When I started Deli I began with a copper full-cheek snaffle. In my opinion this is the best bit to start a horse in since it clarifies the direct-rein signal while being very gentle on their mouths. Because Deli is back off the bit, I opted for the copper mouthpiece because she seemed to enjoy it more. For non-horsefolk readers, bits are typically made out of stainless steel, but copper and sweet iron both oxidize in the horse’s mouth and give it a flavor that some horses prefer.
After Deli and I mastered basic steering, I switched her to an even milder bit — a steel egg butt French link with curved bars. At this point we worked on refinement, flexion and relaxing into the contact rather than avoiding it. I found that the bars on this bit were a little too thick for her, however, despite liking the curved bars and general concept of the mild French-link.
So I then switched us to a bit which was a combination of the two: a high quality D-ring (which functions similarly to a full-cheek) with thin but curved bars and a copper roller in the middle of a double joint. This bit is mild in that it functions as a French-link and has less of a scissoring-action on her tongue, but it is also thin enough to give me precise control when needed. The D-rings also reinforce steering while being comfortable on her outer lips (where she is particularly sensitive). We have stuck with this bit quite happily until recently when our daily workout has moved away from dressage and towards trail riding and conditioning.
Deli does fine with this current bit — she softens and seeks contact with my hands easily enough. But you can tell she doesn’t like it. In the arena I always warm her up “on the buckle”, and when I take up the reins she responds with tail-swishing. Originally when I started riding her I worried that I was somehow hurting her, but after getting thorough checkups for both teeth and back my veterinary team and I concluded that taking up the contact meant work, and Deli was opposed to work. My horse is essentially a very lazy creature, and asking her to use herself in a way that is optimal for carrying a rider is HARD work. I resigned myself to the fact that her tail would swish and moved on.
Now that our focus is shifting from dressage to trail riding, I’ve noticed that with each successive trail ride my reins get longer and longer. Not only does Deli stretch out her head to power up hills, but her walk is ultimately forward and free-flowing without me having to hassle her constantly. If anything, I feel like the majority of our rides lately have consisted of me doing my best to stay out of her way when she is maneuvering over obstacles on the trails. This means putting more weight in the stirrups to get off her back and loosening my reins to give her head full range of motion. She also likes to look around on the trails — I have a feeling that she has an exploratory personality which only recently feels comfortable enough to reveal itself. The result is that I have been employing direct-rein much less.
At any rate, it got me thinking: why ride with a bit at all? Granted, we are probably going to stick with the bit for arena work because I haven’t found anything quite the same when it come to clear communication with Deli. But on the trails? I’ve only felt the need to take up the reins twice, and neither time was it to do something I wouldn’t have been able to do without the bit in her mouth. There would also be other advantages to going bit-less, which as making it easier for her to drink and eat while on the move and keep her more comfortable for the long distances I hope to someday conquer with her. There is also the advantage of never having to do the halter-bridle swapping game, making it easier to tie her safely wherever we are. There are disadvantages too. Bits are ideal when it comes to fine tune control or control in an emergency situation. Usually this has to do with stopping power for a bolting horse. Deli’s naughty side (which hasn’t been an issue at all recently) usually involves spinning in circles in an effort to avoid something that is making her anxious. For that kind of reaction, having a bit (particularly a full-cheek or D-ring) is highly useful but I’m not sure it is necessary. As for bolting, it is not Deli’s style (taking off at a dead gallop takes quite a bit of effort), so I’m not as concerned about stopping power. She has always had a magnificent halt — I never need to even employ the reins at all in normal circumstances – it only takes the tightening and holding of my abs to get her to plant her feet.
It also made me realize that on even our average days, the bit, bridle and reins are only my “backup” for steering and stopping. It’s Deli that taught me not to rely on my hands for control or comfort because she is a much happier beast when I use my seat and legs to guide her. For dressage, the bridle has served the primary purpose of achieving relaxation and the use of her top-line or re-directing her attention when it goes astray. I can probably do latter and maybe the former with a bit-less setup.
A good friend of mine lent me her Dr. Cook bridle and a simple rope halter sidepull to try out. After some short experiments in the arena today, I am leaning towards the sidepull. Deli seemed happier in it, and my general control was better. I’ll do more formal reviews of both types later once I use them both a couple more times in the arena, and at least once out on the trail . I like what I am seeing about the rope bridles online — particularly where some of them are modified so you can snap a bit on easily (like the one shown on this page), making it a bit-less, halter, bitted bridle combo! Versatility can only be a good thing when exploring the wilderness astride a horse like Deli — and when it’s something simple as well? Sounds like an awesome tool to me!