Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Science VS tradition: bit to bitless

For the record I clean between 20 and 50 stalls a day, Mon-Wed and Friday. Thursday is my easy day as I only do about 15 stalls and the weekends I leave for my own horses and doing wedding/carriage related events. Sometimes I do more, sometimes I do less. Most of the barns I do are little places that the owners can't do 7 days a week so I am called in. The few big barns that I do are boarding barns for pleasure horses that might compete a few times in the summer. 95% of the barns here are pleasure barns or standardbred racehorses (which I try not to deal with anymore). I think I need to find a place with more show barns, broaden my horizon but there just isn't that horse population in this area to feed my desire.

Bitless bridles. Where to start? Several people asked me about what bitless to start with.

For many riders ditching a bit makes them anxious, nervous, sweaty at the palms. The word control comes to their minds, or lack thereof. Or so you would think.

One thing any bitless will do is make any holes in your horses training show up. This may be as little as your horse not listening to leg cues as well as you thought or the lack of knowing how to bend at the poll. Both of which are extremely common issues with bitless.
By far the biggest issue I see is the lack of knowing how to flex.

Looking at the horses anatomy (our science) a bit presses on several crucial points in the trigeminal nerve branch. The points on which a bit rest in a horses mouth are the closest to the surface of the skin and the easiest to injure.
If a horse has a bit that has a curb chain the chain rests on a nerve that is part of the trigeminal branch called the mental nerve. It is just behind the lower lip, where a curb strap or chain rests. This is what gives a curb it's power. Your pounds you pull on the reins can be amplified by ten or more times when a curb strap/chain is applied when it presses on the mental nerve.

Having said this I do not endorse the use of "mechanical" hackamores as bitless bridles AKA: Hackamores that use a curb strap or chain and have a solid or metal nose band. They work on the idea of causing pain to get the desired reaction out of a horse. Because of this you often find horses that are worked in mechanical hackamores find the habit of head shaking and sometimes rearing.

The whole point of bitless should be to take away the issues a bit causes (pain, even in small amounts, rearing, bucking, headshaking etc) and replace it with something more natural to the horses anatomy.

Not all horses have to have an issue with bitting to go bitless either. Take Indigo for example. I rode her for 6 months after I got her in a bit. She has the most buttery soft mouth I have ever ridden. She listened to cues from your pinkie finger and still does bitless. However Indigo is a lot of horse. She likes to run, spook, turn on a dime, get excited and act like shes two instead of eighteen. If she knows you are nervous she will try and take advantage of that. Shes not a horse to ride out of a paddock if you are faint of heart.

I wanted to ride and train bitless because I believe in the saying "Take away the equipment and you will be left with the truth"
I wanted to take away the bit which so many riders are stuck on as a symbol of control and put in place something that made more anatomical sense.

What I got was an Indigo with a lot more spunk, more willing to go forward when her old owner explained she rode her with spurs. Now I could imagine me trying to ride her in spurs I would be across the county in a point of a second. Shes very, very forward. This is that truth I was looking for. Although she was completely responsive in a bit it was slowing her down mentally, in turn this resulted in physical let down.

I went through many bitless bridles. I could ride in them all but I wanted something with a little more precision that felt like a bit (because that is how I learned to ride, with one) but offered the kindness to be able to ask firmly but not cause pain.

I already had a mechanical hackamore. This caused my normally level headed horse to begin to shake her head from side to side when pressure was applied on both reins.
My next step was a bosal. A bosal was great, I rode around in it for a long time, however I found Indigo getting excited wanted to lean on it or grab at weeds as we walked by and I was helpless. She leaned on the thick noseband and my hands where she previously did not. I also wanted to do english riding with her and a bosal just was not suitable.
Then I had a sidepull. Again it worked great, if not better than the bosal but it offered little precision. I found I needed something that my horse could feel me move my fingers and respond, just like she did with a bit.
I dabbled riding in her normal halter and then rope halters but again I had the same thing as the sidepull. I wanted more.
Finally I borrowed my first cross under, which happened to be a dr.cook. I loved the feel of it but Indigo leaned on the noseband. The rein straps also became twisted and I found myself un-twisting them more than they were strait. The friend that I borrowed it from used it on her mare for jumping. She was great other than she got really excited over fences. When she came back from a particularly fast paced course she found her mare had a "dent" in her nose. She was appalled as I was. Back to the training ring for the mare and into the tack room went the dr.cooks.
I have to say then I was intrigued by the cross under bitless.
Cross under bitless works on believe it or not acupressure points in the cheeks. Many nervous horses find a sudden overwhelming calm and need to stand still when switched from the bit to a cross under bitless for the first time (Just type in nurtural bit to bitless in youtube to see what I am talking about)
So I went Canadian and got a Nurtural. My mom bought it for me as a present for passing a semester with good marks. I ran out right away and put it on Indigo to go for a drive (She was green at driving).
I fell in love.
Not only were the problems with the dr.cooks fixed it felt exactly like a bit in my hands. If I were blind I would not know the difference. I found Indigo would trot, ears alert and forward with a spring in her step instead of the usual nagging. This was within 10 minutes of it being on her. I was simply amazed.
Long story short after a little issue I had with an older version of a Nurtural, I contacted Zoe (creator of the nurtural bridles) and I helped develop todays circle X. It offered the release we were looking for with the precision of the nurtural.

Yes I have competed in my cross under. Was it legal in all the shows? No. I wanted to make a statement. I sacrificed over $300 in winnings at a show two years ago. I asked the judge to place me, but I forfeited all winnings. Luckily cross under bitless bridles are being readily accepted in many disciplines and even in the rule books they are allowed.
For example the premier internet dressage test website Interdressage has classes just for bitless riders.

I have seen a steady increase in cross country eventers, jumpers, dressage and mostly trail or endurance riders finding their way into competition with our bridles.

I suggest starting with any bitless on the ground. Teach the horse to go left, then right, stop and back up with the bridle in hand.

Whatever bridle you choose I suggest to do the following with it.
Get on your horse with your REGULAR bridle. Ride in an enclosed area first. Do walk, halt, trot, halt, canter, halt. Sidepasses, spins, jumping, whatever you do in your normal bridle.
Get off the horse, put on whatever bitless you choose. On the ground make the horse go right, left, halt and back up. You can even lunge your horse if you want. Then get back on. Do walk, halt, trot, halt, canter halt, sidepasses, spins, jumping or whatever.
We normally have someone asking the rider to do these maneuvers when we request so the audience can judge them. I suggest to pick certain spots you are going to especially stop so you can gage your horses reaction accurately.
In 100% of our clinics we have given the audience has rated that the horse went better bitless than with a bit. These horses ranged from high caliber performance horses (like the Canadian Olympic jumping team and even Ian miller himself) and little grade ponies packing around kids. If the horse was not better in the bitless the audience on a very rare occasion rated them as the same with a bit. NOT ONE HORSE AND RIDER HAS FAILED THIS CHALLENGE! Every single horse did exactly as the rider requested.

Some common comments were that the rider needed less rein and more seat. This is 100% true with any bitless.
Some horses would not flex at the poll and collect (AKA go on the bit) with a bitless and would with a bit.
This is very simple.
With a bit it is very easy to crank a horses head into a "frame" his back will be hollowed, he will travel on the forehand and it is very incorrect. The horse learns to avoid the pain of the bit and tuck his nose in. When a bitless is placed on his head he finds there is no need to tuck his nose in to avoid the pressure and may often even throw his head up.
Here is where the earlier saying comes in "Take away the equipment and you will be left with the truth". This separates the horses that are just having their heads tucked in and still traveling on the forehand and those that have their hind end engaged, flexed at the poll and traveling in a truely collected manner.

With all training but especially bitless let the release be the reward. Use your seat and find a deeper connection with your body and your horses back. Less rein, more leg and seat. With these you will be set up for bitless success. Remember to keep safety first in mind. We always suggest riding in an enclosed area first but it's not uncommon to find people galloping down a field on their first ride bitless (I know I did).

I'll be back again with more questions to answer in the meantime if you have more about anything, me, bitless, training, anatomy, etc. please comment here or e-mail me epona_64[AT]hotmail.com (remember to change the [AT] to the actual symbol)


from our front porch... said...

I would love to see this become the "norm" in the world of riding!
Thanks for all your great work, Sydney!

Desert Rose said...

Very intesting...Jesse gets nughty when he knows I just have snaffle on him for the day. No more out on the trail this way for us...I had NO control!

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Excellent post! I can't wait to try the Nurtural soon.

I had the same issues you spoke of (twisting of the cross under straps, the nose dents and pressure) with my Dr. Cook's, but I always felt Baby Doll rode better and quieter in the Dr. Cook's than with any bit.

In fact the people I sold Baby Doll to brought their own bridle and snaffle bit, but after just riding her for 20 mins. and seeing how agitated she was with head tossing, jigging and mouthing, they asked to try the Dr. Cook's and were immediately impressed with her instant calm.

Then they rode her out on the roads and back 40, trotted, loped and lots flexing, bending and stops. They came back and said they were going to order her a bitless bridle as soon as they got her home to their barn!
Made me very happy to hear that. :)

Maybe I can get a Nurtural for my next horse. I'm going to be trying out a horse this weekend during a walk/trot/canter clinic actually.


lisa said...

I do Parelli, he does use bits but most of his training is concerned with getting the control from the ground first. The bit is just for refinement not control! If you have the horses respect you won't need the bit or bridle!

Shirley said...

Do you have people who ride stallions going bitless? They do present a whole different issue. Normally when I ride Beamer, I use very little rein contact, most of my requests to him are made with my legs. My trainer always says that just when you think you are using enough leg is when you need to use more!
When I ride in breeding season, I do need to keep his attention. And I NEVER use the reins to discipline him- I do that by making him work.

LuLo Designs/Blue Eyed Tango said...

Nice information Sydney...especially to those of us who know nothing about the topic.

Sydney said...

Shirley- We have many stallions that ride bitless. Actually the nurtural was designed with the help of Zoe's Canadian stallion, Paxton.

Grey Horse Matters said...

Great information for anyone considering bitless. I know how hard it must be to clean all those stalls. My daughter used to do the same thing for years.

buckaroojohn said...

Love your blog and passion for horses!! We have as much passion for horse tack and bitless bridles. Please checkout our videos on this subject and give us comments..

Emily said...

I wish my horse was able to ride in a bitless bridle, but sadly she HATES it. So we still ride in our snaffle :(

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