So this has been on my mind a LOT for about 6 months. I go back and forth about how I feel. I stress about it. I sometimes google. Mostly I just stress. Here’s the deal:
Your young, green horse gapes his mouth. What do you do?
I spent many solid years in dressage land (predominately training-2nd level) where it seems like EVERYONE uses a flash. I used one on my palomino paint. He was the semi-nervous type at times, and it helped him focus.
When I started jumping him, which led to eventing, I naturally transitioned to a figure 8 for the jumping phases.
I never doubted or thought twice about using a piece of tack to keep my horse’s mouth closed.
When I tried Rio for the first time, I noticed he was a bit nervous and tended to gape his mouth at times. No big deal, I figured it would work itself out. No flashes or figure 8’s allowed in the hunters after all, but I wasn’t worried. As his training progressed he still did it sometimes. I began to worry. Would this effect our placing at shows? How do I make him stop? I had his teeth done (twice in a 6 month period), so I felt pretty sure it wasn’t a teeth related issue. Am I training him wrong? I began to wonder if I should use a flash when schooling. I thought that maybe he was developing a bad habit that I should break now before it got in-grained. I agonized over what was the ‘right’ course.
I decided it might be good to try out a flash. I also started to put his noseband a whole or 2 tighter, with a noseband chin pad. After all, I didn’t want to hurt him and the pad was nice and cushy. I just wanted him to keep his mouth shut, and I had one laying around.
When I tried to google what to do, various “remedies” came up. Some people said that schooling with a flash taught the horse it couldn’t evade the bit by opening their mouth, and had worked for their horses. I don’t find flashes inherently evil, so it seemed like a good plan. When I put a flash on Rio though, I had to put it pretty tight or he would still open his mouth. Tight noseband with chin pad and tight flash. He didn’t seem very happy, nor was I.
I stopped using both. Then I would use just the chin pad. Then nothing. Then I’d ride with the flash, and so on. It was the internal “what is best?” debate that I think we all feel sometimes. If only our horses could talk!
I read more articles. Recently one by Denny Emerson caught my eye, and he linked to another one on Euro Dressage. It’s a 4 part series, and talks a lot about the horrors that nosebands, flashes, and figure 8’s can inflict on horses. There is much discussion about how nosebands came to be, what their actually purpose is, what improper fit can do, etc. It is a GREAT series and was exactly what I was looking for. Additionally, there was a study that was also published on Euro Dressage about the hazards of too tight nosebands. It was shocking to read that out of 750 competition horses investigated, only 7% of the nosebands were correctly adjusted to accommodate the recommended 2 fingers of space.
It all immediately made me feel like the WORST mom in the world for using a tighter noseband and flash, even if I only did it a few times. Too tight of nosebands/flashes can cause not only incorrect training due to horses being unable to soften and relax their jaw, but also neural pain, and in extreme cases nerve damage.
Overall, it is BAD. Really bad! I was wrong to think that I could “fix” Rio’s mouth but strapping it shut. One of the dressage trainer/rides quotes in the 4 part series said a noseband is loose enough when a horse can chew a treat with it on. I have decided that is a great guideline (along with the 2 finger rule) and I am sticking to it from here on out. No flash for us anymore. I will probably still use the chin pad to support the lower jaw, but on a much looser hole, not as a means to close his mouth.
I have realized that Rio gapes his mouth to avoid the bit (duh), but that it is due to lack of training. As he becomes more comfortable with something, and more confident in what I am asking, he settles and goes quietly. He gapes when he is confused, or over-faced, or stressed, etc. I wish it was as easy as adding another piece of tack, but it’s not. It is just going to take some old fashioned time and training. I do not judge anyone for using a flash or figure 8 or drop noseband, but I do hope they aren’t tightening them too tight, and unknowingly doing more harm then good.
Who knew their were no shortcuts in horses?
As this is something I have been considering for awhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on nosebands and how they should be adjusted, or if you have ever had a horse that gapes his mouth and what you did!