Written By Chris Cervantes
Riders have different strengths and weaknesses. Some riders are naturally softer than others; while some riders are naturally stronger than others. Different body types and athletic abilities allow for different strengths. This is one of the reasons the same soft ride one rider creates while on a horse can be a completely different ride when another rider gets on the same horse.
Many riders right off the bat will change bits to “fix” a problem, but how do you know if that is the best option really? Is the problem your riding, or really the horse? How do you know if the horse needs more, or even less bit? Before you go swapping out that snaffle your horse really goes just fine in, you should reevaluate a few things before you accidentally create bigger problems.
What are you trying to really accomplish in changing the bit? What is your reason? Changing bits won’t fix every problem. For example, I may have a student owner who has a hard time slowing her horse down, but I can school the same horse in a simple snaffle. The brakes are completely there, I just have to slow my seat, close my leg, maybe give a squeeze of the hand if needed, and that’s it. Then the owner mounts and the first part of the lesson things carry over lovely. But after a while the horse has “had enough of mom riding” and the owner is having a hard time — even at the trot the horse is running off his feet, let alone watching the pair try the canter.
The problem is “mom” is chasing her horse with her seat, and let’s pray she is not clamping with her leg, with braced locked elbows losing the softness in following the horses motion because she is now out of balance and trying to stay on. All of these things combined explain why that horse is “not listening” (the rider’s skill level) and you might need to change bits for the horse’s owner when she rides. Although the trainer may not need to ride in something stronger because they have a much more educated seat and leg occasionally it is necessary for the owner to ride in something stronger.
The horse’s owner is just that the owner, not the trainer. Owners may not have the capabilities to ride the same horse and get the same results as a trainer. It is ideal that many things transfer and for the sake of the “marriage of horse and rider” the team should go well regularly. But not every ride, every day is going to be perfect and that is life. The trainer can ride the horse in a gentler bit, but for the owner, sometimes changing the bit may be beneficial.
Another example is a horse that lands heavier after fences — especially if the fences become bigger causing the need for the horse to rock back more after the jump, which goes back to the horse’s flat work, and correct transfer of balance.) In this example, the owner may need a bit that can help them rebalance sooner and softer, and prep for the next fence. The trainer may be able to do the same thing in a softer bit and ride the same course smoothly, but if the owner cannot, another bit may help.
Schooling at home in a softer bit for the owner is a great practice, and allows the owner to work on their own skills as far as seat and leg to become a better rider and not be dependent on bigger bits. It might make the most sense to only change to a little stronger bit at shows to give the horse’s trip a soft, clean look that the judge will enjoy watching. Using a stronger bit may allow the pair to place better when at the show. Changing only during those occasions is okay — there is nothing wrong with changing bits to gain an advantage at shows. If, when you don’t have such a strong bit on the horse, and the pair becomes dangerous for no good reason, than clearly the horse just is not for that rider, period.
Using Too Much Bit Can Create Its Own Set Of Problems
Just as you don’t want too little, you also don’t want too much bit on the horse. I have seen riders who are not nearly educated enough riding in strong bits (not purposely by any means) create more harm. Remember, your leg must outweigh what is in being held in front. Think of it as percentages; if you take 75 % in front for any reason (even little pulls in big bits create more pressure in front) and apply only 25% leg, yet expect the horse to jump the fence, you have not created or allowed forward. Hopefully, if the horse is forgiving enough, the fence is not too high, and is a simple non “lookey” fence he will still go forward and jump. If the rider is hanging too much, putting a wall up basically in front, eventually that horse may start hitting the brakes. This is dangerous and counterproductive because if it happens too many times it can create a habit that now has been formed over the simple fact of uneducated riders going in too much bit.
These are a few reasons to really consider when deciding if a “bigger bit” is going to solve your problems. Sometimes, if we look at the big picture, it really may just be the rider needing to work on their skills a bit and not so much the horse. Riding is an art, and takes years of practice. Many of the best riders truly are so much older because there body is so finely tuned and skilled with feeling the horse’s body. Only years and time in the saddle can allow for such skills, nothing less.
You might decide, with help from your trainer that you may need something with a little more leverage. Just be sure you assess the situation well with help from your trainer, or someone with plenty of knowledge about horses and bits. Using the right bit at the right times may not instantly improve your riding skills but it could help keep you on your horse. After all, you don’t want to end up picking dirt out of your underwear because you were pommeled into the ground one too many times right?