I Hope I am Back to Riding Again

I had not had a lesson for two whole months. I had not ridden for over 5 weeks. Such is my life in the times of winter and the Covid-19 super-spreader events and resulting surges of cases. The holiday period has passed, the insurrection at the US Capitol ended, we have a new President in the USA (YEAH!!!) and maybe, just maybe, effective action now will be taken against this plague on my riding life.

I called up Debbie on Tuesday, and everyone was healthy in her family except for a normal head cold in one of her grandchildren, and I shrugged. I wear a mask and regularly sanitize my hands when I go out, the wash stall is well ventilated, and I ride in an outside ring. I felt safe enough.

I had all this new stuff to show Debbie too! Of course I started off with the book “Horse Brain, Human Brain” by Janet L. Jones, PhD. I showed her the book and I told her that EVERYBODY who was planning on leasing or buying a horse needed to read the book, pushing that it would decrease the inevitable beginner ignorance based abuse that horses have to put up with. She looked at the book, took a picture of the cover with her phone, and she told me she had a new boarder that definitely needed to read it. All these years of discussions on equitation, training, psychology, and putting the horse first paid off, she knows I have read hundreds upon hundreds of horse books and was quite content when I told her that no other book I've read covered the information in this book.

I also showed her my new grooming tools, the Haas hoof pick/brush, the Haas face brush, and the Epona wooden curry. She LIKED the Epona wooden curry comb and used it all over MJ to his obvious enjoyment, even when she had to scrub some dried up mud on his belly. One thing I like about the Epona curry is that is small enough to fit into my somewhat small hands. I lent it to her so she could see if her problem child horse Tercel liked it, since he usually hates any type of curry comb, heck this horse even hates the HandsOn grooming gloves. Debbie did not try the Haas hoof brush since MJ's hooves were not covered in mud. I did get to use my new Haas face brush on MJ and he enjoyed it all over his head and ears, inside and out, though I did have to use my ZoomGroom cat brush on the caked on mud.

I also introduced her to my Fenwick Quarter Sheet. After seeing how it draped over MJ's back Debbie decided it would be best to put it over the Fenwick Western saddle pad. This worked well. Since there was a brisk breeze we also put the BOT exercise sheet over it, mostly to hold the quarter sheet down in the breeze.

When I got my stuff together to take to the stable I automatically picked up my double bridle. Then I stopped and thought, without riding my nervous system has deteriorated and I have been dropping things. I figured I would have a much better chance of not dropping my reins if I had only two reins to handle instead of 4 reins. I had only ridden MJ in my newish Fager Alexander sweet iron double jointed snaffle (with a center plate) with wings twice, and the last time was over a month before. He did not mind the bit, and since my balance was a lot worse and my hands were not as steady as before I decided it was much better for both of us if I rode in the snaffle.

MJ did not mind at all, and I did not drop a rein.

I just walked, the weeks of inactivity caught up with me quickly and I just could not do any more (well I could have tried to but it would not have been pretty at all.) Debbie did not mind, in fact she praised my position but told me not to overdo with my newly discovered muscle off the bottom of my scapulae, the one that puts my shoulder blades in the proper position and straightens my back.

During my first two rides with this bit MJ had been sort of slow with halting (the old “Is this an aid? Are you sure?”, joined with “Do I really have to?”) So I was all prepared to have another squishy halt but MJ stopped with my first set of rein aids (alternating rein, timed to the hind leg on that side moving forward as my seat bone goes down.) He stopped, his mouth kept closed, there was no resistance, and he acted like he had never, ever resisted this bit before. Throughout my riding life I have noticed that problems can often disappear if the horse has several weeks to think things through. MJ had over two months since I had used this bit, and I think he finally figured it all out. When Debbie's other students ride MJ they use the titanium coated single-jointed 20mm thick snaffle, the only bit in the tack room with which MJ consents to peacefully keep contact with beginner's or intermediate students' hands. I try and make good and sure that the bits I use are different than the bit the other riders use because I think it makes it easier for the horse to realize that I expect a DIFFERENT level of response than the normal lesson student.

When I reread “Bits, Their History, Use and Misuse” by Louis Taylor, I finally noticed that he writes that riders will find a bit that BEST FITS THEIR HANDS and that this bit will be the best one for a rider to use on most horses as long as it fits the horse satisfactorily. I had noticed this before, like when my hands were better I was riding three different horses in the JP Dr. Bristol D-ring snaffle (after I made up some bit loops out of bias tape). Then my hands got worse and I and the horses settled on the Wellep bits, with the best one being the three piece snaffle. Then came my experimentation with the titanium and titanium coated bits, the horses were more content with my hands but I missed the “finger-tip control” that I had with the JP Dr. Bristol bit, not even the Wellep bits delivered that.

Then I discovered the Fager bits. The horses really seem to appreciate the not-as-wide as usual center piece of their three piece snaffles. But the plot thickens, after somewhat expensive experimentation I have determined that the horses like the Fager Victoria mullen mouth Weymouth curb, the horses will accept the Fager Madeliene three piece bradoon, the horses LIKE the Fager Bianca three piece snaffle with a roller in the middle, and now I have great hopes for the Fager Alexander sweet iron three piece snaffle with a center plate and “wings”.

From the horse's reactions I need to ride in a double jointed snaffle or bradoon. These seem to help me keep my hands in the proper position in relation to the horses' mouths. But not every double jointed snaffle will do, for instance the horses just do not relax their tongues when I use a Fager three piece snaffle with a lozenge in the center. With regular stainless steel bits the horses I ride do not like a lozenge center or a French-link center, when my hands were better only a Dr. Bristol bit would do though they were sort of content with a copper roller in the middle. The horses were merely polite whenever I used a single-jointed snaffle of any metal but I never got the feeling that both the horse and I were on the same page.

From the horse's reactions I need to ride with titanium or titanium coated bits. They keep better contact even with bits that do not “fit my hands” if the bit is made of titanium. But even with the titanium bits, if the bit does not “fit my hands” our contact is not as good and their responses to my hand aids are not as good as it is with a bit that “fits my hands.” For instance every horse I tried the titanium coated three piece snaffle with a lozenge in the center did-not-like my contact and refused to relax into contact. The “tongue relief” snaffles, both the Fager ones and the Bomber's titanium Happy Tongue bit are just so totally unacceptable when MY hands are on the reins keeping contact. These bits might work quite well with other riders' hands so long as the bit fits the horses' mouths.

So my bit experimentation phase may end soon. There is a Fager bradoon I am interested it (three piece sweet iron with a roller in the middle), but right now when I go looking at the Fager bit pages I go “no, no, no, maybe yes” because I now know that the horses do not like it when I use that type of bit, though the horse might be quite content when another rider uses that bit, as long as the bit fits of course. It has been a rather expensive time finding the bits the horses will accept with MY hands, but going forward I won't have to experiment with all the other expensive bits that look good on paper.

By the end of my lesson I was TIRED. At least I was strong enough to do several “rider's push-ups” going into the “vertical far” position. When I tried backing MJ up with a light hand I just got micro steps back, and those took a lot of leg (for me). But his mouth stayed sensitive, he did not gape, stiffen up his tongue or set his jaw hard, and he was reasonably obedient to my leg aids. We will have to work on sharpening up his turns in place using this snaffle but that is just normal schooling, no big deal.

It was so good to get back in the saddle again. I was really expecting to have sore gripping muscles the next day, but the soreness was minimal. Hopefully the weather and the Covid-19 pandemic won't interfere with my riding going forward. WEAR YOUR FACE MASKS until this is all over, even if you are lucky enough to get two doses of a vaccine. This is one nasty disease.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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