You will often hear me refer to bridle-shy horses as giraffes, and this is because when they don’t want to accept the bit they tend to stick their heads way up in the air so that us tiny humans can’t reach them. There are many different reasons why a horse would be bridle-shy, such as abuse or an ill-fitting bit, but here I will address not the “why” but the “how”, although I do feel that it is incredibly important to figure out why your horse does not want to accept the bit. The “why” should be figured out with the help of an experienced trainer so that you can get to the root of the problem. The following is just a basic “how” guide on asking your horse to accept the bit and the bridle.
First thing’s first, be sure that your bit and bridle fit properly (again, it is good to have the help of a trainer for this). It should sit on the part of the horse’s mouth that has no teeth and it really shouldn’t interfere with the teeth at all. Make sure that your bit is not in backwards, because this is a simple problem that can cause your horse a lot of discomfort and it happens more often than you would think.
Second of all, clean your bit after every ride so that you know it is comfortable for your horse. It’s only fair that the bit is clean before you put it in their mouth. Imagine how you would feel putting a dirty fork in your mouth!
Third, make sure that your bit is warmed up during the cold months. This can be done with your hands (my chosen method) or a bit warmer, but those generally require being warmed up in a microwave and then wrapping it around the bit. Again, putting a freezing cold bit in your horse’s mouth would be akin to putting a freezing cold fork in your mouth—not fun. Even touching a cold bit to your horse’s lips could be enough to turn them off to the whole process.
If you present the bit to your horse and they simply clench their teeth and refuse to accept it, this is a pretty simple fix (for the most part). I like to take my thumb and stick it in the corner of their lip. There are no teeth in this spot, so I tickle the gum until they open their teeth and then gently slide the bit in and complete the bridling process. This works most of the time, but sometimes you might have to use a bit more than just a tickle; it might take some gentle pressure on the gum to get them to open their teeth for the bit.
If you present the bit to your horse and they decide to become a frustratingly majestic giraffe, that’s a whole other ball game. When this happens, depending on the horse I tend to start by teaching them to lower their head when I ask them to. I prefer to use a rope halter for this process regardless of the horse’s discipline. There are a few different ways to do accomplish this, such as placing your hand on the horse’s poll (the top of the head between the ears), and gently pressing down. Sometimes this simple pressure is not enough, so I will start to use the halter as an aid. I start to gently pull down on the lead rope, but as soon as the horse lowers their head even a little bit I let go. This is the concept of pressure-and-release, or give-and-take, which is a fundamental concept of horse training.
Your horse should begin to understand what you’re asking fairly quickly as it is very simple. Once you teach your horse to lower their head when you ask, you’ve helped yourself out a lot with bridling. Note: this will not help if you have an ill-fitting bit, so I will stress again the importance of equipment that fits and is appropriate for your horse.
The other big thing in this situation is desensitization. Obviously you don't want your horse to become dead to bit pressure, but the bridle should feel natural and comfortable to them after a while. A good way of achieving this is just to put the bridle on, take the reins off, and let them have their way in a round pen for a little while (within reason and always under supervision-you don't want them getting hung up on the bridle!). If you decide to do this, do it with a simple snaffle bit like a D-ring or an eggbutt as these are the most gentle bits and allow your horse to stop focusing so much on the fact that they have a bridle on. If you don't have access to a round pen, you can also do this with a lunge line, but make sure you put the halter on OVER the bridle.
Consistency and patience are key—you can’t expect them to be perfect for this right away, especially if they're green or have had a bad experience. Continue to reinforce this training if your horse keeps pulling the giraffe move on you, but there is a certain point where you are going to have to ask for help. When problems persist I always recommend that you contact a professional trainer; every horse is different!