A young horse’s early experiences set the stage for his entire career. Get him off to a good start by introducing contact the bitless way: with a lungeing cavesson.
Reprinted from the September/October 2019 USDF Connection magazine.
By Gerhard Politz
The introduction to the bit can become one of a young horse’s most traumatic experiences. Consider: As he eats, a horse uses his tongue and lips dexterously to spit out anything he finds unpalatable, from certain herbs and grasses to inedible matter. Now, for the first time in his life, he cannot eject that most foreign object in his mouth, the bit.
It isn’t hard to imagine how scary it is for the young horse, then, when a line is attached to the bit and he is asked to lunge. Small wonder that horses can develop a variety of tongue problems to avoid the painful pressure of the bit and the pulling on the line, and that some never learn to accept the contact honestly. When these issues become confirmed habits, they are difficult or even impossible to correct.
Because it is in our interest as dressage riders to preserve the natural sensitivity of the horse’s mouth, we must educate it with the utmost kindness and care. Don’t we all wish for a horse that feels good in the hands and happily accepts the contact? How can we give our horses the best start on this journey and actually make the bit palatable for them? In this article, I’ll explain the methods I’ve used in more than 50 years of training that have produced well-educated horses with good mouths.
Before you start this training process, your young horse should be halter-broke. He should have good stable manners, and you should be able to lead him safely to a corral or pasture and back to the barn.
I like to examine the young horse’s mouth before any training begins. I check the interdental space (the toothless place where the bit goes) to see whether the bars are smooth. I am not concerned with canine teeth, as they usually don’t come through until a horse is four or five years old and generally don’t interfere with the bit. I do, however, want to ensure that there aren’t any wolf teeth, which can develop from an early age in both colts and fillies. Not every horse has wolf teeth, but because they erupt close to the first molar, they do interfere with the bit, often causing discomfort, sometimes to the point of major resistance. For that reason, any wolf teeth need to be removed.
Introducing the Lungeing Cavesson
During the early schooling stages, I don’t want the horse to be too energetic because most of the training is done at a walk or jog. I make sure that the young horse gets adequate turnout every day before his lesson. The activity helps to relax him so he is more likely to focus during our session. When he returns to his stall, he is allowed some time to drink and to munch on a bit of hay.
When I put the young horse in the cross-ties for grooming, I begin with his head and neck and then exchange the halter for a lungeing cavesson, clipping the cross-ties onto the front side rings. As I continue grooming, he can get used to the feel of this new piece of tack. I adjust the cavesson high enough that it is well clear of the sensitive cartilage of the nasal bone, but at least half an inch below the facial crest to avoid rubs (see photo on the facing page). I tighten it snugly enough to prevent slippage while still allowing mobility of the lower jaw. I ensure that eye strap is tight enough that the cheek pieces cannot slide close to the eyes; this helps to stabilize the cavesson on the horse’s head. The browband can usually remain unless the horse has such a wide forehead that it pulls the cavesson’s headpiece against his ears, in which case I remove it.
When I am sure that the horse is comfortable wearing the cavesson, the next step is to familiarize him with its function as well as with voice commands and the expected responses. Your voice is one of the most important natural aids in the training process. It is crucial at this stage because it is the foundation for everything else the horse learns as he progresses.
The important voice commands are “walk,” “trot,” “canter,” “halt,” and “ho-ho.” I make a point of using only these words and no other unnecessary ones. In my opinion, it is essential to keep verbal commands uncluttered because doing so makes it easier for the horse to learn to interpret them. This same principle applies when lungeing the horse later on.
The tone of my voice communicates to the horse how I want him to respond. I use a sharper tone and sometimes a cluck for up transitions, and a lower tone and long, drawn-out vowels to ask for down transitions. I say “halt” when I want him to stop, and I’ll repeat “ho-ho” when I want him to slow down within the gait. I have found that these clear methods establish excellent rapport with the horse and make him obedient to my voice so that strong aids with the lunge line are hardly ever needed.
Usually I begin with a very easy introduction of this work in the barn aisle so that the horse is not distracted by outside influences. First, with a lead rope or lunge line clipped to the center ring of the lungeing cavesson, I walk him out of the cross-ties, saying “Walk on” and clucking with my tongue. Next, I moderately shake or tug the line and apply tension on the cavesson, saying “Haaalt.” When the horse stops, I immediately release all tension and wait until he indicates submission by softly chewing or by licking his lips. I praise him verbally while kneading his mane at the withers, which mimics horses’ mutual-grooming behavior (see photo below). I repeat the go/stop lesson until I feel that the horse trusts me and is completely relaxed and totally obedient.
Introducing the Whip
If I haven’t done so earlier, now is the time to desensitize the young horse to the whip, as I may need it for the next lesson. I select a whip that is about four feet long so that I can easily reach all parts of the horse’s body. It is helpful to introduce the whip at the end of the grooming session when he’s still in the cross-ties. For safety reasons, I unfasten the cross-ties and clip a lead rope to the center ring of the cavesson.
I position myself along the horse’s near shoulder facing his hindquarters; by doing so, I block his view of the whip. Using my knuckles, I begin softly massaging areas along his shoulder, back, and belly. As I vary the intensity of the rubs, I surreptitiously use the handle of the whip while continuing the action. I observe the horse for any signs of nervousness while reassuring him in a low-toned voice as I knead his crest and withers. I may also reward him with a piece of sugar now and again. Horses love sugar cubes, and I always use them as a reward. They dissolve easily, promote chewing on the bit and salivation, and are less messy than other treats.
If the horse remains relaxed, I lengthen the whip carefully, a few inches at a time, while stepping slowly a bit sideways from his body so that he is able to see the whip. All the while I continue the massaging action with the whip on his skin. Using this technique, I gradually work all over his body wherever he will tolerate it. If he becomes anxious when I get to a certain area, I back off so that he stays relaxed. At some point, I hold the whip by its handle and rub and touch the horse while allowing him as much sight of the whip as is prudent. Much patience and time is necessary so that the horse accepts the touch of the whip all over his body without getting scared. Some horses may require several sessions to lose their fear of the whip and accept it as an aid. Keep in mind that everything taught on the horse’s near side must be repeated on his off side.
The next lesson in the barn aisle is a continuance of the first. I walk the horse out of the cross-ties with the lunge line clipped to the center ring of the lungeing cavesson and begin by confirming the walk/halt lesson. Then I ask him to trot from the walk. If necessary, I make encouraging clicking sounds and perhaps touch him gently with the whip. I prefer to keep the trot subdued—more like a jog. After about half a dozen steps, I ask him to walk as I shake the lunge line. I make many repetitions, always ensuring that the horse responds as expected. When he does as I ask, I back off instantly with my aids and reward him lavishly by kneading his mane and withers and sometimes treating him with a piece of sugar.
Occasionally a horse will become headstrong and decide to ignore the halt command completely. If that happens, I have to teach him a lesson he won’t forget. I pull strongly on the line a couple of times while emphasizing my voice command, and I may also back him up. He has to learn that it can be unpleasant if he is not obedient. He will soon give me the expected response when I shake the line softly. Because he is wearing the cavesson, I do not hurt his mouth when I correct him.
The lessons in the barn aisle and the desensitizing to the whip usually take about a week. When I’m dealing with a nervous and suspicious horse, I take him out several times a day until he becomes trusting, relaxed, and obedient.
During all this basic work, the horse wears only the lungeing cavesson. I believe that it is less stressful for the horse to accept one unfamiliar piece of equipment first before introducing him to an even more intimidating one: the bridle.
The First Bridle
I prefer a snaffle bridle with a drop noseband. The drop has the advantage of allowing good mobility of the lower jaw, thus encouraging the horse to chew on the bit, which promotes the flow of saliva. The drop noseband must be adjusted correctly so that it clears the flare of the false nostril and does not press on the cartilage of the nasal bone. I tighten it such that I can slip two fingers between the noseband and the nasal bone, as shown in the photo at right.
As for the bit, I prefer a loose-ring snaffle that is no thinner than 16 mm, either single- or double-jointed. The bit must be wide enough to protrude about half an inch on either side of the horse’s mouth. Occasionally a horse will do better in a Mullen-mouth bit, which has an unjointed mouthpiece with a slight curve.
Even though all of these bits are quite mild, horses can be very inventive in their efforts to avoid the unaccustomed pressure, such as wildly gyrating the tongue or crossing the jaws. Therefore, it is not advisable to allow any leeway for evasions to become habits. For example, if I see the horse rolling up his tongue excessively in an effort to put it above the bit, I raise the bit enough to make that impossible. I may also adjust the noseband. It is important, however, that when the horse begins to show calm acceptance of the bit, any restrictive measures applied in the early stages are alleviated as soon as possible. I also like to give the horse a sugar cube or two to help him think more favorably of the bit.
Learning to Lunge
When all the preliminary work of familiarizing the horse with the equipment has gone well, I have him wear the bridle and the lungeing cavesson together while he’s being groomed (photo, above). He is now ready for the next stage of his basic training: learning to be lunged.
Before the schooling session, I supervise the horse during his “free time” in the corral. In addition to the bridle and the lungeing cavesson, he is also tacked up with a lungeing surcingle, which I secure with a breastplate to prevent it from slipping out of position. I don’t want to tighten the surcingle so much that the horse is uncomfortable and starts bucking vigorously. Taking my time and while rewarding him with sugar, I tighten the surcingle gradually, a notch at a time, while making sure that he is not provoked out of his comfort zone.
When he is relaxed and accepting the equipment peacefully, I add the side reins. I attach them to the middle ring of the surcingle and then clip them to the top ring by the withers, short enough for safety reasons. They should flop about a little so that the horse can get used to this new stimulus.
After gently encouraging the tacked-up horse to trot and canter at liberty in the corral, I take him to the round lungeing ring for schooling. I carry a moderately long lunge whip and begin by desensitizing him on both sides in the center of the ring, just as I did when he was in the cross-ties. When he accepts the whip calmly, I lead him along the fence line while pointing the whip toward his shoulder to encourage him to follow the contour of the fence. I confirm the walk-jog-walk-halt lessons that he learned in the barn aisle. As I did in the beginning, I move alongside the horse while keeping a safe distance. Then I halt, change direction with him through the center of the circle, and repeat everything going the opposite way. I make sure that the horse always halts close to the fence and waits for me to approach him. Throughout, I take many opportunities to praise him and occasionally treat him with a sugar cube. All of this work should be very low-key. My aim is to improve communication, relaxation, and trust.
When all of this is well established, I move on to the next lesson, a large portion of which is a repetition of all the elements of the first. However, now I use a much longer lunge whip, which allows me to stand in the center of the ring while being able to reach the horse with the lash when needed. Because the longer whip may disconcert the horse at first, I desensitize him to it in the usual way. I begin moving alongside the horse as before and gradually increase my distance from him by slowly lengthening the lunge line. I try to give the horse the sense that he is being “framed” by the lunge line in front and the whip following behind him. It may take a while for him to trust these new circumstances.
When I see that the horse begins to relax and is attentive to my voice commands, I attach the side reins to the lungeing cavesson. I clip them to the rings on the side (photo, oppposite) and ensure that they are long enough that the horse barely feels the contact and his nose stays well in front of the vertical, as shown in the photo at right. If I’m dealing with a horse that still seems a little nervous, I may attach only the outside side rein to the cavesson, then let him go around a few circles before clipping on the inside one.
Because the side reins are positioned along the horse’s shoulders and neck, he may decide to trot on with some animation rather than stay at a jog. This is perfectly normal and I allow it to happen, but I use the “ho-ho” command to calm him while simultaneously wiggling the lunge line. I practice several transitions, including the halt, before changing direction through the middle of the circle.
At this stage of training, the horse will experiment with a variety of neck positions as he tries to find his balance on the circle line. He has plenty of freedom to do so because the side reins do not force him to adopt any particular frame. My main focus is on obtaining a contact via the lunge line to the cavesson while encouraging the horse to adapt to the curvature of the fence. I calmly follow with the whip behind, and I avoid using it unless there is a definite reason to drive the horse forward.
I adhere to the same sequence every day. First, the horse gets turnout in the corral with tack. I allow him some play time so he can let off steam if necessary. If he gets too rambunctious, I calm him down with my voice. In the lunge ring, I recap the previous day’s lesson. If all goes well, I introduce him to the next element within the general concept. On some days I may not add anything new but will simply repeat and improve on the previous lesson. While displaying a calm, confident, and clear demeanor toward the horse, I aim to improve overall rapport and relaxation. If I hurry this process or take shortcuts, there will be negative repercussions later in the training.
When I feel confident lungeing the horse with the long side reins clipped to the cavesson from the beginning of the session, the time has come to shorten the side reins. Each time the horse is at the halt, I carefully shorten the side reins a few holes so that he is eventually able to find a contact. I make sure that the side reins do not intimidate him so that he tries to back off. The side reins will now begin to achieve their purpose, which is to stabilize the horse’s neck laterally and longitudinally so as to improve his overall balance. My focus is on keeping the horse moving on a correct circle line with the help of the whip while I pivot in the center of the ring. The consistent bending encourages him to stretch toward the contact with the side reins, which causes his top line to open up. Before changing direction, I lengthen the side reins and then repeat the process going the other way.
In a few days, I can dispense with the long version of the side reins and begin lungeing with a moderate contact right away. I make sure to frame the horse clearly between the lunge line and the whip while maintaining my pivot in the center of the ring as consistently as possible. I encourage the horse to trot and canter with good energy so that his intent to stretch to the contact becomes quite confirmed. In all downward transitions, I refine my communication with the lunge line by wiggling it while I give the voice commands. The movement on the line transmits subtle messages to the horse’s nasal bone. This will encourage him to yield slightly at the poll while still maintaining an overall open outline.
Finding Balance and Self-Carriage on the Lunge
Using the lungeing cavesson as described avoids any jarring or pulling on the bit because the side reins and the lunge line are attached to the cavesson rings, not to the bit. The horse feels more confident about stretching into the cavesson rather than the unstable and uncomfortable movements of the bit. He will adopt the desirable Dehnungshaltung (a German term with no direct English translation; it denotes stretching forward and down, similar to but not quite as deep as when the horse is allowed to “chew the reins out of the hands,” as in the stretching circle) in a very natural and unforced manner.
My lungeing skills must focus on establishing an elastic and consistent contact with the lunge line to the cavesson. This teaches the horse to move on the required circle line provided that I remain pivoting in the center. I also focus on creating good energy with the whip so that the horse’s hind legs push him forward into the connection of the side reins. At this stage, the side reins must be short enough that he can find the contact comfortably, but not so short that they force him into an “advanced” frame.
Graduating to the Bit
When the horse is confidently adopting the Dehnungshaltung in all three gaits and making transitions obediently, he is ready to learn about contact to the bit. Every horse needs a different amount of time to reach this stage. Some may need only two weeks, while others require four to six. It is important not to rush or force any part of the process.
I warm up the horse by lungeing him in both directions in the usual way, with the side reins attached to the cavesson. Before I attach the side reins to the bit rings, I lengthen them as in the photo on page 25 so that he is not traumatized if he should happen to contact the bit unexpectedly. As I continue lungeing, I assess when he is ready for the side reins to be shortened. I must be very careful not to overdo it, as I may otherwise destroy the horse’s confidence to stretch and thus invalidate all of the previous schooling. Taking time is important, along with lots of praise while kneading the withers and treating with sugar cubes.
When I see that the horse confidently accepts the side-rein contact to the bit, I tack him up with the saddle for lungeing. In several more days, he will be ready to be introduced to a rider. Most horses initially have balance issues caused by the added weight of the rider, and the balance issues inevitably lead to steering problems. To help with this, I have found it useful to ride with two reins. One is attached to the bridle rings and has a more or less passive role. The other rein is clipped to the side rings of the lungeing cavesson and is the primary steering rein until the horse’s balance has improved sufficiently for the bridle reins to take over.
Make Haste, Slowly
I readily concede that some of the methods I’ve described may seem a little overcautious. However, they are considerate and kind to the young horse—and most important, they teach him acceptance of the bit in an unthreatening way. An unhurried, levelheaded, and systematic approach is essential in establishing rapport and trust between horse and trainer, and it creates the best foundation for training a future riding horse. I strongly believe that every horse is worth the extra effort.
A native of Germany, Gerhard Politz has called southern California home since 1987. He is a German Master Trainer/Instructor, a British Horse Society Instructor, and a USDF certification examiner. He teaches and trains out of Flintridge Riding Club near Pasadena. His website is GPRider.com.