Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Bit of Experimentation

O is, and has always been, a completely tricky case when it comes to bits.

We know some of the things that were done to her in the interim between her old owner and myself. We know she was being ridden by people with no concept of how to not royally tick off a sensitive red mare - trail riders who didn't even know their own leads yet. We know they wrote her off as "crazy," and put enormous shank bits on her (pony sized ones, apparently, but still with giant shanks) and tried to "teach her sliding stops." A rider who doesn't even know which lead they are on, but who still thinks they can teach a hotheaded animal how to sliding stop... well you can imagine how well that went. Basically they cranked on her mouth hard enough, for long enough, to make her angry enough to utterly collapse into total shutdown mode. Which is how I ended up with her, more or less unrideable, for $500. 

She had huge scars in the corners of her mouth from whatever cranking and yanking they did to her, and scarring on the bridge of her nose. I knew from day one that bitting - and everything, really - would be a challenge.

And it was. Every day of it was a challenge.

Though a lot of experimentation, we discovered a few things:
1) She is REALLY weird and titchy about metal - sometimes she likes it, sometimes she hates it
2) Jointed bits overstimulate her - she gets to jingling and clacking and short circuits herself
3) Going bitless completely freaks her out - but she does like her long shank hackamore quite a lot
3) Her favorite mouthpiece by far is the Happy Mouth mullen mouth - it's simple, lightweight, a little bendy, and very soft on the mouth

Bodywork, chiro, teeth done by a specialist - none of these things changed her behaviors. Believe me, we tried! 

She drives well in the Happy Mouth eggbutt. She can be a bit evasive with it - namely she likes to still dirtbike into her turns and splatter over onto her shoulder. This is something she likes to do under saddle as well, so it's not a unique problem, and more of a body-type problem than a bit problem.

I decided to go ahead and order the Zilco Flexi-Mouth liverpool - same exact mouthpiece as her Happy Mouth, but a different flavor plastic. She was less enthusiastic about this bit than her regular snaffle, but there was quite a bit more finesse to it than the snaffle and things were harder to evade (AKA she found she could actually bend right after all).

The look says it all... she was not particularly impressed with this one but she was tolerating it:

So I thought I would try something else. What could I use that would stop her from using her favorite evasions, give me some finesse, and keep her happy? My friend Sandy suggested a Glory bit, saying her fussy horse who also rides in a Happy Mouth mullen mouth loves his Glory bit and drives exclusively in it. I thought it was a really good idea!

STB Eventer was awesome enough to send me hers to try, just to see. I figured she'd love it - it's a sweet metal, ergonomically shaped for some tongue relief, and simple.

The first drive was pretty good. She threw her head once or twice and stopped herself dead, but then settled into it and relaxed.

Second drive was a total and complete disaster. We went for a short jaunt down the road, and while the warmup walk started out well, the trot was an utter disaster. She spent half the time throwing her head, which caused the bit to slam around in her mouth, which freaked her out, which shut her down, which sent her shooting backwards in a panic. Want to know what is not fun? Being in a big wooden box with a horse attached to it that is running backwards. She also would randomly go from trotting to veering to the left for no reason, head cranked off to the right. It was bad enough that I went back to a walk on a nice long rein, turned our butts around, and headed for home. We ended on a good note - that nice relaxed walk - but given how much more dangerous a misbehaving driving horse is than a misbehaving riding horse, I was not about to get all crazy and try and work through it otherwise. There are other ways to do that.

Yesterday morning, I pulled out my lunging equipment and the Glory bit. I wanted to see if it was me and my noob-handling of the reins while driving, or the actual bit itself. I warmed her up, set the rigging of the Faux-ssoa on the snaffle (not the curb!! Never the curb when you lunge!!), and set her off.

And I had this:

A horse who was actively pitching a huge hissy fit. When she wasn't bucking like a rodeo bronc, she was slinging her head, hitting herself in mouth, doing the random veer-to-the-left thing, and then trying to throw herself on the ground. The top photo was set on the chambon - I tried that too, and it didn't help.
Well. There you go. We managed to end it on a very nice note but it was only due to the fact that I have had this little red firecracker long enough to know how to carefully de-escalate her.

I decided I needed to do a bit of experimentation - literally. Today I broke out the lunging equipment again, and brought out three more bits: a double jointed loose ring with Cyprium, the Liverpool with the same mouthpiece as the Happy Mouth mullen mouth but has a different flavor plastic, and the actual Happy Mouth mullen mouth itself, also knows as the Bloo Bit (it was Gogo's bit, it has baby blue plastic). I have a second Happy Mouth mullen mouth that I usually drive her in; the Bloo Bit is used for lunging since it is getting pretty old and ratty. EVERY horse loves that dang thing though. I tend not to lunge with a noseband anyway, but not having a noseband definitely gave me really good insight into just how quiet she would be with each bit.

The verdict on all four bits:
Glory bit: bucking, throwing head, trying to throw herself on the ground
Loose ring double jointed snaffle: curled behind bit, clacking bit, bolting
Liverpool on the snaffle setting, same mouthpiece as her usual mullen mouth but a different plastic: throwing head, gaping mouth, sticking tongue out
Happy mouth mullen mouth eggbutt snaffle: quiet mouth, goobers, stretchy, forward

Huh. Well, there you have it. The mare has clearly chosen her bit.

It was really interesting to see just how differently she reacted to them. Obviously the Glory bit was a huge disaster, so I wasn't going to try that again - instead I started with the Liverpool. She has been driving decently in the Liverpool (not perfect but decently), but then again, I use a noseband when I drive. Today with the Liverpool on the snaffle setting, she was gaping her mouth wide and rolling her tongue out of the corners of her mouth. I've NEVER seen her do that before and thought for a second that the other bit had fried her brain for good! Since it was on the snaffle setting, I wonder if the bit just wasn't rotated quite the right way in her mouth and if that was bothering her - it sits different with the curb engaged. Still though, it was pretty clear that even though it was the exact same mouthpiece as the Happy Mouth, it has a very slightly different configuration and different tasting plastic, and she wasn't very happy about it. Next I tried the double jointed loose ring - I hadn't put her in one in a long time, and now I remember why: she curled up behind the contact, started to rattle and clack the bit, short-circuited herself with all the movement in her mouth, and took off at a dead run. Last up was her usual Happy Mouth mullen mouth (the Bloo bit). I was very curious to see what she would do, seeing as she was a little wired from the changes in bits - I was almost starting to wonder if something wasn't wrong with her, and that whatever it was was causing her to behave erratically. The second I opened her up for the Bloo bit, she sucked it right up into her mouth and sighed. She then trotted off like a lady, quiet and goobery and forward.

You can't help but appreciate a mare that is going to tell you exactly what she likes and what she dislikes. (And what she seriously hates, apparently). While I'm sure I'll want to go back and play around a bit with the Liverpool (or maybe another Happy Mouth with a full cheek, or something similar), I will keep her in her usual Happy Mouth mullen mouth. It really is the perfect fit for her spicy little brain.


  1. What a personality! I actually do like it when they are so demonstrative. It helps you figure out exactly how to work with them. You have no doubts!

    I wonder if the shoulder diving issue could actually be a bit issue. Not in a negative way, but in a "the bit isn't able to give the right instruction" way. Without a joint in the snaffle, it might be harder for you to indicate to her to lift one side. When my gelding drops his shoulder, and I can't fix it with leg or seat, the hand on the side of the offending shoulder lifts up slightly, and the other rein comes in to support the shoulder falling out. Maybe the mullen mouth stops or muddies that rather gentle correction?

    Also, have you ever tried a nathe on her? Since she won't tolerate joints, maybe that's another way to get a little more communication without the clanking and clattering and hateful metal? They are a little more flexible than the Happy Mouths I've seen.

    1. I like how the solution to trying bits is to buy more expensive ones. ;-)

      It's a good thing O has you (Andrea) to worry about her. I shudder to think where such an expressive horse would be otherwise.

  2. Hell hath no fury like a chestnut mare!!

    Kudos to O for being so persistent with you ;)

  3. huh - whelp i guess she knows what she likes! a Bloo bit to match her pretty navy / brass ensemble :)

  4. Love reading your experimentations! Such insight and yes, it's really awesome when you sit back and listen to you horse and they tell you what is right or wrong. My daughter's gelding has been using the happy mouth mullen d ring for the last 6 mos. He has uber sensitive bars with scarring on them. Not sure on the scarring as we've had him for all but 3 yrs of his life-think it's because he likes to chew on random stuff. Trying to find a bit was a nightmare and finally found the HM. No more head throwing, no more tantrums, now enjoyable and pleasant to not only bit up and ride but untack and such. He wants to be ridden!

    Good luck and please keep up on your "diary"--helps us all!

  5. Lol, glad she let her opinions be known!

  6. Well at least she's quite up front about it!

  7. My difficult guy Wiliam will only accept the bit if its that Mullen Mouth Happy mouth...something about that bit!