HORSE BEHAVIOUR – Speaking the Language, part 22

A series by SUSAN McBANE explaining equestrian and scientific terminology in relation to equine behaviour and psychology, and its effects on horses and training

(This series is based on a glossary of equestrian and scientific terms published in ‘Equitation Science’ by McGreevy and McLean, 2010, the standard book on the subject. The glossary definition is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)

BRIDLE LAMENESS: ‘An irregularity of gait under saddle that has the appearance of lameness. Mostly seen in the trot, it arises as a result of a long-term training error in which the horse is unable to free itself of simultaneous and persistent bit and leg pressure during locomotion and transitions, or from persistent rising on the same or incorrect diagonal at trot. There is usually an associated crookedness to the longitudinal axis of the body.’


Bridle lameness is one of those behaviours which leads many people to say, often crossly, that their horse is being ‘crafty’ or ‘clever’ because ‘he only does it when he’s ridden because he doesn’t want to work’. In truth, it is yet another of those situations in which we riders need to look to ourselves for the cause, as the above glossary description indicates. I think it unlikely that horses think in this way and pretend to be lame to avoid work. They usually perform behaviours we don’t want because what we are asking causes them pain, discomfort, confusion or distress and they are acting out of self-defence and protection. Sometimes the behaviours have become habits which the horse might still perform even though the original reason for them no longer exists.

Horses learn a good deal by the association of ideas. If a particular action we do to or with them causes them any unpleasant emotion or physical feeling, they will naturally ‘know what’s coming’ and wisely and naturally try to avoid doing it. This applies to any other creature, including us, and is part of our self-defence instinct. If this circumstance happens a very few times, even only twice, a horse will already know that it’s something to be avoided and his avoidance behaviour is on the way to becoming a habit. Of course, habits can be formed in association with good things as well, such as a food treat or a rub on the withers for ‘good behaviour’, also quick, light responses to aids.

(It is interesting that some scientists think it is possible that horses do not actually realise that the sensations horses experience when ridden are caused by the rider, simply that these sensations occur when a human is on their back. Horses’ vision probably prevents them seeing the body of a mounted rider much above rider’s knee level when the horse’s head is in a normal riding position and they may not connect the ‘disembodied’ lower leg with the rider. Horses who are frightened of the whip and react when they see it raised – association of ideas again – have learned that this movement is quickly followed by pain and may try to spin away from the whip, not realising that it is the rider on their back who is wielding it and so spinning is futile. Alternatively, they may try to raise their head and run away from the pain to come, which is their flight or fight instinct kicking in.)


When bridle lameness occurs, the horse will appear lame in front, usually, with lack of engagement of the hindlegs and quarters, and have irregular, crooked movement. The shoulders may be uneven and the horse not reach out in front. This may also be caused by the saddle and girth being too far forward: the saddle will interfere with the movement of the tops of the shoulders and the girth will dig in behind the elbow when each foreleg moves back. ‘Rubber-necking’ is common as the base of the neck is unstable and crooked; the body may also be ‘wriggly’ and crooked.

The horse may try to vary the bit contact in an effort to relieve the pain of a harsh contact or use of the bit by the rider, or of an uncomfortable fit, adjustment or design of bit. The horse may go behind the bit, behind the vertical, try to open his mouth to avoid and express his pain, put his tongue over the bit, and/or champ the bit actively. He may produce lots of froth and saliva, a known sign of distress in mammals. The mouth should be moist only, not dry or slobbery.

Tight nosebands add to the horse’s dilemma as they prevent him moving his lower jaw and tongue freely to make himself more comfortable. Restriction of the tongue prevents the horse swallowing his saliva so it may drool out of the mouth but some may trickle down into the windpipe, which must be a really frightening feeling, especially if the rider is stopping the horse coughing it up by fixing his head position. The main reason given by riders who tighten nosebands is that this prevents the horse ‘evading the bit’. Of course it does! A correctly and humanely ridden horse will not want to evade the bit – and does not need a noseband at all.

Apart from the lack of ethics and morality in using tight nosebands, the crazy thing is that the mouth can only be closed so far as the teeth permit. Once the incisors, at the front, are touching each other, the mouth, very clearly, cannot be closed any further and the lower jaw cannot be easily moved from side to side. So, there is no point having the noseband vice-tight as the only effect it can have is to cause even more pain by injuring the tissues and even cutting off the circulation.

The International Society for Equitation Science, ISES, (see below) reminds us that tight nosebands remove the horse’s means of expressing mouth pain by keeping his mouth closed and fairly still. There are, though, other means of detecting how a horse is feeling in addition to those given already, whether the horse is suffering from a tight noseband, an uncomfortable bit or painful contact. His facial expression will show pain and fear in the eyes, the skin on the face may appear tight, and the nostrils be wrinkled up and back, with a mobile muzzle plus the above-mentioned excessive froth. The ears may be laid flat backwards rather than simply angled softly towards the rider, and the tail is likely to be swishing.


Horses cannot move naturally or comfortably if the head and neck are restricted or are the sites of pain or discomfort. The famous ‘balancing pole’ function is necessary for the rest of the body to move and function as it evolved to do. Preventing a horse using that balancing function will make him move using muscles other than those intended for the purpose, and use his body generally with an awkward, unnatural and uncomfortable action. Over time, and it may even be during one schooling session, the horse’s body will feel the strain and become injured.

Because bridle lameness is said to occur when the horse is ridden and does not occur when he is trotted up in-hand on a loose rope or rein, the injury stage may not have been reached at that point or may be sub-clinical (not noticeable). This does not mean all is well because he will almost certainly be feeling stiff or sore and will be continuing in work, making matters worse. Bridle lameness can occur when the horse is trotted up in-hand on a short-held lead rope or reins by a handler preventing free head and neck movement. This is why vets, physiotherapists and the like want a horse trotted up on a loose rope or rein.



The first and most obvious solution to bridle lameness, in view of the above discussion, is for the horse to be managed and ridden in a more appropriate way. All his tack needs to be comfortable, not only because it is unkind to ride a horse in discomfort but also because his attention will naturally be more on his discomfort than his rider and his work. I recommend that his saddle and girth be fitted and checked twice a year by a saddle fitter qualified by the Society of Master Saddlers.

Well-made, correctly fitted and adjusted bridles do not need any padding, integral or otherwise. Bridles should be fitted so that you can easily pass a finger all the way round under every part that touches the horse’s head. The headpiece should lie, or be shaped away, so that it cannot rub the base of the horse’s ears, or be pulled into them by a too-short browband. The browband also should not be so long that it flops up and down and annoys the horse. Cheekpieces should fall well away from the eyes and no straps should rub the facial bones. The throatlatch should allow the width of your hand between it and the round jawbone. Another gauge for correct adjustment is that it should fall half-way down the jawbone.

Decades ago, just at the time when people were starting to strap their horses up and down in a more forceful way of riding, a saddler told me that if a noseband is correctly fitted it is useless and, therefore, pointless. Quite. Cavesson nosebands were originally used for attaching a standing martingale to the back of them: if fitted so that the strap from the girth to the noseband can be pressed up easily into the horse’s throat when the horse is standing with his head in a normal position, this is still a useful piece of kit for young or green horses who throw their heads up into your face for no obvious reason, because the martingale only comes into effect when the head is just above the point of control.

ISES can supply nifty gadgets called taper gauges to everyone from individuals to international competition organisers. These are slid down between the noseband and the front of the face, and have a mark showing the correct adjustment. It would fly the flag for horse welfare but probably be highly unpopular if used at every equestrian show or competition, and entrants who did not meet the correct adjustment were not allowed to compete. The gauges comply with the old, horse-friendly standard of allowing the width of two or three fingers between the noseband and the flat bone down the front of the horse’s face, so ensuring that the horse can open his jaws a little to manipulate the bit, remain comfortable (rider permitting), communicate with the rider and move his tongue to allow him to swallow his saliva. If you use a drop, flash or Grakle, remember that you need to be able to easily run your finger under them all around the lower jaw, and that they must lie about four fingers width away from the nostrils so as not to interfere with the horse’s breathing.

Jointed snaffles should generally make only one wrinkle at the corners of the horse’s mouth, otherwise they can stretch the skin with the risk of splitting it. Non-jointed mouthpieces, whether snaffle or Pelham, should just touch the corners of the mouth. You should be able to fit the width of one finger flat between the cheek or ring of any bit and the horse’s face at one side. Double bridle bridoons are fitted like snaffles. The curb bit should not touch the corners of the mouth but lie beneath the bridoon and lower than it by about half an inch or a centimetre. Curb chains should come well down into the chin/curb groove (hence its name) when the curb is used, not slide up the lower jaw, and you should be able to slide one finger easily under it all along its length.


They say that there is no secret so close as that between a horse and his rider, and bit contact is probably the closest of all. These days, the secret is often out because horses make it plain that their rider’s contact is causing them discomfort, pain and distress. A good, general contact is like a friendly hand-holding feel or handshake, or just enough to guide a (well-behaved!) toddler over the road. Another guide is to imagine that you have a small bird in your hand; you need to hold him so that he cannot fly away but your pressure does not frighten him.

Of course, circumstances change all the time: your contact needs to be flexible and consistent enough to follow your horse in a friendly way, and listen to what he is telling you up the reins, while reassuring him that you are there for him with directions when needed, and that your directions or bit aids are fair and friendly, comprehensible and not onerous or upsetting. Easy!

Equitation scientists have devised a simple and useful scale for contact in which zero is none at all (free rein) and ten is as hard as you could pull if you were being carted towards a cliff or a motorway. Any contact up to three or so is classed as light, four to six is moderate and above that heavy. Much depends on how willing a conventionally-trained rider is to try something different.

Riding and schooling

Bridle lameness develops due to strong and uneven bit contact by the rider, as described above, and because the horse has never been thoroughly trained to respond quickly and lightly to the aid (signal or cue) to slow down, shorten stride, stop and step back. As well as appearing lame, the horse is probably inconsistent in his responses because he is uncomfortable, and insecure, and responding quickly and lightly has not become a habit. If the rider maintains a hard contact, he is preventing the horse doing this. By going back and re-training in-hand and then under saddle the basic responses to stop, slow down, shorten the stride and step back (which all use the same muscles) and also to go and to turn, as described earlier in this series, the horse is clear about his response, confident and the problem disappears – unless the rider’s contact reverts to the previous high level.

Crooked, ‘wriggly’ horses unstable at the base of the neck and prone to falling in or out through the shoulders are improved by training them to turn in response to the indirect rein; that is, pressing the outside rein sideways against the neck to ‘push’ the horse into his turn or straighten his shoulders, rather than ‘pulling’ him round with the inside rein, which unbalances him and makes matters worse. Tapping on the outside side of the withers with your knuckles or fingertips in the early stages of this work is also a great help. Keep doing it till the horse responds as you wish.

Classical riders and trainers have always wanted a light contact and quick responses, and although many modern riders and trainers claim that their method is ‘all based on classical’, in practice clearly it isn’t. Being prepared to take the time to confirm the horse’s training at the early stages, together with an empathetic attitude towards the horse’s comfort and emotions is the way to go.

LEARN MORE AT: The Classical Riding Club (, the International Society for Equitation Science (, EquiSci for the UK (, the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre ( and the Equine Behaviour Forum ( Also, follow up the links and publications on each site.

(The Equine Behaviour Forum published the full glossary in its magazine ‘Equine Behaviour’. For your copy, send a cheque for £3.50 payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ to the Editor, Dr Alison Averis, 6 Stonelaws Cottages, East Linton, East Lothian, EH40 3DX.)

SUSAN McBANE has an HNC in Equine Science and Management, is a Classical Riding Club listed trainer and Gold Award holder, co-founder of the Equine Behaviour Forum and a Practitioner Member of the International Society for Equitation Science. Author of 44 books, she is a co-publisher of ‘Tracking-up’ (see advert this issue). For lessons and clinics in and near Lancashire, ring 01254 705487 or email

Author: Features Editor

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