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A Breeder’s Notebook

From times immemorial everything we do to a horse originates from the necessity to control him. Control over him puts his labour at your disposal. Because of the evolved role of the horse, control of his labour has been surpassed by the need to win competitions. To win, the horse needs to compete with spontaneity and absolute commitment while you retain control. The crunch of the matter is that the commitment will be yours, but you want him to commit as if it were his. The only way to have a horse commit like that is to get him to work with you. Much has been written on control of the horse, but not that much on getting him to want to work with you. The necessity of a “bit wall� in every tack shop highlights our fallacy. There is a world of difference between a horse wanting to work with you and accepting what’s being done to him, but it is only on the other end of the scale               resistance. At the dawn of horsemanship, bits were put into the horse’s mouth to be the primary source of control. It served its purpose at a time when our ultimate goal was to get the horse to transport you from point A to point B, but if your goal is to win competitions, it not enough. The success or failure of a bit depends on the bit’s suitability as a means of communication and not the amount of “control that it affords you� (read pain that can be brought to bear on the horse). If the bit is suitable, the rest depends on the horse’s ability to convert cues from the bit into the desired action. The horse’s

let that “bit wall� be, there is no substitute for proper conditioning or good hands. Just as there is no miracle bit that can make bad hands good. The way the bit is used is far more important than the actual bit used. But be aware that the best Tension followed by resistance will always pair of hands and the correct bit will be develop; sometimes it’s not even related found lacking as it cannot replace proper to your actions. However, the surest way conditioning. If you need more control and to tension and resistance is by forcing the consider a harsher bit, you will have more horse with the bit and, if you don’t succeed, success going for a milder bit and doing

      a complete and proper reconditioning enhance the horse’s co-operation; on the of the horse and your hands. There is no contrary, it will only tense him up further        !  and provide even more resistance. Pain to be found in choosing the mildest and equals tension and therefore resistance. A most comfortable bit and conditioning the horse’s most effective resistance is in his horse to it. There is only one thing you body, but the human’s reaction is in the can successfully start from the top – that reins. It should be a conscious decision is digging a hole. For the rest you have to      start from the bottom and pay your dues. tension, that develops into resistance, prevents him from responding with the desired action to the bit cue, assuming that he is conditioned to understand what you     

A horse never forgets if you hurt him with a bit, which is why so many horses carry a trained-in resistance to the bit throughout their working lives. To avoid hurting the horse with a bit you have to understand the way in which it functions. With a bit in the mouth, the tongue will press the bit up against the palate, although not hard, and compress with the thickness of the bit. If the tongue does not compress, your horse’s mouth will be open. Thus a mouth-contoured bit with the minimum air space in the mouth would be the most comfortable for the horse. When used the bit acts on the tongue, compresses it and then presses on the side bars of the jaw. There is a space between the incisors and molars where a bit can lie without acting on the teeth in a horse’s mouth; a bit seat. That would be in a straight line with the   "#     it should lie in the bit seat and not wrinkle the corners of his mouth both at standstill and in contact. In normal conditions the mouth piece of the bit never touches the molars. Only with very heavy contact,        a gag bit, will it come up against the teeth. That is counterproductive as the teeth feel no direct pain therefore the horse quickly           $    opposite of where you want to be. With a lowered bit under heavy contact, the horse will pull the tongue up and over the bit to avoid pain. It is not true that horses learn        too low – they do that to avoid the pain of heavy contact of the bit on the tongue. %             doesn’t relieve the pain for the horse, it just

           0$        a horse to wear a bit correctly and be for communication. In usual circumstances aware never to use heavy contact.       /  '     The pull of the reins on the lower jaw of some other bit if you can’t get him to the horse is something the horse is not 1    /%     built for. The lower jaw is connected to the set-up would be a fairly narrow, mouth        contoured medium thickness, doublebehind the eye on both sides (the temple jointed egg butt. It needs to be no wider joint) and is kept there by sinew and muscle.        A heavy hand on the reins ends up in the of the lip when held straight through the temple joint and hurts when continually mouth out to the sides with the rings. Fit pulled back, hence tension and resistance. the bit in the mouth so that no wrinkles &  '   appear at the corners of the mouth. Be is to defend himself by resisting the pulling  2 /    down on his lower jaw by leaning on the bit be mild but can actually cause much more or crossing his jaw as soon as the rider pulls damage than you would think. on them. This becomes a vicious circle. In contrast, getting the horse to want to work 3        /    with you is more of an attitude change folds in the mouth as you pull on the than a method of working with a horse. reins. The fold around the lower jaw acts Contact with the bit should be no more like a nutcracker on the jawbones and the than the rider’s feel of the horse’s lips and V-shape of the link hits the horse in the tongue – just a mild sensation – because in palate. The palate is a very sensitive area in hard contact no cue is discernible for the the horse’s mouth. The more vertical the horse. Worse is that hard contact is in itself head, the more the V points into the palate. the cause of even harder contact. If a cue is On horses ridden into heavy contact with not only brief but also followed by a good  /   and clear release, it is simply lost. Instead of        /   % constantly pulling on the reins you should bit is supposed to rest on the tongue and ride with a release of the tension of the compress it slightly; it shouldn’t hit the reins as a default.      3   /    wider than the corners of the mouth, the  *    + /0    "    nutcracker effect will be more pronounced. and most horses are started and ridden An additional harassment is that with heavy in it. The most important feature from the    /  " horse’s point of view is it being jointed, corners. It is a small consolation that under which enables the rider to move the bit heavy contact with the joint hitting him in in the mouth of the horse on one or the palate and crushing his jaw bones, the both sides (the way you do when giving a horse most probably won’t even notice




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the rings pinching his mouth corners. To avoid tension and resistance it is essential that the bit be used with light contact only.

4 5          somewhat and causes the base of the neck to lift and the neck to telescope, if the horse knows how to do this. He must have A welcome relief for the horse is the           /   1*  /%    that this is easy to do when the curb asks join the middle piece with vertical links for it. The curb is normally adjusted to have and can still move independently on either the horse’s head more or less vertical from side of the mouth. This bit conforms better the start; the horse must be well schooled to the shape of the mouth and is useful and trained to have his head vertical. That especially in combination with soft or light   "         contact. This bit has a greater tendency to beginnings of collection. work on the bars of the jaw instead of the 4 3       "     tongue. Some horses are sensitive to this, pressure he is telling you “I am not ready�. but those with sensitive tongues tend to If your answer is a tight noseband, you are prefer it. admitting failure. A noseband just closes his mouth – eliminates the protest – it doesn’t The double bridle is intended for the horse make him comfortable. that is thus schooled, but is dangerous territory if you do not fully understand It is generally accepted that the longer the the consequences. Only when the horse shanks of a curb bit, the sharper the bit. moves in balance and on the bit in all gaits That is not entirely true and, unfortunately         /   for the horse, misleading. In terms of if small corrections are needed, is there physics, doubling the shank length will more *

        /   than double the power but quadruple the curb bit. In the double bridle the regular movement needed and virtually nullify  /  "   /2 feedback. It is turning a dialogue into a called the bridoon – to avoid overcrowding monologue, if you like. The shorter the the horse’s mouth. The curb bit has a solid shank of a curb bit the more direct it is, mouth bar and shanks that work by lever while still retaining enough leverage to action on the chin chain and the poll via cue the horse and, most importantly, the head stall. A pull on the rein causes there’s some feedback from the horse the upper shank to move forward, the side (with feedback you can prevent tension pieces via the headstall put pressure on the turning into resistance). In other words it’s poll and the mouth piece via the chin chain still a dialogue. After all, the double bridle puts pressure on the tongue and lower jaw. is meant to be used on a horse that is As the curb bit puts pressure across the conditioned to react to light aids. tongue, it is relieved as the horse drops the      Colonel A Podhajsky, former director of the to the vertical or by opening the mouth: 6  5   6 $   " 

feats in performances to three conditions: “A horse has to be quiet, supple and obedient� – that is, he has to want to work with you. If you can get the horse to want   $     a master of perception. The more he is focused on you, the sharper his perception. He will not only read your body language and pick up your attitude, but he can also          such as the lightest of aids until it becomes almost eerie. To know and understand this

 "         how to harness it. Get the horse to want to work with you and in time your wish " %$   increasingly need a heavier hand, stop and rethink your strategy – you are going the      "    3 "  $ "   this is beautiful to witness: if, when you put the bridle on and as soon as he becomes aware of the bit, he starts searching with his lips for it, picks it up and settles it in his mouth all by himself, you know that you are there, he really wants to work with you. Look at his ears, eyes and mouth: you will  "$        %    "     "   you but mostly of accepting the bit as         ""      5""          such. Don’t spoil it all by being aggressive in your usage of the bit.

References My Horses, My Teachers, Colonel A Podhajsky 7'8 9<  $=  5  7>  Horsemanship, Johan Dreyer Various previous editions of South African Show Horse magazine (Johan can be reached at 




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Sporting Horse_A Breeder's Notebook: Bitting_Sept2010  
Sporting Horse_A Breeder's Notebook: Bitting_Sept2010  

A Breeder's Notebook is a regular featured article in the Sporting Horse Magazine. In this article Johan Dreyer discusses how to gain contro...