically prepared to perform at his current level, he may not be ready mentally. Try reducing the pressure: shorten your schooling sessions, take him on trail rides and so on. Even consider turning him out for a few months and giving him a total break. Then bring him back slowly, making sure he's comfortable in every situation before progressing. When you ease back into showing, do just the ticketed warm-ups at first.
If your horse is older, the first thing I'd suspect is ulcers. Not all ulcers are easy to diagnose, and some do not respond to anti-ulcer medications. Even in the absence of a diagnosis, there are a wide range of effective treatments, including diet changes and alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and herbs, worth trying. Try substituting alfalfa and corn oil for portions of your horse's hay and grain. Provide his hay ration in a hay bag with very small openings to encourage him to nibble throughout the day in a more natural "grazing" manner.
See also: Understanding Ulcers
Also look closely at his mouth for cracks in the corners of his lips or sores on his gums or inside his cheeks. Apply petroleum jelly to the sores and ride him in a hackamore, if possible, until they heal.
Find a certified equine dentist to take a second look at his teeth, as well. (Because they specialize in teeth, equine dentists can sometimes catch abnormalities that veterinarians miss.) In addition to identifying possible hooks, wolf teeth, etc., that might be bothering your horse, he or she can also tell if your horse has a low palate, which makes the bit sit differently in his mouth.
See also: Banish Imbalances in the Mouth
Speaking of bits, keep experimenting! We sometimes consult an expert bit salesman for suggestions when nothing in our trunk seems to be working. Some horses like thicker bits; some like thinner. Some like bits with multiple joints; others prefer straight, soft bits. Try different metals and materials. Look online, browse tack shops and ask other riders and trainers if they have bits you can borrow.
Hunter judges may penalize "nonconventional" bits in the show ring, including hackamores, kimberwicks, gags, multiring snaffles, etc. However, if your horse goes well in a mild, less-conventional bit, it's the judge's prerogative to deem it acceptable. I know a famous hunter, for example, who shows in a leather bit, and judges either can't tell or don't mind.
Experiment with his noseband, too. It sounds as if he's fighting the flash, which may be contributing to his anxiety. Try removing it and lowering or raising the cavesson a hole or two. Sometimes repositioning where the noseband sits on the jaw can make a positive difference. Switching to a figure-eight noseband temporarily may also help. Remember, though, that flash, dropped and figure-eight nosebands are not "recommended" in the show-hunter ring (according to the USEF Rule Book).
Finally, ask a trainer or clinician to evaluate your riding to make sure you're not contributing to the problem unconsciously. Too-strong hands or locked elbows, back and shoulders even in the subtlest form can cause this type of resistance in sensitive horses. Asking an experienced rider to school your horse can also supply valuable feedback that may help to identify the source of the problem.
Whatever is causing your horse's chewing, be patient with him. Taking time to solve this problem now is much more important than sticking to whatever predetermined plan you may have had for this show season. If you only fix the problem temporarily, don't be discouraged. Some solutions need to be modified over time. But you'll succeed in the end if you keep thinking outside the box and listening to your horse!
One of today's leading hunter riders, Liza Towell Boyd learned much of what she knows from two top trainers: her father, Jack Towell, and Missy Clark. After college, she joined the family business and went on to win 11 USHJA Hunter Derbies and numerous major hunter championships. Liza and her husband, Blake, have a 2-year-old daughter, Ellen.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Practical Horseman.