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?

The Pelham Bit

I schooled a horse today who wore a Pelham, so I thought it was a good excuse to revise my knowledge of this bit and educate my readers.

As kids Pelhams were commonly seen, along with Kimblewicks, on strong and fast ponies. It isn`t dressage legal though, which is a great limitation of it`s use. Even when I was a bit older most of us used Pelhams instead of double bridles in the show ring. My pony has a tiny mouth so found two bits too much for his mouth. I always used two reins though so that it most mimicked the action of the double.

That`s where the Pelham comes from; it was developed in an attempt to replicate the action of the double bridle with only one mouthpiece. This bit also has a curb chain. For some people, it is a useful halfway house in the training of a horse as it introduces the action of the curb and poll pressure without overfilling the young mouth. Once the horse has acclimatised to the Pelham the double bridle is introduced.

For this reason some people criticise the Pelham as a bit, because it is neither a snaffle nor a double bridle so it gives mixed messages to the horse by acting on numerous parts of the head. Personally, I think the Pelham has it`s uses but I despise the leather roundings used to combine the two reins into one as to me this is mixing messages even more. With two reins the curb, or lower rein, can be utilised when necessary so pressure on the poll and curb is limited and more accurate. The upper rein acts more as a snaffle on the bars of the mouth in this situation. With two reins pressure is constantly exerted on the poll and curb so I feel the horse becomes desensitised to the pressure so less responsive if they should get strong.

The majority of Pelham bits are straight bars, but you do see the jointed Pelham which is not pleasant as the triangle forms between the two bars of the Pelham and the curb chain, which crushes the lower jaw and counteracts the action of the curb rein. The ported mouthpiece provides space for a tongue, but can act on the roof of the mouth which is particularly painful. The vulcanite Pelham is seen as the mildest mouthpiece as it doesn`t exert pressure directly on the bars of the mouth, but I`m not a huge fan as these Pelhams can often look oversized on horses or ponies. I prefer the metal version, or a thinner vulcanite mouthpiece if there is such a thing.

So why use a Pelham bit? It is, as I said earlier, useful for horses with short, thick jaws who struggle with both bits in the double bridle. A lot of horse`s go nicely in a Pelham, and it`s been suggested that this is because of the multitude of pressure points, and the fact that the action is not too demanding. However, Pelhams are notorious for rubbing the lips and corners of the mouth, even when fitted correctly. There is also more poll pressure compared to the double bridle because the cheek above the mouthpiece is longer to accommodate the large bridoon ring, which some horses may react badly to.

There are other notable designs of Pelham, such as the Sam Marsh Pelham, the Rugby Pelham, the Army Universal, and interestingly, the Kimblewick. On this subject, some people consider that the three ring gag should belong in the Pelham family, not the Gag family.

Which Bit?

It can be a minefield bitting your horse. Particularly nowadays when there’s so much variety. What material, size, cheek, colour, joint, are all questions you have to consider. As well as is this bit competition legal?

Personally I try to keep it simple. A neue schule lozenge snaffle keeps my horse happy ninety percent of the time, then a Dutch/continental/bubble bit for cross country when he’s a bit strong. I chose that bit as I can vary the leverage depending on how he feels on that day. He also has a Pelham, but he didn’t like the port so it’s now in my little bank of bits. I have a similar problem with the double bridle, which is why he’s got a very low ported bridoon. Daily, I ride in the snaffle.

Someone asked me the other day if I thought they should get a new bit as their stainless steel snaffle was showed sounds of coloration.
I’ll be honest, updating the bit is never something I really think about. Nickel snaffles are a thing of the past, and I always remember being told the story of someone riding round a mountain and their nickel bit broke. Happy mouth and rubber bits obviously need to be checked for wear or sharp edges, but as I don’t use them my bit just carries on.
The snaffle on his lunge bridle is about 6 years old and although it’s not used daily any more it has a bit of oxidation on the mouth piece which doesn’t concern me. My Mum’s pony has the same bit he had when he was four and he’s now twelve and that is probably at the same oxidation state as my lunge snaffle.

I think the only time I’ve really thrown bits away is when the cheeks have locked to the mouth piece, or the join of an eggbutt snaffle is sharp and may pinch their lips. Or, of course the rubber or happy mouth deteriorating. Does any one put a life span on bits, or is or purely down to material or quality or design?

So back to the subject of changing your horse’s bit, at what point do you think “I could get a better feel”, and move away from the bog standard snaffle? Sometimes an instructor suggests a new bit because it works on different parts of the head. My neue schule bit was suggested to encourage my horse to take the contact forwards, and not come back at me when I put the leg on.
Sometimes as a rider playing around with bits gives you different feel and also end up making you appreciate your normal pieces of tack! It’s amazing how changing the tack can drastically affect your horses way of going.
Finally, an recurring incident, such as difficulty steering a young horse, can lead to changing the bit to a full cheek snaffle, or losing control over a course means researching stronger bits.

If your horse’s way of going suddenly changes then riders should look into all aspects of their management. How is his saddle fitting at the moment? Do his teeth need rasping? Are his back and legs ok? And then think about how different tack can improve his behaviour or way of going?

Pee Wee Bits

A friend of mine asked me if I had any experience of Pee Wee bits or if I had one she could borrow.

Having heard of them, but not having any experience, I decided to ask around.

One of the grooms had used one years ago and thought it fab.

Then on Saturday I saw a couple of instructors so I asked them; neither had heard of it, so we decided the best course of action was to google it. Here is what it looks like.

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Firstly, has anyone seen it before? Or used one?

We read about it on various sites, and came to the conclusion that it is very thin which is beneficial to fleshy mouths, which is relevant to my friends horse. The bit also “floats” in the horse’s mouth until activated by rein pressure. The bit claims to produce highly accurate aids, but I assume this depends on the ability of the rider and the sensitivity of their hands. It goes on to say that it encourages flexion at the poll.

When we read this, one of the instructors said “I thought poll flexion came from the hind leg?” We nodded in agreement, and after looking at a couple more sites found that correct fitting was paramount. I guess this always leads to the risk of damage to the horse if used by wrong hands.

I’ll leave you to make your own opinion about these bits; here are some sites we used.

http://macsequine.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=1
http://www.horsebithire.com/pee-wee-bit
http://www.bitbankaustralia.com.au/peewee-bit-info/
http://www.doversaddlery.com/t/article.aspx?a=390

Whilst looking we came across a few forums when people reflected of their own opinions about pee wee bits.

Just got a pee wee bit on hire and tried it out immediately – fantastic! I normally hack out in a half-bosal but my young girl needs to develop her back (she’s very much working on her fore) so I need to school her into a more collected shape. I hate the amount of contact I need to use to do this so decided to try the peewee. With hardly any contact and just some finger twitching she dropped her neck down and was beautifully collected in both walk and trot. She’s only 6 and so I’m taking it slow to start. The reviews on this bit assure me that its a gentle, mild bit but makes the aids very clear. If things continue this well, I’ll be buying it!

This cracked us up as we moved on to talk about ” finger twitching” and how everyone rides the front end, not the engine. As well as “hardly any contact” can be just as detrimental to a horse than too much contact. Contact needs to be even, light, and consistent. If you have very little contact then you are denying your horse something to work into. This comment also suggested that if her mare was on the fore then when she became collected it was because she wasn’t going forwards. You can’t create collection instantly! It takes time to build the correct muscles and for the horse to balance.

“Everyone’s an expert” said my friend, to which I nodded and expressed my frustration at various groups and forums, where people ask advice, when really they should be consulting an expert …
“My horse is rolling around on the floor sweating. Should I call the vet?”
“[picture of rugged horse in field] what should I feed my horse?”
“[picture of someone jumping a in semi darkness] what does everyone think if my position? No nasty comments”

ARGHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!

But I’m going off topic.

Another friend told us about a new horse at the show jumping yard she works at. It arrived with such a complicated bridle and combination bit they couldn’t work out how to put it on, so they used a snaffle. She then asked why we couldn’t go back to the traditional snaffle, kimblewick, Pelham bits, which fitted every horse. Another friend mentioned the bridles which are available and always come with a crank and flash noseband. Madness!

In the right hands everything can be useful, but it’s scary to think of how much damage amateurs or ill instructed people can do. One of the clients who was listening in asked about bearing reins, a good reference to Black Beauty, and someone said “bearing reins are nothing compared to the gadgets we have now”

True. How very true.

So back to my original question; should I be recommending the pee wee bit to my friend? I think not unless she has an expert come and show or teach her how to ride in it. I think she should find a very thin loose ring, double jointed snaffle on her fleshy mouthed mare.