This week I was fortunate, I got to ride Mia twice. I must admit that when I got out of the car on Friday and felt the COLD wind, I announced that it was official, I was insane! But I rode anyway. Of course.
I have been trying out several bits with Mia, all using my Micklem multi-bridle. There are several reasons for this. The main reason is that I am trying to find the most comfortable bit for Mia, the bit with which she is comfortable enough so that she will consent to keeping proper contact with my hands. I have been trying out bits with different widths of the cannons and finding out that most of the time the thinner the bit the better though I refuse to go to a bit that is thinner that one centimeter at the bars, that is too thin! I am fortunate in that Mia now knows that I will listen to her but this can be a two-sided blessing, on the one hand Mia does not hesitate to tell me that she does not approve of her bit (or my hands) so I can correct things to get her approval. On the other hand Mia does not mind telling me that the carefully selected bits I use do not please her and that I need to try something else. As we all know bits can get expensive.
The next reason I have been switching around bit is that after 2 1/2 years of riding Mia I am sure that she gets bored with doing the same thing all the time, puttering around the ring at a walk and trot (with an occasional canter), backing, turn on the hind quarters, and winding our way around the jumps in the ring. Since I am so limited with what I can do while riding I have to come up with something to inject some variety in our riding. So I switch the head gear around occasionally between 4 or 5 bitless systems and between several bits. This gives Mia something new to think about as we do our totally boring exercises. The bitless systems work well, until something about them irritates Mia at which point she starts trying to rub them off. She only makes one decision with these. The bits are different, when I put a new bit into Mia's mouth she explores it with her tongue as I walk her to the arena. When I start riding I walk for a minute or two on loose (sagging) reins while she explores the bit further. Then I try contact at a walk. This is when Mia makes her initial assessment of the bit--is it comfortable with contact? There are various reasons why Mia decides she does not like the bit that day. Of course the first reason is often that my hands are not operating well that day. Then after she has checked out my hands she decides if she likes where the bit is in her mouth, when it is too high or too low Mia gets irritated. She then comments on how the bit is sitting in her mouth, if the bit is too wide from side to side she often disapproves even if it is only 1/4 inch too wide, but with some bits this does not seem to bother her at all. Mia also comments on the shape of the mouthpiece and even if it tastes good to her. Then comes the trot when I go through everything again. Often a bit that is acceptable at a walk does not pass the trot test, mostly again because of my hands, but sometimes she does not seem to like how it sits in her mouth when she moves differently. Mia is FULL of opinions about bits, and it seems to keep her entertained.
Mia has three main ways of telling me that she does not approve of a bit. Usually her first indication, usually reserved for head gear that irritates her a little bit, is that when she stops moving she starts rubbing her head either on her leg, or a fence, or if there is a human available, on the human's shoulder. Since this usually happens when I think that she likes a bit it is discouraging for me, she keeps contact, obeys the rein aids properly, but when she halts she rubs her head. Sigh. The next step in her protests to either the bit or my hands is to invert, especially at a trot. She will go for a few strides on proper contact, then my hands do something wrong or the bit does not feel just right and up goes her head. Often I can get her to put her head down for a while on proper contact, then something goes wrong and up goes her head again. Then she escalates to tossing her head up and down, she usually reserves this for the hand aids. The most definite protest is when she dives her head down and yanks the reins out of my hands. At this point I give up on contact and work on sending her forward with my legs until she starts reaching for the bit again. Mia is nice in that she will usually give a bit several tries during a ride before telling me it is totally unacceptable. Luckily for me she has not yet gone to the point of opening her mouth. I do not ride with a noseband or martingle, I think that the horse has the right to protest. How else can I tell if I am doing something wrong?
The other reason that I switch bits around is that I am educating my hands. Each bit can work differently in the horse's mouth. Right now I am exploring some of the Myler bits even though they were developed for a different system of riding (Western) than mine (Forward Seat). I am getting different results with the Myler bits. Before, with all the other bits I've used, when the horse gave me full contact I used rein aids of equivalent strength. I do this because I have a hand tremor and I want the horse to know that I have given an aid, not that my hand tremor gave a false signal. However with the Mylers I am having to use my hands differently. Even when Mia gives me full contact with the Myler bits my rein aids HAVE to be really soft, if I move my finger more than a millimeter and if the aid is much over a gram in strength Mia tosses her head. If I keep my hand aids really light she does not toss her head and she continues to keep contact. This may be because of the independent side movement of the Myler bits, it feels to me like the independent side movement magnifies my hand aid when I use just one hand. Of course when I use both hands the bit stiffens up in her mouth and there is no problem. I am considering this a chance to further refine my hand aids since I no longer believe in giving hand aids with both hands simultaneously except for an abrupt halt. Right now I am thinking that when my hands learn how to give the rein aids properly with the Myler bits I will be ready to try using a silk thread for reins.
In case you all think I have wretched hands both Debbie and Karen, my two riding instructors in the past few years, think that I have exceptionally good hands most of the time. Debbie once told me she would die to have hands as good as mine and Debbie has been riding a LONG time and has good hands. Mia has the most sensitive mouth of all the horses I've ridden in my life, and as an elderly Arabian mare, she is quite willing to tell me when she thinks I do wrong by her. With Mia's teaching I should end up with exceptionally good hands that can give REALLY LIGHT rein aids, something I have been aiming for my whole riding life. Thank you Mia for being willing to teach me how to become a better rider.
If you are wondering about my goals I am aiming for either light constant contact with the tongue or a stronger full contact with the horse's bars throughout my rides. I want the horse to voluntarily reach out for the bit and tell me how much contact is acceptable. I want the horse to react immediately to my well timed hand aids (I never give a rein aid when the hind foot is pushing, which means I usually use just one rein at a time.) When I release my hand aid I really like it when the horse gives me a jaw flexion and moves the bit with its tongue and also licks its lips. I also want the horse to keep its head down with its nose poking out in front, with the head and neck making to 30 to 45 degree angle, and I do not want the horse's head and neck angle or elevation to change when I give a rein aid. When I release my rein aids I want the horse to reach forward with its mouth to re-establish full contact willingly (usually in response to my leg aids.) When I get it all right my instructors cannot tell that I have given a rein aid, it looks like the horse is reading my mind. Above all I want the horse to stay CALM, and happy with me using a bit (yes it can happen, the horse enjoying a bit.)
The other wonderful development with Mia is that her new supplement seems to to be helping her alot. I had been using the hemp powder, both as an anti-inflammatory (it has GLA fatty acid) and as a high quality protein supplement. Mia has muscled out wonderfully, a much better result than I had ever gotten before with a horse in its late twenties, and it had helped her lameness (occult spavin) a good bit, but there were still times in which her head bobbed at the trot and she dragged her hind leg, especially when turning. With the new supplement (Actiflex for seniors) she is no longer bobbing her head at the trot and she is picking up both her hind legs and it does not matter if the weather is windy, cold, and wet. It would not have been a good idea to use a super effective supplement when I started riding her because she needed a lot more muscle to stabilize her movement, but since she has grown a lot of muscle it is now time to move on and try to get her completely sound so that she can become a regular lesson horse and support herself. Maybe this year she will be able to get back into jumping low jumps and be useful for more than absolute beginners. We shall see when the weather improves.
Have a great ride!