A ‘Bit’ of Advice

“What kind of bit do you recommend?” Now there’s a question. I guess my real answer is “The bit that’s attached to a pair of educated hands.”

Since the early 1900s, we as a society have gradually moved away from horse transportation towards vehicles powered by the infernal combustion engine.  These cars, in spite of the TV ads, don’t think. Horses do.

The action of a bit in a horse’s mouth depends on a conditioned reflex that must be taught. It’s kind of like learning ballroom dancing. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared to blend into a single unified being when they were whirling across the floor. A horse and its rider do best when they “dance” together the same way. And they learn to do that by working through a learning process. The rider develops a “feel” for the horse’s mouth and the horse learns to respond softly to signals coming down the reins from the rider’s hands.

In my own experience, the main difference in bits is how they feel, How the horse responds to my signals through the reins, and at the same time through my seat bones and my legs. It’s all a concert of “feel”. The best explanations I have ever been exposed to are the works of a Frenchman named François Baucher, and several of the twentieth century “horse whisperers” like Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, along with Germans, like Egon Von  Neindorf , and Reiner Klimke and finally the Portuguese Nuno Oliveira. Some of these guys were primarily snaffle bit men, some double bridle,spade bit, and  some were even hackamore men.

The essence of all their training is for the rider to develop trust in the horse’s mouth, teaching the horse to give with the jaw instead of resisting. This is the jaw flexion, the essence of lightness. It is not the same as poll flexion. Its hallmark is the sound of the bit being moved softly by the tongue and then by the horse swallowing.  When a jaw flexion happens, no matter what kind of bit is in the horse’s mouth, the horse’s mouth goes light in your hand, the horse relaxes, and gives smooth, enthusiastic, willing movement. This is the feeling I wanted to find for many years. No one bit or bridle gave it to me. Time in the saddle and study of the methods of these masters and my teachers has started me on the path to lightness.

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