How To Avoid Headstall Handling Hassles

Like the world they evolved in, horses are not static. They’re dynamic, always changing, attempting to adapt to their environment. From our human perspective, domesticated to meet our needs and evaluated by our set of standards, horses are always getting “better”, or getting “worse”.

Once you recognize the fact that if you are a rider you’re a trainer and every time you touch your horse you teach your horse, every time you rein your horse you train your horse, your goal should be to always have the horse getting better with each human contact, not worse.

But, before you can even begin to ride, you must successfully get the saddle and tack on the horse. And there, as with everything else you do, the way you handle each and every aspect, of every individual operation, will affect the final outcome and your chance of reaching your goal – a safe and satisfying ride.

Those of you who know me through my clinics or workshops, or have read my training for trail riding articles, know that my philosophy is that: “A comfortable horse is a happy horse, and a happy horse makes for a happy rider”. One important part of the procedure of saddling and tacking up the horse is putting the bit and bridle (headstall) on.

Doing this right is not very hard, not if you break it into little steps, making sure to keep the horse as comfortable as possible during each step. Doing it wrong, on the other hand, leads to resistance that manifests itself in head lifting, head tossing, mouth locking shut, sensitive ears, and something even to resentment, and out and out war.

That usually results in frustration, possibly fear, and finally defeat on the part of the human handler. Unfortunately, I witness folks fowling this procedure up, over and over again.

Remember, in this relationship, our equine partner is the brawn. We are supposed to be the brains! But, far too often, people begin to act before they put their brains in gear, creating a situation where they are the cause of their horse learning an unwanted, incorrect response, one that re-affirms (to the horse) that they (the horse) are the stronger partner, and don’t have to do as they are told (by their human partner) if they don’t feel like it, or don’t think it is in their best interest. See also: A Horse Trainer’s Thoughts.

That rebellious attitude, developed by mishandling (not using what I call Horse Handling-Horse Sense) leads, over time, to a sour, dangerous, out of control (at the worst possible times) horse. And, it was never the horse’s fault! It was the result of the ignorance of the horse’s handler not knowing what to do, or not being able to do it, that caused the unwanted behavior problem.

Remember,  if you’re a rider, you’re a trainer. As a rider/trainer, you can learn how to think like a horse, but you can’t expect the horse to learn how to think like you. But most horses are ready and willing to be good partners in this “dance” we call horsemanship. All that horses need from us in order to be comfortable (and feel safe) is:

  • To know where they fit in the pecking order, and
  • To get clear, simple, straightforward signals from us.

If you understand these basic principles, you can learn the step-by-step procedures that will allow you to accomplish your training goals, including putting the headgear on, without getting the horse upset, or on the fight. But you cannot expect the horse to say to himself: “Well, I know the rider didn’t really mean to slap me in the eye with that strap, so even though my natural reaction is to pull away, I’ll just turn my head to him, lower it, and make it easy for him to put this uncomfortable thing in my mouth, and over my ears.”

No, if you don’t think it through first, and practice your step-by-step procedures until you can do them right, like clockwork, in advance, you are running the likely risk that you will be inadvertently teaching your horse exactly what you did not want …to take his head away and say “No!” in his language.

So, what are the steps that will lead to success and improve your “benevolent master” to “willing servant” relationship?  First, go catch and halter your horse. Then, lead him in, and tie him up, leaving enough slack in the lead rope to let the horse move his head comfortably from left to right, but not encouraging him to move his feet around.

Go through your standard grooming process, using it as an opportunity to establish a positive, businesslike, “let’s go to work”, hands-on dialog with your horse. Next, blanket and saddle the horse, rewarding each little thing he does right (like just standing still, for example) with kind words and a positive scratch, stroke, and pat, touch.

Standing to the side of your horse’s left shoulder, and holding the headstall in your left hand, use your right hand under his jaw to turn his head towards you at a 45˚ angle. This turning of the head toward you will decrease his thoughts about turning away from you. Now, with your right hand, lift the reins over his head, being sure not to touch his eyes or ears in the process.

Lowering the headstall (with your left hand), take the bit in your right hand and put it under horse’s jaw. Next, reach over the horse’s pole (between his ears) with your right hand, and put your hand into the top of the headstall, spreading your fingers out to enlarge the opening. Now if you have some trouble with trailer-loading a difficult horse, you want to check this post.

Now, slide your left hand (palm up) between the shanks, under the center bar of the bit, coming in from the back. Lifting the headstall straight up (once again, being careful not to touch the horse’s eyes or ears), raise the bit from under the lower jaw, bringing it up to the horse’s lips.

Now, ask the horse to open his mouth by taking your left thumb, putting it between the horse’s lips, and firmly pressing your thumbnail into his upper gums, right behind his front teeth (the incisors). He’ll open up! Now, you immediately lift your right hand, bringing the bit up into the horse’s mouth, into the corner, where the upper and lower lips come together.

Being very careful once again, use your left hand to guide the headstall over the horse’s right ear, laying it back for a moment as you do it. Now, carefully, bring the headstall and browband across the horse’s brow and slide the headstall over the left ear.

Pull the horse’s mane and forelock out from under the headstall. Fasten your throatlatch strap and any other straps or chains that need fastening, and  “voila”, you’re done…with no fuss or resistance. If the horse fights you (provided that it hasn’t already cultivated a bad head fussing habit), you’ve done it wrong.

Before you try again, it might be best to go practice on some easy going, laid back old nag, until you can do all the moves, smooth as silk. Then go back to the horse you were working with at first, and do it right. By the way, take your time. There need be no rush in doing this. The important thing is to be able to do it right.  Speed will come with practice.

Horses don’t usually fight between the steps I’ve outlined, so do each step effectively and efficiently, and take a little micro rest between the steps. It’s all about natural horsemanship.

And remember, if something doesn’t work, just doing it harder is rarely the right answer. If things aren’t working, it’s better to stop, back-up a few steps (to something you can do effectively), and then think (and practice) before you start over. It’s a lot easier to teach things right (without creating resistance) the first time than it is to undo the bad habits that you have created in your haste or ignorance.