Ask A Teamster: Bad Habits
by Lynn R. Miller
Here’s a question for your new “Ask a Teamster” section. It may qualify as trivial and certainly it is more of a nuisance than a serious problem… We have a horse, an 11 year old Belgian mare with a rather nervous type personality, who chews on the ends of her lines. It seems to be similar to biting fingernails in times of stress. With a quick sideways motion of her head she can flip the snap between her teeth for a quick satisfying chomp. It’s especially a problem with the short cross checks we use for working four abreast. It doesn’t take long for her to chew through either leather or nylon where it passes through the snap. Duct tape slows this down, but doesn’t get at the heart of the problem.
Other than this little quirk she’s a reasonably good worker and well behaved. Should we get her into therapy? If we stop this habit will her pent up frustration just find another outlet? Perhaps a worse one?
Great question and excellent observations and primary deductions. Start with your last comment: Yes, be careful about ridding this mare of her outlet of choice without providing another. Although it is always a hazard to diagnose a horse from a distance it does seem like you are probably right about this being a simple manifestation of a nervous nature. Just as with people, horses are individuals and at the mercy of their individual internal chemistry. We all know ladies and gentlemen who have nervous little habitual diversions which they do as release, and often without realizing they’re doing it. Horses can be the same way. It doesn’t, as you noted, in and of itself make a horse less tractable or useful. It can however be a hazard or create one such as in the case of your own mare unsnapping or cutting the driving line at a critical time. There are some simple ways to prevent her from chewing or playing with the lines, but before I suggest them I need to encourage you to find her another oral release or exercise when she’s working or standing in harness.
The simplest approach is to provide her with a bit which includes a combination of metals and or a roller in the mouthpiece. Different metals such as chrome and copper combined will cause some increased salvia flow and give her a very subtle surface change to play with inside the mouth. Running her tongue along this will provide diversion. You have no doubt seen bits of many different elemental designs which incorporate a roller or two on the mouthpiece. This will give her even more to play with. Mouthing bits are also available which include hanging goodies as illustrated here.
Going back to your original observation; when you finally remove the end of the line from her you may create other physical manifestations of nervousness. One of those might end up being a chewing of the mouthpiece to the detriment of the mare’s teeth. Bits are available with rubber mouthpieces if you should find them necessary.
The quickest and easiest way to get your mare to leave the line ends alone is to fasten a large leather washer-like cheek piece to both ends of the bit’s mouthpiece so that they would come into contact with the mare’s mouth and prevent any access to the line end.
Another simple method is to paint the end of the line with something the mare finds distasteful (be careful not to use anything poisonous). I heard tell of one English farmer who would bridle his gelding and then touch, with the end of his finger, a tiny amount of fresh pig manure and then touch that to the line end. It may well work with some horses but I certainly wouldn’t encourage a novice teamster to try such a trick as it could result in making a horse MORE nervous or creating a balker (a horse that won’t go for love nor oats).
I am pleased to have received your question. It’s clear indication that there are some horses out there with kind, generous and sensitive working partners, such as yourself.
I hope other teamsters will wade in and offer their observations and suggestion on this, the previous or any future column topics. Meanwhile, ’til next time kiss your horses for me. LRM