Trying Bits

Last time I was showjumping Phoenix I wasn’t 100% happy with the bit and our approaches to jumps. She wasn’t overly strong, but the canter got a bit flat as she got confident and bold, so we almost ran downhill into the jumps. Which either meant her taking a flyer, or taking the front rail down with her knees. Or having a lucky escape! Before I start jumping her much bigger, I wanted to sort this out.

I felt there was a schooling or strength issue; if I could improve her balance in the canter then she’d find it easier to remain uphill on the approach to jumps. She’s an independent lady though, and doesn’t accept help easily. It has to be subtly offered otherwise she panics. Yes, special, I know!

I felt I needed some help with the contact to help me help her. Nothing too strong, but just different to her loose ring, double jointed lozenge snaffle.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone and take a trip to a local showjumping venue, which has an extensive bit bank. I’d have a lesson and try alternative mouthpieces.

I explained my predicament, and was given a loose ring snaffle, with two joints. But with slightly thinner, more contoured bars, and a full moon centrepiece. So what’s the difference, I hear you say? Well, to Phoenix, it’s a slightly less friendly bit of metal in her mouth, which will discourage her from leaning on my hand, and mean I can give lighter aids. Which should help me create the more uphill canter and help her to maintain it.

We spent a lot of time on the flat – more about this subject on another blog – allowing me to get the feel for the bit, and for her to accept its feel. To be honest, I didn’t feel a huge difference initially, she was fairly relaxed and accepting of the contact, but I did feel that she was more up in front of me, and less inclined to lean on the bit when I half halted. Which she sometimes does to evade sitting on her hocks and containing that powerful engine.

In the trot and canter work we played around with transitions within the gait. I needed to feel that I could adjust Phoenix easily, without her stressing, and that she used her hindquarters throughout. Particularly when she lengthens, she tends to go onto the forehand and leave her back end out behind her. Which is exactly what happens before jumps. By teaching her to shorten and lengthen in an uphill fashion, her hindquarters stay engaged and she’s lighter in my hand and in a better position to jump cleanly.

We then put this into practice with single fences and related distances, which highlight this weakness well. We jumped focusing on me helping her keep the balance of her canter throughout the approach, and after a couple of failed attempts when I held more than I needed to, and she panicked, we got it together, and she jumped beautifully out of a much better canter.

Moving onto related distances, I found that Phoenix was meeting the second element in a more uphill canter, which meant she pinged over them. Then I found that I could close my leg and ride her forwards if necessary to make the striding, without her nose diving or losing power.

It was a great session, really showing that you don’t want to be too quick to change tack, as often improvements on the flatwork will improve the jumping performance, but also that tiny changes to a bit can enhance communication between horse and rider.

Going to a bit specialist and trialling bits is definitely they way forward as more and more variations of bits come onto the market. It’s mind boggling, and can take a lot of time and money finding the perfect bit for your horse. Perhaps we’ll start to see some more bitting clinics in the calendar; where you go to a venue and have a meeting with a bit specialist, perhaps followed by a lesson to try it out?

A Pair of Hands

Recently I`ve had a theme flowing through my lessons, where I`m trying to encourage my riders not to pull back on the inside rein. I`ve often told riders to feel like they`re indicating with the inside rein, and it`s a forwards movement akin to opening a door away from you.

But anyway, I have a more succinct and elaborate analogy and explanation now.

The reins support the shoulders. That doesn`t mean that you bring your hands so close that you trap the horse`s shoulders in a narrow triangle. It means that the reins act as guides for the horse`s neck and shoulders.

Often when people are riding a centre line I tell them to imagine their reins are creating a tunnel for the horse and then the leg pushes the horse down the tunnel. Reins should be of an even length and even on each side of the wither.

Now we`ll think about applying the same theory when turning. If you open your inside rein you create some empty space by the inside shoulder. The horse will want to fill this space. Then by closing the outside rein against the neck you are encouraging the horse to move his shoulders to the inside, thus enabling him to turn.

This has many benefits in that it teaches the rider to ride the outside of the horse; the horse learns not to fall out through his shoulder and so steps under more with his inside leg; and the horse has a more uniform bend through their body so stays in better balance.

For some, this makes perfect sense, but I`ve found it really useful with riders whose horse tends to look out and fall in, especially on circles. Today, for example, the gelding I was teaching with falls in on the right rein. So I asked his rider to check that she had created a tunnel down the long side for him and that he was straight there. He was, and when he became straight his stride opened up because energy flows more efficiently in a straight line, rather than round corners (think of a flowing stream). However, my rider lost this straightness around the bend. I suggested that she thought about the inside rein supporting his inside shoulder, to stop it falling in, by closing towards his midline. When the inside leg was applied, the horse changed his bend and balance to fill the outside rein, which hadn`t changed, and he no longer fell in around the corner. Obviously when the horse improves his suppleness and bend to the right, the inside rein can take a step back and not be quite so supportive.

Another element of this that you can think of, is that the rider is creating a box for the horse`s forehand with their reins as the long sides and bit and gap between the hands as the short sides. The box needs to stay rectangular – i.e. no widening of the hands – but when you want to turn left or right, imagine moving the box left or right. It should help keep a consistent contact and even rein pressure, as well as the outside rein looking after the outside shoulder and stopping the horse falling through it.

Some people fall into the habit of closing both reins together, but you want to think of it as more of an airlock. In order to close one rein (or door) you need to open the other rein, otherwise the horse will feel trapped and unable to go forwards. Or you can imagine you have a rod between your wrists. One hand cannot move without the other moving too, and then you will maintain the same amount of space for the horse`s forehand.

When I`m doing lateral work I will open the outside rein to invite the horse to move into it, but if they move over too much then simply moving the reins back over can straighten them subtly, and without causing them to wiggle and become more crooked. You can also control the amount of sideways by the amount of space you give the shoulder.

This way of thinking verges on neck reining, except that when necessary you can use each rein independently! Make sure you feel that your reins are providing support and guidance to the forehand and not pulling the head about. The mere pressure of the cheeks of the bit will cause your horse to adjust his position and alleviate the pressure. Then, when he is straight, the bit and the contact should be neutral.

Accepting the Leg

I’ve got an interesting couple of horses to work with at the moment, along with their owners.

A few weeks ago a lady had the chiropractor (Otis’s McTimoney chiropractor actually) to her Welsh cross gelding who had begun bucking in canter and cantering on the spot. The chiropractor, who was a vet for years, couldn’t find anything amiss so suggested that I came and rode the horse to see if I could discover the problem.

So duly I went along a few days later to see the lady and her little horse. He was whizzy on the lunge, but ultimately he behaved. And on I got, noting his martingale and Pelham bridle.

That first session was fairly exhausting. This horse had a very choppy, quick walk and his trot was short striding, tense, and he didn’t seem to go anywhere. When I applied the leg he bounced up and down. Soon I asked if there was a snaffle available, and we put a loose ring on him. The effect was instant. I could get him to stride out a bit more, and whilst he still ran forwards from the leg, I had microseconds of him softening his neck and relaxing.

The next few sessions continued in walk and trot, with his owner now riding him for some of the time so that she knew how to school him during the week. We worked on transitions, circles, and serpentines until the walk became more consistent, with a slower rhythm. However, he was a bit strong in just the loose ring snaffle when hacking, so we tried a double link hanging cheek snaffle, which has so far been successful.

A couple of weeks ago we had our first canter and I focused on letting him go forwards, so he learnt that he wasn’t being held back, and his stride slowly got larger. Every so often he would forget himself though, and hop on the spot, but over a couple of canters he became more consistent.

This week`s session was one of the best to date. He`s starting off with a longer frame and a more relaxed work. I`m working on getting him to accept the leg on circles and changes of rein, by using leg yield on a circle, and it is coming but he sometimes rushes, hollows, and loses the quality of his walk. I`m finding it easier to get it back again after though. In the trot he has a bigger stride and is getting more even on both reins, not falling out through his right shoulder, as he likes to do. The consistency is coming slowly, and he is learning to understand the leg aids, which is pleasing. I`ve also been working him in sitting trot so he learns to accept that sitting trot does not mean canter! When he softened over his back I asked for canter. Result! A lovely forwards transition and no hopping in the canter. I rode several transitions, each time spending time to settle the trot, as he thinks it`s all about the canter from then on. To finish, we worked on settling the trot again, and he was lovely and forwards, with a light contact and using his back nicely.

So this brings up the question, along with the Arab mare I rode earlier in the week, what is the purpose of leg aids? And how do you teach your horse to accept them?

The equine dictionary would state that “horses are taught to move away from pressure” and “horses are taught to move away from the leg”. From this you can deduce that a horse should learn to move away from pressure from the leg, which almost works in a push, and release, way.

However, many sensitive horses never learn to accept the leg. They scoot away from the pressure so the rider stops using their leg and turns to the reins instead, because at least the horse doesn`t accelerate then. The only problem with not using the leg is that the rider cannot correct and help balance the horse on turns.

So how do you teach a horse to accept the leg aids? The Arab mare swung her quarters and accelerated when I moved my leg against her, let alone applying pressure. So I rode each circle by placing my outside leg against her, and keeping it there while she swung her haunches, and then when she moved around the circle, away from the leg, I took the pressure off, to reward her. Each time she resisted less, but the key was not to ask in a louder way, but to keep the slight pressure on until she moved correctly. But we had to begin again when I changed the rein! She seemed to completely forget about the other leg, and was surprised when it became the outside leg and started asking her to move away.

Then the question is, what are the hands and reins doing whilst you are using your leg and seat aids to move the horse forwards and around? Initially, while the horse is starting to understand the leg aids you may need to indicate with the rein, as he probably understands that more than the leg. But you should ask with the leg first, and then clarify your intentions with a slight rein or hand aid. As the horse begins to understand how to respond correctly to the leg the rein aid can be reduced. For a whizzy horse who only believes that the leg means run, the rein can be useful in providing a half halt before you ask him to move over with the leg, and then after, so he learns to balance himself and not run away from the aids.

It can be a difficult process, teaching a horse to accept the leg, but you need to persevere and be patient, until he understands, and has made the memory pathways to respond correctly to the leg aids, and then the rider can fine tune the horse`s movements and body position, which will enable more lateral work to be done and a more correct way of moving established, which should all help the dressage marks!

Fulmer Snaffles

After Llani’s fall from grace on the weekend I decided to change his bit. I’ve been considering this for a while, but hadn’t made a decision on the most suitable bit. Basically when Llani circles he sometimes sets his neck and refuses to bend, which I’ve been overcoming by lots of inside leg and making sure he’s into the outside rein. However when I rode on the weekend he took the “Welsh cob neck set” to a whole new level when he exited the arena and returned to the barn in a fast trot. That will teach me to leave the arena gate open …

So this morning, while turning out the liveries, I suddenly thought of the Fulmer snaffle. That would help Llani; I’d be able to flex his neck a little more easily and stop him setting against the bit. I asked my friend if she had anything in her bank of bits and she produced full cheek and Fulmer snaffles of all shapes and sizes. She uses them a lot on her young horses, so I rifled through and found one suitable.

Firstly, it’s important to know the difference between a Fulmer and a full cheek snaffle. They both have protrusions, or cheeks, to help steering by applying pressure to the sides of the horse’s jaw. However, the full cheek snaffle has a fixed ring to the reins whilst the Fulmer has a loose ring. Experts say that horses who go better in a loose ring will prefer the Fulmer, and they are less likely to take hold of the bit in one.

As Llani is currently in a double jointed lozenge loose ring snaffle I opted for a French link Fulmer, but it was stainless steel instead of the Aurigan metal of the loose ring, to trial.

It was great. Llani was back to his usual well behaved self, but on the circles and serpentines I could affect his neck and bend a little easier, and the change of bend came easier. Yet the bit was still mild enough that Llani continued to take the contact forwards in the transitions. I managed to balance his canter and ride better circles in the canter, so I’m looking forwards to working further with this bit as I think it will help progress the lateral work.

I looked online to see the benefits of using the Fulmer straps, which are small pieces of leather that attach the upper cheek to the cheek piece and so exerts poll pressure and keeps the bit in place. I don’t think Llani will benefit particularly from the bit being stabilised in his mouth but I may trial it one day to see if it’s of any benefit.



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: