Bits are a funny thing. Ralph Hill is well known for his “bit wall” and knowledge of each one’s purpose and how it will affect various horses. I’ve been told he brings along a big box of bits to clinics and isn’t afraid to experiment with them. Phillip Dutton rides nearly all of his horses cross-country in a snaffle bit. Other riders, more often professionals (strangely), put the most complicated and frightening looking gadgets on their poor horse’s heads. Alternatively, you’ll see plenty of amateurs and juniors clearly out of control and never changing their equipment OR their training. Bits and bridles are just another huge component of horsemanship and an often overlooked topic of education.
I rode briefly as a child at a saddle seat barn. They used these big honkin’ long-shanked bits with two reins (I was also an 8-year-old on a flighty saddlebred without a helmet, so I really don’t even feel the need to discuss horsemanship in terms of bits here). At Mrs. Gosch’s, most of the school horses went in a fat eggbutt snaffle, and a couple took a pelham when we jumped. Many of my horses growing up went in whatever bit they came with or made do with something from our small box (not a wall) of simple bits and pieced together head wear.
Breezy went up to Training level and competed all three phases in a skinny, loose-ring snaffle. And she chomped away at it, leaving a trail of foam everywhere we went. (below: Breezy and me going Novice at Poplar Place. Such a girl! Shannon Brinkman photo)
Bailey did pretty well in a boucher on the flat, but I don’t think it would have mattered what he had in his mouth. He still hates flatwork. He jumped in a three-ring. If I remember correctly, he also shared a bridle with Sam for a while, so they both went in a three-ring. Truthfully, this was a terrible bit to use on both of these horses, and these days I fairly dislike it altogether, but it’s a really popular bit and works fine for a lot of people.
Sam was not a puller at Novice, but he was could stop and spin like a cat (he went through a naughty phase), and the three-ring did give me some control. Later I switched him to a regular gag, which was the total wrong thing to do because while he had a great canter and gallop, he was lazy, and the faster we galloped on course, the more downhill and heavy he would get until I was furiously trying to get his attention so he would rock back again before a fence. He was athletic enough he could make it work, but the move from Training to Preliminary really showed where we lacked in our communication and education, and I certainly didn’t need a bit that brought his head down more. I picked up a refusal at one event because I couldn’t get him off the forehand to make a turn to a big ditch and wall, and we were getting too close to too many fences.
After a particularly frightening Prelim round at Pine Top I knew we had to make a change. Instead of galloping up and across the maxed out tables, he charged down to the base of them. I was pretty strong in my prime, but he was so heavy by the time we hit the first long gallop, I had to come to a complete stop and regroup before I continued on. He got the point and finished quite well and jumped clear, but with lots of time. He was very fit and very strong, but at Prelim, I needed him to gallop and be adjustable without us both having to work so hard.
Jennifer had been having great success riding Sam’s half-brother Chasse in a polo gag. The ring is at least twice as big as a regular gag, but the main difference was there were two jointed snaffle pieces, which prevented the horse from taking hold of the bit and leaning. I tried it once and was sold. I only used it when schooling XC or in competition, and when Sam realized he couldn’t lean on this one he got back to work and galloped beautifully. Cross-country became fun again. He galloped right up to the fences in a perfect stride, jumped incredibly, and started finishing closer to optimum time. The polo gag was probably more brakes than I really needed, but once he found his balance, I never needed to touch the reins. He was such a talented bugger. I’ve discovered since that there are full cheek bits with the same double snaffles, and had we spent more than two seasons at Preliminary, I probably would have switched him to that.
Our best ever Prelim run was our last show together. It was at Poplar Place and he was perfect the whole way around the course. The next day, I learned two things: 1) the polo gag was far too much bit for show jumping 2) he did not like pads in his shoes. He was very foot sore and ended up blowing a bunch of abscesses soon after. (The pad thing was perpetual. Naomi came up with some pretty creative shoeing as his feet adjusted to Virginia, and we went through a padding phase where we discovered just a skoshe too much padding and he would instantly be off. Just enough and he was never sounder. Weirdo.)
Anyway, for a time all our horses were doing flat work in a french link snaffle and responded really nicely to it. Somehow in my trek north, I ended up with a loose ring french link snaffle I’d never seen before, but we were just hacking around so whatever. When Willow came, I put that same loose ring french link on her. I don’t remember what sort of bit I broke her in all those years ago, but I discovered very quickly that she did not like a fat eggbutt in her little mouth and she definitely did not like a straight bar happy mouth. In the end, I learned the connection problems we had and her apprehensive behavior were not related to the bit, but in part to her teeth and the rest in muscle. We sorted her teeth out and then started working on building strength. The horses work hard for us, and coming back into work makes them sore, just like us. Willow had a couple nice massages, spent all fall and winter getting fit, and now she’s a totally different pony. Naomi describes her as “svelt.” She’s certainly elegant, and she knows it. She’s starting to get really comfortable with lifting her back and stretching over her topline now that she has the strength and flexibility to do so.
I kept her in the french link for quite a while, but she was still fairly inconsistent in the bridle, and Kate and I agreed that maybe the french link is distracting for her. With a young or green horse, you want the simplest bit for the simplest conversation. And while the bit was very soft, the loose ring with a link in the middle is a lot to pay attention to. As I started asking for more contact, I started considering changing her bit, and I had a better idea now what might work for her. I took a trip to Middleburg Tack, and while standing in front of the wall of bits, examining various thin eggbutts and full cheeks, I sent my mom a text.
A few days later, a package containing a full cheek plain snaffle arrived in the mail. It’s a bit I rode both Sam and Bailey in when they were young. The full cheek gives me some turning control, which she needs sometimes due simply to strength, and the plain snaffle offered a non-distracting connection. She’s taken to it just as I hoped she would. She likes taking a soft hold and having an elastic feel of my hands. She’s responsive without being overly sensitive, and we are better able to continue working on the basics of flatwork and building all the right muscles the right way.
Sometimes we change bits for the wrong reasons or when we don’t really need to. With this switch, I made a calculated decision and so far it’s working out just as I’d hoped. I continue to be so proud and thrilled with Willow. We have so much fun and get along simply swimmingly. She’s such a sweet girl, and I can’t wait to go on more fun adventures with her… as soon as the weather improves.