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!