Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Talking bits and pieces: a case study

Believe it or not when I first had Indigo I rode her in a bit. This picture is of the first time I rode her and the only one of her in a bit. I rode her english, then western where her old owner put her in a curb bit explaining she had only been ridden in a curb for about 6 hours total but trusted my hands enough to let me take her down the road and to a trail by myself. I was 17 and not really looking for a horse like her but everything fit in nicely. I think this is the real start of my bitless journey because it involved bits and riding the horse with the softest mouth.

Today I was at a barn I take care of and it was particularly rainy, crappy day so these horses were inside. When it rains I like to listen to the rain bouncing off the indoor arena. It sounds so much worse than it actually is. Today I was overhearing a conversation between two boarders who are traditionally, well traditionalists.
They were discussing an issue with the one ladies horse that has escalated to becoming dangerous. When the horse has a normal (english) bridle on he gapes his mouth open and sticks his tongue out the side. When he has a bridle with a flash or crank noseband he tosses his head and even once gave his rider a bloody nose when he threw his head up and back. She gets the horses teeth done regularly and has even had a few trainers ride the horse. There are no physical problems that have been identified by a vet. What each one of these trainers said to the owner was not out of the ordinary; bigger bit.

They had a whole arsenal of bits on a counter in the tack room. They were going through them all, measuring them, hanging them back up and then discussing which one should go in the horses mouth next.
After about 15 minutes of going through every bit in the tack room they came out to ask my opinion. I was quietly filling buckets, listening to the rain. They pulled the horse out of his stall and started to assemble bridles in preparation for a ride. The owner looked at me and says "I have tried so many bits, I don't know what to do!" I raised a brow and asked her if she had ever considered fitting the bit to the horse, not the horse to the bit. She gave me a kind of confused look.
Even though I completely endorse bitless riding, for any horse, any discipline, I know sometimes due to rules and regulations (this lady shows quite regularly on another aging horse that she wants to retire) they prohibit the use of anything but a bit. That is something we hope to have changed soon.

I picked up the bunch of bits the lady had. I studied them. I had seen all of them before and knew them all by name. After all to ride bitless and know what your talking about you must know bits (keep your friends close and your enemies closer right?). I took away the ones she had been using; mostly bits with curb chains and textured mouthpieces. These were all bits the trainers has suggested.

What she said next was not out of the ordinary. I told her what I meant was getting a bit to fit the horses mouth, not just the width of the bit. She asked me to explain.

See a horses mouth should be taken in the same regards when choosing a bit as you would when chosing a saddle to fit a back. There is no magic "one size fits all" for bits. A single jointed snaffle may seem like the universal "horse has a good mouth" bit but it truely isn't, as the lady's horse was trying to tell her by gaping his mouth and tossing his head.

See just like a horses back can be wide, narrow, mutton withered or have the mt.everest of withers a horses mouth is the same. His hard palate can be low and flat or high and concave. Horses have thick tongues, thin tongues, fat lips and thin lips. Their jaw can be wide or narrow. Every single horse is different in some minute way.

Firstly I stuck a piece of rope in the horses mouth and marked it off at it's cheeks. As they had correctly predicted a 5 inch bit was in order. His regular bit, 5 and 1/4 inches. I placed it in his mouth and pulled on one side. A good 1/4 of an inch of bit stuck out before the cheek piece hit on the other side. This is what was contrubuting to the tongue lolling out of his mouth. Since the joint in the bit was pinching his tongue between the bars of his mouth and the thinner part of the bit closer to the joint the horses evasion of sticking his tongue out of his mouth was his method of avoiding pain.

Secondly as I investigated I had to point out to the owner that indeed this horse had a very low, flat hard palate. A single jointed bit was very painful when pressure was applied in conjunction to the bit being too long. A single jointed bit when pulled on with both reins creates an upside down V in a horses mouth. For a horse with a low hard palate you can imagine how easily it would be to create a bruise there.

Thirdly the horses tongue was very thin. The bit's mouthpiece was also thin, creating an awkward pressure and when all are put together created our tongue lolling, mouth gaping horse.

So to combat this? I pulled a bit out of their collection that was 5 inches long, had a double joint (french link that was rounded) the mouthpiece was also thicker. It looked like a perfect fit now only to try it out. The rider hopped up and warmed up. By the time I was done filling buckets she was hollering for me to come watch. We first tried with the flash since that is what she was normally using. The head tossing continued but not to the same violent extent as before.

So the rider got off and we exchanged the bit for a loose ring mullen mouth (aka a mouthpiece with no joint that is slightly curved to accomodate the tongue). This seemed like the best fit for the horse and in the end it was. The rider got on first with the flash. No head tossing. We took the flash off and there was no tongue or mouth lolling. The rider is going to continue to ride in this bit and try my bitless bridle this weekend. She was not sold on the idea before but after explaining a bit about the anatomy of a horses mouth she asked me if she could try one of my bridles on this young horse.

So this post is dedicated to all those horses that put up with a bit that does not fit and only complain in very minute ways. I can not begin to imagine the horses that have taught us how to ride and what most of them went through. They are definately worth their weight in gold.


Jo said...

Why is it that when I see photo's of us from highschool I cringe at our attire? Sheesh...

I never did know that they had a bit or pin in their mouth. I seen yours and assumed that all horses did what you said. Come to think of it, I didn't notice one in Sheba's mouth either.

Sydney said...

rofl I used to wear those pants every day when I was in the barn. Now I feel weird to wear scrubs like that.

Anonymous said...

My mare Maisie has a mouth much like the horse you describe - low palate and thin tongue. She does well in a double jointed snaffle, although interesting enough she also does very well in the Rockin' S snaffle, which, although it is single jointed, hangs differently with a different rein action, and in a more stable way, than most bits. I continue to ride her with a bit because we do very well with it as a communication, not control, device - she responds to the lightest amount of pressure - it's like holding a feather. I also ride her bitless on the trail. Very much enjoy your posts and your thoughfulness about working with horses.

Meghan said...

Interestingly, one of the few things my mare never seems to have a problem with is the bit/bridle. She will open her mouth voluntarily for the bit, and listens to light signals. Typically I only have to slow down the motion of my seat for her to slow down. I use the rein aids mainly for bending and try to stay light and steady, so she has a comforting contact to look for. I've had people tell me that the bit is doing terrible things to her, but she is not shy at all about telling me when she doesn't like something, so I tend to listen to her above anyone else.

Jame said...

After reading this post, I wonder if Tucker's "normal" headtossing isn't normal at all. I mean sure, he's been worked in the same bit his whole life, a really thick Liverpool driving bit, but that doesn't mean he likes it, which is what your post made me think of.
Also, thanks for noticing my spelling error before my mother did. I'd never hear the end of it! Thank you!

Sydney said...

Kate: it's a relatively common mouth conformation. However not many horse owners recognize it.

Meghan: Indigo was the exact same way. Best horse I have ever ridden with a bit. I wanted to do more for her after learning about the horses anatomy in university gave me a new light to try something more than what tradition has taught. After all when bits were created the word was believed to be flat instead of round.

Jame: I left a comment on your blog about the head check. A very common problem with a very easy fix.

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