Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Break On Through To The Other Side

I have a confession to make. Up until recently, I was a snaffle snob. I was a purist who thought that if you can't do all of your flatwork in a snaffle, then you're doing it wrong.

And largely, I still feel that way. If you're doing dressage and your horse can't happily do work in a legal snaffle, then you need to reassess and go back and figure out that ultimately it has nothing to do with the bit you're using. In the end, the horse has to take responsibility for his own body, and you have to take responsibility for your own too. No bit is going to "control" your horse.

That said, and while I wholeheartedly believe that getting every horse to be able to travel around quietly in a simple snaffle is a worthy goal, sometimes you just have to let go of the idea that every horse should be able to go in a snaffle right away. Because sometimes you're riding a small red freight train, and a light and smooth snaffle is a complete afterthought for her when she checks out.

Recently I really just got tired of the problems O and I were having on the flat. I had gotten her to the point of being able to quietly do flatwork in a Happy Mouth mullen mouth with no other gear... SO I THOUGHT. Then I added canterwork, and it all went to hell. We reverted right back to no brakes and no steering, and I got frustrated and spent a few months doing everything BUT dressage, simply because I felt like she didn't like dressage. I did some soul searching, decided to get back to it, and still found I had the same problem that she came with - namely bolting at every gait whenever she did not feel like playing the game. Walk, trot, canter, or gallop, she throws her head up and zooms off within that gait. Good luck if you try to stop her - she locks down on your contact, braces against your half-halts, and accelerates. I realized that this isn't exclusive to just dressage-type work... everything she doesn't want to do, no matter what it is, is met with her favorite evasion, the grab-and-bolt. It was a fundamental training problem, and nothing more.

And so, I changed my gameplan. For a long, long time, I was riding O a bit like I rode Gogo - just giving her a chance to ping-pong around within her own confines, wait for her to relax, stop rushing, and quiet down long enough to take a contact. But O doesn't work that way. If you let go bounce around within her own confines, eventually her confines get bigger. She bounces harder and harder against the ever-widening boundaries that she keeps knocking back more and more, until eventually she takes total control of the situation. She is truthfully the ultimate if-you-give-an-inch-she-takes-a-mile kind of horse. Every ride, you have to ride every stride, every single one of them - if you're not in control for just a second, she is. So the gameplan has to change for her. I just can't ride her the way I've ever ridden anything else. She is just different.
I did away with the nice little snaffle. Instead, I bitted her up and laid down some serious half-halts whenever she'd speed up of her own accord (her favorite evasion). Right from the get-go, she no longer gets ANY say in the speed we're going. We are walking at this speed in this straight line or circle, and trotting at this speed, and cantering at this speed, and that is the final word on it. The second she changes her speed by herself, the idea gets shut down. Absolutely NON-NEGOTIABLE. And you know what? I'll be damned, but it works like an amazing charm, now that I have a little brawn to back up my requests.
I switched out my snaffamore (Happy Mouth mullen mouth snaffle with one set of reins, and long shank hackamore set overtop of it with a second set of reins), for this insane combination bit as well:
Pardon the mud. SO much rain this week! It's not even worth scraping it off, she's just going right back out to roll in it again.

That is not a nice bit. That is serious business right there. But let me explain why I picked it.
This bit has several parts to it: a mouthpiece, a noseband (the fleece part, sitting overtop her actual noseband) that has a hinge which attaches it to the bit, a curb strap (not a chain, just a strap), a sliding shank (when engaged, the shank can slide through the mouthpiece like a loose ring would, thereby lengthening the shank and engaging the noseband/curb strap/poll pressure. Basically, this is the bit you would use to stop a charging rhinoceros, should you ever choose to ride one. 
The mouthpiece is actually just a plain, smooth, single-joint snaffle. I'm not generally a single-joint kind of person, but decided to give it a go anyway, and am happy to report that she likes it. A double jointed snaffle in the past has been too much stimulation for her (too many moving parts), so she has been either in the hackamore or a mullen mouth ever since. She also seems to like this single joint quite a lot. When you ride exclusively with your snaffle rein, it only engages the snaffle. She is free to stretch out over her back to the contact and take it, and all is well in the world. But when she barges forward, bolts, or even just needs a rebalancing half-halt, I have some VERY serious brakes. Because of that, I also have a newfound ability to be extremely honed and light in my aids, something which she greatly appreciates. When I'm quieter, she is quieter, and we're both a lot happier for it. Before we were shouting at each other, and now we can whisper. 

My curb rein is loose or even floppy most of the time (or even sometimes I'm not even holding it!). The curb rein is never, ever tight. It doesn't need to be. There is no pulling from either one of us either. I can give, and leg her forward, and still be there to catch her and recycle the energy once she gets out and reaches the contact, all without risk of her flying off out of control.

This has really opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. Why didn't I do this sooner!? I've ridden twice in the combo bit, and both times she was wonderful. Even when she wasn't quite all together, or has her head a bit high, or was a bit crooked, or was still kind of giving me the oogly eye over her shoulder, she was responsive and stayed at whatever speed she was set at. For the most part, she reached out to the contact and took it nicely as well, even in the canter. 

We might just make an eventer out of her yet!!


  1. I'm so glad someone posted something like this, as I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately. Yes, I agree that horses should be able to go in a dressage legal bit with some semblance of control, but you know what, I want to be able to control my horse. If that means she needs something more than an eggbutt snaffle then you better believe I'm going to use it. You have to do what works for you and your horse, and that is all :) Glad to hear O mare is making progress!

  2. That's awesome. Happy for you both! (I'm sure she will be much happier with boundaries she can't shove aside.)

  3. My horse, at 11 years old, has "progressed" to a hollow mouth eggbutt which he loves dearly. Had I tried that when he was 4-8 yo, I would have had a hot mess on my hands

  4. I will confess: I have one of these horses. Went lovely in a snaffle til she grew some muscle and decided she was taking over. Upgraded to a double bridle and bam! light as a feather. Round, soft, loose, relaxed. Back to the snaffle and she's as tight as a teaparty. Up up up in the sky. Back to the double - soft as pie. Grrr.

  5. I did a similar post earlier this year about how I ride Paddy in a Kimberwicke, because HOLY FUCK otherwise he had no brakes or steering, and just happily went around going "screw you!" all the time. And you know, after a while of him "getting" what I was asking for, we got to back off to a nicer bit. Do what you gotta do - you have and educated hand and seat and you can make it work only when you need to. If that's what it takes, that's what it takes. I'm super glad you found something that works!

  6. This: "When I'm quieter, she is quieter, and we're both a lot happier for it. Before we were shouting at each other, and now we can whisper." Totally and completely. Same thing with Qmare.

    Also, with your "maybe she'll be an eventer yet" coupled with that last photo of O, it makes her expression seem all the more like, "Damnit. My days of My Way Or The Highway are over. Sigh. Tricksy human figuring things out!"

  7. snaffle snob is the PERFECT TERM. I am one - and always feel like I'm cheating when I'm using something else... but truth be told right now we get better quality work, and more relaxation out of a combo bit with Prair, and a pelham when we're jumping. It's taken me a long time to get over my pony club self and feel ok about that choice and not like I need to hide my bridle... but not getting my arms ripped out and speeding around has it's appeal!!!!

  8. Yeah, I'd call myself a snaffle elitist - but that's just because I haven't run into anyone who respects a snaffle - they all go straight to something heavier to fix the problem - and they treat the heavier bit with the same shouting they used with the snaffle.
    Your ever questioning, ever theorizing, and ever exploring with your horse to find out what will work is why I respect you as a horsewoman. You are always seeking to whisper and that's what I'm striving for!

  9. You gotta use what works, a lot of people forget that.

  10. No snaffle elitism here, even though I've really only ridden one horse occasionally in a non-snaffle bit, just for jumping. Use what works. Take care of yourself. Finesse will come.

    Though those with the most finesse sometimes use the most bits. ;-)

  11. I don't think I'm really a snaffle snob, but I do prefer that horses start in one and if possible eventually work their way back into one (or better yet bitless hehe). To get there though sometimes you have to use something stronger. And you better believe if a horse is bolting on me and nothing will stop it I'll slap a strong bit on until they figure out that's not a good idea. There is nothing wrong with that. Our safety is important! Bits, just like any other piece of equipment, are only as cruel as the hands who use them. Sometimes the harsh ones are a necessary evil, but there is nothing stopping someone from retraining back into a snaffle. :) I also like the combo ones I've been seeing that can be ridden as a snaffle, but have a second rein to back things up when it starts to feel out of control. I'm glad you found something that works for O! You're probably the first person who has ever insisted she listens! Good for you.

  12. Congratulations on opening the toolbox! :)

    While I always err on the side of "less is more," Solo taught me that you can waste a helluva lot of time wrestling with an insanely strong and opinionated red-head on XC in a snaffle...or you can communicate with a light touch in just a moment with (for him) an elevator.

    I've come a long way trying to make horses fit into theory (time and experience have a way of doing that, heh), with plenty of stumbling and restarting along the way. But I think one of the defining qualities of the horse(wo)men I respect most is the thoughtful exploration outside of the box, always thinking for oneself, and LISTENING TO THE HORSE.

    Because I don't know about everyone else's, but mine remind me often that they sure never read the book! ;D