Saturday, May 9, 2009

Blackjack Improves and Maisie Works (with a Side Note on Bits)

Blackjack is doing better - his fever is gone and he is acting fairly normally - bright-eyed and alert.  The nicker at feeding and turn-out is also back, which is a good sign.  He is a little bit weak, however, and is still not eating as much as normal, although every day he eats a bit more - he's up to about two-thirds of his normal ration of soaked beet pulp and senior feed. He's also well enough to be turned out with the boys, who aren't bothering him too much.

Just to be careful, the vet came back on Friday to draw more blood so tests of some organ functions could be done - including liver and kidney.  He has been drinking a bit more that normal, and when he was sedated last month to have his sheath cleaned (by our regular vet) he took an unusually long time to recover from the sedation - more than 5 hours - which is not at all normal for him.  All of his blood work turned out to be normal, which was good news.  I guess we'll never know for sure what caused him a problem - I suspect just an upset tummy.

The arena got dragged, and so Maisie and I were able to use it for work sessions on Thursday and Friday.   To help achieve my objectives for the work, I made a bit change.  Before I talk about the bit I used, I should tell you something about my feelings about bits and equipment.

I'm not anymore a believer in "gadgets", although I did a lot of riding in the hunter/jumper world where gadgets to "control" the horse are the norm.  For example, when we got Lily, our trainer at the time thought she should be ridden in either a jointed pelham or a double-twisted wire snaffle, with an incredibly tight figure 8 or flash noseband and a tight standing martingale.  Even with all that hardware, Lily was extremely hard to control.  In those days, I was a bit junkie - if there was a bit that existed, I owned it.  I had a variety of pelhams, martingales, snaffles, some with severe mouthpieces, draw reins, and nosebands designed to clamp the horse's mouth shut so it couldn't "resist".  I never thought that it was possible to ride (read control) a horse, particularly a hot horse, without stuff like that.

These days, I do things a bit differently.  Now please understand - I wouldn't presume to tell you how to ride your horse or what equipment to use, although I have strong personal opinions about such things.  I do believe strongly that horses should develop self carriage, not be forced into a frame (because this usually produces false collection instead of real softness), and I also believe that most harsh bits and devices are used to coerce the horse as a short-cut to quick results - it's the easy route - or just because people learn to do things that way and don't ever think to do things differently.  The very slow process of doing careful training without gadgets is one I'm afraid many people don't have the time, patience or confidence for.  I also want to be able to hear what my horse is telling me - if a horse opens its mouth in response to rein aids, I want that to be able to happen because it tells me that there is a hole in my training or that I need to change something about my interaction with the horse.  If a horse pulls or bolts, I need to work with the horse so that it doesn't need or want to.  And so on.  For that reason I don't use martingales, standing or otherwise, I don't use flash nosebands (or even nosebands at all most of the time), and I don't usually use any bit other than a snaffle with a smooth mouthpiece (no twists or wires), although I use a variety of snaffle mouthpieces.

I also believe that any bit, even a simple snaffle, can be used in a way that causes pain and even permanent damage - either deliberately by people who believe that torturing horses by punishing them in the mouth with the bit is OK - or unintentionally by people who don't have enough training or skill to use the reins in a soft way.  I also believe that just because a bit is comfortable for one horse doesn't mean it will be comfortable for another horse - each horse's mouth is different - shape difference, tongues that are different sizes, differently shaped palates.  Fat mouthpieces are not always more gentle than thin mouthpieces - horses often strongly prefer one to the other.  I also believe that a properly fitted double bridle (snaffle bridoon and curb bit) on a well-trained horse and in well-educated hands can be sensitively used in upper-level dressage, and that certain western curb bits, again in sensitive hands, can be used to communicate subtle cues to working and reining horses.  Similarly, although spurs can be misused to punish a horse, spurs worn by someone with a quiet and educated leg can effectively communicate subtle clues.

That said, I still have a variety of snaffle bits (I resold some bits and threw away those, like the twisted wire bits, that I didn't want to sell to anyone).  Mostly the different mouthpieces are to accommodate the different likes and dislikes of different horses.  There's the simple jointed snaffle - these are both Mylars:

Then there's the Mylar comfort snaffle, which comes in a number of mouthpieces - this is the basic one - it's a great bit for many horses:

And here's yet another Mylar, with a port and slots for the reins:

And just to prove that I don't only use Mylars, here are several double jointed snaffles with lozenges in the middle (the gold ones are KKs):

Here's an interesting one-piece bit with a port, which I haven't used that often:

As you can see, I'm still a bit junkie - but then I have a lot of horses! Now back to Maisie and our work sessions - here's the bit we used - it may look a bit odd to you if you've never seen one before:

This bit is a Rockin S Snaffle.  It's a bit like a D ring, a bit like a full-cheek - but the two most notable features are the rings to attach the cheekpieces (a bit like a Boucher) and the separate D for attaching the reins.  It comes in three different mouthpieces - this simple jointed snaffle, a three-piece mouthpiece, and a very interesting three-piece ported mouthpiece that I haven't had the chance to try.  Due to the cheekpiece rings, the bit is very stable in the horse's mouth.  The wide O rings provide effective cues to the side of the horse's face.  It can't pinch the corners of the horse's mouth.  The D to which the reins attach allows for clear use of an opening rein - the position of the bit doesn't change.

I'm a firm believer that bits don't fix training problems.  For some horses, however, this bit just seems to be more comfortable, and some horses seem to also be able to understand more clearly what you are trying to communicate, particularly as they are learning to soften.  I would think it would be a great bit for a young horse.  That said, for some horses, it does nothing at all.  Maisie has always been very "fussy" about her mouth, particularly about bits and also her response to rein aids.  Some of this was dental and chiropractic - that's mostly fixed - and some was me.  I was moving my hands around too much as she was constantly moving her head and so she never had a clear idea of where I wanted her head to be as we worked on softening - when I quieted my hands a lot of that went away.  She usually doesn't go well in a single-jointed snaffle, but this bit works well for her, I think because it's very stable in her mouth.

Here's what she looked like as we set out.  Do you like the mixed tack - close contact saddle and Western headstall with split reins? - we're eclectic! - and besides, I think she looks pretty!

And here are two close-up shots showing how the bit sits:

My objective was to continue her conditioning work at the trot, and also deal with her tendency to want to be too forward by being able to turn her, which I can't easily do on the trail.  Shoulder-in can help with this, but she's not fit enough to do it properly yet.  I would like her to maintain a regular cadence, and to maintain a medium trot unless I ask for lengthening or shortening of stride - she isn't fit enough yet to do either.  If she starts to speed up, I would like her to come back to me with a rein aid that is a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10 (with one being the softest and 10 being the strongest).  If she doesn't respond immediately to the rein aid, I don't increase it to a 2 or above (all that teaches her is to respond to that stronger aid), I turn until she adjusts her own pace.  I made the bit change in part so that my opening rein aid for turning would be very clear and so I could combine it with a gentle inside leg to outside rein aid.

We had two very good work sessions - she is always a bit less forward in the arena, so that made it easier. We warmed up at the walk - doing both a long, low, free walk and also some work on softening. We did lots of figures and patterns at both the walk and trot - going up the center line and quarterline and across the diagonal to work on straightness, and also circles and serpentines. By the end, I was able to ask for a little inside leg to outside rein, particularly in the corners.  She isn't fit enough yet to do much more than that or actually soften at the trot.

We achieved my objective - enough good trotting for conditioning, and the few times she wanted to rush and didn't come back to my light rein cue, we turned in a circle and she rebalanced and went on at an appropriate pace.  The test will be how she responds when the weather cools down this weekend, and on the trail!


  1. Interesting bit. I've seen pictures of them but never one on a horse. Now I see how it works. Cool.

    I just use a plain snaffle...KK losenge on my TB's...and for upper lever work the double bridle. Good training, as far as I'm concerned shouldn't use gadgets.

    Only once did I ever advocate a stronger bit and that was on a TB who was downright dangerous about trying to do in his rider...including riding her into the arena wall. He had a bad attitude. Another trainer suggested the twisted wire snaffle for a while, so we tried it. The look on his face when his rider first corrected one of his tantrums with it was priceless. She had his number. Took a while of riding in it to convince him to quit the nonsense and he turned into one nice horse in the end.

  2. i'm a bit junkie too, and i find myself buying bits i know i'll never use just to have them in my collection :-\

    like you, i was involved in the h/j world and have used some questionable equipment in the past, but there is no place for any of that in my training these days. i've always had a light hand (something trainers and judges criticized me about constantly) but these days i'm also all about the smooth, properly fitted, comfortable mouthpieces, loose nosebands (or none at all) and no more martingales, etc. even on my hottest horses. without all of that i can 'hear' my horses better, and i find they 'listen' better to me (rather than just try to avoid discomfort.) not to mention, it exposes all the gaps in our training so i know what needs work!

    it's also really refreshing to see a full-cheek without bit keepers! i hate those things and the way they position the bit incorrectly, but no hunter is ever without them :-\

    anyway, i have been slacking off with posting and reading other blogs lately, but when my mom sent me a link to this post knowing i would enjoy it, i had to stop in and just say... yay!

    (ps - glad your boy is feeling better too :-)

  3. Glad your old guy is feeling better.
    I liked your information on the bits you use and why. I agree with you wholeheartedly and also follow the same training regarding bits and tack. Good post.

  4. I'm glad Blackjack is feeling better.

    I am bit junkie as well, although most of them just hang in my tackroom, attached to bridles that I don't use and therefore never clean! I ride Bonnie and Lexi both in a KK Ultra.

    I will say that I am not bothered by a properly adjusted standing or running martingale. Except in pretty extreme circumstances they are just there and doing nothing if properly adjusted. That said I haven't used any type of martingale on a horse in a long time.

  5. Good news about Blackjack! I've never seen anything like the bit you posted - it looks really interested, I'd be keen to try one out. I agree with you about the gadgets. I have a loose ring snaffle and a KK training bit that I always use. I would rather teach my horse to stop properly than throw a bigger bit in.

  6. What a nice blog you have, Kate!

    I agree with you on the bits.
    I have used KK snaffle bits for a long time, and our horses likes them.
    As it can be rather cold here in Norway during winter time, I usually change over to a plastic single jointed snaffle in the coldest period. First winter I did this my horse Fame did not like the new bit at all, so I had to change back to the KK even if the temperature was low. She was pretty clear about it though...

    I also read one of your earlier post re. names.
    Masie is a sweet name.
    Have you read the books about Masie Dobbs, by the British author Jaqueline Winspear?
    They are very nice.
    It is about a former nurse from WWI who starts as a private investigator in the 1920s. Very charming IMO.

  7. A very intersting post. I will have to try the circles with Kate. Maisie is gorgeous though.

  8. I found you through Five O'Clock Somewhere blog and enjoyed reading your post about all the different bits and your training. I'm coming back to riding after 30+ years away from it and I found your information very informative.

  9. Glad to hear Blackjack is feeling better. I'm sure he is happy to be back out with the boys.

  10. Very happy to hear about Blackjack's improvement!!
    I totally agree with your training/riding methods.
    Very interesting post. I appreciate the info on bits and their particular uses and your preferences. The last bit you showed interests me. Can you provide a little more info about it and it's particular benefits?
    I am not very educated about which particular bit does what etc. and would like to learn more. I ride both of our boys in the Mylar comfort snaffles like you have shown, and ride the older mares (when we ride them at all) in a mechanical hackamore. gasp!! We are quite kind and gentle with them...they enjoy grazing. :) They're totally spoiled, what can I say?

  11. C-ingspots - thanks for your comments! Mechanical hackamores are good, too if properly used - I've also used bitless bridles and have seen people have great success with bosals - I've never used one myself. Like I said in the post, the Rockin S, due to its stability (the cheek attachments), the wide rings that can transmit side pressure, and the D ring that the reins attach to, seems to separate different cues in a way that makes it easier for some horses to understand what you mean. Then again, some horses don't seem to care. I do want to try the ported one as well - it should be better for horses with large tongues. Go to the link with the bit name and read the descriptions - also Mark Rashid's web site ( has some interesting descriptions of using the Rockin S.

  12. Oh! I so wish we lived closer so you could educated me even more on bits. I so enjoyed this post. Very educational and helpful.
    My mare came to me wearing a mechanical hackamore. I put her in a Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle, with mostly good success...except when she was seriously wanting to go back to the barn. Then she became head heavy and we'd end up in a tug-o-war battle. Not good. My shoulders and arms and neck would hurt for days afterwards.
    My neighbor suggested a Side Pull with a jointed snaffle (a half-breed bridle) and at first she did much better, but then she figured it out and started riding right through that, too. And she'd shake her head, lift it high and get all wild-eyed. Not fun!

    And this is a horse that usually rode in my Dr. Cook's like a calm, low headed Western Pleasure style. I like that, and the way she'd plod along on the trail so quiet. The jointed snaffle seemed to make her crazy sometimes.

    A friend of mine uses that Rockin S Snaffle on his Icelandic. He used to use the Dr. Cook's, but had similar problems. He speaks very highly of the Rockin S, though. It's basically a jointed snaffle....except it's not as loosey goosey in the mouth, right?

    Thanks again. Your posts are always so hepful,



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