11/06/2006

Bits

Many people see me riding my horse with out a bit, and they ask You don't need a bit to control your horse????????????? What in the heck are they thinking, if I am not using the bit then, then no I don't need a bit to control my horse. I am not going to use the bit for decoration. In many of my classes, the teachers require that a bit should be used, and then again they are talking about how to develop a better feel with your horse and respect. Let me tell you, having a bit in their mouths is not going to get either one of those if not used at the correct time, or used correctly. Lets instead focus on this thought.Will you ever really need to use a bit? The answer to this question is a simple no. But, had the question been asked, Will you ever really want to use a bit? the answer instead would be yes, you probably will. I do use the bit alot on my horse, but not in terms that I need it and she can't listen without it. Its like anything Else, as long as your ground work is great and your horse can be responsive to your legs in the halter, the bit should just help you to go on step further in the program. The bit should be used as another friendly game object. Can he take the bit with his head down, hold it in his mouth confidently, yield to it. Don't use the bit to make the horse do things, but to help suggest. Now lets talk about some other things. what is Desire vs. Necessity?
The difference between the two questions is the choice of words, need and want. Do you need a bit to control your horse or do you want a bit to improve and refine your communication? There is a big difference.

The impact of whether you use a bit for control or communication can be significant concerning your enjoyment, harmony and performance with your horse. If you intend to just pleasure ride on trails and only ride once in a long while, you will probably never need a bit. If you ride actively, play sports or compete, your horse will actually become frustrated and bored unless you challenge him with continual refinement. It would be like keeping a child in kindergarten classes until he is a teenager.

Bits are a mystery to most people. The most common misconception seems to be; the bigger the misbehavior, the bigger the bit you need to correct it. I, on the other hand, teach people why they really don't even need a bit to control their horses. In most cases it's a revelation for the person and a relief for the horse. My entire program is dedicated to sharing my knowledge, understanding and techniques in order to help people become horsemen. Horsemen are half horse and half human. Once you become a horseman you know how to ride with an independent seat, have hands that close slowly and open quickly and are able to teach your horse how to overcome his natural instinct of Opposition Reflex. Until you have mastered these skills, a bit is the worst thing to put in your horse's mouth - any bit.

Many colts are started with snaffle bits in their mouths. I thought it was important to teach them to respond to this even before they had accepted me or had been taught how to follow a feel anywhere on their body. Finally, I realized that I was messing with one of THE most sensitive areas on the horse's entire body before I had properly prepared him. The two most sensitive places on a horse are the appetite and where the apples come out. If you don't believe me, try putting the bit under the horse's tail. The inside of a horse's mouth is a very delicate place to be.

Now, I look at it from the horse's point of view. I ask myself, "Is the horse mentally, emotionally and physically prepared for a sensitive form of communication like a bit?" As a result, my skeleton for starting horses became this:

1. Accept the human
2. Accept the saddle
3. Accept the rider
4. Accept the bit

It is important to follow each step, in order, with every horse and to take the time it takes to be thorough with each step.
The purpose of the bit?
What is the purpose of a bit? For many people, a bit is primarily a set of brakes.If these brakes don't work, then they get a bigger set - something with more leverage, a thinner and sharper mouthpiece, or maybe even a twisted mouthpiece. Whatever it takes to get the horse stopped. Unfortunately, the most common piece of advice given in regard to problem horses is "Get a bigger bit!"

For people who think like horsemen, a bit is strictly a communication tool. It is intended for sending a subtle message to a sensitive place on the horse, in a sensitive way in order to elicit a willing response. For people who do not know or understand horse behavior, bits are used as brakes. They continually have to invent mechanical tools and contraptions to come up with stronger and stronger brakes. Most of the time these torture devices only make the horse more out of control and dangerous to ride.

Let's look at different bits for a moment and divide them into two categories: Communication Tools and Torture Devices.

Communication Tools
Snaffle Bit (without shanks)
- Jointed mouthpiece
- Ring snaffle / round ring, D ring, egg butt
Curb Bit
- Texas origin
- California origin
- English origin
- German origin

Torture Devices
Long Shanks (6" or more)
Jointed Long Shank Snaffle
Jointed Short Shank Snaffle
Tom Thumb or Argentine Snaffle
Twisted Wire Snaffle
Gag bit
Fish Back Snaffle
Mule Bit
Double Snaffle
Slammer Bit
Springsteen snaffle
Chain Snaffle
Ring Bie (Chileno)
Spider bits
Scissors bits

In short, a torturous bit is any sharpened, twisted, multi-jointed, one-sided, thin mouthpiece, nose piece and lever shank with a curb chain or worse. A good way to identify a torture device is to consider the designer's thought process as he made it. Was he likely to have been thinking, "Nah ah ah, this will MAKE him do it!" Look at the difference in length of these two lists. So few of the bits available today are really designed for communication purposes. Some might argue that they are communicating with one of those torturous bits - they are communicating to the horse to stop! Pulling harder with a bigger set of brakes is not the answer though. Eventually, the horse gets stronger, duller or smarter and figures out a way to do what he wants anyway. What happens when you run out of stronger bits?

I believe most horse people are kind people. I think the only reason a kind natured person would ever put one of theses torture devices in the mouth of a horse is fear. After all, who wants to be on a runaway horse? If pulling on the reins is the only way that a person ever learned to stop, slow or turn a horse, then it seems logical to get a stronger stopping, slowing and turning device if the current one quits being effective. What people really need is more knowledge - stronger savvy, not a stronger bit.

Savvy means Safety
Man is essentially a mechanical thinker. If he can't budge abolt, he gets a wrench with a longer handle for more leverage. He applies the same thought process to the horse. If the horse won't do something, man seeks to overpower him by using more and more leverage. When the leverage quits working, the horse is often deemed too dangerous and sometimes destroyed. All someone had to do was think like a horse, instead of thinking like a human.

Horses run off or bolt out of fear. It starts in the mind, goes through he body and down the legs to the feet. Once the horse is this frightened then the rider is essentially riding scared feet. Most of the time it doesn't matter what bit is being used in the horse's mouth he can't be stopped. I've seen horses with huge shank bits, martingales and nose-bands stick their chins on their chests and go! When prey animals get that emotional and think they need to save their lives, they will run through anything, painful or not.

The only bit that can control a horse's emotions is a "bit of knowledge". I want to share the knowledge I have, this savvy, so that people don't have to resort to the "bigger bit" kind of thinking. I like the "bigger brain" approach.

Lateral Flexion / Vertical Flexion
The best way to stop a horse is to teach him "lateral flexion". This means you can use one rein to ask your horse to bend his neck laterally to one side and smell your foot. This is a vulnerable position for a horse because he knows that he can't run away. His flight is inhibited.

When first teaching a horse lateral flexion, it's best to use a soft rope halter like my Horseman's Halter. This type of halter is harder for the horse to push against and lighter on his head when he doesn't push. Don't be surprised if you find some resistance the first time you try to teach your horse lateral flexion. Remember to teach! Don't force your horse to comply. Teach him, little by little, by asking with fingers that close one by one. Give a release as quick as you can when his head comes around. Teach him to hold this position for longer and longer.

Start at a stand still and work up to where you can ask him to bend to a stop from a walk, trot and eventually a canter.

Going from Normal to Natural too quickly can be hazardous, so I prepare my students by having them (and their horses) learn the 7 Games on the ground first. Then they teach their horses how to bend to a stop. Many of my students find they have more control without the use of a bit, Their horses are less defensive and less afraid of being hurt in the mouth. Some students with certified runaways can now ride their horses bridle-less! They are proof that it is not the "bigger bit" that was required, but more knowledge as in a "bigger brain".

It is important to understand the validity of both lateral and vertical flexion. Lateral flexion is a dis-empowering position, using one rein to stop a horse by "disengaging" his hindquarter. Vertical flexion is an empowering position, using two reins to "engage" the horse's hindquarter. When a horse flexes vertically, he gets powerful over the backbone and down to his hindquarters. You do not want vertical flexion in a scared, disobedient, disrespectful horse! More physical power to the horse only fuels the negative reactions. This is where people get into trouble using bigger bits as brakes. Once your horse is mentally and emotionally under control, you do want vertical flexion for slide stops, extensions and higher levels in dressage, reining, roping and cow working.

Lateral flexion requires one rein to be used at a time. A halter and lead rope, a soft rope hackamore or a jointed snaffle bit all are perfect for this. A curb bit cannot and must not be used for lateral flexion or it will really cause problems for your horse.

Vertical flexion requires two reins used absolutely equally, preferably with one hand. In fact that is why the curb bit was designed. It was intended to leave one hand free for working with cattle or fighting soldiers in battle. In some dressage teachings, the curb bit reins are held in one hand while the snaffle reins are held separately in each hand. In other words, there will be three reins in one hand and one rein in the other.

Most horses I see ridden in the curb bit are really not ready for it. The horses still have too much Opposition Reflex. They are not really mentally, emotionally or physically prepared to yield from the unique feel of a curb bit and port mouth. They may have a difficult time carrying their heads vertically because they haven't learned how to gain relief from the port and the curb. They don't understand it and that can make some horses extremely claustrophobic. Sometimes, a horse will actually turn his head the wrong direction from the turn because he doesn't understand how to respond to the feel of a supporting rein across his neck. An uneducated rider can cause the same result by using the reins independently instead of together as one. Often these horses have been decreed "ready" by show association rulebooks which state that horses should be ridden in the curb bit by the age of five.

Whether the horse is 3, 5 or 15 years old, I don't think he is ready for a curb bit until he has been properly prepared. The proper preparation of getting the horse's Respect first, then Impulsion and then Flexion (Lateral then Vertical) has been so overlooked or nonexistent that bits have become nothing more than a cruel control mechanism, any bit.

When to Use the Curb Bit
Although you never need to use a curb bit, you can choose to use one for greater refinement, vertical flexion, straightness and collection if that is how far you want to advance with your horse. When Respect, Impulsion and Flexion are in place, the slack will hardly come out of the reins and the feel in the horse's mouth will be soft and delicate. Then, you know your horse understands his responsibilities and what the reins mean. That is the first sign that you may be ready for the curb bit.

I think it is cruel to use a curb bit before the horse (and rider) are ready for it. The consequences of disharmony are ten times what they would be in a snaffle bit. In my teaching program, I ask my students to wait until after they graduate Level 3 before they use a curb bit. By this time the natural order of Respect - Impulsion - Flexion is in place for the horse and the rider has developed the feel, timing, balance and savvy to use it.

A Bit of Education
There is a natural order to developing a horse's mouth (along with the rest of him). It goes: Horseman's Halter, Natural Rope Hackamore, Jointed Snaffle, Leather or Rawhide Bosal then the Curb Bit.

The Horseman's Halter: I use a soft rope halter to teach horses their responsibilities on the ground first. Through the 7 Games they learn how to yield from pressure and follow a feel. It is ideal for teaching lateral flexion on the ground first.

The Natural Rope Hackamore: I start riding horses in my Natural Hackamore because it is an ideal soft rope over their nose. The main purpose of it is to help teach your horse lateral flexion and work through his Opposition Reflex. Once the Opposition Reflex is no longer an issue, horses will understand and readily accept rein communications. First teach one rein, then two. The best advice I can give is not to hurry. All of my Level 1 and most of my Level 2 tasks can be accomplished in the Natural Hackamore. Refinement comes as more harmony is developed. Late in Level 2 is a good point to introduce the horse to the snaffle bit.

The Snaffle: As with the hackamore, the jointed snaffle is primarily for lateral flexion. Now that you are using a bit for communication instead of for mechanical control, you can expect better responses with less effort by using the bit.

You should steer away from any straight bar snaffles because they do not flex like the jointed variety when asking for lateral flexion and can disturb the horse's mouth and teeth. I prefer a loose ring snaffle that is neither too thick nor too thin and made of sweet iron. I find that horses enjoy the taste and the loose rings allow the bit to swivel and adjust. Jeremiah Watt makes my snaffles by hand.

The Bosal: At this stage I introduce a braided leather or rawhide bosal. I like to put this as optional, because you could go straight from the snaffle to the curb bit. Allow me to take a moment here to briefly define "bosal" (pronounced bow-sahl) and hackamore because the terms often create confusion. The word bosal denotes the nosepiece, whereas the whole headpiece with the bosal attached is called a hackamore, or generically, a bit-less-bridle.

If you choose to use a bosal, the thick, high quality rawhide or leather braided piece should suspend over the horse's nose to encourage vertical flexion.

The bosal works in two ways. First, it offers relief when the horse yields vertically because it hangs away from the nose. Second, the reins join at a point below the horse's chin, so the communication comes from underneath. It uses the same principle as the curb bit and encourages the horse to bring his head into vertical. The idea is not to pull on the reins to achieve vertical flexion, but to teach the horse about giving a soft feel. Vertical flexion and "soft feel" are advanced subjects. For now, it is just important to know they exist even if you are not ready to ask for them.

The Bosalito is a tiny bosal, like a miniature version of a rope hackamore, that is used with a curb bit to combine lateral and vertical flexion, much like the English Bit and Bridoon. It can also be a fantastic transition between the bosal and the curb bit.

The Curb Bit: The term "Bridle" was traditionally used to describe only a curb bit such as the Santa Barbara, a California style bit. The term "Bridle Horse" denoted a "finished" horse that could be ridden with flawless perfection in such a bridle. Today, obviously, the terms are used more loosely.

Here we split into two distinct styles, English and Western. In English terms, the curb bit comes in two forms, the Pelham and the Bit and Bridoon.

The Pelham is available jointed or straight mouth. Since this bit has a shank, stay away from the jointed variety. The Pelham is one bit that has both snaffle reins and curb reins attached to different areas of the bit. I don't think this bit is objectionable, but the Bit and Bridoon is more effective because you can completely isolate the bit and curb action.

The Bit and Bridoon is actually two separate bits fitted into the mouth at the same time and used with double reins. The Bit is a port-mouthed curb bit with shanks and the Bridoon is a small snaffle. You can isolate the use of each bit by using one set of reins or the other. It is very much like the traditional use of the Western Basalito (mini bosal) and the curb bit.

In Western terms, the curb bit comes in many forms. There are a few excellent bits to be used at the right stage of training and with knowledgeable hands.

The best Western curb bits originate from either Texas or California. Most of the Texas bits have a fixed shank and typically a lower port in the mouthpiece. California bits usually have fuller and higher mouthpieces and incorporate "loose jaws" or shanks that are able to swivel.

Within the Texas and California style curb bits, the mouthpieces can vary. Fixed shank bits, such as the typical Texas style, need to have at least a medium port to give the horse tongue relief. Without a port, some horses will feel claustrophobic and won't be able to handle the curb bit The swiveling capacity of "loose jaw" shanks can alleviate the need for a port.

Another feature of California bits is something called a "cricket". The cricket is a little roller with ridges, set in the center of the mouthpiece. The horse can rub it with his tongue causing it to make a clicking noise that sounds like a cricket. It was designed to give the horse oral gratification while letting the horseman know the emotional state of his horse.

Generally, horses adjust more easily to the Texas style bits. While a lot of horses really like the California style bits, it takes more horsemanship knowledge to be on the controlling end of one. You need to be able to keep some feel on the California bits or they will move too much. With too much movement, the horse can get mixed messages and get dull.

The "Spade" mouthpiece was originally fashioned from a spoon. The smooth, rounded part of the spoon rests against the palate and encourages the horse to position his head on the vertical. When the horse carries his head in this manner, the spoon comes away from the palate and the horse gains instant comfort.

On any style of curb bit, English orWestern, the shanks should only be four to five inches long - maximum! Anything over six inches creates too much leverage and gets into the torture device category.

Earn the Right!
Earn the right to use a bit. Learn enough to diminish Opposition Reflex in your horse before ever putting metal in his mouth. Work on your Equine Relationship Skills on the ground to eliminate the prey - predator barrier. Learn about the natural Riding Principles such as, "one rein for control, two reins for communication." Develop an independent seat so you can keep your hands still and use them independently of your legs and body.

These are the responsibilities of the rider. As a horseman teaching people to think like horsemen, I want you to know the pre-requisites for good results. Whenever you have a problem, check the horse out from the inside, mentally and emotionally. The more mentally and emotionally fit and in tune you get with your horse, the fewer physical behavior problems you will experience.

In fact, when most people look to a bigger bit because they have problems, I go backwards to a non-leverage bit or to no bit at all. I use either a hackamore (please note that I do not mean a mechanical hackamore. I mean one of soft rope), or a Horseman's Halter.

A bit of education will go a long way for both you and your horse. The whole question of bits and bitting is a science and an art. Many go in search of the right bit for the right horse for the right purpose. My advice is simply to become a horseman. Through knowledge, you will understand not only what bit to use when, but the entire process will become less complex. You will see it more from the horse's point of view and this will give you the real savvy that's required.

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