If the answer is, “not very well,” it might serve you well to become better acquainted.
That’s especially true if you feel that your horse’s mouth isn’t exactly the way you want it to be — hyperactive…dry…gaping open…gnashing…or, worst of all, up in the air or with a tongue hanging out. Even worse if that’s a blue tongue, but that’s unlikely to be the case with your horse. We’ll reserve that distinction for Patrick Kittell and his ilk.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m always talking about hands, and a rider’s hands have a lot to do with whether a horse’s mouth is comfortable or not, but with the wrong bit, even educated hands can have a hard time making a horse feel comfortable, look comfortable or act comfortable.
So let’s put our hands aside for the moment and focus on your horse’s mouth. It’s critical to look at your horse’s mouth and understand what you’re seeing if you want to fit your horse with the proper bit, whether your horse has a perfect, untouched mouth or whether you’re trying to solve mouth “issues” (so often bit-related).
Whether it’s your horse’s first bit, a new bit, or you’re moving up to a double, finding the right bit(s) for your horse is an art more than it is a science, despite the best efforts of Hilary Clayton. She’s done some interesting work with thermal imaging, and recommends a Herm Sprenger KK Ultra or a Myler Comfort Snaffle based on her research.
Far be it from me to disagree, but you know me, so you know that even if it is far from me, I’m going there any way. I know too many horses who dislike the KK Ultra despite its popularity. And while the Myler mullen mouth is an ideal bit for some, it’s not at the top of my list either.
If the choice of a bit doesn’t take into account a rider’s hands — less than good/good/educated — it’s likely not to be the best choice. But riders’ hands aren’t the place to start when you’re considering how to bit your horse. Your horse is. Specifically, his mouth. You want to look at all aspects of your horse’s mouth, not just the width. That would be like picking your next pair of shoes based on size alone, without considering width, type of sole, heel height, instep, arch, etc. Just knowing what size shoe you wear doesn’t mean it will feel comfortable. And that’s only your foot we’re talking about. What if it were something in your mouth and someone was messing with it while it was in there?
A horse’s mouth is the most sensitive part of his body and because of that, it’s the part that’s most likely to be hurt or at least feel hurt, even if it’s not intentional, with his back a close runner-up. So what do you need to know about your horse’s mouth, so you’re taking the very best care of him?
1. Take a look at your horse’s mouth from the side. Would you say it’s short, average or long? You may not have any idea. Faster and more accurate conclusions will come with time — so start looking around at other horses’ mouths while you’re at it. If you’re still not sure, examine how the corners of your horse’s mouth align with the bars inside his mouth. The easiest way to look at this is to see the wrinkling in the corners of his mouth when a bit without curved arms is adjusted to lie in the middle of the bars. Here’s another chance to broaden your experience. Ask your friends or your trainer to let you look inside other horse’s mouths and see how the bit and bars align. Maybe they’ll think you’re crazy. Or maybe they’ll be happy to share the information with you…or learn something new themselves. We’re all trying to be better horsemen, right?
2. While we’re on the topic of bars, what do they look like? Broad and flat? Narrow and ridged? Are they soft or scarred?
3. Is there blood anywhere? If there were, you might not see it unless there was a lot of it. If you haven’t looked in your horse’s mouth, how do you know? Are there any ulcers? Sharp points on the teeth?
4. I’m going to assume that you have a good equine dentist, whether or not he’s your veterinarian. A great way to learn about your horse’s mouth is to ask the person who keeps it healthy to take you on a tour. Vets and equine dentists have seen lots of horses’ mouths. This is an especially important step in the event that your fellow riders or trainers think you’re crazy for asking to look at or inside the mouths of horses that don’t belong to you.
5. Take a look at the palate. Is it low? Is it high and arched? Keep your eyes open for bruising. Go ahead and put your hand in there and feel around. Ignore this advice if there’s any chance your horse might bite down on your hand. If you think he might, then skip this step and just look. And remember to ask to feel around next time your horse’s mouth is held open with a speculum.
6. How’s the tongue? Just as there are variations in our mouths and tongues, so it is among our favorite other species. Is it fleshy? Does it hang over the teeth on both sides or push through the teeth at the front? Does it fit nicely in between the teeth? Or is it somewhere in between?
7. Speaking of fleshy, look at your horse’s lips. Is your mare an Angelina Jolie or a Helen Mirren? Is the skin white or black or brown? Often, white skin is more sensitive, and it can be more so in the summer months when there’s a bit of a sunburn. That’s another often overlooked part of your horse’s mouth that can affect bit selection — and should.
Mouth conformation is just one of the determining factors in selecting the right bit for your horse. There are more, and I’ll be covering them in future posts.