Bits, nosebands, treeless saddles and many other things

The November/December issue of the BHS magazine had some very interesting articles; I enjoyed Patrick the Pony`s witticisms, and on the final page the quote by a long suffering husband that horse shows “are like standing fully-clothed in a shower for hours putting twenty pound notes down the drain”. He obviously hasn`t been to many successful competitions with his wife!

Interestingly enough there was an article about irresponsible breeding (see my previous post about Princess Anne) and the steps charities are taking to combat this. I look forward to a time when all horses have to be approved before being bred from (on the following page there was an article about a Freisian Stud, and all Freisian stallions have to be approved, otherwise they`re gelded).

Moving on was a smaller debate, stemming from a previous issue, was the recent ruling by competition organisers that in some disciplines you cannot compete barefoot, or bitless. Now I`m not going to go in depth into the whole barefoot versus shoeing as that is a whole new can of worms! But I am going to highlight a few views on tack.

We`re all taught that, particularly in dressage, the less contraptions you have on your horse the better; i.e. snaffles and cavesson nosebands. Snaffles are the ideal bit, and traditionally most horses wore them, but then probably about 20-30 years ago there was a rise in new bits. People moved away from traditional training methods, and wanted brakes. Particularly on the hunting field. This is where my memory kicks in; most of the riding school ponies I learnt on wore kimblewicks and had running martingales. And I remember one of the bigger horses wearing a Cheltenham gag, and then a driving bit with a very long shank. We also had a series of whizzy ponies, who were a chicken nugget short of a happy meal, and had every bit under the sun put into their mouths. This worked for a couple of months, and then a new bit had to be found. Ideally, they would all have been re-schooled, but impatient teenagers and stubborn ponies don`t always make a good mix in that department.
dutch gag



I hated the Sandmarsh Pelham (second) with a passion, and refused to ride with it, but most others I`m afraid to say I have experienced. The upshot was that I knew every bit under the sun and exactly how they worked. My pony was ridden in the Dutch Gag, or Bubble Bit, but with only one ring below the large one, making it much less obtrusive and with less leverage, and it was only because cross country he got a bit strong. Although I understood the bits, and was fascinated by their working principles I was already, at the age of 12, developing a theory that they weren`t necessarily correct in where the bit put pressure on the horse and that some bits were confusing to the horse because they said “raise your head” and “put your head down” at the same time! For showing purposes I often used a Pelham, as my pony found a double bridle uncomfortable in his little mouth. He also responded quite well to poll pressure, which drew me to using a hanging cheek, or filet boucher. But I am digressing.

The magazine article was highlighting how some people think that riding without a bit shows a better degree of horsemanship, as they don`t need a piece of metal in their horses mouth. I beg to disagree; I`ve heard, read, and seen that a horse ridden by a talented rider with a simple snaffle bit, works in harmony and to the best of its ability because the bit is fitted correctly, the rider carries his hands, so there is no dead-weight in the horses mouth, and he has an independent seat so any movement on the rein, however slight, is an instruction to the horse, and the horse is predominantly listening the other body aids. In addition, a friend of mine recently attended a clinic by Dr Hilary Clayton, who has done research in the US about forces and pressure points on the horse, and had found the bitless bridles put the most pressure on one part of the horse`s body; it`s nose. So whilst people may be thinking that the nose is more tolerant to pressure than the mouth, therefore a bitless bridle is more humane, they would be wise to remember that the end of the nose has very fine, delicate, bones which are susceptible to breaking with an ill-fitting hackamore, or by a rider with clumsy, heavy hands. Now I`m not an expert, and I know some horses who go well in hackamores, and for medical reasons are the only way horses can be ridden, but I think it would do people good to think about past and current research, as well as the type of rider they are, what they do, how their horse responds, and which method creates the most harmonious working relationship. Just like, some horses, without rhyme or reason, prefer a bit with a single joint compared to a double link, which theoretically reduces the nutcracker action over the tongue and thus makes the bit “more humane”.

Either way, I don`t think it is in the governing body`s favour to rule out competing bitless.

Taking a sidestep, has anyone else noticed how new bridles seem to always come with a flash crank noseband? Now don`t get me wrong, I don`t mind the flash, in fact it can be useful when the horse opens his mouth and runs with the bit. But if you overtighten it then, just as we do with an overtight belt, the horse will strain against it. I find the BHS fitting, of one finger, too tight for my boy. He likes to lick his lips when he`s concentrating, and over tightening the flash makes this impossible for him, therefore he resists it more. But when trying to buy a new bridle a couple of years ago, I couldn`t get a nice, good quality one without a flash. My first bridles had cavesson nosebands, and if we needed we bought flash attachments and straps, a little known piece of equipment.
Crank nosebands are disgusting. They do exactly what they say on the tin; crank the horse`s mouth shut; sometimes putting so much pressure on the nasal bone it breaks, and then the horse is expected to work in harmony with us. That`s ignoring the matter that ignorant people can easily overtighten the noseband. I hate the fact all dressage bridles come with crank fittings, it is the trend, but hopefully it will be fazed out now with the return to more classical riding.

Don`t even get me started on the coloured leather piping on nosebands and browbands …

I`m not adverse to the other nosebands, grackle, drop or even kineton (not that I`ve ever seen a horse wearing one) so long as they do their job in a sympathetic manner, and riders know how to fit them and how they should adjust their riding to accommodate them.

Reverting back to Dr Hilary Clayton; I did a lot of reading about her and her work, and found that she has done similar research into treeless saddles. Again, I don`t have much experience in them, and to be honest, they don`t appeal greatly. But I was surprised to find that they don`t distribute the riders weight over the horses back, like traditional saddles, but rather focus is under the riders seatbones. Now I guess that this means the riders seat aids influence the horse a bit more, but on the flip side, a crooked rider, or an unbalanced rider, will put more stress and strain on the horses back. Obviously for every piece of research there is a counter argument or theory, but it is definitely worth taking a more in-depth look from all angles. As someone once told me, “don`t judge a man until you have put on his shoes and walked round in them”.

Further reading:

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