To ‘Bit Up’ or Not?

I am often asked about changing a horse’s bit or adding a martingale or a drop noseband.  Recently I had a lengthy conversation with one of my students about the rhyme and reason for choosing anything and realized that this is probably a topic that most amateurs don’t have a lot of experience with.  They often have one horse and the limited scope of choosing equipment for that horse.

So, when do we change the bit or add equipment?  My answer to her, very simply, was only if it enhances, in a natural way, the riders’ correct aids.

Assuming the horse has had a fair and proper start with a mild bit and can walk-trot-canter-halt in a basic snaffle, we can consider a new bit as the horse advances his/her career.  If they are proficient at jumping and moving up the levels, but have a tendency to get excited and blow through the rider’s aids on the approach to a fence, it might be time for an adjustment.  At this stage, you should know how your horse evades the aids and how they are submissive.  I have found that very few horses are truly hard-mouthed, but most have weak hind-ends to rock back onto, so that is your work for all eternity.

If you have a horse that gets heavier and heavier in it’s gallop, you will want something that helps you elevate the horse’s front end.  If you have a horse that is built uphill and has a tendency to pop up in front, you might want something with leverage and/or a running martingale.  But please be clear about the action you want to create.  There is no substitute for correct training.  Your best bet is to discuss with your trainer to come up with the best solution, keeping in mind that less is more.

I have seen many horses in troubles with their rider due to an incorrect combination of equipment.  One of the best examples

USEA Equipment Appendix
Part of the USEF Eventing Rulebook:  Appendix 4

was at my ICP Assessment in South Carolina.  I was SUPER nervous about my assessment and had arrived a full day in advance to watch other instructors, which only served to make me more anxious.  When it came time to teach my cross-country lesson, I was paired with a Level III Instructor who competed at Advanced.  She came out in a Cheltenham Gag bit with two reins, a running martingale and spurs three inches long.  The whole picture was one of driving and skiing. I politely inquired about this set-up, but was much too timid to tell this upper level rider that her rig was bonkers.

We began the lesson and the horse was running away with her everywhere we went.  I asked her to jump a line:  skinny, three strides to an upright log under a tree. I described how I wanted her to come off the turn, rebalance the horse with her outside rein to create a bouncy, collected canter.  Off she went at a gallop, came around the turn like she was at Louisville and the horse leaped in and leaped out… one stride between fences spaced 48 feet apart.  It was NOT good.

At this stage my assessor stepped in to reset the balance between the novice instructor (me) and the experienced rider/instructor (her).  I had not been assertive enough and she  ‘should f*&^ing know better!”  Needless to say, it did nothing for our rapport, but she took off her spurs and dropped the lower rein on the gag, effectively making it a snaffle.  We finished the lesson with me demonstrating the necessary words to pass my exam and her rolling her eyes at every instruction.  But, it was a perfect lesson for me… more is not more when it comes to equipment, and as the instructor, I better have a clear idea of what I’m after and how each piece of equipment affects that outcome.

Bottom line, if it causes the horse to drop behind the bit, shorten the neck, hollow the back, lower the front end or alter their soft, natural way of going, it is not the right solution.  And, 9 times out of 10, more training is the answer.

Good luck out there!

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