Bits of Advice

(“. . . not exactly classical, I admit.”)

How much does the bit you ride your horse in matter? I have one student who took the advice of a traveling bit guru and bought a $250 snaffle of exotic metals. She subsequently discovered that her horse went better in the $20 loose ring that she’d used all along. So it goes.

You’ve probably heard the old adage: “Horses are trained in the arena, not out of the tack trunk.” I stand by that although there are exceptions. Judging a schooling show recently, a horse came in to ride Western Basic. It was extremely over round and not moving forward. In its mouth was a massive curb bit that PETCO could have used to pry up manhole covers.

To the horse’s credit, he was steerable, although his rider had to keep the reins totally slack with absolutely no contact. The whole notion of reaching into the bridle was a total impossibility. No matter what WDAA rules permit, this was beyond counter productive, and I suggested something milder might give her a better chance.

Meantime, an opposite example: my wife has acquired a Dutch harness horse cross experienced in combine driving. He is built with a high neck carriage and has gone that way historically—leaning on the bit, particularly on the marathon. I’ve been riding him, but  “pushing him through” just makes him heavier. Essentially he has no concept of a half halt or being able to be backed off to hold himself up and reach politely to the bit.

After some weeks of endless basic transitions—halt/walk and walk/trot— and trying to supple his poll and jaw in the halt, I broke down and put something stronger in his mouth. It’s a kimberwick, not exactly classical I admit, but with his driving background something he respects.

When going to a stronger bit, the key is not to constantly rely on its mechanical advantage. Not taking back but remembering to ride the horse forward to a momentarily non-allowing hand so that he softens in response to the pushing aids allows me to encourage lighter contact and to be rewarding him for it. The goal, of course, is for him to understand and make the connection to the same relationship in the snaffle. In this case the bit does not train the horse, but it makes the light more likely to dawn and reduces stress in both of us.