Tuesday, November 27, 2012

transitions: the bit

In Australia, most horses are started in a snaffle bit and continue to be ridden in a snaffle. Some dressage horses are eventually ridden in a double bridle (curb bit and thin snaffle), some are put into a Western style curb. Over the last few decades, people have started looking at bitless bridles as another alternative, but it is relatively rare to see horse ridden this way. Indeed, many club and competition rules expressly forbid horses to be presented without a bit.

In other horse cultures, this is totally different. Many horses are started in a noseband of sorts, be it a jaquima (hackamore), bozal, cavecon or sidepull. They are educated in the noseband, and when they are ready, they are introduced to a bit. A curb bit. This often involves a period of time when they are ridden in four reins. This allows the trainer to slowly change the signal over from the reins attached to the noseband to the reins attached to the bit, to give the horse ample time to get used to the new "language".

The young horse must first learn to carry himself properly with the new weight on his back. He must learn to step under to engage his hindquarters. He must lean to relax in the poll, to yield to left and right cues by turning the jaw. He must also learn to lift the base of his neck and increase hindquarter engagement when asked for collection and be light in the bridle in all gaits and through transitions. That's a lot of stuff to learn for a green horse.

The idea of using the noseband is that it keeps all the early training stages away from his sensitive mouth. In the early stages, it is necessary that the horse makes mistakes as he learns to do what is asked of him, and by using no bit, none of these mistakes will take their toll on the bars of the mouth. Aside from that, a well fitting noseband gives very clear instructions to the horse and is an excellent tool in teaching lateral bends and lightness.

Nosebands come in two basic types: those with rein attachments on the side and those with attachments under the chin. The former is the best for teaching horses to turn and yield the jaw, the latter is great for teaching good posture and making horses light by helping them lift the base of their neck. Some nosebands are designed for both, such as the Paso Fino noseband which has rings on the sides, but can be complemented with a chin-piece with low rings. I have even seen horses ridden in four reins on the noseband.

Once the horse has finished his basic education, he is considered ready to transition into a bit. A bit is simply much more precise, and allows for very clearer communication. It is refinement that is sought, not bigger brakes. Much in the same way that a good horseman sees spurs as a more accurate method of communication than heels.

The goal is that we end up with a horse that can be directed with minimal aids. A horse, where a minute lift of the hand or a squeeze of the fingers on the rein will be enough to ask for more collection, and a little lowering of the hand will be enough for a downward transition. That's my goal, anyway.

I'm currently going through this transition to the bit with one of my mares, Zara. To show some of the equipment I'm using, here are some pictures (all taken by Yvonne Lehey):

From the bottom up:
  1. Thin rope headstall for tying the horse up.
  2. Simple neckstrap and noseband attached to a Maestro curb bit. In the picture, the curb rein (grey/black) is attached to one of the top rings to minimise the curb action at this early stage in training.
  3. Headpiece clipped onto a wide noseband with side rings. Reins (black) clipped into rings on the bottom of the chin strap in this picture.
Other comments: the picture was just before I mounted up. I think this was the first time she wore the bit. We are practicing flexing, and you can see that I'm using the noseband to do this. She has already put the slack back into the rein by yielding. I'm more concerned with the quality of the response than with perfect form. I'm watching the inside of her near jaw. Sometimes I put a finger of my free hand on it to help her.

Mounted up, having sorted the reins. How I hold four reins depends on the situation. In this case, I have the noseband rein on top, and the curb rein relatively loose on the bottom, because it is her first time with the bit.

Here I'm just double checking for flexion from the saddle just before we set off. She has volunteered to turn her head all the way around, although I did no ask for it, all I was after was a yielding of the jaw. As a result, the inside reins are completely slack, a slack SHE put in there. You also can see clearly how I have used a lifting hand for the purpose, as opposed to a hand that pulls back or sidewise.

Walking off, on a very light contact, but clearly on a right hand circle. As a result of my lifted inner hand, focus to the left (could by more forward..) and turn of the shoulders, she is stepping her right hind under well and is following my lead. I'm very happy with the outline, which is relaxed and forward.

Another picture showing the same principle, but with more "action". Here we are out in the bush, in an area full of sandpits. The footing is "interesting" in places. We have already had a good ride, and I'm basically taking her up and down the little hills, giving her challenges. She is a smart, active horse and thrives when given things to do. You can see how she is following my focus. I'm being very clear in my directions, giving "big" cues as this is quite new to her. But as before, it is the hand lift and my posture which asks for the bend.

On the way home, she is a bit uncertain about something along the edge of the road. Here you can see that I have taken up more contact so that I can guide her, but on the noseband reins only. I am not slowing her forward movement. I am encouraging her to keep moving, but the slightly raised hands signal her to relax and soften again. This can, depending on the need, be a slight hold or half halts. I find this aid crucial. If I were to move my hands low and pull downwards, she would respond with tensing her top line and I would merely create resistance and kill her impulsion.

Nearly back home, coming along the driveway with stallions on both sides. Still bright eyed and bushy-tailed, and none the worse for all the new experiences.

After this ride, we had several more in four reins. Now I am changing to the curb bridle with a noseband over the top without reins, until eventually, we will progress to just the bridle and bit.

For comparison, more pictures to show the various bits and nosebands:

Winter picture of Samba in a sidepull. Sidepulls can now be bought in most Western saddleries. The one in the photo has been modified from the shop bought one by: removing browband and throatlatch and by changing the chin strap from a leather strap to a curb chain. I think the browband and throatlatch are unnecessary. The curb chain is more precise than the leather strap. Also, if I take out a green horse, and we have "one of those moments", the noseband slips up on the nose and the curb chain has a little bit more "speak" than the leather strap. On the other hand, if all is going normal, the chin piece merely holds the bridle in place. This is the bridle I start most of the young horses in. It is simple, light and effective as a means of communication.

Same bridle, different horse. This shows Wotan during one of his first few times under saddle. He looks a little bit more upheaded and strung out than I like, but he was very green and still finding his balance at that time. 

Here I'm adjusting Chewie's bridle. It is the same bridle used on Zara, but here without the bozal over the top. The noseband is simply a light leather strap which is attaches to the bridle headband above the bit. It is snug, but never tight.

Flamenca, burning off excess energy by showing off. Perfect collection to levade with "minimal" contact.

All these horses have brio. They enjoy moving, they are opinionated and love to be challenged. Their progression from noseband to bit is a transition that aims to conserve those qualities. My goal is to have finer communication, where less is more and riding is enjoyable for all parties. We are not perfect, and never will be, but the journey has a clear goal.

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