How do I manage to fine-tune a bunch of big, strong horses without using severe bits? By constantly alternating the milder, softer bits that I (and they) prefer. Frequent changes keep a horse from getting "set" on any one particular bit--and keep me from starting to rely on the one advantage (leverage, poll pressure, whatever) that a particular bit gives me. At least once a month, for all my horses, I rotate my selection among these three options:
- a gag bit with a smooth snaffle mouthpiece, which elevates and encourages flexion
- a hollow, mullen-mouth "flute" bit (its one-piece mouth with holes tends to help a horse stay on the bit and straight)
- a fat, soft snaffle bit with big rollers (it keeps a horse from bearing down).
And there's one other piece of equipment I recommend. As a long-time working student and later assistant trainer at Katie Monahan's Plain Bay Farm in Middleburg, Virginia, I became a firm, firm, firm, firm believer in the standing martingale. (Trot into Katie's ring without one, and the first thing she tells you is "Just trot right out and get one.") What makes a standing martingale so effective, especially on a young horse? Whether he's high-headed or a head-tosser, he disciplines himself without you having to do it.
To fit a standing martingale, have your horse stand relaxed with his head in a normal position. Using your hand or index finger, lift the martingale; you want it to run up the underside of his neck along his windpipe and just reach the throatlatch on his bridle. That's a good basic adjustment. If it goes higher, it's probably too loose. On the other hand, if your horse holds his head high or tosses it a lot, you can go two to five holes shorter without overdoing.
Excerpted from Kim Frey's Step-by-Step article "Adjustability" in the June 2001 Practical Horseman