The Curb Bit Extends MJ's Strides

My homework ride on Monday did not bring any excitement just walking around the ring, but at my age and with my MS I really do not want any exciting rides any more. MJ stopped complaining about missing his day off, he strode on with no difficulties, and I got to admire a boarder's horse in the ring, a black ASB gelding.

When I asked his owner his breeding she said American Saddlebred, and I replied “you lucky lady.” She looked at me with shock and told me that NOBODY had ever told her that she was lucky to have an ASB as her own horse. Since we are at a hunt seat stable I can understand this, the other rider's eyes have become used to Warm Bloods, Appendix Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds as suitable hunt seat horses. However her horse is GORGEOUS, black, well conformed for hunt seat riding, with fluid gaits and a kind eye, and if I ran a hunt seat stable I would have no problems having this horse in the stable.

She was riding him with a ThinLine type bareback pad, she said his withers were just too high and sharp for her to be comfortable riding him bareback with no padding. As I said his gaits were fluid, and his trot had impulse and suspension and did not look that hard to ride bareback though I would not dare with my horrible balance. She rode him well enough bareback so he reached down for the bit when she asked him to stretch his neck and head down. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them while I rode.

On Wednesday I went ahead and curried and used the dandy brush on MJ to warm up my back, as this seems to be the only thing that stops my back from hurting when I do the posting trot. MJ was quiet in the wash stall cross ties, obviously enjoyed his grooming, and was a pleasant guy all around. Debbie picked out his hooves, brushed his legs and put on his boots, and then tacked him up. We put on both the Smart Therapy exercise sheet and my Shires exercise sheet because it was colder and the wind was blowing. MJ approved, his 28 year old body really appreciates being protected from the cold wind.

All warm in his butt blankets MJ had no problems moving out at the walk though he “asked” me to please get off his back for a minute or two. After that I could sit down in the saddle, he “invited” me to sink into the saddle, though of course I kept my weight off my seat bones. We played at extending the walk then going back down to a normal walk, then we trotted some with contact with the bradoon reins. Even though I asked for the first trot on his “bad” side he obeyed me promptly and did not hang back.

Then I started telling Debbie that in the OLD books of equitation when they write about the double bridle all said that the bradoon was for lifting the head and that the curb was for LOWERING the head. Since MJ has been so good at lowering and stretching his head and neck down while on contact with just the curb at the walk I decided to see if he would do the same for the posting trot. So I got my reins untangled, kept the bradoon reins draped gracefully inside the curb reins, applied my lower legs while I moved my hands forward a little bit, and MJ cheerfully stretched his head and neck down and forward and followed the bit forward. I had no problems with this while I posted his trot, and when we did a downward transition his back was so relaxed and “swinging” more than before, that I could sit the few strides it took him to get into the walk without hurting my back or neck. It took a little longer than usual for him to transition downwards, he acted like he was so comfortable with my contact with just the curb bit that he did not want to stop trotting.

Debbie was impressed. In that lesson she saw the difference between when I kept contact with just the bradoon when he raised his head as most horses do, and when I kept contact with just the curb bit he lowered his head and neck and stretched his nose FORWARD while relaxing his back and enjoying himself. Debbie likes it when I successfully illustrate something I have read and prove that those old equitation books were right.

Then we got into a discussion about modern competition dressage riding. My hypothesis is that early last century when the Italian Forward Seat riders showed that they had complete control over the horse with just a snaffle bit the dressage riders decided to show that dressage riders could also have complete control over their horses with just the snaffle. The problem is that riding with just a snaffle and how a dressage horse is expected to perform are not a good match, and to make up for the unsuitability of just the snaffle bit for dressage they added all of these nosebands, some were regular cavessons but over the decades these morphed into dropped nosebands, flash nosebands, crank nosebands, and the nosebands were strapped on tighter and tighter while the rider's strength of contact increased greatly. To me, as a Forward Seat rider, this is abuse, harder contact with the horse not being given any leeway to reduce the pressure on his mouth from unforgiving hands. And one of the unfortunate side effects is that it became “normal” for the horse's face to go behind the vertical no matter what the old dressage masters said about this ultimate sin for effective riding.

So MJ LIKES contact with just the curb bit—with my hands at the other end of the reins with light contact, giving generously to the horse when its head moves forward and never freezing at the end of the reins. He just settles down, he shows no fear of the curb bit, and he moves forward pretty cheerfully and totally without fear of the bit.

I think for the curb bit to be truly effective for bringing collection it needs to operate after the rider has raised the horse's head and neck with the bradoon. Then, with the horse's head raised and the horse's neck almost straight up vertically, the curb bit can encourage the horse to flex at the poll, relax his lower jaw, and switch his weight to the rear. Too much curb action when the head is down just leads to the horse going behind the vertical, dropping contact (unless the rider is pulling on the reins constantly) and switching its weight to its forehand, the opposite of what collection for dressage is supposed to do. Then the overuse of the spurs occurs and the poor horses end up having to wear a covering around its barrel so the rider's legs and spurs do not wear the horse's hair off its barrel.

Until I started riding MJ in the double bridle I completely believed that the main use of the curb bit was to induce some state of collection &/or to serve as an “emergency brake” for an overenthusiastic horse. It never occurred to me to use a curb bit to encourage and improve the extension of the horse's stride. It never occurred to me that a horse might PREFER to keep contact with a curb bit over keeping contact with the snaffle.

I never stop learning from the horses even after riding them of over 50 years,

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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