Essays of an Equestrian

I woke up early today and found a glorious Sunday morning. The sky, cloudless, is that perfect shade of a light, yet deep blue which echoes the arrival of welcome warmer weather.


A cup of coffee or two later, along with a maintenance trip to Facebook found me clicking on the TV. I tuned to a country channel, RFD-TV or as I like to call it, “The Horse Channel”. No, it’s not totally horse, but with coverage of many different equine disciplines, including British CCTV, there’s often something equine on to hold my interest.


Sometimes, I’ll watch a British dressage instructor doing a fabulous clinic or lesson with someone. Other times it’s a natural horsemanship guru which either gets me to arch a brow wondering, or compels me to yell at the TV. My spouse has gotten used to me yelling at the TV for two types of shows: natural horsemanship and “Nanny” shows focusing with highly disobedient children and their pathetic parents who end up crying in frustration because they are getting “run over” by their kids.


Today though, after a visit with the Budweiser Clydedales and the cleanest barn I’ve ever seen, there was some iconic western bit connoisseur discussing the use of bits on a horse.


At first glance the show discussed nothing riveting. Then a line caught my attention when the interviewed man said “For most riders with uneducated hands it doesn’t matter what bit you get. You have to really have educated hands to understand and appreciate the nuances each bit has to offer”.


Now I’ve heard that bits which were more severe should only be used by those more educated since if you’re too hard with your hands you can ruin the horse’s mouth. Heck, we’ve ALL heard that.


But I never thought of it in this context.


Damn. Cowboy, you have my attention. Go on please.


“Well…”, he says. “It’s just like when someone takes a picture. If you’re an average picture taker you are going to get a pretty basic camera. However, if you’re a pro, you are going to get something more sophisticated and more easily manipulated by you. And you’ll know how to manipulate it because you are skilled and educated. It’s the same with bits”.


Then, the next line hit home. “And it’s not only the bit, it’s how you use it. It’s the refinement of your hands. Remember, slow hands are good hands”.


I sit back now and start thinking in my head, comparing my experiences with riding western where the horse is off the bit, to riding dressage where the horse is on the bit.

Now my Sunday morning exercise is reconciling this.


Heck, I can’t ride. A phone call last night told me my horse had thrown another front “chu”. A “chu” tacked on less than a week ago.  I truly hate my horse’s feet. So, today’s learning will have to be this.


In dressage, does the nuance of differing bits affect your outcome? Sure, you have the snaffles with a single joint and the French link type. In upper levels you use two bits, the bridoon and a curbed type. But basically the choice is somewhat limited. How much could there be to know?


This man, as a trainer, had a collection of over a hundred different bits.


Enter the conversation in my mind, the voices in my head as it were. It went like this:


“A hundred bits? Really? A hundred? Well, if what he says is true would it also be true that in dressage slow hands are also good hands?”


Then my thoughts escalated. If a theory such as “slow hands are good hands” is relevant in one discipline, does it carry on to another discipline?


Well, he’s a western rider and western horses are trained to somewhat be off the bit and dressage horses are trained more to be on the bit. And in western, the amount of severity of the bit is as much as is needed to keep the horse off the bit.


So in dressage, since you want the horse to be on the bit, wouldn’t you use the least amount of bit in order to keep the horse on the bit?

Well yes, yes you would. If the horse was truly being trained to be on the bit and if the horse was being trained to be so much more than a headset.


And, if so, wouldn’t the logical progression be that the higher a horse is trained, then the less of a bit it should require? Why then the conformity that upper less horses must be ridden with two bits and one of those with a big ole port? What do they know that I don’t know?


Then it hit me. Again, it’s all a matter of sophistication. When we ride the body, then the hand can confirm, and it should never be the other way around. The hand should be slow to come into action because it should always come into action AFTER the body. And so, when the body rides big, like upper level horses ride big, the hands need a tool which allows for the smallest amount of “do” on the part of the hands.


Wait a minute, didn’t I, in the very beginning of this blog, post a quote by Charles de Kunffy which says “the leg energizes, the seat modifies and the hand verifies”?


I already knew this! Well, most of this. But that tiny nuance of individualizing bit type threw me off.


Damn! Now I know I have uneducated hands and I have yet another topic to go off and further study.


And just when I was about to get distracted by a fabulous singer.


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The good will of the horse is like the scent of a rose. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.