bits · dressage · Uncategorized

A Bit of Experimentation

I’m not even a little bit sorry for that subject.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with Tristan’s bits.

He is, generally speaking, a pretty hardmouthed horse. And yeah, I know – I trained him, it’s my fault. In my (admittedly pitiful) defense, that was always his natural tendency. From day 1 he was a horse who blew through and/or ignored aids, no matter where they came from.

Now, generally, I ride him in a loose ring double-jointed snaffle. Super, super mild. On the one hand, that’s good for asking him to reach forward without throwing on the brakes. He’s so generally backwards-minded that sometimes even touching the reins can stop him cold. So the softer the bit, the more it would encourage him to reach, right?


About three years ago, when I started riding him again in his kimberwicke outside, I noticed an interesting trend: he was actually better in that, when things got going really well. He was more willing to soften to it (really soften, not back off), he was more willing to bend to it, he was overall more light and responsive.

To some extent, that’s to be expected. The kimberwicke is a big bit. And even with the improvements, it does not have a ton of subtlety to it. I think that, riding outside, it mostly gives him a way to channel all that assholery into productivity. If I have a big NO he doesn’t get to debate as long.

With some of the fine-tuning of his dressage that I’ve been doing lately, he was getting extra heavy and dead in the mouth, so in the last 2-3 weeks I’ve been experimenting with doing one dressage-intensive ride a week in the kimberwicke, indoors. I do not expect huge things; what I want is to basically rev him up in some of the same ways he gets outside, and use the kimberwicke to guide that.


It’s mostly working. It starts out rough, but at about the 20 minute mark, when he’s truly warmed up and resigned to his fate, and going property forward, there’s the kimberwicke saying “okay, but you also can’t just yank and root and lean.” I’m asking for bend and getting it in 1-2 strides instead of 3, 5, 10…on and on.

I’ve jokingly called him my 2×4 horse in the past (as in, “you need to hit him with a 2×4 to get a point across). It’s not that he’s not a sensitive horse. All horses are sensitive. It’s that he is so damn stubborn, and his ability to turn up the “fuck you, I’m not paying attention” dial is remarkable. Like a toddler who needs very, very firm and clear boundaries to feel happy and comfortable.

We’ve got a long winter of work ahead of us, and I might not be done – I’ve thought about an intermediate bit to try and recapture some of the suppling ability of a snaffle but still something he won’t lean on, so ideas on that would be welcome.


Wordless Wednesday: What is this bit?

As spotted in the barn tack room. It’s hollow and rather lightweight. What type of bit is it, and what does it do?
(I’m quite sure it’s being used with trainer knowledge and approval, at least if it does in fact belong to the horse whose bridle rack it sits on, which leads me to think it’s a thoughtful attempt to address some issues with a tricky mare. This isn’t an anti-gadget snark by any means.)

bits · dressage

The new love of my life

As in, I almost certainly love this thing more than my husband right now. (Though probably not more than the dog.)

Tristan has been a challenging ride this spring. Probably not in the grand scheme of things, and not for a rider with actual physical fitness and skills, but he has for me. He’s been throwing bucking fits on simple hill walks. He’s been bolting for home. He’s been jigging constantly and fretting himself into a frenzy.

I pulled out the big guns. This behavior is not new. It simply has not occurred in many, many years – seven or eight, to be precise.

See, when Tristan was first learning about riding in the open, he was equally awful (worse, in some ways). I was not nearly as good a rider but I had a certain stickability. He never dumped me, but it wasn’t a lot of fun either.

Enter our savior.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a mullen-mouth uxeter kimberwicke. 
Mullen mouth = straight across, no joint. Uxeter = the slots on the side of the bit, which allow for two types of leverage, straight or torqued. Kimberwicke = this particular style of bit, which features the separated bit hangers and the curb chain. Kimberwicke bits can also come jointed or without the leverage slots on the side.
Here’s what it looks like by itself.
You can see that the mouthpiece itself also has a low port.
Let me be clear: this is not a subtle bit. This is a bit that says WHOA THE FUCK DOWN RIGHT FUCKING NOW when it is applied firmly. 
It is also, however, a relatively stable bit. Depending on how you adjust the curb chain, it never kicks in. If you attach the reins as I have above, it – and the port on the mouthpiece – only kick in when you really need them to.
Here’s what the lower attachment looks like, putting this bit closer to a pelham in action (not on Tristan, random internet horse):
All of that together means that this is a bit that is relatively inert and stable until it is not. Which means that you can ride in it with quiet, steady hands and have a simple, straightforward go. If you have a horse that likes a mullen mouth bit, you can use it for some dressage work – softening, etc.
Tristan tends to prefer double-jointed bits, so I never had much hope that this would really lead to quality dressage work. What I wanted was to regain some of his respect for me when riding outdoors.
I still remember, with perfect clarity, the first time this bit kicked in. I had taken Tristan out to a field behind an old barn and we were simply walking around a bit. He reared, spun, bucked a few times, and bolted for home. He had done the exact same thing the previous day, and I had not been able to stop him; he jumped two ditches, I lost both stirrups, it sucked an awful lot. (I hadn’t yet learned an effective one rein stop, that’s how inexperienced I was with that sort of thing. I learned later.)
But on that day, three strides into the bolt, I hauled on the reins – not with any sort of tact or subtlety. I just hauled. He stopped cold. Mid-stride. Stock still. He was utterly and completely horrified. He walked politely home, completely mystified as to what had happened to him. It was a truly glorious moment. 
From that day on, he went in his kimberwicke for all outside endeavours, for about two more years. Eventually, it started backing him off too much – he didn’t need it. We moved to a full cheek snaffle for jumping and cross-country, and hacked in his regular loose ring.
When I was casting about for ways to work with Tristan on his new misbehavior, I resisted pulling out the kimberwicke; it felt a little bit like failure, or regression. Eventually, I accepted that feeling and pulled it out.
The first day I rode in it was the day of my photo session with Emilie. It was also his first ride in the outdoor dressage arena. He was not thrilled at the walk, and picked up an uneasy trot, and then when we turned to the short stride at the far end, as soon as we passed A, he was OFF.
I simply sat deep, put my hands down firmly, and let him run into the bit himself. I was perfectly quiet and calm. He did not stop mid-stride, but he did immediately drop to a polite walk, tossed his head once or twice, and then licked and chewed.
For the next few minutes, he was a little unhappy, but he was at least polite. I kept steady, quiet hands, asking him simply to trot without flailing. Then I pushed him a little bit, asking him for some actual softening – but not expecting it. And he gave it to me!
Two days ago, we went back up to the outdoor ring, again in the kimberwicke. He never even thought about bolting in the trot. I asked for a canter. He completely exploded – for a stride and a half. Then the same thing happened. Back to a polite walk, a few minutes of disgruntlement, and then we had an actual productive ride, working on geometry and putting together pieces of the test.
At about the 40 minute mark, I asked for a canter to the left, our trickier direction, and he gave me a polite, obedient, and straightforward – if very backed off – 20m circle in the canter. I brought him back to a walk, dropped the reins, and praised him to the skies.
Now, to figure out whether to a) technically bend the rules and ride in the kimberwicke for our schooling show or b) somehow make the transition to the snaffle again and hope that he behaves even in a show atmosphere…
bits · blog hop

Blog Hop: Bit it Up

An excellent and timely blog hop from L. Williams at Viva Carlos!

I wrote once before about the bits I’ve used for Tristan in the past, and why: Bits I Have Loved.

This past Thursday, Tristan’s new bit arrived. It’s this Stuebben Loose Ring Snaffle, with the copper bean in the middle. I bought it based primarily on the reviews and the measurement. Tristan needed something thinner in his mouth than the JP Korsteel Loose Ring Snaffle that he’d been in for a while.

The difference of 4mm (18mm for the JP, 14mm for the Stuebben) doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually pretty significant!

JP above, Stuebben below.
Things I am very happy with: The thinner bit definitely makes a difference. The copper bean definitely makes a difference. In all, an upgrade. The jaw crossing and tongue sticking out were greatly diminished, and he was happy to mouth the copper bean – he was dripping foam more than he ever has!
Things I am less happy with: I bought the 5″ despite the nagging feeling in the back of my head that he needed the 5 1/4″, because what 15 hand horse needs a 5 1/4″ bit? My idiot horse, that’s who.
Now, it’s not criminally small, but it is right at the edge of acceptable. He did not object dramatically to it. But, especially with the loose rings, it’s a bit too close to the corners of his mouth for my comfort.
The good news is I can either return it to Smartpak OR sell it to someone else in the barn, who has a dainty Lusitano mare that has been going in a 6″ (!!!) bit. M. is going to try the bit on the mare this coming week and if it fits her I will sell it to them and order the 5 1/4″ for Tristan. Problem solved!



Crowdsourcing: Sticking tongue out?

Over the last few weeks, Tris has developed an interesting new habit. I’m less than wild about it.

In short: when the bit goes in his mouth, he sticks his tongue out the left side of his mouth. There is an ever so slight crossing of the jaw that accompanies it. Mostly, it’s just the tongue, pushing out the gap in his teeth.

Not much! And not badly. But it’s definitely happening. Degree is the same whether there’s active contact with the bit or whether the bit is just sitting there.

I don’t have good feedback on whether it happens when he’s really through and engaged. I know it happens when there’s some contact but not engagement, though.

Evidence. This is about as bad as it gets.

I am hoping that it’s because the bit is too thick in his mouth. I have plans to get him a thinner bit: either this Sunday at Everything Equine, or online from Smartpak if I can’t make it there/can’t find what I want.

Any other thoughts?


Bits I Have Loved

Amanda at Keeping It Low Key wrote recently about her conundrum about bitting up for control, and I shared in the comments that Tristan used to go in a kimberwicke: bitting up is not a sign of failure. It’s a tool of the moment. Bitting up out of fear and then never working through the root issue? If and when it happens, that’s the failure.

So I thought I’d write a bit about what bits I’ve used on Tristan, since my riding life is super boring right now.

The first bit Tris ever went in was a plain eggbutt snaffle.

You’ve seen them. You’ve ridden in them. They’re the milquetoast of the equestrian world. It was a decent starting place for us, but it didn’t last. Tristan doesn’t like single-jointed bits. So we moved on.
Not much further, though. Double-joined eggbutt snaffle: this would be our go-to for many, many years on the flat and inside.
Then we started to school Tristan XC. As part of that, I was doing hillwork, and Tristan, still being very much the green horse at this point, pulled a series of bolting and spinning antics that would put a reining horse to shame. He ran uphill. He ran downhill. He took dangerous flying leaps over anything in his path including drainage ditches, patches of dead grass, small fences, you name it – especially when he was headed back to the barn.
So we bitted up.
MY PRECIOUS. This is an Uxeter Kimberwicke, mullen mouth, medium port. I remember with perfect clarity the first day that Tristan tried to bolt for home and the curb chain on this bit engaged. It felt like he stopped in mid-air and came back to earth, shocked, utterly still. The wheels in his had spun in place. I was awed at the immediate, amazing change.
This is not a subtle bit, you guys. This combination of features has one goal, and one goal only: WHOA THE FUCK DOWN, HORSE. And oh, did he ever whoa. This was our go-to for XC and any outdoor riding for 2+ years. And over time, we slowly used it less and less often. First,  he could be ridden outside (in the outdoor arena) without trying to bolt. Then, he could be flatted in open fields without it. Finally, we could go XC without it – I could tell when engaging it a bit took him off the pace rather than made him sane.
So we moved on.
Full-check french link snaffle. This is the bit he still goes in today when he’s going XC or jumping. It lives on his figure-8 bridle. It can also occasionally be a good choice for trail-riding when he’s fresh, or any kind of galloping. I’ve been known to put it on for trot sets just as a change of pace. For the first year or so, I used keepers on it to get a bit more leverage action; now, it’s just loose. We experimented briefly in using it on his dressage bridle, but that didn’t pay off.
We did make a few more changes to his dressage bit, however. Over time, the eggbutt lost its charm: he spent a very long time not unhinging or moving his jaw at all while being ridden, and we wanted to encourage him to chew the bit.
Enter the double-jointed loose ring snaffle. This is still the bit he goes in today. His mouth is small enough that a 5.5″ bit has never pinched his cheeks, and he still likes the loose ring action. Double-jointed is still the way to go.
That said: I am in the market for a new bit. When riding with my trainer last fall, she felt that he would go better in a thinner bit. While the rule of thumb is generally that thicker = softer, for some horses with a low palate and relatively narrow gap in their teeth, a thinner bit can be kinder. For the first time ever, a trainer of mine actually put her hand in Tristan’s mouth and felt the way the bit lay against his tongue and his gums, and explained to me what she was feeling. I felt dumbfounded: after eight years of riding this horse, I was still not there yet! So I borrowed a thinner bit from the barn and it did make a difference. Then I went out and bought what I thought was a thinner bit, only it wasn’t.
So we haven’t made the switch full time yet, because I am the worst. But I have my eye on it, and will likely try to find what works for us at Everything Equine next month.

What bits have you tried? Have you thought a lot about your horse’s bit or do you tend to find something and stick with it?