On Bits, Bridles and Big Jumps

It’s been a busy month. Between studies, horses, preparing for a big show with the cowies, writing the eQuest for Truth blog, novelling a bit and studying for my learner’s licence, blogging kinda fell by the wayside.

The Bridle of Awesome
The Bridle of Awesome

Skye has been doing some dressing up; I gave myself permission to be just a little bit tack-crazy for a while and blew some extra cash on a bunch of awesome Western stuff, including a beautiful silver lace bridle, Western curb bit and Navajo saddle blanket to match the saddle.

She has been going extremely well in the curb. Its mouthpiece and port are identical to that of the pelham she was going in, but the shank is significantly longer and slightly curved; she feels a lot more sensitive to it, and I wouldn’t trust a lot of riders with it because I think it is a pretty harsh bit. I doubt I’d ride her English-style on a contact with it either, but as it is now, it’s perfect. She’s learned to neck-rein quite consistently so I actually don’t have to touch her mouth except to slow down, and even then it can literally be just a touch. So most of the time, the bit just sits there in her mouth and I can guide her with a gentle touch and no severity is involved, but if she gets overexcited and I need some good brakes I have the backup of the strong curb if I need it.

Skye has just always gone a lot better in a curb of some sort and, when used with care, this bit seems to be the best one for her so far.

Although for years I believed that changing a horse’s bit from a snaffle to something harsher should be absolutely the last resort and even then was something of a failure, I’m starting to rethink this. We all know, after all, that the bit is only as harsh as the hands that use it. After riding both Skye and Magic in snaffles for months and finding myself bullying them around with my hands because it was the only way to stay in control, I got tired of being frustrated and yanking on my horses’ jaws and put them both in curbs. Skye is in her Western curb now and Magic is in a pelham with the reins through the top ring, so it has something of a Kimberwick action. Both of them are significantly happier, and so am I. Magic now goes in a proper outline and I can ride him with an extremely light contact, using just faint pressure for aids. He still flips out every now and then and tosses his head in the air and threatens to rear, but he did that rather more in the snaffle. I also took him from a standing martingale to a running martingale, which has no effect up until he wants to break my nose, and is then quite invaluable.

The other thing is that in the snaffle I used to hang onto his mouth for dear life whilst jumping, because otherwise I would have no control at all when he hit the ground. In the pelham I can give him as much rein as he needs, knowing that if he does take off when he lands I can get him back in a stride or two with no trouble.

I certainly don’t think that all horses should end up in curbs, but I do believe that in the right hands a curb can be a lovely thing. All Grand Prix dressage horses go in double bridles after all, because a snaffle just doesn’t have the subtlety. It should by no means be the quick fix for every horse – yanking on a curb is going to ruin a mouth much faster than yanking on a snaffle – but it can make riding a whole lot more pleasant for horse and rider both.

Summer coats still holding on...
Summer coats still holding on…

Speaking of Magic, he is now sound again. The wound on his leg has healed nicely into just a little bit of a mark with a bump of scar tissue; it’s a bit unsightly, but doesn’t affect his soundness in any way. I brought him straight back into work and he is a lot more sane in the paddock and happier in his own skin. His flatwork is quite good at the moment; transitions can be messy and panicky, but on the whole he is much calmer and more obedient. Jumping has been either awesome or terrible. When I jumped him for the first time after his holiday he was stunning, didn’t overjump a thing, never stopped and went about his business calmly and happily. The next time, I overfaced both of us and he had a stop because I wasn’t there for him. With horses like Arwen and Reed, I can afford a stop because chances are the next time I’ll be annoyed with myself and ride intentionally, and they’ll go for me. Magic doesn’t. He’s a much more sensitive soul, and he decides that since he was allowed to stop once it’s okay to do it again until the next thing I know he’s refusing 60cm cross-rails. The trouble is that it makes me timid because when he does jump after a stop he overjumps, and when a young thoroughbred with a lot of talent overjumps, I mean clears-the-1.8m-uprights kind of overjumping. I haven’t come off yet, but it is a bit nerve-wrecking.

I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of Magic all of the time. I certainly used to be; cantering him was a bone-meltingly scary experience for the first few months. Now, I’m totally fine with him 90% of the time, but when he starts pretending to be a giant pogo stick I lose my nerve.

There’s an easy way around it, though, and that’s not to overface us before we’re ready and to build the heights slowly, because as long as I’m confident he’s confident and jumps sensibly.

Little horse, big spirit
Little horse, big spirit

Arwen has been amazing. Our show was unfortunately cancelled, but I’m looking at another one later this month. Her canter and canter transitions have improved significantly, but her canter can still tend to be on the messy side, either being an awkward half-trot half-canter or being rather too fast. Part of it is that the arena is on a slope and it’s very hard for her to balance whilst going downhill, but some of it is just training. She tends to be pretty heavy on my hands; easy enough to stop, but very hard to get into a decent outline. She works beautifully with her hindquarters and her hindlegs come right down underneath her, with a good round back, but the head and neck just aren’t there. I’ve been schooling her in side reins to try and correct that.

Lateral work in trot is coming along well with leg-yield, haunches-in and shoulder-in all there, just in need of some fine-tuning. I also asked for her first few steps of leg-yield in canter, and although it was awkward, she understood what I wanted and gave me three diagonal strides before losing her balance and fumbling along on a straight line. Flying changes are still a huge struggle, but she has suddenly decided that she always halts squarely. As in, always. When she’s led, when she’s lunged, when she’s ridden, probably even when she stops at a jump.

Thankfully this seldom happens; the last time we jumped was fabulous. We were just popping over an upright in a circle, working on landing on the right lead, and once she’d worked hard at that I decided to have some fun and go up to 1.10m. She was utterly pro at that, of course, so I took a risk and put it up a little higher. She put up her ears and cleared that too, so I made it a bit higher and promised her that we were only going to try once, and the next thing I knew we had cleared about 1.30m.

“Wow,” the Horse Mutterer opined when I showed him the jump the next day. He looked from Arwen, who was about on nose level with the obstacle, to the jump and back again and added, “Just don’t punish her like this too often, okay?”

I doubt Arwie will ever be competitive at that height – it is rather ridiculous to ask that of a 14.2hh pony – but it was still plenty of fun. And considering the Mutterer once doubted we’d ever go higher than 1.00m, anything is possible.

So cute
So cute

Reed has been amazing at dressage recently. I rode him in side reins a couple of times to fine-tune his outline, and he now goes like a real little spotty Lipizzaner, light as butter in my hands with his proud little stallion neck all arched. His canter is an absolute dream, slow, measured and rhythmical. I put on a pair of spurs and discussed some lateral work with him too, and he was fabulous; shoulder-in he knows, but he also gave me turn on the forehand, some leg-yield, and his first few steps of pirouette.

His jumping was a bit up and down. At the start of the month I challenged him by putting up a 1.10m upright, which he bunny-hopped over and earned my great praise; but last week he had a really off day and stopped consistently at a 90cm double that he shouldn’t have batted an eyelid at. I made him jump it a few times before writing it off as a bad day. They happen.


Baby Thunder has been dressing up as well, rocking the Western look. I wasn’t going to buy him a bridle, but then I saw this Poco bridle and it was cheap and I really liked the browband and that very afternoon he bolted on an outride and one of his reins broke right off, so I bought it. He has been hard to stop from a lope recently, setting his jaw against my hands a bit; in fact his whole lope needs work. Although he has been changing leads absolutely beautifully, he lopes too fast and falls out on circles.

He is also jittery on outrides, especially where I fell off last time; the memory has probably made him nervous. We’ll work through it, though. He’s still a baby, after all.

Sookie and I when we first met
Sookie and I when we first met

To wrap it up, look who’s back. CWT regulars will recognise this big, odd-eyed, German giraffe as Sookie Lynn von Samaii, an imported warmblood bred in the purple and born to do dressage. She had a bit of maternity leave but now we’re aiming for HOY next year and she needs to come back, get in shape and behave herself, and as she’s always been my project I’m really happy to be back on her.

Watch this space. I’m still busy. Glory be to God for allowing me to be healthy and happy and working hard at what I love.

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