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Exercises to Help Improve a Horse Who is Stiff on One Side of Its Mouth

Panel Experts: Geoff Teall and Julie Winkel

Submitted by member: Diana

How do you get a horse to feel even in the mouth? My 12-year old Thoroughbred’s left side of the mouth is “stiffer” feeling in my hand. What kind of exercise can I do to soften that side? Thank you very much.

Answer by Geoff Teall

I think when a horse shows a stiffness in one side of the mouth or the other, the solution can be found worrying more about the shoulder and hind leg on that same side. In your case, in order for the horse to be able to be stiff on the left, it is my belief that he actually braces himself against you with his left shoulder. It is the bracing action of this shoulder that allows him to be stiff with his mouth. It is the strength he is using against you.

The first exercise I use when a horse is stiff on one side or the other, is the shoulder-in (or out). To me, the shoulder-in (or out) is an extension of the bend, which means that the bend of the neck remains the same, but the rider is asking for an “extension” by asking the horse to move the inside hind leg out one track without changing pace, bend or line. As the horse accepts the leg and moves the corresponding hind leg over, at the same time he will relax both his shoulder and then ultimately that side of his mouth. By getting the horse to accept the rein and leg on one side by moving the hind leg and relaxing the shoulder, ultimately the rider will feel the reaction in his hands.

I start the shoulder-in (or out) in the walk, and then move on to the trot—normally a collected sitting trot. I ask for the shoulder-in (or out) both on the straight lines, as well as the circle. I would begin by asking for the shoulder-in, and then, as my horse understands that, I would move on to the shoulder-out. I ask for the position of shoulder-in (or out), which would be slightly bent to the inside moving in a straight line on three tracks, wait in the shoulder-in (or out) for the horse to accept and relax in that position, and then reward that acceptance and allow the horse to move forward and straight away from that shoulder-in (or out). I would obviously do this in both directions.

The other exercise I use on horses that have a stiff side, would be the counter bend in the canter. I like this because it allows me to work the horse’s stiff side on their stronger (or more comfortable) lead. As an example, if I had a horse that was stiff on the left side, like yours, I would do a lot of canter work on the right lead, going to the right, but bent to the left. To keep things even I would also do the opposite (left lead, going left, but bent to the right). This helps the weaker lead (in this case the left lead) by using the more comfortable bend (in this case the right bend) to improve the quality of the gait.

As with all things horses, take your time, listen to your horse, and work your way quietly through the exercises. I hope this helps.

Answer by Julie Winkel

My first concern is to rule out that he has any physical problems, such as sharp points, a wolf tooth or anything else going on. So I would start with a routine vet/dentist examination to make sure there is nothing bothering him to create the stiffness you are feeling on the left side.

After checking that box, the next question is to ask yourself if your hands are even. Oftentimes we are stronger with our dominate hand, and our horses learn to compensate for that by being more supple to the dominate hand. Additionally, our weak hand is sometimes less supple, so horses build up different resistances to find relief.

Suppling exercises, such as shoulder-in, are good to loosen the shoulder and neck, but if the stiffness is isolated to the jaw, I would recommend single rein direct flexions. This is an exercise where the rider’s hand is fixed in one position, unyielding, in a direct line to the horse’s mouth. The rein is stationary, neither pulling nor giving. The rider puts leg on the horse to send the horse forward into he hand. The only relief for the horse is when he meets the fixed hand and gives or yields to the pressure by softening and relaxing the jaw. Then the rider goes back to a supportive, elastic feel. It’s very important to make sure the poll remains the highest part of the topline. To make sure you get the correct feel of the fixed rein, lengthen your rein on the one side and grab your saddle or saddle pad in a straight line to the corner of your horse’s mouth. Then apply the leg pressure. It is easy to get the feel of how steady your hand needs to be. The flexion comes from pushing the horse forward into this wall, never pulling the head back or down.

Once your horse understands that the ‘give’ or the jaw equals release of the pressure, he will get supple and compliant to your aids and feel nice in both hands from the leg.

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Geoff Teall

Geoff Teall is one of the leading Hunter and Hunt Seat Equitation trainers in the country. Horses and riders who have trained with Geoff have gone on to win championships, medals and ribbons at major events including Devon, the AHSA Medal Finals, the ASPCA Maclay Finals, the Capital Challenge, the Pennsylvania National, the Washington International, the USET Talent Search, and the National Horse Show. Geoff is an "R" judge for both Hunters and Hunt Seat Equitation. In addition to training and judging he also offers his expert coaching through virtual training. To learn more from Geoff Teall Virtual Training on Facebook and Instagram.

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