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Staci Layne Wilson is a full-time equine writer and photographer (with over a thousand published horse articles in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific Rim) and busies herself with HorseAid, a worldwide equine relief and adoption programme she co-founded. She is also a Director and the Secretary / Registrar of the International Generic Horse Association (the world's largest all-breeds registry).

Staci has kindly allowed CarriageMart.com to print some excerpts from her book 'The Horse's Choice'. This article is part three of a three part series, we hope you enjoy them.

You can buy Staci's book at her website: http://www.staciwilson.com/horses/

How Bits and Other Methods of Restraint Work
courtesy of Staci Layne Wilson
Visit our article archives.

How would you like to ride your horse galloping full out across a meadow, you in nothing but a loincloth and your horse in nothing but a soft rawhide rope which is tied around his lower jaw, as you wend your way through a herd of thundering buffalo? (Don't forget letting go entirely of your one rein so that you can use your bow and arrows.)

Or how about riding your horse as fast as you can push his cumbersome body, you in a suit of armour complete with heavy helmet, full visor, long, sharp-pronged spurs and your horse also in full body armour with a severe, long-shanked spiked bit and 'blind' head armour, as you charge into battle? (Don't forget letting go of your reins so that you can wield your weapons.)

Horses really were ridden in such contrasting ways by the Native Americans and by the European knights, respectively. Today we are somewhere in the middle. However, we should aspire to that first scenario (loincloth optional). I once had an Appaloosa mare that I could ride all over the trails, or in town, even in a parade once, with nothing other than a leadrope around her neck, or a thin rope tied through her mouth and under her chin.

This exercise really helps you get a feel for the animal's movement, and teaches you to use your body weight and leg pressure more effectively. It's amazing how much more you will feel when you have no traditional reins, no bit, and no saddle. Later on you can even try completely tackless riding. Of course, I don't recommend that you try any this unless you feel at least somewhat comfortable with your horse and know him well. (And, you needn't venture out into the great beyond; a large enclosure will work just fine.)

Another eye-opening exercise you can try while riding your horse, with or without traditional tack, is to just close your eyes for a few seconds as you go along the trail. The movement of the horse, his footfalls, his body shifting, his breathing, will all be amplified to you threefold. It's an amazing feeling, and a little scary, but definitely worth a try if you are really interested in learning how to better communicate with your horse. The very best tool you have for getting the very best response from your horse is you. Not you and a bit and a whip and a tie-down, just you.

All of the equipment we put on our horses helps us to specify and amplify the messages we relay to them. But I believe that most of it, especially those billed as 'disciplinary aids,' are not needed. For example, I almost always ride with a crop. However I use it as a tool, not as a means for punishment. Once you have taught your horse to move away from pressure, the light touch of a whip is a great aid in moving forward, sidepassing and turning. My use of the whip is more like an extension of my arm. In races jockeys whip their horses on the rump to mimic , whether they know this or not, the claws of a predator hot on their heels. The racehorses are moving away from the pressure. Whips should never, ever be used on a horse's head or face.

Before the whip is used to encourage forward motion, you should try your heels (and before that, a squeeze of your upper thighs; and before that, your voice and body shifting, always start with the smallest amount of pressure, then work your way up). I personally do not use spurs and have never, ever had the feeling that I should have had them. However, for very long- or very short-legged riders, spurs can be a needed aid to better communicate their wishes to their horses. The area right behind the horses' elbow is the most sensitive spot for heel cues, and sometimes heels won't reach there while heels with spurs will. Dressage riders use their spurs in different spots along the horse's side to ask for certain maneuvers. Rowel (Western) spurs are fine as long as they are rounded on the spoked ends and the circular portion spins to allow for some give, but I would prefer to see more horses being ridden in blunt nub (typical English style) spurs. If you ride with spurs, please use leg-pressure only: being flat-out kicked with spurs to get the horse to speed up is very painful and it will only lead to resentment and sour behaviour from the horse. Besides, spurs were really designed to obtain sideways, not forward, motion.

Although I abhor the excessive use of leverage bits, I myself have ridden in them for a specified purpose. Leverage, or shanked, bits are sometimes needed for achieving a certain headset; I have found that my Paso Fino's fino-fino gait is much improved when I ride him in a full bridle (one snaffle, one curb, and double reins) than when he is in his usual sidepull (no bit, no leverage). The tilt of his head changes the entire carriage of his body and makes it more conducive for him to make those tiny paca-paca steps. However, his basic responses to my cues for anything else that might I ask are the same in either set of head-gear.

I understand that certain types of leverage bits are required in the show ring and might be needed for interim use on hard-mouthed horses for the rider's safety until their mouths can be 're-educated.' But, if you are a pleasure rider or an open show competitor, you should need nothing more than your saddle, nub spurs, a crop and your basic bridle (English or Western headstall) with an eggbutt snaffle. That's it. (Even the saddle, spurs, and crop are optional for pleasure riders.)

In kind, knowledgeable hands, leverage bits do have their place; but for those who are unsure of how they work, or for those who are not extremely sensitive to their horse's body language, a leverage bit is nothing but a source of pain for the horse. When a person tightens the reins while using a leverage bit, the strength of that pull is multiplied. It's like trying to pry open a door with a crowbar: if you hold the bar towards the end rather than close up at the crook, you will be able to achieve a much stronger pull because you have leverage. This is great for doors that won't open, but does a horse's mouth need that kind of pressure?

A leverage bit with a port, depending on the height of the port, not only increases the pressure on the horse's mouth, but in addition the port pushes against the roof of the horse's mouth. Pretty soon the horse can get a really painful bruise with is aggravated every time the port pushes against it. This will cause the horse to toss his head (note: there are also other reasons for head-tossing). A shanked bit with a broken mouthpiece (typically called a snaffle; but 'snaffle' truly refers to the lack of leverage , no shanks , not the type of mouthpiece) also pushes against the palate, but in addition squeezes the sides of the jaw for a nutcracker-like effect. If you have a chinstrap as well, pressure points will include under the chin and behind the ears.

A ring, or snaffle, bit, whether it has a broken mouthpiece or a mullen mouth (or even a mild port) has a 1:1 pull ratio: as much pressure as you put on the bit is as much as the horse feels. You can't make a mistake and hurt him unless you actually do pull or jerk hard; with a leverage bit, it's easy to pull in a little, yet impart a lot of pressure to the horse without even realizing it. When a horse rears up and falls backward, it is almost always because a frightened rider using a shanked bit pulled back too hard and brought the horse right over.

There are also several bitless bridles available. The most severe of these is the German, or mechanical, hackomore. It typically has very long shanks and the vise-like pressure is felt all the way around the horse's muzzle area, especially on the bridge of his nose. If the hackomore is not adjusted properly and is allowed to hang too low on the nose, it can cut off the horse's air and even damage the cartilage above the nostrils. Bicycle chain encased in soft rubber is the usual material used for the noseband. I own a mechanical hackomore like this, but the noseband and chinstrap are both covered in soft sheepskin and fluffy fleece, I'd suggest anyone using a mechanical hackomore do the same. There is also a less severe mechanical hackomore available with a wide, flat leather noseband and shorter shanks called an English, or jumping, hackomore. The least severe bitless bridle, and the one that I use religiously, is called a sidepull. It is almost like a halter, except the noseband is made of rolled rawhide. The reins attach to rings located near the mouth and it has a leather chinstrap. The bosal (or jaquima, or California hackomore), is also a non-severe bitless bridle. The large round rawhide noseband comes together in a 'knot' below the chin, where the reins are attached. Although I have no problem with the bosal, I personally don't use it because you can only neck rein with it. With the sidepull, you can use either a neck or direct rein.

There are a few rules of thumb about fitting the equipment to your horse:

o Chipstraps should be adjusted so that you can fit one or two fingers between it and the horse's chin. A too-loose chinstrap is almost as bad as a too-tight one, however on a mechanical hackomore or for a very long-shanked bit, it's better to leave a little more play in your chain or leather strap.

o Bits should be just tight enough to create one wrinkle at the corners of the horse's mouth. Any tighter and he will have no relief; too loose and the bit will bounce around in his mouth and possibly knock against his teeth. It's better for the bit to be a little too loose; at least then the horse can hold it in place with his tongue, if it's too tight he's got no options.

o The nosebands on hackomores, bosals and sidepulls (and dropped or figure-8 nosebands, which should be used with snaffle bits only) should come just a few inches above the nostrils, but not low enough to press down on the airways. Feel for where the hard, bony part of the bridge of the nose begins and then adjust your headgear to rest just above that. If adjusted too high up on the face, sinuses are then adversely affected. Be sure that you can comfortably fit at least one finger width between the noseband and the horse's face. Adjust it as you would your watch or your belt: snug enough to stay in place, but not so tight that it cuts off the circulation or so loose that it's useless.

A couple of other rules of thumb to bear in mind:

o A mouthpiece with a slow twist (loosely spaced indentations on the mouthpiece) is less severe than one with a fast twist (tightly spaced indentations).

o A wider/rounder mouthpiece or noseband is milder than a thin one.

o Shanked bits that are curved (like the S-shaped grazing bit) are less severe than those with straight shanks.

o Loose ring snaffles are more likely to catch and pinch the horse's skin than an eggbutt or a D-ring.

o Full-cheek snaffles won't pull through a horse's mouth if one rein is drawn in sharply. (Although I've never had this happen with any kind of a snaffle, apparently that is what the full-cheek was designed for. I think it's better to just put a leather chinstrap on your snaffle if you're worried about this.)

o A mouthpiece with copper on it ('sweet mouth') encourages salivation and is generally more pleasing to the horse. Roller, or 'cricket' bits, also encourage salivation and some horses enjoy having a sort of toy to keep their mouths busy. Horses typically do not like the taste of rubber bits or aluminum bits (aluminum bits also heat up inside the horse's mouth).

If you are currently using a shanked bit because your horse won't stop otherwise, I strongly suggest that you make the effort to wean yourself away from this crutch as soon as possible. Relying on a big bit for control is a terrible habit to fall into. Although the leverage bits can inflict pain thereby causing the horse to slow down in search of relief, as time goes on the horse becomes used to the pressure and eventually becomes completely insensitive to any bit. What I would suggest as a first step is to teach your horse to do what I call a 'stirrup kiss.' The idea behind this is to disengage his hindquarters, thereby taking away his power of impulsion, he can't take off with you.

This is a natural action for the horse, so if he resists strongly at first, don't be fooled: he can do it.

When teaching him to do his stirrup kisses, use only a sidepull bridle or an eggbutt or D-ring snaffle with a standard broken mouthpiece. Begin while standing still and gently coax the head around to your knee (or foot) taking turns on both sides. Leave your far rein loose so that you don't inadvertently pull back. If the horse starts to spin rather than keep his feet still as he's supposed to, try not to use steady pressure. Use gentle tugs instead, and if he starts to lean his body (prelude to moving his feet) immediately release the pressure and start again, bring his nose further in each time. If that doesn't work, then bring the rein around, using steady pressure, but not pulling. Let the horse turn until he stops and yields to the pressure (yes, he will eventually!). Then immediately release that pressure and praise him. Focus on (look at) your toe as you do this. You should end up with a bent elbow, rein hand at your belly, and the horse's nose resting at your toe. Praise every try, no matter how slight. Teach the horse to yield on both sides equally.

Be sure and pause once in a while to give the horse a mental rest. When you hear his mouth working (licking his lips) he's pondering his lesson, which a very good sign. He's starting to understand and accept what you are communicating to him. He's relaxing. Once the horse is really responsive to turning his nose to your toe (or knee), try it from a walk. This is a much better way to get a feisty horse to stop or slow down than hauling back on the reins, this way, you take away his ability to move ahead by disengaging the hindquarters and you don't injure his mouth. This is not only more effective physically, but psychologically as well.

There are many, many different kinds of bits . most of which come with the promise of being .the' bit you really need to solve all of your horse's behavioral problems. If you really think you need a gag-bit, then you wear it, have a friend pull back on the reins and see how it feels to have the corners of your mouth drawn up to your ears.

As for other so-called training aids, such as tie-downs (or standing martingales in the British vernacular), chambons, draw-reins and running martingales, are best avoided when used as a crutch. These items may have their place in working with the finished show horse or performance horse, but they should not be used as .band-aids.' If your horse is high-headed, it is due to human error somewhere in his training and the problem should be fixed the right way through retraining. If your horse gapes at the mouth, it doesn't actually solve the problem when you use a dropped noseband, it just says you're lazy. When you get a horse's head down because it's being physically pulled down and held in place, he is submitting to a device, not to you.

Isn't it better to have a horse that is responsive because he wants to be, not because he has no choice?

This article was provided courtesy of Staci Layne Wilson.


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