"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Friday, May 23, 2014

VC Blog Hop: Bit It Up

Another awesome blog hop from L. Williams over at Viva Carlos!

"It is not important whether or not the bit is mild or harsh; what's important is the way the rider uses her hands. The mildest bit in the wrong hands can be harsh and the harshest bit in the right hands can be mild."
- Julie Goodnight

There. I said it. I used to be a big snaffle person and have a big collection of them: a waterford loose ring (before anyone goes screaming about that bit, I urge you to go to a tack shop and hold one of these bits in your hand. Even better: put it in your mouth! It feels like a string of marbles. It doesn't pinch, poke or bind because each link is round and the bit itself is completely flexible. I've ridden several horses that LOVED that type of mouthpiece and a few others that liked to bolt over fences would not do so with this bit because, being flexible, they can't brace against it), an eggbutt copper single joint, a rubber mouth single joint loose ring, a Happy Mouth French link Pessoa gag, a Dr. Bristol D-ring, an oval link eggbutt, a fat oval link loose ring, a French link loose ring, a French link eggbutt, and a Myler Comfort Snaffle loose ring with an MB 02 mouthpiece. I've picked these up over the course of several years of riding and training horses. I worked for two different trainers who had bit buckets with all the variants in all the possible sizes to play with. If a particular bit worked really well for a horse I was training and it was something I'd never heard of and liked, I'd go on eBay and find said bit to add to my personal collection. Later when I was training on my own, if I didn't like the response I was getting to the bit a horse owner had for the horse I was training, I had a whole arsenal of other bits I could play with to see if the horse would be happier in another option. Across the board, I can tell you a lot of horses will like those double jointed snaffles much better than a single joint.

However, you can't say that EVERY horse is going to ALWAYS respond well and be happy in a double jointed snaffle. It's like saying EVERY horse will respond the same way to the Parelli method. It's like shoeing every horse the same way regardless of anatomy or hoof shape. It's like riding a string of horses with different body shapes in the same saddle and expecting every single one to be happy in that saddle. Each horse is an individual with different conformation, different body types, different personalities, and yes, different personal preferences.

The horse can be trained to Grand Prix dressage level, have a mouth of butter and be ridden with feather-light hands. But if he has a low palate, hates bar pressure, has a fat tongue, has a narrow bit seat, or any other particular oral anatomical peculiarities, that double jointed snaffle might not make him a happy camper.

If a horse's training is up to speed for the expectations we have of him, if he is light and responsive to the style of riding and handling we are using, if he has no pain anywhere in his body, if his tack fits and his teeth have been examined thoroughly, and he is still evading the bit he's going in, I'm going to switch bits and let him tell me what he prefers, what works best for him.

Lily has been the hardest horse I've ever had to figure out when it comes to bits.

When she first became mine, I toyed around with all of my double jointed snaffles trying to find something she was happy with. She did NOT like any kind of bit pressure, even after I had her teeth floated, her wolf teeth pulled, she was adjusted by a chiropractor and we found a saddle that fit her correctly.

Her default way of going in a double-jointed snaffle. Yes, it's an awful blurry picture stolen from one of my old blog posts. I have an ARSENAL of photos of her looking like this that I never posted on the blog because she didn't look pretty. They're just stuck in the laptop that needs to be fixed. :/
I found the Myler Comfort Snaffle on sale and we tried it. This is the happiest she's ever gone in a snaffle and we started getting mixed but inconsistent results.

Myler Comfort Snaffle loose ring. We were using this exact same bit.
She looked pretty and would reach for the contact. The problem was she wouldn't stay like this, no matter how I tweaked my riding. Plus she was tipping on the forehand when she did this.

If I didn't let her reach forward, this is how she would look.  However, note how much pull there had to be on the reins: it doesn't look like it, but she was leaning on the bit, which is why my position looks the way it does. I was getting an upper body workout. While this is perfectly fine for modern dressage purposes and I would have gotten good scores on a dressage test riding like this, I did not like it. I don't like feeling like I'm hauling on my horse's face to get them to look a certain way. This is where I started having problems with the entire concept of modern competitive dressage.
Medium trot. This is what we looked like when I pushed her forward into the contact.  Again, this is correct per modern competitive dressage rules and I would have gotten good scores for this too.
I can tell you she's not on the forehand here, but I'm still holding her head up. Note the pull on the bit and the tension in the reins.
We stuck with this bit for a good 9 months. I was riding 4-5 days a week and taking weekly lessons. I was not getting the consistent results I had been hoping for. Until we went to the dressage clinic in Stuart, FL, where, at the recommendation of the trainer giving the clinic, we tried a Spanish curb for the first time.

I won't deny it: I was terrified when I got in the saddle our first time we used that bit. I thought Lily, who is notorious for being the most sensitive mare in the Universe, would flip her shit when that curb chain engaged, when the leverage action of the bit was put into effect by the shanks of the bit, placing pressure on her poll.

Spanish curb with a sweet iron mouth piece. Low to moderate port depending on who you ask, especially if someone considers this a high port (ugh. No no no no. I have never ever ever used bits like that on my Pasos or any gaited horses I've trained, for that matter!)
Per my standards, I consider this a moderate port. Shanks are 6" and it is used with a curb chain. You can attach reins to the rings at the ends of the shanks and/or to the small "D" holes directly next to the bit ends. We used double reins for this bit at the trainer's suggestion.

You know what? She liked it. My jaw dropped from the difference in my horse caused by simply changing the mode of action of the bit in her mouth. All those issues with the snaffles? She just didn't like the focused action of that style of bit on her bars and tongue: she preferred the way the curb distributed the pressure across her face and mouth and the tongue relief provided by the port. Huh...

Completely different horse. And there is slack in the reins.
We were doing a counted walk exercise, which is why she looks pissed off: she has always been impatient with that exercise.
We rode in that for a while.

Love the way she looked here.
Effective use of her body.
While I loved that I didn't have to carry her head anymore and it made Lily super light and responsive with barely a touch on the reins, I didn't like using that much bit. She is a sensitive horse and anything more than a feather touch on the reins did cause some head tossing with the Spanish curb.

So I started playing with other options, especially when the Spanish bit started to rust and the sweet iron began flaking off. :( It was an "economy" version that even then had been more than I normally spend on bits. Note: if you're interested in trying a Spanish or Portuguese bit, get a stainless steel version.

I discovered that a low ported pelham with 6" shanks would give me the exact same results as the Spanish curb, except she was much happier in this than she had been in the Spanish curb, either because of the angles of the bottom rings (less "noise" from the reins at this angle. Yes she is that sensitive!) or the lower port or both. It was our bit for a good 6 months. I rode her with a single set of reins on the shank rings.

Low port pelham with 6" shanks
Light, light contact. Note her happy, relaxed demeanor. And note the changes in her body! Beefcake Lily.
Reaching lightly for the contact.
We deviated briefly, playing with a low port kimberwick in which she seemed happy as well, and later with a mullen mouth snaffle: I wanted to be able to have a "dressage legal" bit that she would like. You know, in case I ever changed my mind again and decided to show her in dressage after all. I was happy with her in the mullen mouth snaffle until the day she had a huge bucking fit on the trail. I could NOT get her head up from between her knees with that bit and she got me off, then proceeded to gallop out of the park, onto the street and all the way home.

I almost vomited my heart up that day, I'd been so terrified she'd get hit by a car.

That was the last time she wore a snaffle of ANY kind outside of the arena.

We stayed in the low port pelham for a long time after that.

Until I again decided I really, really wanted to bit her down. We were already living in Maryland at this point. She went very well with the low port pelham in the arena but was fussy with it on the trail: the second that chain and shanks engaged when she was being a pill, she tossed her head furiously about not being able to get her way. So we played with other options. Our first experiment was a flexible rubber mullen mouth pelham with 5" shanks. She did okay in it. And I can't find a picture of her working in it, so you'll have to believe me. On the trails with Tina, however, Lily wouldn't fling her head but she would gnash her teeth so hard against that bit in the anxiety I was trying to figure out, that I became afraid that she would bite right through the bit. It was just a soft flexible rubber mouth piece, no metal core to it.

Pelham with soft rubber mullen mouth piece
So we switched to a mullen mouth stainless steel pelham with baby 3" shanks. Note the shanks getting shorter and shorter on each new bit we tried: the longer the shank, the more leverage action this type of bit will have. The shorter the shanks, the milder the bit. She also did okay in the baby pelham but at this point it was the dead of winter and I didn't really get to test it out on the trails. When we first moved to MD, Lily was nowhere near as confident on trails in general as she is now. At the time, matters were complicated by the fact that to get to the trails at that barn, you had to ride through deep mud and/or two very deep ditches, which often involved a lot of spinning, half rears and threats to buck on Lily's part when pushed to go through. You can understand why I chose to avoid this altogether during a time of the year when the footing would be bad no matter what.

Baby mullen mouth pelham with 3" shanks
In the stainless steel mullen mouth pelham with 3" shanks
I figured since she was doing so well in this bit, maybe we could switch back to the mullen mouth snaffle within the confines of the arena. She did very well in it. She did lean on it somewhat but not as much as she had with other snaffles. And then one day she got her tongue over the bit. I had never ever had a horse do this before, but it is an indication that the horse is not comfortable with tongue pressure. See? (And yes, her teeth did get checked around this time too. They were fine.)

*Gets on soapbox* I refuse to use a noseband as a means to keep that tongue under that bit by squeezing my horse's jaws shut. If my horse gapes her mouth open from the bit or gets her tongue over it, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. She should be happy in her bit regardless of whether she is sporting a cavesson or not. I'm not faking bit acceptance with a tightened noseband. On a properly adjusted noseband, you should be able to easily slide a finger in between your horse's jaw and the leather strap. It's yet another reason why I have a problem with modern competitive dressage with its crank cavessons and flash nosebands. *Gets off soapbox.*

Around that time, Lily was diagnosed with her tendon injury (spring of 2013), during which she was placed on stall rest. Her rehab was a stressful process for both of us: she was a fireball and I never knew when she was going to explode, no matter how much ace she was given prior. Lily has one of the nastiest bucks I have EVER ridden in 20+ years spent in the saddle. She gets 3' of air easily if she is able get her head between her knees. She threw my trainer in FL. You ride that out in a freaking snaffle and then we'll talk.

Oh yeah. She can totally do that with a saddle, bridle and rider aboard.
I have witnesses: both Kathy and Charles!
During her rehab last summer it was EXTREMELY important that she stay calm, that she not explode, and that by no means she get me off and tear around the arena. It would have been a huge, huge setback with her ligament injury. You can understand my stress over having to ride her and stay in control.  And we had to ride 6 days a week per the vet's orders. Riding was the only time that she was allowed outside of her stall. We switched to a low port Weymouth bit with 5" shanks during the first part of her rehab because it gave me the kind of control I wanted.

Walking from the arena to the field with harder footing where the vet wanted us to work.
These rides were NOT fun. I was constantly tense, unsure of whether she would explode or not.
Sleepy mare on acepromazine last summer, wearing the Weymouth.
And yup, on 2 separate occasions she did explode despite the sedative.
As we got through the initial portion of her rehab and started adding short trot sets, we returned to the low port pelham with 6" shanks and added the double reins a la Spanish curb. Why? Because I was bored to tears with all of the walk work that we needed to do for the ligament rehab. The double reins allowed me to play more with her position and how she used her body, adding some sort of variety and difficulty to what were otherwise some very uninteresting workouts.

This photo was my blog header for a very long time
A very correct free walk where her withers were up and she was stepping underneath herself. Note the use of the reins. Pelhams, and Spanish curbs for that matter, allow you to use 2 sets of reins to mimic the function of a double bridle. The "snaffle" reins are attached to the rings directly adjacent the bit; the "curb" reins are at the ends of the shanks. In this photo I'm using the "snaffle" reins to encourage downward stretching, but the leverage action of this type of bit keeps Lily from leaning on the bit. Result: a horse stretching her topline while engaging her hindquarters, which was exactly what I wanted her to be doing, especially during this portion of her rehab.
And then one day I decided to try Lily in the low port kimberwick again: it was a way of eliminating shanks altogether while maintaining the low port that she seemed to prefer.

And that's the bit she has stayed in for the last 10 months. She likes it, she's soft in it when we're working whether in the arena or on the trail, she doesn't fuss in it if she gets worked up about something (no head flinging), and if she acts up it allows me to stay in control. Lily is an incredibly athletic and agile creature and while she is a very good girl most of the time, there have been enough bad moments in the past that I like to know I can stop the shenanigans before they escalate. Especially when we're riding in company.

Our first trail rides at the current barn
Our first canter sets out in the open
Haunches-in in the arena
Our first beach ride
Over the winter, I tried her in a Myler Combination Bit with an MB 03 Level 2 mouthpiece. I had this idea that I could eventually graduate her to a bitless bridle by transitioning her from the leverage function of this bit onto mostly nose pressure (when purchased with the 3-ring shanks, it is adjustable for varying degrees of pressure from poll, bars, and nose).

I stressed over which port to get. I felt the next size up in port was too high, while this one didn't seem to offer enough tongue relief. There was no inbetween option, so I settled for this port.
She seemed to like it about 50% of the time, which in the end made me lament not having gone for the higher port.

Stretching but using herself correctly with impulsion, without leaning on the bit: right hind landing before the left front.
The other 50% of the time, she'd go above it, very similar to the way she used to go in snaffle bits in general when I first started working with her, which made me think this bit was still placing too much pressure over her tongue. And then we had a couple of rides on the trail where Lily became very, very "up" (I did not elaborate on this in the blog) and I felt like I had NO brakes with the combination bit. She went above it, snatched it, and plowed her way home, getting Kathy's Queenie worked up in the process each time. We alternated leg yielding for the entire 4 mile ride home that day as a means of keeping Lily from rushing back to the barn in a straight line. This was NOT a safe situation, especially when another horse and rider were being affected by it, especially when busy streets had to be crossed to return home. You don't want your horse bolting across a busy road no way no how, and you certainly don't want to be responsible for your horse causing that sort of behavior in another rider's horse!

Back she went into the kimberwick.

Some day I'd like to get her a Myler ported kimberwick like this one.Why? Because it's a Myler, because the higher port offers greater tongue relief, and because of the individual play of each side of the bit. It would add an extra degree of softness to what we are already using.

But until then? In the current kimberwick she stays. She's happy, I'm happy, our communication is effortless without complaints from either one of us. Why fix something that's not broken?

And Gracie? When I first started riding Gracie I had no idea what she would be like. I had been told she could buck, was opinionated and liked to go fast on the trail. I wanted something mild that would give me brakes if I needed them in a hurry while also encouraging her to stay in self-carriage. My Pasos both went happily in Colombian Paso bits with rubber-covered mullen mouths. One bit had 6" shanks, the other had 4" shanks.

This is the Colombian bit with the longer shanks.
Indio in his rubber mullen mouth Colombian bit. He was assigned the bit with the longer shanks because he was a very spirited horse. Someone had trained him to bolt the second a rider mounted up.
Lucero had the one with the shorter shanks.  This is the bit I rode him in for the last 12 years of his life.
I tried Lucero's old bit on Gracie, but it was too small: he was a small horse at maybe 13.3 hh and took 4.75" bits. Gracie needs a 5" bit. I didn't want her in something with long shanks, so I tried her in the baby pelham. She has been quite happy in it so far, even foaming in it, so I think we may have found the right bit for her straight off the bat! Uncomplicated horses are awesome.


  1. Love this! I definitely agree that not every horse is going to be a snaffle mouth.

  2. My aunt (who owned my horse before me for 6+ years) tried him in every bit imaginable and he ended up in a hackamore, haha! Trying new bits is a pain but it's always worth it when you find what works!!

  3. Every horse is different and needs change as they do. Glad you have found something that works for your girls:)

    1. Me too! :) It was quite the mission with Lily!

  4. Just wanted to say this was a fascinating post and very well done! Thanks for sharing all of that!! :D

    1. Haha thanks! Glad you enjoyed it! :)

  5. Agree every horse has its preference, every bit responds differently in different people's hands.

  6. Late to the comment party, but I can so relate. The last Myler kimberwick shown is actually the bit I'm using now on Mimi and she likes it about as much as she's ever going to like a bit. (She prefers her s-hack, and so do it, but sometimes her snottiness requires a bitted intervention.) I'd like to try Myler's pelham with the same mouthpiece, for the reason of being able to play around with double reins and the shank aspect. And because I'm a bit hoarder.

    Took me a while to make that connection that Mimi prefers tongue relief to tongue pressure, and could never understand why she leaned into and otherwise protested the "gentle" snaffles. (Ask me how many Myler bits I own... ;)) Then I actually bothered to read the Myler books and the light clicked on about tongue pressure versus tongue relief...what a difference it has made! I like being able to have soft hands 98% of the time, but when I need the authority to break through the pony 'tude, it's there.

    1. I thought of you and Mimi while writing this post! I remembered you had had similar issues. It was so good to hear that I wasn't crazy, and that my horse isn't a freak for preferring a ported bit to a snaffle mouthpiece. Thank you for sharing your bit search with us!