Do you know how your bit works? No, I mean really. Not some cowboy-on-YouTube’s fantasy about horses needing to learn to carry cold metal on bone. Not some idiot in an English saddle that rides with a twisted-wire in his horse’s mouth.
I’m still stewing about this: A new rider explained that his horse had been professionally trained and successfully shown before he bought him. His horse was finished and as such, wore a finished horse bit. (It was a spade bit. It was capable of doing equine brain surgery the slow, excruciating way.)
This was the second time he had instructed me about how this soul-killing bit works. Maybe he thinks that I’m just not bright enough to understand. Or if he repeats his misguided explanation a few more times, I’ll palm my forehead and giggle like a school girl. Instead I hold eye contact and tell him it’s an illegal bit and I don’t allow it on my farm. The look on his face tells me that he has no more respect for my profession than he does for his horse.
Yes, I require my clients to use legal bits. It gets worse, I mean legal dressage bits (page 12). I took a look at the Western Dressage (WDAA) Equipment Guide (page 4) and sure enough, there are some pretty severe bits that are legal. Now I wish the group would take dressage out of their name. And shame on the USEF.
Then it dawns on me: There’s a stinky part of me that envies trainers who promote these bits. It’s easier to put a severe bit in a horse’s mouth so the new owner can force a “frame” and everyone can pretend the horse is finished. Anything is easier than teaching a rider the feel of good contact on a gentle bit. Anything is easier than learning to ride force-free to fluid, soft contact.
For all of my professional years training, I can’t say I’ve ever met a finished horse. I have met horses so shut down from bit pain that they have dead eyes and no will to go forward. Does that term actually refer to a horse who’s finished with people?
But let’s go with the fantasy of buying a finished horse in the way that he meant it. Does having the purchase price make you a finished rider?
Here’s where someone says that a bit is only as kind or cruel as the hands on the reins. Sure, I’ve seen horses totally brutalized by a snaffle bit in the hands of a monster. At the same time, having slack reins on a shank or spade bit doesn’t impress me; an extreme bit causes a threat and pain, even with no reins attached. A harsh bit that hearkens to a cultural tradition still isn’t good horsemanship if the horse suffers. There is no beauty in domination. Control is a cheap substitute for partnership.
What if the goal was to ride in such a way that the horse moves with the same liberty he does while not under saddle?
I was talking with a client about their bit. The horse was tense in her jaw and had a nervous habit of kind of chattering the bit in her mouth. We were talking about other options for the mare, and after I described how a comfort snaffle worked versus a mullen mouth, my client asked which I liked best. I said my preference didn’t matter in the least.
So instead of yammering on and on about bits, take the conversation to the barn and ask your horse. Saddle up like usual, put your helmet on like usual, but skip the bridle. Use a neck ring or clip reins on a web halter. Go to a safe arena and begin your ride, as usual. Be ready to learn something.
If you horse moves more freely; if his neck is longer and he blows, that’s a message you need to hear. Has your bit been working like a passive parking brake? Does the mere existence of a gentle bit in his mouth back him off? That’s pretty common. As you feel his stride lengthen, his back lifting, and a lightness to his hooves, be happy. It means you can do better for him.
Warning: humans who feel out of control have a tendency to get testy. Do you notice that you want to grab something for a quick submissive result? Does it occur to you that without a bit, you feel unarmed and have no means to punish your horse? So then, are you using your bit like a weapon? Have you just proven to yourself that you ride more with your hands than your legs? That isn’t a bit problem at all, is it?
It’s time to challenge ourselves to pursue the art of riding, instead of asking our horses to tolerate our bad horsemanship.
Just in case you could possibly think that there has never been a day in my life that I dropped to my knees and begged for a stronger bit, you’re wrong. Or that there were times that I hoped that the issue was a broken, abscessed tooth and not my hands? Back then, his head flipping around made me look bad and I lusted after a cruel bit. But I never worked with a trainer that allowed stronger bits, even back when I was still riding in a saddle with a horn. Instead of a stronger bit, I was told it was my hands that needed finishing, along with the mentality behind them. I’m still grateful for that clarity and I pass it on.
If you listen to your horse, he’d say there’s a problem behind the bit problem and underneath the hand problem. He’d say that a cruel bit is the sign of a fearful rider and the real problem is trust.
Kinda changes the whole picture, doesn’t it?
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm