In this section of my website I plan to write an article every month on something! Something that has piqued my interest. Something topical or even something that any of my readers might like an opinion on. So if you have a topic that you want clarified or my opinion on do make contact and see what turns up.
I have for years had an interest in the evolution of what people put in their horses mouths and the reasons why they have chosen those bits. It has intrigued me from many views points.
The article in Horse and Hound, 23 June 2022, Bit by Bit prompted me to get back on my soap box.
Whilst finding it most interesting on the fitting and choice of bit, I was disappointed that nothing was said about the response the horse should produce to the bit.
I understand the importance of correctly fitting tack to the comfort of the horse. But of equal importance is what the horse is being taught to do with this tack, in this case, the bit. Without an understanding of the correct response required, bits become a method of control rather than a means of communication. ( Mette Uldahl mentioned this by using the expression “ particular learnt commands…”)
At a recent clinic I was presented with a collection of three ring bits, a number of snaffles, one pelham and a combination bit. I have no doubt that each rider was well intentioned when choosing the bit for their horse. But it was interesting to listen to their reasoning.
The word “control” appeared often. As did “it’s the only bit she/he goes well in, he/she’s very sensitive”.
It then becomes my job to translate what is being meant by the explanations. The word control tends to be when the horse doesn’t really understand what ‘acceptance and understanding’ of the bit means. Sensitive often is the misunderstanding of the word contact.
When ‘making a mouth’ all too often this process is hurried. With the result that horses become confused with what they are being asked. It should be divided into two headings;
acceptance of the presence of the bit in the mouth.
understanding of what it means.
At all times, especially in a dressage test, we want the mind to be calm and to hold the bit quietly in its mouth. This can take much time and patience but is worth it in the end.
Only then can we introduce the next element that of ‘understanding’.
The understanding aspect is linked to a chain reaction. Legs, quarters, back, poll, jaw, bit, hand. What you ask from the leg you receive in the hand. Providing there is no resistance to each link.
We want the quarters to become ‘alive and ready’ when the leg is applied and the poll and lower jaw to soften. This will produce a lighter contact to the hand. Also the beginning of a rebalance. If this doesn’t happen willingly and isn’t understood by the horse many aspects of ‘the riding horse’ become unavailable. It begins to lead us down the cul de sac of bits becoming the solution!!
Time needs to be spent achieving this one response with a simple snaffle at walk, which lays a solid foundation for what is to come. Without it, all training is compromised.
Fads, fashion and trends then come in to play. Through the 1980’s every horse had to have a bit less bridle, thanks to Eddie Macken and Boomerang. Every horse suddenly became too sensitive for bits to be used! Through the ‘90s it become the gag bit in all its forms. Then came the three ring bubble bit through the 2000’s and then the dreaded ‘combination bits’ in all their variation.
As you will see, that for the last forty years there has been a trend towards some sort of a gag / lever action bit and away from a true softening of the frame. “Brakes” rather than “understanding”. Short cuts rather than correctness.
The result of this manifold. As a subject it is too large for this article. But I will highlight some of the issues.
• Lever action mainly acts on the lips. The lips are stretchable so the response becomes inconsistent and often delayed.
• Lever action has a similar delay to steering.
• Lever action will tend to invert the top line and hollow the back. This can result in many jumping issues. Could this and the word ‘collection’ be related in any way to the veterinary issue of the decade ….. kissing spines? I don’t know!!
• Lever action can produce a response without any engagement of the quarters, thus fooling the rider into believing a rebalance has happened.
• Lever action transfers the priority of aid from the leg to the hand.
It is difficult to release a lever action. Therefore it tends to be ‘on’ most of the time. As we know brakes that are on most of the time wear out or fail. This also happens with horses.
The list can go on.
Some fifteen years ago I voiced this concern to the FEI. Saying that a record of type of bit -v- xc falls should be maintained as I believe this could be relevant. It is interesting to note that the French Government has stipulated that gags will not be allowed for the Paris Olympic Games Eventing xc in 2024.
So whilst the evolution of bits and bitting becomes more focused on making sure the “horrors” are well fitted and made of nice materials, they are still items of control not communication.
The diminished attention to the even more important aspect of teaching riders and horses the true ‘understanding’ of leg to hand, contact and what acceptance feels like, becomes the looser.
Time and care must be taken to produce the correct response from the mildest bit possible through understanding. This will ultimately produce a nicer riding horse in all disciplines and continue to look after horse welfare.
Much depends on a horse’s conformation and the stage of training, but, there are some principles that should be adhered to in order to make sense of the topic.
What is being sought is the horse working over the back and top line, seeking the contact and becoming longitudinally accepting.
There is a popular belief that all horses from the beginning of their riding life should be ‘taught’ to go long and low. That it is a part of their training process, necessary to go through in order to be correctly trained. And so begins a process of education to encourage horses to lower their necks in the belief that good things will happen as a result.
How it fits in to the progressive training process. How it is taught so the horse understands why it is being asked to lower its outline are all part of this progressive training.
Horses are very willing learners and can be taught the strangest and most bizarre things. What is often missing is that they have little concept of why they are being taught. They are often left guessing at what we want or merely comply in an effort to please.
There are many other factors that influence this correct way of going. So much depends on when and how the horse has been asked to lower the neck. So in our training process we must be very methodical and plan each step so that it makes sense to the horse and how it fits into the progressive plan.
Let’s divide the subject into two headings :
As part of the training process.
As part of the gymnastic exercise process.
Each step of a green horses training must have points of security where it is able to know it has achieved something that is desired. A response from the hindquarters to a use of the leg aid. A quiet hand that is reciprocated with a contact to the bit. It doesn’t have to be ‘on the bit’, but the understanding that it is ok to take a contact. These are early building blocks that will be important for the long term future. They need to be established and secure.
This is the beginning of being between leg and hand and allows us to develop an understanding with the horse of what the next stages are.
A softening at the poll and lower jaw without loss of contact is next. This will allow us to ‘position’ the young horse frame with the nose in-front of the vertical and the horse remaining between leg and hand. This positioning is not ‘formal’ but rather is dependent on the confirmation and balance the individual horse can carry itself in. As it works ‘through’ the top line it will become tired and seek to lower its frame. It should be allowed to do this by offering a little more rein and encouraging the horse to seek to retake the contact further down and out. It allows for relaxation. The horse should not drop the contact or go behind the vertical.
This is as much of a correct gait / pace as any other so don’t loose forward , straight or regular.
Only drop the contact and reward when you are making it clear to the horse that work is over for the moment.
The exercise of ‘stretching’ as required in a Dressage test is designed to see if the horse is taking a contact, being ridden from leg to hand and that the frame is adjustable. Proof of correct training in all gaits.
Young horses become confused when they are asked conflicting questions. To go down without having worked through the top line, when they are asked to drop the contact one minute only to be asked to take it up a moment later, when they go down because they have been asked and then a moment later are told to come up. All these instructions can become conflicting and confusing.
With “longitudinal acceptance” (top line acceptance), understanding can be developed. What it means to work truly between leg and hand as well as over the back. Now “lateral acceptance” can be asked for. This is the ability to produce bend in the horses body to conform with the line you are asking the horse to ride on. ( Straight, circle or corner )
Acceptance and understanding allows for the removal of resistance. Resistance is perceived as being ‘stiffness’, which it is not.
With contact, throughness and the the horse between leg and hand, the horse can now be exercised gymnastically. This means that the top line and frame can be adjusted from a long and low one to a more formal one and back again. The nose should go no lower than a line from the elbow that is parallel to the ground.
The left and right flexibility can be tested to improve physical coordination and balance. At all times a contact and the feeling of being between the aids should be retained.
It should be remembered that stretching is not a trick to be taught. It demonstrates correct education and a way to release tension and show relaxation. It must be introduced in the correct way to be understood by the horse and to be of benefit.
This thought lead me to the formulation of my plan. On the first morning I instructed Mark in his three tasks.
watch and learn each horse’s stable mannerisms
get to know each horse’s legs better than he knew his own
keep a record of each horse’s temperature twice a day
I watched as he diligently set about his tasks. I was always there if he needed to ask questions and any of the other people on the yard would help if he needed it. He seemed very content and was able to watch the horses work in between tasks.
At the end of the first week I sat him down and asked him what he had found out. As he enthusiastically relayed the mannerisms of each horse I asked was there a pattern of what was normal? Was it possible to predict moods and times when horse’s behaved in a certain way.
What had he found out about the horse’s legs? Were they the same every day? Young and old horses, before exercise and after, before and after being out in the field?
What about the horse’s temperature? Was there a pattern to that? Was it the same morning and evening, before and after exercise, every day?
I received what I expected, a factually accurate account, but , without any relationship to the individual horse. I explained.
Every morning I fed early, of the ten horses I would always only see nine heads. If I saw the tenth head over the stable door, something was wrong with that horse. So I would make a bee line to look at him closer. The same would be so of the horse that always looked over the door and one morning he wasn’t. It’s time to inspect. Box 3 always kicks the door, when he doesn’t , it’s time to inspect.
Of the legs. Heat, swelling and tenderness are the immediate signs of something. To know what’s normal is to know what’s abnormal! Knowing the legs intimately one is able to catch changes to how they feel, early. Improving the speed of detection can improve the outcome.
Knowing the daily temperature of the horse allows us to build up a picture of normality.
In Mark’s second week the gathering of information took on a completely different tone. The picture of each horse took on a much more personable tone. He began to know the horses. The legs of older horses that were a little larger after exercise. The splint that suddenly appeared on the four year old. The bog spavin that was bigger than normal. The facial expressions of the three horses that did canter work, one looked tired the others didn’t. And on it goes.
Mark left after two weeks being able to ‘ghost’ into each horses stable and find out loads of valuable information. To watch from outside the stable and turnout paddock and notice the difference on a daily basis. To be able to relate all this information to the work each horse was doing and how that helped me with the training of each horse. (He became a very good vet a few years later. )
Most of this becomes second nature, with the experience of time. But it needs pointing out at the beginning of peoples journey with horses. They are not the same each day, there is no ‘normal’ according to the book, they are individuals.
This principle applies in every point of contact with the horse, from riding to care.
Know the species and know the individual.
However the problems materialise, we have to deal with them. We have to solve the puzzle that hinders us from achieving what we want with our partner. It will occupy much time and thought, much frustration, many hours of help and endless hours of happiness. It may never be totally resolved but the journey will ultimately make us better horsemen ( gender neutral ).
When teaching, people seldom say to me, “I have a lovely trot can you help me make it better”! The focus is normally on their problems.
However, by focusing on what does work, we can often diminish what isn’t working.
By knowing what things should be like and how something has been taught, can also be very helpful. It can be a good start point to finding a way to fix the part that might not be working as well as we want.
There are many stages to this process. Firstly we must look at how to identify what isn’t working, by looking at how it should work. Then how we dismantle and reassemble some of the most common problems. Drawing together differing views, finding a common theme, which then links to a logical way forward.
So this is a bit like how I approach taking a clinic.
As every new generation learns a subject in the way ‘of the time’ they are brought up in. They too must learn that the wheel is round and not just accept that fact because they are told by an older generation. This process of finding out is part of the intrigue, part of the fascination of learning for oneself how the wheel works. Every generation learns this for themselves. We can help to facilitate this learning, but we should not teach it too much.
Nothing much changes in the horse world, but everything is new to the newcomer.
I never mind covering the same ground year in year out and watching as this journey of discovery happens. The moments along the way called “light bulb moments” are the ignition process for the inner glow of curiosity to become a burning ambition for more.
Fun for the coach and the pupil.