TRUE TRAINING 17 - Mr. Mouth
Young horses use their mouths a lot, and True is no exception. As a baby, he wants to chew on his halter, his reins, his lead. Anybody’s tack is fine as long as it’s hanging nearby. If the saddle is within reach, that’s yummy. He snatches at my hat-strings and tries to pull the zipper on my jacket. Nibbles on my sleeve. Pulls my hat off occasionally and swings it away from me with apparent glee. Bites at the pointed yoke on the back of my winter jacket. Small damp face towels are fabulous—True almost had one down the hatch before my friend noticed he had stolen it from her grooming box out in the pasture. Basically, a young horse’s mouth is in perpetual motion.
What’s the best way to teach a youngster to keep his mouth to himself? Three basic steps: Distance, Correction, and Prevention.
Step One is distance. Horses should maintain a respectful distance from their humans, with their heads at least about 2 feet away from our bodies. We teach this in groundwork, where the haltered horse is rewarded for standing still as we move around him. Start wherever the horse feels comfortable. Take a small step back. If he moves toward you, bump the halter gently to back him into his original position. Repeat as needed. When he stays in position as you move away, reward him with some soft strokes and your voice.
Please recall that the vast majority of rewards should be non-edible because of the way brains work. Indiscriminate treats weaken the brain’s reward response. (The reasons behind this principle are discussed in detail in Chapters 12 and 13 of Horse Brain, Human Brain.) In the case of mouthiness, non-edible rewards are even more important. We can’t teach a horse not to use his mouth by rewarding him when he uses his mouth!
Over the course of a few weeks, take larger steps or multiple steps away from your haltered horse while he remains immobile. Remind him of distance while you are leading, grooming, grazing, or even just holding him while chatting with friends.
Some people complain that they prefer to be up close, hugging their horses out of love. You can still do that. It’s just that stepping in close is your option, not your horse’s. You can move in and stroke his throat or cuddle his ears any time you like. But he can’t move in and cuddle YOUR ears at his whim.
Step Two is patient correction. When the young horse takes hold of something, calmly take it from him. This is not as easy as it sounds. Some babies clamp their jaws shut, and you might have to wiggle the object from between their teeth. It takes time. That’s OK. Don’t get frustrated, don’t punish; just get the object back.
I taught True the command “Leave it” for dangerous objects that he truly wants to keep, and upon hearing that rare sharp-voiced command, he usually drops whatever’s in his mouth. But I don’t use that technique often. Over time, patient correction is much more effective—just silently taking an object from him. Once it’s out, don’t scold or reward; just stay neutral and go on about your business.
Step Three is prevention. Don’t tempt a young horse by hanging or dangling things near his mouth. Lead by holding the reins close to the bit; longe by threading the reins through the throatlatch or stirrups; ride with the reins short enough to prevent the horse from grabbing them. Don’t use your finest show tack on a young horse—if he chews through a cheap cotton or nylon rope, that’s better than ruining an expensive leather lead.
Finally, a few common techniques not to use: Smacking the horse’s face when he takes an object in his mouth will cause him to become head-shy and lose trust in you. Shouting at him or punishing him is fairly useless and borders on cruel. Mouthiness in the early years is a very natural equine behavior. Chances are good that he won’t know why you are so upset or what exactly he has done wrong.
Taught through distance, correction, and prevention, True rarely takes objects in his mouth now. He's fully trusting, never head-shy, and pays calm attention to my teaching. My reins and leads are safe, he ignores the saddle and my jacket, and he hasn’t pulled the hat off my head in months. He still loves those leather hat-strings, though!