25 December 2009

Good Hands and Bits

Teaching riding lessons for over twenty-five years has shown me a number of things. One being the ability of riders to understand what happens when they pull on the reins, but not the actual reasoning behind it. Over the years, I had the opportunity to work with some wonderful horses mostly because their riders had given up on them when they "ran out of bits that would control" their steeds.

As we see with many traveling exhibitions, the bit really isn't a major player in training the horse. Some examples of folks working bridle-less would include Barb Apple, Pat Parelli, Lynn Palm and others. You can Google these people and more to find more information on the natural horsemanship riding style.
The Scythian people were riding the horse around 6000 B.C. with bar-style bits made of wood, horn or rawhide. These bar bits were in use before the snaffle and there is good evidence of this before 4000 B.C.

When did the snaffle arrive? The Greek, Xenophon, gave a good description of the snaffle bit and how to use it and this was about 200 B.C. Alexander the Great rode his legendary horse Bucephalus with a snaffle.

Why the history lesson? Mostly so we recognize that bits have been around for a very long time so there may mean that it is their use or misuse is in the hands of the rider.

Pressure Points
Everything we put our horse's heads involve pressure points. These are the places on the horse's head where pressure is applied by the bit or headpiece when the rein is pulled.

The most important of these points is the tongue, because all bit mouthpieces rest on the tongue. If you consider the tongue as a defensive measure, it is a cushioning device to protect your horse from erratic hand movements and jerks on the reins. Because of the cushioning ability, the tongue is an excellent form of communication of things to come -- like a telegraph wire through the reins from you to your horse. Learning to have soft, sensitive hands on the reins is a result of using this pressure point wisely.

The next pressure point are the bars of the mouth, which are the toothless area of the horse's lower jaw between the molars and the incisors. This area is really sensitive because it only has a thin tissue layer over the jaw bone. You'll know if you have applied too much pressure here, your horse will throw his head in the air, in defense of the pain you are inflicting.

The corners of the mouth are the next pressure points, and this is where the snaffle bit's control is located. This area is especially sensitive to a two-handed pull.

The curb grove, located under the lower jaw is where the curb strap rests. With any curb bit, this is where you horse will feel pressure first. How much pressure is related to the length of the bit shank and the diameter of the curb strap or curb chain. Pay attention to what pressure you are using when working with a curb bit.

The nose is another pressure point and is a working point for hackamores and some pincher-bits. The nose is often used for collection and in training young horses with a hackamore or bosal.

The last pressure area on the head is located at the poll which is right behind the horse's ears. This area is located right by the cervical vertebrae and any pressure here is usually accompanied by something in the mouth bringing pressure upward too.

Snaffle Bits
What do you think of when you think about a snaffle bit? If you think it is only a broken or jointed mouthpiece, you may wish to reconsider. Remember the definition of a snaffle working on the corners of the mouth. When you pull the rein, the contact takes place on the corners -- and yes, the angle of the pull also affects this. For example, lowering your hands and applying rein pressure will also depress your horse's tongue. Holdng your hands higher will result in contact with the corner alone, and should result in more cooperation from your equine partner.
One of the beautiful things about a snaffle bit is the equality of pressure and response. This allows you to develop an excellent feel for your horse's mouth. The curb bit, on the other hand, is about 1 to 4 ratio -- or more if your are heavy handed -- and can cause a tremendous amount of damage when used incorrectly.
Curb Bits
Curb bits work off leverage so it follows that the longer the shank, the more severe the pressure. It should also make sense to be judicious about the amount of pressure we are putting on the reins. There are some excellent options in the curb bit realm, the pelham and kimberwicke are good options for starting your horse onto the curb because you can set them to work more like a snaffle. When you are adjusting the curb chain, remember the looser the curb chain, the slower the action of the bit. A good starting point is to be able to slide two fingers under the curb chain.
Good Hands
Three keys to good hands are timing, amount of pull and release of pull. Timing relates to knowing when the horse's feet are in the right position so it is easier for them to achieve what we are asking them to do. Having good hands mean that you as a rider are responsive to timing -- it means you are "listening" to your horse.
The amount of pull is criticial too. Remember, horses are into pressure animals and they will reply to your amount of pull with a similar amount. Start by asking lightly and gradually increasing the request until you get the response you are seeking. Think about riders that show now indication that they are pulling or applying pressure to the horse, yet they get beautiful results. The horse is more comfortable and so is the rider.
Release is an excellent reward for your horse giving you the response you are requesting. That one moment allows your horse to have a moment of freedom in movement. Just a slight opening of your fingers the instant your horse responds is an excellent reward. Overworking and hanging onto the reins is the biggest fault that most riders commit while trying to develop good hands.
Your goal is to have your hands "talk" to your horse and then instantly reward the right response. It is better to ask your horse lightly several times than to drag and yank once. Keep your rein signals less than one second. Brief is better.
Bit Adjustment
How tuned in to your horse's mouth are you? Are you paying attention to what your horse is telling you or are you just doing something because you think you think you should? By having your bit adjusted correctly in your horse's mouth, you will help him be happier and perform better.
What reaction is your horse offering you when you put the bit in his mouth? Is he tossing his head, constantly chewing at the bit, looking at the sky? These can indicate a need for adjustment. I always liked bridles with lots of options for adjustments. Looking at my favorite schooling headstall, I notice that holes are about 1/2-inch apart. This allows for lots of ability to keep the horse comfortable.
You horse doesn't need to "smile" when wearing the bit. If you stand in front of your horse, place your index fingers in th ring of the bit and gently pull down. The mouthpiece should be about 1/2-inch below the corners of the mouth. You horse will then be able to adjust the bit to a level he finds comfortable.
Keep checking and analyzing your horse's responses and reactions to the bridle and adjust as needed. The properly adjusted bridle may be the first step toward correcting your "bit issues" and provide you with a better ride. Most of all, your horse will appreciate your effort.


Image of Bucephalus
Image Sample Snaffle Bits

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