Confession #1: There was a time that I would have sold my soul for a spade bit with 12″ shanks. My hands were thick and tense and I didn’t breathe. Naturally, my horse was braced and tense and he didn’t breathe, either. Through gritted teeth, I knew my gelding would behave if I just had a stronger bit. Instead, my trainer took my bridle away. I think she just couldn’t stand to watch me torment my stoic horse one moment longer. It’s what good trainers do …and I’m still grateful.
Confession #2: Passover and Easter are about forgiveness and I’m holding a grudge. It happened last summer and I’m still cranky. A cowboy ‘splained to me (like I couldn’t see) how Spanish spade bits work. He had a certain tone as he ‘splained the horse has to learn how to carry it (like the horse can’t already tell that if he lifts his nose he’ll give himself a lobotomy.) In a situation like this I have world-class eye contact. His horse was in my arena in a halter because I don’t allow illegal bits. The good gelding still refused to walk forward.
Later, I went online and googled a few videos by folks who looked like they’d won an extreme cowboy dressing challenge. I listened to them pontificate, candy-coat, and try to normalize how these bits work. I understood how a novice rider might even believe them. But I come by my skepticism honestly. Like the western trainer who took my bridle away, dressage riders use simple snaffles. All breeds, all ages, all snaffles, as they try to figure out what “elastic” means where elbows are concerned.
I have no sense of humor about bits. I stopped going to the local donkey and mule show years ago because I couldn’t stand to see the gaping mouths and pained eyes. Somehow it was harder to watch on longears. Western rope reins and slobber straps are heavy, never releasing pressure on the horse’s jaw. Bitless riders can end up pulling twice as hard. Others ride on a really long rein so they won’t bump our horse’s mouth, but then panic and grab the reins hard and fast, ending up being twice as brutal as riding on contact would have been in the first place. And some just try way too hard and wind up with a mental/physical death grip, like I did.
It’s mainly the western world where people think that horses grow out of snaffles. Silly notion. It isn’t true. I think what happens is about the time a horse gets tired of having his face banged on, like my gelding was, and starts tossing his head, all the “experts” standing around recommend a stronger bit. Then the pain gets ratcheted up until the horse shuts down. Some horses blow up instead, reacting to the pain with anxiety, and they “graduate” to an even more severe bit. Metal on bone.
Using a stronger bit is like winning an argument, not because you’re right, but because you’re holding a gun.
Now I’m the trainer, and listening to me, you’d think bits were my biggest complaint but that’s ridiculous. I know a snaffle can be as much of a weapon as a leverage bit depending on the brutality of the rider.
In my fantasy world, we would all agree that bits are not the problem. We’d stop blaming our tack. We’d especially stop blaming our horses for their response to pain. Once and for all, we’d take responsibility for our hands. I believe hands are the biggest roadblock keeping long-time riders from becoming advanced riders. Poor contact is a double message, like having your foot on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time. Crazy-making.
In defense, most riders can barely feel it happening. We hold our reins, threaded through our grasp from the pinky side of our hands, up through our palm, to the top or thumb side. As we start, our hands are slightly above the horse’s withers and about shoulder’s distance apart. Dandy. If they stayed there your horse wouldn’t complain.
Maybe it’s gravity or insecurity or frustration, but it starts with just a few ounces of pressure as the bottom, or pinky side, of our hands drops to rest on the rein. The horse feels it immediately and tightens a little to protect his mouth. The rider feels that tightness and adds a bit more weight to her hand, trying to control his initial anxiety. Now the horse has lost some of his forward movement and all he knows is that it’s more pressure on his mouth. The rider is getting more nervous, so the reins are actually being pulled, down and back. The horse receives the cue to brace from his rider and starts to feel claustrophobic. Doesn’t his rider know that if his feet are moving, he has to move his head, too? He tosses his head to remind her. Now that the horse is tossing his head, the rider, well, you know…
If you horse asks you, either politely or not, to reconsider your hands, take the cue. I have a few suggestions.
First, and I know this for a fact, you have a clenched jaw. Your horse does, too. Take a breath and release your jaw. Repeat. Then repeat again. Forever, until both of you forget there was ever tension between you.
Next, ride in a neck ring. I described it in my last blog about contact. If your experience with a neck ring leaves you frustrated, feeling out of control, and screaming in exasperation, it’s a sure sign your hands are too hard. Take a break for your heart rate to return to normal and remember you have seat and legs for a reason.
Or try reversing the direction the reins thread through your hands, like in this photo. It will feel incredibly awkward, but better you than your horse, so stick with it. The first thing you’ll notice is that you can’t push down on the rein, and as you feel vulnerable -like you’ve been disarmed- notice that your horse is quieter in his head.
It’s impossible to forget that riding is an art. ART. Our legs and spine work like shock absorbers, so the horse’s motion moves through us instead of bouncing us like cinder blocks in the saddle. That same elasticity must continue through our shoulders, down past our elbows and wrists, and through sensitive reins to his fragile mouth. We must surrender our bodies to the horse’s rhythm and learn the difference between control and cooperation. The thing that makes us feel vulnerable is the same thing that makes us feel free, even at the walk.
So, are back to back long-winded blogs about contact too much? The horses won’t mind and I’m whittling away at my grudge. It isn’t surprising, my horse was always the kinder and more forgiving half of our partnership.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm