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Bitless Bridles and 'Lipstick Foam' - Natural Horse World

Bitless Bridles and ‘Lipstick Foam’

by Yvonne Welz

Just for comparison, here is a photo of my mare Belle in a regular snaffle bit last year, looking quite foamy.
Just for comparison, here is a photo of my mare Belle in a regular snaffle bit last year, looking quite foamy.

Does the bit cause foaming? Maybe not…
It has long been assumed that a horse chewed and salivated because there was a foreign object (a metal bit) in its mouth. And right now, I’m not here to debate whether bits should or should not be used on horses. I just want to talk about the foaming.
It is important to note that I’m talking about light foaming, what classical riders call ‘lipstick foam’. NOT the buckets of drool that sometimes show up in modern competition photos, but the light froth that coats the edge of the lips. For dressage riders, this is something desired, coveted, and admired.
Why? Because it means (as we’ve been taught) that the horse is working correctly from behind ‘into’ the bit. And so, there was always a bit involved…
I began to ride exclusively bitless in December 2013, and I rode my horse exactly the same way I had previously ridden her sans the bit. And when I had her going really well, through her back and working well off her hindquarters, I would look down… and see the same foamy mouth!

February 2014: Here I tried her out in the Dr. Cook Bitless Bridle, and the results were the same: when she was working well from behind, she was foaming in her mouth.
February 2014:
Here I tried her out in the Dr. Cook Bitless Bridle, and the results were the same: when she was working well from behind, she was foaming in her mouth.

Someone suggested this might be an after-effect of using a bit, and that it would go away in time. As the photos show, it did not. As I explored the reasons behind this physiological side-effect, I came across an extensive
explanation for the biomechanics of chewing in Dr. Gerd Heuschmann¹s book ‘Balancing Act’.

He explains that when the back is relaxed, the activation of the lower muscle chain results in a chewing mouth. The lower muscle chain, including the abdominal muscles, are what permits the horse to lift its back and become ’round’.
Dr. Heuschmann goes on to explain exactly why this happens, bit or no bit: “A back that is working well allows the antagonists (inner lumbar and abdominal muscles) to work rhythmically. This lower muscle chain activates the temporomandibular joint and the horse begins to chew. This effect is the same regardless of whether the horse wears a bitless or a conventionally-bitted bridle, which allows the lower jaw to move when the reins are taken up. When the mouth is active, there is always suppleness of the poll, which is critical to the quality of the contact.”

June 2014: After a particularly good workout, there is even blobs of foam. Keep in mind, hacking around won't produce this. It is engagement: using the hindquarters and channeling the energy through.
June 2014:
After a particularly good workout, there is even blobs of foam. Keep in mind, hacking around won’t produce this. It is engagement: using the hindquarters and channeling the energy through.

And chewing results in lipstick foam… Keep in mind, this will only happen when a horse has a relaxed back, and the lower muscle chain is activated.
‘Dressage’ people call this ‘putting the horse on the bit’. Uh, I think it really needs a new name!

All photos this page: ©The Horse’s Hoof – news for barefoot and better horse care.

7 thoughts on “Bitless Bridles and ‘Lipstick Foam’

  1. Anne says:

    I am not sure I agree with the premise that foam at the mouth is a good thing. Foam does not come from chewing, salivation comes from chewing, but rather like a spoon or whisk beating egg-whites, it’s the agitation of the saliva caused by the tongue which causes the foam. I would think that it is necessary to ask why the horse is working its tongue. Stress perhaps or inner turmoil perhaps?

  2. Ross Jacobs says:

    Heuschmann has it wrong. He fails to understand that chewing does not cause foaming. Chewing only helps stimulate saliva production, but the tongue turns it into foam by mixing air with the surfactants in the saliva. The tongue needs to be quite busy to do this (for even a little amount of foaming). Stress causes the horse’s tongue to be busy.

    It has always been a myth that it is only bits that cause a horse to chew. People have been riding without bits for centuries and observed horses moving their mouths. Bits can certainly cause a horse to chew, but so can spurs, whips, reins, separation anxiety, tying up. In fact for some horses any general stress with cause a horse to chew when a horse’s choices are removed. Heuschmann claims chewing is the result of relaxation of the back muscles, but you don’t often see horses chewing in the paddock when they are relaxed – even if they are actively playing or arguing.

    A good example (and there are many), of bits not necessarily being the cause of chewing is the very famous video clip of Stacy Westfall doing her liberty reining pattern. Her horse had no gear, yet constantly chewed. It was a pretty stressed horse. It neither had a bit nor had back muscle that were relaxed and working correctly, yet still chewed. It’s common and I don’t understand how this is a revelation to some people who want to hold onto the myth that foam is a good thing.

    • Cynthia says:

      Time and time again, I keep observing lipstick foam happening when my (bitless, upper level) horse is MORE relaxed, not less, and only when she is truly working correctly from behind and concentrating. If she is tense, nervous or spooky, she will NOT foam. If we have a fabulous ride, and she is working in total harmony with me, I will look down and see the foam.
      So making ANY generalities about foaming, instead of thinking about individual horses, may be incorrect.

      In specific instances, of course there may be horses that get foamy because they are stressed. Probably would be that flying foam (drool) and not the lipstick foam. There are maybe not enough working bitless horses out there to really study the situation yet. Maybe they only do it if they used to do it with a bit. Maybe only some do it and not others. Maybe it has to do with mouth conformation. I don’t know. My other 2 horses do not foam, but they are not worked at the same level.

      Horses lick and chew when they are understanding a problem. It’s not much of a reach to assume they could do that under saddle, too, while moving, and create the lipstick foam. There certainly is no proof that foam is a negative thing, nor harmful in any way. I was previously told by a bitless expert that the bit itself caused foaming; my direct experience has proven otherwise.
      Yvonne.

    • Cynthia says:

      Time and time again, I keep observing lipstick foam happening when my (bitless, upper level) horse is MORE relaxed, not less, and only when she is truly working correctly from behind and concentrating. If she is tense, nervous or spooky, she will NOT foam. If we have a fabulous ride, and she is working in total harmony with me, I will look down and see the foam.
      So making ANY generalities about foaming, instead of thinking about individual horses, may be incorrect.

      In specific instances, of course there may be horses that get foamy because they are stressed. Probably would be that flying foam (drool) and not the lipstick foam. There are maybe not enough working bitless horses out there to really study the situation yet. Maybe they only do it if they used to do it with a bit. Maybe only some do it and not others. Maybe it has to do with mouth conformation. I don’t know. My other 2 horses do not foam, but they are not worked at the same level.

      Horses lick and chew when they are understanding a problem. It’s not much of a reach to assume they could do that under saddle, too, while moving, and create the lipstick foam. There certainly is no proof that foam is a negative thing, nor harmful in any way. I was previously told by a bitless expert that the bit itself caused foaming; my direct experience has proven otherwise.
      Yvonne.

  3. Estella Holmes says:

    Question….I ride a mule and I consider very supple. I do Western Dressage and the last judge I had took points off because my mule was licking her lips, NOT working the bit or biting the bit, but just licking very relaxed….I don’t use a nose band, because I don’t feel she needs it. She licks her lips even in a hackamore, out in the pasture, when I’m grooming her ( not ALL the time ), but ever so often. I feel the judge couldn’t recognize a relaxed mouth from a resistant mouth. I would like your opinion .

    • Cynthia says:

      It is a sad sign of the times when judges who are so used to seeing bitted horses display abnormal mouth behaviors can’t recognize a relaxed, happy mouth. Licking is a sign of relaxation in equines as far as I am aware. I’m sure there has been research into this so perhaps google it and see if you can pass on your findings to educate that judge.

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