Introducing an equine to driving with a bit

Hello, Doc — I went for a few days to a very experienced driving instructor to introduce my Donkey to driving with a bit, as I felt this was certainly an area in which I have little, if no experience. My Donkey opened his mouth to evade pressure from the bit and the answer was simply to put a flash noseband on. This is not a route either myself or my donkey are happy to continue with.

The Donkey has a small mouth, and I know very little about selecting the correct bit, hence the Internet search for solutions. I am happy with harnessing and hitching, but need further info on the above and about teaching the line signals via a bit, as I realized just how good my pony was — and as a result, just how beginning level my rein driving is. I am also looking at bit-less bridles as a possible option/ solution. Which of your DVD’s may be helpful? –Thanks, Ann from the UK

Dear Ann — With donkeys and mules, (actually, all equines) I believe it is extremely important that we gently and thoroughly teach them to respond to cues (pressures) on their nose before attempting to “teach” their mouth to respond to cues (pressures).

Consequently, your training approach – up to introducing the bit to your donkey – was very appropriate in my opinion. I commend you for not continuing with the flash nose-band trainer.

Even with horses I start driving in a small confined pen (a round pen is my preference as it has many advantages) and begin driving with a halter. When I do introduce the bit the animal is given a lot of time to adapt to it by standing tied with the bit in its mouth day after day until it basically is comfortable with and accepts and ignores the bit.

I also use what I call a drop nose band which is a strap that goes over the bridge of the nose from bit ring to bit ring and is tied up to the bridle nose-band with a loop (so will not slip down too low on the nose but can slide from side to side and not bind up).

Initially the drop nose band is adjusted with a buckle so that it does not let the bit contact the gum tissue on the bars of the jaw when the mouth is closed, but rather just barely touches the top of the tongue when the mouth is closed. Care is given to not buckle it too tight or it can push on the upper jaw or roof of the mouth.

At this point the animal is comfortable with the weight of the bit on the tongue from wearing it day after day when tied (the drop nose-band is not used for this part of the process). When I first start driving with the bit and drop noseband it is such a small change from being driven with the halter without a bit that the animals seldom act as if there is any difference.

Once I have them working well this way, day after day, in a completely comfortable, relaxed and responsive way I loosen the drop nose-band one hole (one half to one inch) and repeat the process. Later, I loosen the nose-band another hole and so forth until they are working off the bit comfortably, relaxed and responding well without any issues along the way.

I have some concerns with respect to bit-less bridles and bit-less driving. My experience with bit-less bridles is somewhat limited but the designs I have used and seen used have not impressed me.

Typically, I have better luck ground driving an animal by switching from students bit-less bridles to just driving in a halter.  I feel this is because the complex designs of many of the bridles send confusing and sometimes conflicting messages to the animals.

There is a huge difference between riding in a halter or bit-less bridle and driving in one.

As drivers we do not have the advantages of direct body contact and the communication that can come from such things as leg pressure, shifting our balance and weight, touching our mount with a calming hand, etc.  Our only physical contact and communication when driving is through the driving lines.

Therefore, I prefer to graduate to an appropriate bit before advancing from safe confined enclosures (round pen in my case) into gradually larger enclosures and environments.

Although I am prepared to experiment and find the perfect bit for each and every animal individually if necessary for there comfort and responsiveness, I find that a solid bar bit with a curved mouth piece and protection from pinching at the corners of the mouth is by far the most common bit I use for driving. For me this turns out to be an egg butt, Mullen mouth snaffle with a relatively large diameter mouth piece.

Although the most common bit used in driving bridles is a jointed snaffle, I rarely use them for driving – they are not as mild and easy on the animal as most people think. I feel like I can communicate with more finesse and more effectively with one or both sides of the animal’s mouth with a solid bit rather than a jointed bit.

Having said all this we now come to your realization that it is our skill with our hands on the lines that is the most important factor of all. I believe that more people and animals have benefited from the rhythmic pressure/release method of driving that I use and teach than from any other single thing I have to offer.

This technique along with other important safety considerations, basics, and techniques of harnessing, hitching, and driving and working in harness are in my Fundamentals 1, 2, 3, and 4 DVD set (at the time the DVDs were produced I was calling this the see-saw technique rather than rhythmic pressure/release driving).

For many reasons including line handling techniques and skills my first recommendation of my videos appropriate for you is all 4 Fundamentals DVDs.  They focus on the knowledge and skills needed for driving any animal whatever the level of training may be. Then, because I feel everyone has the potential to become their animal’s most appropriate and best trainer if they choose to, I suggest the 2 DVD set Teaching Horses to Drive (it all applies to donkeys and mules as well).

With these DVDs and some “more timely” help from me via email or phone I’ll bet you can get your donkey working safely and well for you. With great appreciation and a wish for 2012 to be the best year ever for you and your animals –Doc

Hi Doc — Thank you so much, for such a thoughtful and extensive response. –Cheers, Ann