Sam Gives Me a Lesson

Debbie could not give me a lesson this week since she went to the OTTB makeover to support one of her daughters who has been schooling an OTTB she bought. So Debbie's other daughter Sam gave me my lesson. This week I made sure to wear my ice vest and the heat did not affect me anywhere near what it did last week when I did not wear my ice vest.

We are having a little cool down here in southern NC, and last night we got a little bit of rain, the first rain in weeks. Officially we are in a minor drought now, a big comedown from this spring when we got plenty of rain. It may rain tonight so I don't know if I'll get to ride tomorrow, but we need rain so bad that I will gladly sacrifice a day of riding for some rain (though a week of rain interfering with my riding would be horrible.)

Of course I had Bingo in his double bridle, and Bingo was good. Sam was impressed with how I got Bingo to move out at the walk and trot, I think the reason why many people like seeing me ride their horses is because I can get the horse to move out and extend some. I am NOT content with the normal school horse walk of 2 MPH or so, I want the horse to walk at least 3 to 3 ½ MPH and I always aim to get the horse to go 4 MPH. Therefore when I ride the horses stretch out under me and the riding teacher can see the horse move properly, in a free swinging walk, one that looks like we are going somewhere instead of just crawling around the ring. At the trot I work to get Bingo out of his Western jog that has no suspension at all, into a trot where he is springing from one diagonal to the next one.

We had a good discussion about riding in a double bridle. I told Sam about my hypothesis that Bingo is using the double bridle to figure out what in the heck my rein aids mean, referring back and forth from one bit to the other. Every other time I used a double bridle on a horse (4 horses) I was ignorant about the proper fitting of the curb bit, the curb bits were probably too wide and I had them way up in their mouths so the mouthpiece of the curb bit was not vertically over the chin groove, but looking back at least two of these horses did get further understanding about what the snaffle meant when I used the double bridle on them. Sam listened and agreed with me that after several months in the double bridle that Bingo has turned from a suspicious, reluctant, imitating a snail lesson horse into a horse that someone would want to ride.

Then I got to talking how, when I decided to use a double bridle, I KNEW that I had to provide the double bridle myself because nowadays it is a rare hunt seat stable that owns the bits necessary for a double bridle. Since I now own double bridle bits from 3 ½ inches to 5 inches I am now well prepared to ride most horses in a double bridle, and I told Sam that if one of her student's horses could possibly improve by use of a double bridle that I could lend her the bits (but not the bradoon strap or extra set of reins.)

I've seen in real life, in videos, and in pictures horses that obviously do not really understand what the bits “mean” in their mouths, and these horses end up with their mouths strapped shut, their riders often use increasingly severe bits, the rider's hands become hard and unforgiving, and the horses end up behind the vertical, which seems to be the norm for dressage horses now (back 50 years ago it was a MAJOR sin.) There are also many problems with the horses boring down on the bit, making the rider carry the weight of the horse's head. These can all be signs that the horse truly does not understand, and while expert, experienced riders can often explain the snaffle (or Kimberwick or Pelham) to the horse, many riders do not have the sensitivity of the hand that is necessary for this type of educating the horse. So the horse copes as best he can, trying to give the rider what the rider wants even while the horse simply does not understand it at all.

Bingo was a lot like this before the double bridle. It did not matter to him that all the other horses I ride seem to go fine in a snaffle, with his low set neck and thick throat-latch it was so much easier for him to just bore down on the snaffle and do what he wanted while the rider lost all control over him. I worked on him, giving clear rein aids, releasing my rein aids so he could obey me comfortably, and praising him greatly when he got it right. Bingo did improve his responsiveness when I was in the saddle, but put another rider on him he went right back to his tried and proven resistances. Since the goal is to make Bingo into an acceptable lesson horse I felt like we did not make much progress at all.

That all changed with the double bridle. Contrary to my expectations Bingo has never shown any distress from having two pieces of metal in his mouth, and believe me when Bingo does not like anything he can make his displeasure painfully clear. He is still resistant somewhat to the action of the bradoon, but when I tweak the curb rein to tell him “Yes, this is definitely what I want you to do” he cooperates a lot quicker. As a result my hands have become a lot lighter when I ride him, which makes Bingo more comfortable and less likely to try and evade the action of the bit. It is a virtuous circle. I also now think that with two bits in his mouth the thinking part of his brain is activated, and since he is thinking he can figure stuff out better. The tongue has many nerves in it, and with two mouthpieces on different parts of his tongue, I can give clearer aids that he understands much more quickly than before.

I now understand why old time experienced riders preferred riding in a double bridle. Yes, the curb bit can act like an emergency brake, and the double bridle gives the rider more ability to influence the horse's head carriage, but I think that these riders appreciated the increased brain power of their horses in the double bridle. Why else would these riders stay content with having a handful of reins to deal with?

After our satisfactory lesson I asked Sam to measure Noah's mouth so I could pick the correct size bit for him when I finally get to ride him. From the side Noah's muzzle is really small, and I sort of assumed he would use smaller bits. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Noah's mouth measures 5” across at the corner of his mouth and 4 ¾” just above his curb groove.

I do have stainless steel double bridle bits that will fit his mouth. However I am now trying to switch from stainless steel to titanium or titanium coated bits, and nowhere in the world have I found a 4 3/4” titanium curb. Except for the Fager bits the titanium/titanium coated curb bits seem to be 5” and bigger, and the Fager people do not make 4¾” (120 mm bits). I am still doubtful that Noah's lips are long enough to carry two bits in his mouth and it might be academic anyway since I do not own Noah, and it will be up to Debbie if I get to experiment with him.

But after going through the super positive experience of using the double bridle on Bingo I am eager to also use it on other horses to see if I get equivalent results now that I know how to measure the horse's mouth correctly for the double bridle bits.

Because I can tell you I never expected Bingo to become so good, I just did not think he had it in him.

Of course the double bridle requires a reasonably secure seat and sensitive hands with supple fingers. If a rider does not have these two requirements it would be best not to use a double bridle because it could cause great pain to the horse's mouth.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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