Yet Another Experiment with Horse Gear

Normally at this time of year I am happily riding in a bit, but with the horrible cold I had two months ago my hands are not currently good enough to ride with a bit.  I was not looking forward to riding bitless because, face it, riding bitless in all the different types of bitless systems I've used, I NEVER got the type of results that I expect with a bit.  The obedience was fine, but I was missing the subtlety of the bit, the ability to make all those tiny adjustments to the horse's way of going that leads to improvement.  So, mourning my inability to keep proper contact with a bit, I decided to give the Spirit Bridle a try.  Allan Buck, its developer, claims that he improved the basic cross-under bridle, both by rounding the leather cross-under straps and by sewing the reins directly to the cross-under roundings, plus using a racing fork.  Since I had the money I figured it was worth a try.


So I ordered a cob sized Spirit Bridle made from Beta, and got me a cob sized running martingle (I doubted that there would be a racing fork small enough for the mares I ride.)  Usually cob sized tack fits the mares I ride fine but not this time.  The cob sized running martingle's rings went up higher than Mia's withers by 3 inches.  GRUMBLE!  And it's made with raised leather so there was no way I could make it short enough.  The cob that the Spirit Bridle was made for did NOT have a delicate Arabian nose.  The reins on the Spirit Bridle are LONG.  So Mia stood patiently while Debbie and I did the best we could, I wrapped the running martingle straps around the neck strap, knotted the reins and we got the nose band as tight as we could.  I was not expecting much because Mia gets really weirded out if her tack does not fit perfectly, and that morning we were nowhere near perfect in the tack department!


So I got on and we started going around the ring.  For once Mia did not care at all that her tack did not fit perfectly.  In spite of all the fitting problems Mia moved out freely, much more freely that with any other head gear bitted or bitless.  Then we trotted.  Mia immediately moved her head up to her normal inverted position, I put maybe a gram or two more pressure on the reins and Mia flexed her poll, and kept it flexed during the trot.  This is a first for me riding this mare.  Debbie was really happy about this!  Mia is soooo pretty when she flexes at the poll.  She obeyed both the turning aids and the slowing-down and halting aids perfectly.  She backed up much better than ever before, so enthusiastically that she nearly backed into a fence.  I had been expecting her normal SLOW backing up just two steps, this time I got three full strides of a back.  And this was not a foot dragging back up, Mia clearly picked up her feet and made much bigger strides.  Debbie's and my jaws dropped.  The turn on the hindquarter did not go as well as with the bit, it took a few steps before Mia got her hind end planted properly, and then she did a proper turn on the hind quarters.  Then I tried a turn on the forehand, something for which I had never gotten cooperation from Mia, and Mia actually gave me two steps of this turn.  At no time of this ride were my reins tight, and I got prompt obedience even from sagging reins.  I also had to use a LOT LESS leg to keep her moving.


When I got home I called up the maker of the Spirit Bridle, Frontier Equestrian, to find out if it was safe to punch holes in the Beta straps, and to make comments about the extreme length of the reins.  Luckily it is safe for me to punch holes in the Beta, unfortunately I am too weak to do it and it took my husband all his strength to punch the holes.  I made one hole in the reins so I could make them 30 inches shorter and used hair ties as keepers for the extra length, and we punched one hole in the chin strap.  I also added a Cashel noseband cushion to take up some space on the noseband.  I made a run down to the tack store and found a used leather running martingle made of flat leather, and I easily punched out extra holes.  The next time I rode Mia everything fit MUCH BETTER.  I got the same excellent results.  Then Mia totally surprised me, without any urging she took full contact with the bridle at a walk and kept up the full contact until we stopped.  She had never just reached out with her nose and taken up contact with my Dr. Cook or Nurtural cross-under bridles,  the Light Rider bitless bridle, or the LG bitless, this was something she had only done with a bit or my old jumping cavesson bridle.  And it was wonderful contact, light, responsive, and with no boring down on the noseband, much better contact than with my old jumping cavesson.  WOW!


After a few more rides I noticed that my fingers, all on their own, started closing alternately on the reins while we trotted.  Mia did not seem to mind at all, but I am not used to my hands acting on their own.  So I asked Debbie to try riding Mia in the bridle to see if she got the same reaction with her hands, and she did.  Debbie likes this cross-under bridle a lot, and she has been using the Nurtural bridles I introduced to her for several years, and has had some rides with a Dr. Cook bridle.  Debbie likes how Mia carries herself, she likes how I can easily get Mia out of her inversions at the trot, she likes that my hands stay soft, and she likes the way it feels in her hands.  She also likes how Mia's backing and turns on the forehand have improved greatly and the way Mia strides out better.


But I wanted a second opinion from a horse about the Spirit Bridle before I blogged about it, but I did not get to try it out on Cider until this morning.  Cider has not been ridden for almost two months and it was cool and breezy this morning, so I was not expecting a great deal of cooperation.  I needn't have worried.  Except for the turn on the hind quarters Cider reacted to the Spirit bridle as well as she does to her favorite bit.  After around 15 minutes of going around the ring Cider figured this bridle out and, without urging, calmly and gently reached her nose out for contact.  Cider voluntarily kept contact through the rest of our ride.  The contact was light and responsive, just like with Mia.  Shannon saw no resistance to the bridle, I felt no resistance to the bridle, and Cider seemed perfectly happy.  She did not back up as well as Mia did, but Cider seemed a little stiff today.  I think her age (20's) may finally be catching up with her, and she has always been very reluctant to back up.


Right now I am ecstatic, I may have finally found a bitless bridle that can replace a bit.  It isn't quite as good as a bit, but it is a whole lot closer than any other bitless I've tried.  The rounded leather cross-under straps, plus the reins being sewn directly onto the cross-under roundings make a big difference in feel.  The rounded straps seem to 1) give a much clearer signal to the horse,  2) release quickly and completely when the rein is loosened,  3) somewhat cushion the action of the hand, and 4) they feel just like a bit to my hands.  Since the cross-under roundings are sewn directly to the rein it is safe to use a running martingle.  The action is not identical to the action of the bit, I am going to have to figure out how to do the turn on the hind quarters better, but this is something I will just have to figure out, just like I had to figure out how to do this turn with a bit.  I think the solution is somewhere with the timing and the proper use of both reins, with the bit I just use one rein for this turn.  I also have to get used to riding with a running martingle, something I've never ridden with before. 


What really makes me happy is the quality of the contact, it is light, springy, steady, and very responsive.  When I tried contact with every other bitless system I would end up with this dead feeling pull on my hands, with much slower response to my hand aids.  In fact I so thoroughly detest the feel of the contact with the other cross-under bridles and I ususally ride in them with loose reins.  I feel like I will be able to go from riding in the Spirit Bridle to riding in a bitted bridle without having to reclalibrate my hands--so far the contact feels the same, very light with prompt reactions to all my hand aids.  This bridle probably won't do very well with strong contact, the type that feels like a pull, but it is excellent for contact up to around 3-5 ounces.  My hand aids have ALL been just grams in strength.  For this bridle to work well the hand aids HAVE to be released, and I really doubt I would have gotten such good results with an unvarying dead pull on the reins.  Both mares seemed the happiest when I varied the strength of my contact at the trot, alternating between my hands just by twitching my little fingers, though they both were happy with a steady light contact at the walk.  I do not think I would have gotten such good results without the running martingle, but I am doing an experiment to see if I can get Mia's neck strong enough in the right places so she will stop inverting at the trot!  If I ever get her to that wonderful state I will try it without the martingle if my hands are good enough, like maybe next winter.  Since the usual cures for inversions, the Chambon and the de Gogue martingle both need bits to work, I need a system I can use bitless so I can work on the inversions during the hot months of the year.


Let me see.  Mia is happy.  Cider is happy.  Debbie is happy.  Shannon is happy.  I'm happy.  My hands are happy.  I'm succeeding with movements that Mia has never consented to do before, bitted or bitless.  My hands totally forget that there is no bit.  Since I already have LIGHT hands I have had absolutely no problems with contact and direct hand aids.  I am no longer dreading a long, boring summer with no progress.  So far this experiment has been successful.  I'm glad I bought this bitless bridle.  It will just take me a little while to figure out the turn on the hindquarters, no big problem, just my usual klutziness.  I may even have to use my seat for success instead of just relying on my hands and legs.  Nothing in life is perfect.


Have a great ride!


Jackie Cochran               



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Comment by E. Allan Buck on April 23, 2011 at 10:19pm

Thanks Marlene.

He responds because he is not imprisoned from front to rear.   You actually have his hips in your hands and not his face.  Working off the poll relaxes the entire neck and muscles over the withers, so he naturally engages his hindquarters more.  As for the backing up, make him side step or a slight turn off balance and he will get the idea not to back up...........and/or squeeze both your thighs together for the halt, which now allows you use alternating thigh pressure as the half halt.   It 'really' works............course you may have to use a little rein pressure at first in conjunction, but it will not be long when the thighs will make him stop.............ENJOY

Comment by Marlene Thoms on April 23, 2011 at 10:11pm
Oh, and the other thing I found is that Sharif moves a little more forward bitless, because when he's frustrated he will try things like backing up, or balking. So we have worked on that, and I think bitless helps maybe just because he feels a bit more relaxed, but I'm not sure why it seems to help.
Comment by Marlene Thoms on April 23, 2011 at 10:05pm

Yes you may Allan. Sharif is not exactly a poster child for perfect horse under bridle, but I personally prefer to ride bitless (and shoeless). He's an Arab, so some ideas of his own, sometimes "frisky" sometimes spooky, and responds well to bitless, certainly as well or better than with bit, even when he's pretty wound up.

Comment by E. Allan Buck on April 23, 2011 at 9:46pm

Thanks Marlene.

If you have any questions all you have to do is contact me directly and I shall be at your service.

May I use your posting on my website?

Comment by Marlene Thoms on April 23, 2011 at 9:30pm
All clear for the Spirit Bridle today. I screwed up my courage and hit the trail with Sharif. Newish saddle, new bridle, and he was pretty good. We are just beginning to get in shape so kept the hill climb a bit short and quit while we were ahead. No spooks, a bit energetic on the way home, but he behaves pretty much like with my home make dressage/cross under, but I like the fit and rein action better (the length was not a problem for trail riding). So thumbs up on the Spirit Bridle, thanks to Allen for a nice design.
Comment by Jackie Cochran on April 20, 2011 at 11:20am

Thanks Allen.  I did what you suggested and got a turn on the hindquarters. 

All I did different was indicate with my inside hand first, then with my outside leg, instead of my ususal outside leg first then inside hand.  Isn't it amazing how such little changes can make such a big difference.

Today both Debbie and I noticed that after only ten 1/2 hour rides Mia is starting to fill out at the top of her neck, she is developing a little crest!  We are both impressed. 

Comment by E. Allan Buck on April 19, 2011 at 11:42pm

Thank you Jackie for your honest and forthright blog.

I am always available to answer any question regrarding how to correctly ride bitless, no matter the equipment.

Comment by Marlene Thoms on April 18, 2011 at 12:43pm
Thanks I'll try playing with that. He has such  fat head for an Arab, must be to make room for that "big brain" which is always two steps ahead of me. He might need a warmblood browband afterall. I often combine non standard pieces for him. I have been using a comfort padded dressge bridle with no bit and a cross under arrangement. Maybe I'll patent that before someone else does.
Comment by Jackie Cochran on April 18, 2011 at 12:33pm

Hi again Marlene.  Have you tried taking the straps for the cross-under roundings out of the brow band?  I've had to do this with bridles several times.  Then only the cheek pices will go through the brow band.  This is not a long term solution, just to see if your horse prefers a bigger brow band.  When I order the reins I will probably ask to buy a horse size browband too, which should give more space for the ears.

Ah, the problems of fitting Arabian heads with bridles designed for normal horses.  One Arab I rode, a 14.3 gelding, needed a warmblood browband before he was comfortable, horse sized crown piece and cob sized cheek pieces.  His bridle was made up of pieces from 3 regular bridles.  At least I had the tack and he was confortable when I figured it all out.

Have a good, nice, peaceful ride with Sharif cooperating with you every step!

Comment by Marlene Thoms on April 18, 2011 at 12:09pm

I had one other thing that concerns me on the Spirit Bridle. How do you find the width of the band behind the ears. On Sharif it seems so wide its binding on them. His other bridle is much narrower, but not super narrow, and seems not to bother his ears.

As far as light hands, I already had my lesson on that the first ride out this spring. Sharif was busy lulling me into a false sense of security, he seemed comparatively relaxed for having a treed instead of treeless saddle, and then suddenly decided to go into a jig, mini-rear, and stupid me tightened the reins a little instead of giving him his head. The neat thing about this guy is you don't make the same mistake twice, and he never lets you sleep at the switch. Subsequent rides have gone better but we have to work on his fresh attitude. He's working better on the ground, but we are doing a lot of circles from the saddle till he gets with the program.

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