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!!