A Bit of Advice
Buying a bit to "control" your horse? Think this through first.
Here's a question I get a lot: "What kind of bit should I use to give me the most control of my horse?"
I wonder what the horse thinks when he hears this. Picture taking your horse into your favorite tack store and showing him all the equipment being offered to "control" him — all the bits, ropes, spurs, tie downs, even electric shock collars. Your horse would probably have a heart attack and drop dead right there. It would look like a medieval torture chamber to him.
People with horses tend to be real equipment junkies, always looking for something that will immediately make a horse safe, soft and obedient, or more competitive and flashier for the judges. What gets lost in this frenzied search for a magic bullet is that a lot of horse equipment has been designed for very specific purposes and actually works well, if the proper steps have been taken to develop horse and rider along the way and if you're using the equipment as intended. Frustration comes in for horse and rider when you take a tool that works well for a certain set of conditions, then put it in the hands of an inexperienced person or use it in a totally different way. Kind of like taking Roger Federer's tennis racket and giving it to a weekend hacker — the person won't play any better and will probably play worse given the racket is designed for the best player in the world.
As the saying goes, the tool is only as good as the hands that hold it.
When asked about bits specifically, I try to answer in a way that gives a rider a better chance of making the right decision. If I hear the words "more control" or "more stop," I know I will probably butt heads with this person. I come from the school that believes the welfare of the horse comes first, and that the hands — and, by extension, the reins and bit — should never be seen as a brake, steering wheel, clutch or method of punishment. Your responsibility as a rider is to communicate with the horse through your hands and to position him to accomplish what you're asking. The "control" should come from a solid partnership. If you've ever seen a high-level bridle-less demonstration of reining or dressage, where a horse is soft and collected with true self-carriage, you'll understand that control doesn't come from a bit.
Try these three steps to make better equipment decisions, especially about bits:
Step 1 — What kind of riding do you intend to do? Will you ride mostly on the trails or just do arena work? Are you interested in refinement and collection or will you be roping or sorting cows? Your intended use is a critical factor in making equipment decisions.
Step 2 — Give a fair assessment of your horse. How developed and athletic is he? Does he give softly to pressure throughout his body or is he stiff and braced when asked to move or bend? Will he give you vertical and lateral softness from the ground in a simple rope halter? How old is he and what was his history before you bought him? Are his breeding and conformation suited for your riding goals?
Step 3 — What is your level of riding skill? I believe good riders, regardless of riding discipline, all share the same traits — they ride balanced and centered, they have a true independent seat, and they can separate all of their aids. The best cowboys and trail riders ride like this, as well as the best dressage riders.
What does this actually mean? Well, suppose I put you on a lunge line so that I was going to control the speed and direction of the horse and all you had to do is ride. Sounds easy. But now I ask you to ride without your reins and without your stirrups, and without holding on to anything for balance and security. Suddenly things become a lot more challenging. Now I ask you to do some things with your hands and arms, like passing a ball from hand to hand, then behind your back. Do something with one hand, something different with the other. Or maybe carry two cups of water without spilling, or carry a golf ball in a spoon without dropping it. Remember, you're still doing this all while you're following the movement of the horse. Then maybe I ask you to move your legs forward and back as if you're walking on the horse, or take one leg out to the side, then the other, then both. Then I ask you to do all this at the trot, maybe even the canter.
What's the point of all this? A good rider pretty much rides the horse from the knees to the lower back, following the horse's movement and staying loose and balanced within that area. This leaves the hands, arms, lower legs and upper body free to work independently to communicate and direct the horse — that is, to separate and use your aids. Your ability to ride like this has a lot to do with the kind of equipment you should be using. If you're constantly out of balance and having to grab the saddle or the reins or grip with your legs, then your communication with your horse is going to be confusing at best. More likely it will cause discomfort or even pain, which often leads to the very behavior in a horse that we think we need to control.
I once heard a US Olympic Team-level dressage rider say at a clinic that he believed no rider should be allowed to use a bit, to influence a horse with a tool that powerful, until they can prove to the horse that they know how to be a calm, balanced rider with an independent seat. Think about that.
Whether I'm starting, restarting or fine-tuning a horse and rider, after these three steps my progression to a bit decision starts with a rider using just the rope halter. I do this for two reasons. First, most of your ground work and basic softness/responsiveness teaching is done with a lead rope and rope halter. The horse understands this equipment and how to succeed and be rewarded when taught with it. For consistency, I find it very helpful to work on riding basics using the same piece of equipment. Second, I don't like to see the horse pay the price — that is, a bit banging around in his mouth — while a rider learns to communicate better and how to separate and use all of the available aids.
When I see the horse and rider working well together in the rope halter, then I like to move to a non-leveraged snaffle bit (i.e. no shank). I prefer a bit on a loose ring with a sleeve over the center hinge. My personal preference for this step is a Myler Comfort Snaffle, as it fits the horse's mouth better than most snaffle bits and eliminates the possibility of any pinching. I've been using these bits for over 10 years on all levels of horses with great success. I also like to use a set-up with rope reins and slobber straps, as this step is the important teaching phase. This is where you teach a horse to be soft and when you learn how the bit is supposed to work. It is where you learn to work each side of the horse and how to talk to each hoof. For me, it also gives a clear visual from the ground of what the rider is doing with his/her hands so I can suggest improvements.
When this picture looks really nice — the horse is soft and responsive and the rider is clearly using aids better and not hanging on the horse, using the reins and bit to communicate and support, not for control or security — then we can have our discussion about the best bit for moving forward in your primary riding interest. At this point you can make a decision based on your skills, your riding relationship with your horse and the knowledge of how a bit is supposed to work. The options for the right next step are endless — including no bit at all!
In closing, I wanted to mention a wonderful new horse-rescue operation that has opened here in Silver City. We all know what tough times these are for horse owners given the economy and the effects of drought on the price of hay. This has already led to more abandoned and neglected horses, and they need all the help we can give them. This facility was started by Carol Johnson and offers horses a wide-open 12 acres to roam, form herds and be horses. There is shelter from the weather and the horses are given the best vet, dental and farrier care that we have here locally. There is a full riding arena and a large round pen so horses can be given the kind of quality rehab and conditioning work they need. In addition, all horses are handled using the principles of natural horsemanship to offer them the best chance for physical and mental rehabilitation before they are ready for adoption. I have offered my time to teach any volunteers the use of the tools and techniques of natural horsemanship, and have been working with Carol and her assistant to develop their skills as well.
The rescue has been given full non-profit status as a 501(c)3 organization (so contributions are tax deductible) and has been inspected and approved by the state vet. If you want to learn more about horses, improve your own skills or just help out a very worthy cause, please contact Carol at (575) 313-5714.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship.
He can be reached with comments or questions
at firstname.lastname@example.org or (575) 388-1830.