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A Bit of an Issue – Part 1

By June 21, 2011August 19th, 2015Blogs, Riding Skills, Solving Problems with the Horse

A Bit of An Issue, Part I

This is another article that first appeared in Intelligent Horsemanship’s Listening Post.  Concerning the use and understanding of the bit and reins, it outlines some of the issues surrounding how the rider’s hand can be used.

Over the years we’ve met many people with their horses on riding clinics, and almost without exception they’ve been dedicated, conscientious, hard-working people. There have been all sorts of horses too, from the seriously disturbed,  to the slightly confused. There have even been a few with no obvious issues at all, who are perfectly suited to their
owners, and who have been brought along to improve – in fact, one of our favourite scenarios. However, over time it’s begun to dawn on us that very few of the riders and horses that come on our clinics have what we would consider to be the first two fundamentals in place: many of the horses don’t move forward freely in a self-sustaining way, and many don’t really understand the bit, or respond promptly and calmly to rein requests. Stop and Go, the starting blocks of riding, are often not fully functional.
Perhaps it sounds like riding clinics involve horses and riders careering madly around our school completely unable to stop, or horses parked in the middle, immobile no matter what aid is applied. That’s certainly not the case, at least, it’s the exception rather than the rule! It’s more that the edges can be a bit blurred: transitions aren’t sharp, steering  isn’t accurate, legs contradict hands and riders can’t rely on quick responses from their horses. The horses sometimes look uncomfortable or unhappy in the mouth. If they’re  cantering, they might need half a school circuit before they come to a complete stop. Ditto perhaps trying to get into canter, and occasionally the whole thing can look a little like alligator wrestling. 
For years, I didn’t really understand how the bit was meant to work and why the horse was meant to respond to it. In the lessons I received, it was presented as a pretty blunt tool, and the idea was to apply more pressure if the horse or pony wasn’t responding. There was  never any talk of the release of pressure, and a horse that leant on the hand was meant to be pushed up off it by more leg. The idea that the legs were already being used to push the horse into a restraining hand never made sense to me. It always felt contradictory. However, it didn’t stop me trying to do it for years, and even in the early days of my teaching, telling others to do the same thing.

So I suspect that even if the horse received a very good initial education in moving forward from the leg and stopping promptly and easily from the rein, by the time people began looking at riding “properly”, confusion set in. 
I’ve hesitated to set this out in writing before, because reams have been written about this, over many centuries, and none of it did much to help me.  I also fear it may all be a bit technical. Unfortunately, I think to a degree it has to be, and this series of articles is my attempt to lay out my understanding as it has grown over the last 15 years or so,  and I feel it has to be reasonably detailed if it’s to be any use. There’s the theory and the practice, too, so I’ll start with the theory before explaining how to put it into practice.

There are three concepts we discuss on clinics that often seem to contradict what people have heard before. The first is that the hand is the primary aid. This doesn’t mean that we want people to be hand dominant, and nor does it deny the extraordinary effect good rider biomechanics can have on the horse’s way of going. It does, however, recognize that from the horse’s perspective, what the rider does with the reins is of primary importance. There are people who ride without reins, it’s true, but for the average rider, the reins breaking would be a cause for some concern!

Another is the old French Classical principle of  “leg without hand, hand without leg”, which would be the same as “accelerator without brake, brake without accelerator” in a car.  It’s no accident that the brake pedal and the accelerator are operated by the same foot so we can’t accidentally apply them at the same time! With horses, though, there’s a notion of creating energy and then containing it, which doesn’t really apply to cars, where the options are only really to go faster or slower, but not with more “expression”. Don’t worry, however, the idea of creating and containing impulsion can still be applied, just in a way that involves a lot less force and effort, and how to achieve this should be clear by the end of this series.

The other concept that sometimes makes people stop and think is that contact and rein length are not the same thing, in spite of the fact that it’s common practice to say “shorten your reins” and mean “have more contact.” A horse could be on a short rein and have no pressure on their mouth – think of an excited horse arching their neck and coming behind the bit, for example, or a horse could be on the buckle end and still have loads of
pressure on their mouth – think of a horse bucking, or a pony refusing to pick their head up from the grass no matter how hard the child on board is pulling. We’re working from an assumption that the horse would prefer to have minimal pressure on their mouth. With accurate and careful training, very little pressure is needed to ensure clarity. 
Of course, horses weren’t born understanding how to respond to the bit. In fact, quite the opposite. We know that horses are “into pressure” animals, and as Hilary Vernon, expert on bits and bitting points out, the tongue is a muscle, so it’s no surprise that the horse would lean into this pressure if not taught to do otherwise. I’ll never forget meeting someone who was distraught because her young horse had managed to pull away from her when out on a walk in hand. She felt she had a particularly dangerous and delinquent horse because he had done this even with a bridle on. She had honestly believed it would be next to impossible for him to do this, and hadn’t realised that training would be necessary before he would easily yield to bit pressure, nor how much adrenaline would take over from this training in high stress scenarios. 

Although I’m sure that some horses go better in one type of bit over another, the biggest change in the horse’s experience of the bit, bitless bridle, head collar or dually comes from what the rider does with her hands. I would also recommend careful examination of the bit for rough edges, crude jointing, poor shaping, and think carefully about what would be most comfortable. Similarly check the straps of the bridle – bitted or otherwise – for areas which could cause discomfort for the horse. While you’re at it, you might as well check the stitching for safety. Next time the equine dental technician is treating your horse, have a good look in his mouth, and ask if he has any unusual features, like a dropped palate or large tongue that might make a thick bit more uncomfortable than a slimmer one.

Elwyn Hartley Edwards used to suggest that owners regularly check their horses mouths for bruising and damage, but of course he knew that this rarely happened. His point was whereas you would be mortified if you saw spur marks and blood on your horse’s sides, you might be blissfully unaware of the damage being done to your horse’s mouth. When you think of what a delicate area the mouth is, it’s astonishing that we can talk of a horse being hard mouthed. Even a small rider is capable of applying large amounts of pressure to this sensitive area.  But it is important to realise that for this not to happen, the horse has to learn to be responsive to very light pressures. Otherwise, the rider has no choice but to apply crude aids and too much pressure.

We don’t use dropped nosebands, as we believe it’s important to see how happy the horse is with the bit and the rein aids, and if the jaw is held shut it prevents the horse from exhibiting  discomfort and issues that he may have. In fact, the response we get from people when we ask them why they have a drop is usually, “my instructor put it on because my horse was crossing his jaw/opening his mouth.” We want to see if that’s happening, because a well-trained, well ridden horse wouldn’t do it. We also believe they make it harder for the horse to relax, as they interfere with the licking and chewing response that helps promote relaxation of the jaw, a pre-requisite for accepting the bit. It’s also hard to imagine how a horse can comfortably flex at the poll if they are tight in the jaw, and a horse who is forcibly flexed at the poll is likely to carry tension throughout its entire body, as well as develop problems with the tempo-mandibular joint, which can lead to headaches and soreness. Of course, I’m not saying I would never consider using a drop noseband, and if I were hunting or eventing I might see the place for one, but for normal schooling, I feel they’re excessive.

Flexing at the poll is a dressage-y sort of preoccupation, and is not essential for safe riding, but understanding how to respond to the rein is, whatever “discipline” the horse does. It’s surely even more important that the horse who ventures out across unpredictable terrain (aka happy hacker) is responsive to the halting aids than a horse who only ever works in an indoor school where circling until the horse runs out of steam is always an option.

So, that’s the easy bit: a series of “shoulds” that many people have told us they aspire to. The horse should respond to light pressure, the rider should keep her hands light, the horse should be able to go expressively without leaning on the bit, horses should stop easily. The horse should be comfortable throughout his body and mind. In the next articles we will tackle the “hows”. How much pressure is too much? How do I judge it? How do I teach my horse to stop without pulling on his head? How do I re-educate my older horse who already leans on the bit? How do I contain impulsion without deadening the energy? How do I re-educate myself? How do I deal with an excitable horse whilst out and about? Once we’ve dealt with all that, we’ll tackle world peace and economic prosperity for all.


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