Putting On The Bit

  • lt should be stressed here that riding a horse on the bit
  • has absolutely nothing to do with a high state of collection
  • and even less with ‘setting’ his head in a certain predetermined position.
  • When a horse is light and supple proper position of the head takes care of itself automatically;
  • it depends on what the horse is doing and the individual animal’s conformation.
  • A long striding jumper galloping over a course of big obstacles
  • or a stock horse sliding to a quick stop can be as well on the bit
  • as a dressage horse performing the passage.
  • Not to realize this must inevitably lead to errors in training.
  • from Schooling for Young Riders by John Richard Young

When Domo first showed up at my place with a newly bowed tendon on one front leg he had abruptly gone from being fed and conditioned for racing to stall rest and hand-walking. I put him in a stall with a 30’x20 foot run and changed his diet to primarily hay, but he still had muscles that needed to move without causing any more injury. I did not want to lunge him until the leg was sound, but also worried about just turning him loose in my one acre arena which was big enough for him to build up speed and small enough to demand sharp turns.  I compromised by turning him out with side reins the first few times. I am not sure if it actually did him  any good, but it made me feel better!

For non-horsey people, side reins entail putting on a surcingle (a leather strap with small metal rings sewn onto it) buckled around the horse’s body just behind his shoulders and a bit and bridle on his head. Then a pair of reins are buckled to the bit and the surcingle.  I rarely use side reins because they are unyielding and are all too often used to try to ‘fix’ the horse’s head in a certain position.  In Domo’s case I wanted him to get used to being able to move freely without hurting himself so I left the reins long enough they did not interfere with him moving his head unless he stuck his nose out straight in a racing gallop or down to the ground to buck.  Thoroughbreds have been bred for a strong work ethic and he had been handled since birth, so he was easy to bridle and saddle, but his attitude was dutiful not enthusiastic. So as soon as I was sure his leg could hold up, I turned him out with his buddy and let him play.  When I did work with him, it was primarily liberty work with no tack at all.

Some months later I walked by his stall  and he suddenly crouched down with his ears back, rolling his eyes around with his neck and head stretched out serpent-like, snorting and generally making a definitive horse alarm statement, Since what I am seeking is a willing partner that communicates with me, I stopped to see what he was trying to tell me. It turned out he was worried about the bridle I had slung over one shoulder. So I held it out where he could get a good look at it. He stayed crouched down but nudged it with his nose and then rolled his eyes at me asking if he could take it.  When I said sure, he grabbed the thing, spun around 180o,  reared up and swung his head  throwing the  bridle into the air. He came down bucking, kicking, striking, and squealing just to make sure I was aware that he had some very strong and distinctly unfavorable opinions about that particular piece of equipment. So once the bridle was thoroughly stomped into submission, I picked it up,  and let him sniff it and understand he did not have to have anything to do with it if he didn’t want to before I put it away.

We had a long way to go and plenty of things to work on before Domo was going to physically be able to carry any one on his back without pain which brought me directly into conflict with one of the really peculiar hoary old  ideas in the horse world that only some seriously sadistic person could come up with. Apparently many people have been told and blindly believe that only experts should attempt working with a horse from the ground because it is terribly dangerous and the horse might learn bad habits.  I have to wonder if a horse is not safe on the ground, why on earth would anyone want to get on top of it?  Equestrian sports have the highest rate of injury in any field of athletics BECAUSE of the prevalence of bizarre ideas like considering it safer to put ignorant unfit riders on ignorant unfit mounts than make sure that both horse and rider are both physically able to accomplish their tasks AND understand what it is they are supposed to do.

Teaching one thing at a time is the most effective means of developing the necessary physical and mental skills.  I want my horses to be able to do everything will I ask of them under saddle before I ever get on.  That way I know that they are physically able to perform the movement and can do so without pain, which is especially important in rehabilitation.  We have established a relationship that prioritizes a mutually comprehensible language to communicate with each other. And we have established a degree of trust and a willingness to forgive each other our mistakes.  So I do a lot of work from the ground.

When Domo arrived he was almost 4 years old and officially 16.2 or 66″ at the shoulder.  He was also a ‘downhill’ horse as race horses often are. That means his croup was higher than his withers. Among the many peculiarities of the horse world, I am also baffled by why people decided to measure horses at their withers.  The horse has no collarbone, so their torso is held in a sling of muscle and connective tissue between their shoulder blades.

Their height, their shape of their neck and the slope of their shoulder blades are all variable depending on which muscles are how strong.  Although horse trainers often talk  about engaging the hindquarters, bio-mechanical studies have shown that horses actually raise their front end by pushing  upward with their shoulders and  front legs. No one should climb on a horses back until that  horse can lift its own front end (click here) Domo’s bowed tendon was the end result of bad hoof care, an old back injury, and under-developed muscles in his front end. If he was going to be sound, I had to make sure that all of those problems were taken care of before I got on.

Domo Cantering

The racehorse transformed. Eighteen months later, Domo is casually cantering while busy watching the neighbors over the fence. His inside hind foot reaches nearly up under his withers which are higher than his hindquarters, and his neck is elegantly upright. He now measures 17.2 or 70″ at the withers because he is capable of holding himself up.

 Longing and work in a round pen is highly controversial right now. And I will agree that   there are very few examples of good groundwork out there because people don’t understand that the horse mirrors both their movement and their emotional state.  Chasing a horse in circles by flapping things at it until it is dripping with sweat and shaking from fear and exhaustion is worse than useless. If you want your horse to move correctly, you have to move correctly. Verbalizing this has been a longstanding challenge for me. Years ago I dabbled in martial arts and immediately got crossways with my instructor. I had claimed that I had no experience, but when we started out with the horse stance it was clear that I already had the muscles, the balance, and the intent to move.  It turns out I had been practicing the horse stance both on the ground and on horse back for hours every day for years. I just did not know what to call it, or that it was supposed to be a great pinnacle of achievement. It was such an essential and basic element that I took it for granted which the dojo found extremely distressing.

Horses appreciate it however and my conversations in the round pen with Domo are about mirroring behavior.  When I stand in the horse stance balanced and breathing, then he too stands balanced, breathing, and ready to move in any direction. This incredible instantaneous biofeedback from the horses is my equine therapy.  When I change my posture, my breathing, my emotional state, so does he.  Since both of us have physical issues, our focus in the round pen is to breath and move freely, in balance, aware of, and  responsive to one another.  And that awareness flows through the full range from standing quietly and working out the kinks to slow and elegant to speed and spins.

After weeks of this, one day Domo suddenly began picking up his lead rope in his mouth, arching his neck, and strutting along beside me.  And he continued getting more adamant about my noticing as time went by, cocking his head, rolling his eyes , dancing sideways shaking the lead rope, doing every thing he could to get my attention.  After several episodes of the  “hey, LOOK at me, I have something to get across to you!” all the while holding his lead rope in his mouth, it  eventually occurred to me to offer him the bit and bridle.  This time he took the bit out of my hands and put it in his mouth and stood there patiently waiting for me to get the rest of the bridle over his ears.

We worked with just the bridle on for a while, but he was still not satisfied, so eventually I decided to go for ground driving with long reins. Normally I don’t like to start ground driving with a bit. I prefer a padded leather longing cavesson that allows both the horse and I plenty of room for error without pain.  Unfortunately most longe cavessons are either so poorly made that they slide around the horse’s head rubbing on eyes, ears, and tender skin or they have massive jointed metal plates on the nose piece that rub sores  because they don’t adjust properly and are heavy enough to break the horse’s nose if he steps on the longe line.  Not only did I not have a cavesson that I liked, in this case Domo had asked for the bit and he had plenty of experience with it on the race course.

So it was on with the surcingle to keep the long  reins out from under his feet and although it took a few trials for Domo to get used to having long ropes wrap around his hindquarters as he moved, he soon settled down to work.  Since we had established the habit of mirroring one another, the reins were and are not for control. They are to add another layer of subtlety to our conversation. In order to do this, I have to follow his movements much like following a partner in ballroom dancing. Since nobody likes dancing with somebody who jerks and drags them around the dance floor, everyone out there blistering their hands pulling on the reins in the name of dressage and blaming their horse for getting marked down for unsteady contact needs to go take a few dance lessons and learn to lighten up.

If a change in rein tension is to mean anything to the horse, there has to be a soft steady relaxed connection first. This is paramount and it is the rider’s responsibility. Do not blame the horse, but  look to yourself as a following hand requires a stable base and a relaxed upper body, arm and hand.  Which takes us right back to the horse stance.  Standing erect and balanced with your upper arms hanging loose and your elbows bent at a 90o angle, your forearms turned slightly inward across your belly and your fingers curled into a soft fist requires the least muscular effort.  So this is how you should ride and longe, as you then have the least resistance and the most responsiveness to the horse’s movement.  Both you and the horse are moving, so there has to be a shock absorber between you, and that happens when you bring the reins up through your fist by the little finger and out between the thumb and forefinger.  Reins aids appear invisible because long before any arm movements occur, there are four fingers that can adjust to maintain the same soft feel and ask for changes from the horse.

Now, a racehorse is taught to take a firm hold of the bit, using that connection to stabilize the jockey’s weight on his back which helps increase his speed, but I wanted a more varied vocabulary from our connection with the bit and reins. As we practiced this, Domo’s movements became more and more deliberate, graceful, and cadenced.  We could change how much ground each stride covered, how quickly each stride followed the next, and how long the period of suspension between steps lasted. This is the heart of Haute Ecole, the upper level dressage movements, and it is a joyous gift from the horse to the rider that has no equal. So now, when I offer the bit to Domo and he takes it in his mouth, we both look forward to our dance. When he turns away, I know he is not up for it and I respect that regardless of his reasons.

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