My column in this month's Horse Journal discusses every rider’s quest to find the ‘right’ bit for the horse they're currently riding. I’d summarize this column by saying there are two primary methods of searching the best bit for your horse.
The first method is to follow the evolution that results from thorough training. But you must also accept that the reason you need a different bit (especially a stronger one) may actually be that your problem is actually a training deficit that you haven’t addressed. It could also be a sign of the effect of your training, a sign that you’ve created a stronger and more eager horse.
The second method is experimentation, constant experimentation. Different horses like different bits, and as your horse matures and as his training develops, his bitting needs can change again and again and again. Just like us, horses are not static creatures.
So this week, as a complement to my column, I thought I’d tell you about how I've experimented with bits over the last few years wit my two best horses. I hope it will be illustrative.
Sometimes our experimentation is based on observation. For instance, how is the horse's mouth shaped' Does he have a wide space between his bottom jaw and his top jaw, or is it pretty narrow'‘ Does he have a wide space between his teeth and his cheeks on both sides (like most warmbloods and drafts), or is it just a narrow sliver (like most Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds).
But sometimes our experimentation is based on a hunch. We've even been known to try a bit that we didn’t think would work, only to have the horse prove us wrong. that's another time when we wish they could talk.
I was amused that the photo that editor Cindy Foley chose to put on the article’s first page is of my mare Amani, who could be the poster horse for the points I've just made. I'm constantly experimenting with bits with her, and I still don't think I've found the ‘right’ one for her. In fact, I doubt I'll ever find one that she’ll always like.
I can't list all the bits Amani has had in her mouth, because I doubt I remember them all. In this photo, she’s wearing a double-jointed D-ring snaffle with a shaped mouthpiece, a bit we bought expressly for her. We took that photo back in May, and I've used at least two other bits on her for flatwork since then.
Amani, who's 6 and competing at preliminary level, is a highly aware, easily distracted horse. Plus, the skin on the left side of her mouth is quite sensitive because her white blaze extends around her entire mouth on that side, down to her chin. So thick bits often rub the corner of her lip, which displeases her. We thought she’d like the shaped mouthpieces and that the D-ring wouldn’t rub her.
It doesn’t rub her, but she’s in a stage where she ignores the ‘softness’ of the shaped mouthpiece. So, since then, I've tried a thin, double-jointed loose-ring snaffle with shaped mouthpieces (which can rub her cheek) and a double-jointed, plastic Boucher snaffle. She does seem to respond more obediently to the poll pressure of the Boucher, but the thicker plastic does sometimes rub her cheek.
For jumping Amani, I've never found anything she likes better than a three-ring snaffle that's double-jointed and covered in plastic, with a rolling center lozenge. Actually, her relative happiness with that bit for jumping is why I tried the plastic Boucher, even though nothing else suggested that bit might suit her, sometimes.
I've traveled a somewhat less twisting path with Alba, who's 11 and competing at intermediate level. I rode her on the flat for the first few years in a double-jointed, plastic-covered loose-ring snaffle, trying to encourage her to accept the bit and to let me ride her into its contact. After that, I tried two other bits: ‘a D-ring, plastic-covered double-jointed snaffle and a Dr. Bristol.
But for the last year or so, I've been working her in a plastic, double-jointed Boucher also. As her training and strength have developed (now that she’s competing at intermediate level, the dressage is equivalent to third level), I've found the poll effect of the Boucher helpful to keep her front end round and to allow fuller engagement of her hind end and collection.
But I've never changed the bit in which I jump her. More than four years ago, I decided to try a hollow-mouthed, double-jointed three-ring bit. I thought she’s like the light weight of it, and I like three-ring bits because you can be subtle and soft when you need to be.
I did this summer change the noseband Alba wears, though. As Gina Miles suggests in my column, often trying a different noseband works as well or better than trying a new bit. I switched from a flash noseband to a figure-eight noseband, and her improved response to my aids was immediately noticeable.