(cartoon by Thelwell, from “A Leg at Each Corner”, EP Dutton, 1962)
After my poor performance in my first dressage test, I read the judges’ comments. She said, “Horse very athletic, but naughty and resisted contact.”
Trooper, my normally well behaved Arabian, had bucked in the first test and refused to rate (slow down) in the second.
I had made mistakes, too, but none of them related to this particular issue. The resistance to contact was due to my riding him in a sidepull. Normally not allowed, I’d been given permission by the judges to ride him without a bit only if I rode hors concours (without place).
That was my choice. I’ve always been a minimalist in riding horses. I like ‘em bareback, baremouthed, and barefooted.
In the year I’ve been leasing Trooper, I’ve also been working on ME. I’ve been working on improving my riding, trying to be a partner, not a dominatrix. I learned very quickly that I could only go so far in learning to ride dressage without a saddle. Hence, I bought a Very Expensive Saddle, and it has, indeed, increased my level of riding.
The lack of a bit, told, too. Trooper is a smart horse. He’d learned long ago (and I was still too much a novice to notice) that, by keeping his head up, he avoided contact. Even the contact of the sidepull or the English hackamore was ‘too much’ for him. He tosses his head, pulls the reins from my hands, and up until a few weeks ago, I allowed it.
In retrospect, it proved me out: he wasn’t resisting due to things like my hands being too heavy, or the bit hurting his mouth. No, he just doesn’t want to do any more work than he absolutely has to. This is typical of horses. They are, in reality, big lazy bums, forever finding ways to cheat, get over, and otherwise take advantage of horse loving women like me.
Kim pointed out in one of my lessons with her that I must have contact in order to compete in a show, ride well, and ride comfortably. She showed me that contact, even without a bit, is possible. It meant taking in what seemed to be an inordinately large amount of rein, but it didn’t hurt the horse. Every once in a while, Trooper would accept the contact, but it was never for very long.
I originally went into leasing a horse primarily to improve my seat, and I have. All that bareback riding, (not only with Trooper, but with Hank, and before that, my wonder horse, Jordan) taught me to depend on my weight, my balance and my butt cheeks to keep me on a horse. I don’t balance myself on the back of a horse by hanging onto the reins. Consequently, I have ‘very soft”, ‘very good” hands. I’ve developed a bad habit, though, that of slouching. That, I can work on.
Trooper’s owner, Patti, told me she wanted to keep a bit out of Trooper’s mouth because he had ‘wolf teeth’.
You can always tell Patti, but you can’t tell her much. When she gets an idea in her head, by god, it STAYS there, influencing her and whatever or whomever is around her. You have to have some pretty heavy credentials or a stick of dynamite to get her to change her mind. But I will admit that, once she’s shown that she’s (say it very, very softly, wrong), she will change.
She later admitted that she had no idea what a ‘wolf tooth’ was, but she was convinced Trooper had them.
I checked his mouth and didn’t see wolf teeth. She didn’t believe me. It wasn’t until her trainer, Kim, doubted her insistence that she even bothered to show us what she thought were ‘wolf’ teeth. She opened Trooper’s mouth and pointed at his tushes.
No, Kim and I said in unison, those are not wolf teeth. Those are tushes. All male horses have them, and many mares have them, too.
Only then was Patti willing to put Trooper in a bit.
She bought a Very Expensive bit, a nice soft, French link snaffle.
I put it on Trooper with a very anxious Patti hovering at my elbow. She thought that my riding in a hackamore was out of inexperience, not choice. I have ridden with bits, I just prefer bitless ones, I told her. She wasn’t convinced. Didn’t I want Kim there to help me?
No. I know how to fit a bit to a horse, and even though she’d not measured his mouth, fortunately, she’d bought the right sized bit for Trooper. I don’t know if she understands that horses can need different sized bits, that they have high or low palates, etc.
Trooper resisted the bit for a while, and Patti tried to tell me to reach into his mouth…only to see my thumb already touching his tongue very gently. He opened his mouth and I gently slipped the bit into it.
He stood there, chewing it thoughtfully, while I put it at one wrinkle. Two would have been too many and none would have had the bit resting on his tushes.
It is amazing how good a bit makes a horse look. Mind you, I think he’s handsome already, but with a shiny snaffle bit on his leather bridle, Trooper looked fabulous, like a Real Riding Horse, not a toy one.
“Make sure you lead him with both reins” she said, as we walked to the arena, and “walk him until he gets used to having a bit in his mouth.”
Oh, please, Madame Patti. This horse is 20 years old. He’s trained to the nth degree. She has pictures of him in the western pleasure show ring with a big honking curb bit in his mouth, and he came to her with a flash nose banded English one, complete with an eggbutt snaffle. This horse is no stranger to a bit.
Nor am I. I’ve just not used one in, oh, 14 years. But, as in bicycle riding, you don’t need to learn how more than once. After you have the hang of it, it becomes automatic.
But I learned, that I, too, can be (say it very, very softly) wrong. In my case, I’d never really used one.
After a few minutes of walking him around, more to placate Patti than anything else, I made sure his girth was right and got aboard.
I always give him a bit of carrot for not dancing around when I mount. I know, a Good Horse is supposed to submit gracefully for mounting, but few do. I do not want to fall or have him bolt half way into the process. Hank did that to me and scared me to death, and I know someone whose leg was broken in two places when her energetic gelding moved away. No thanks. A little bribery goes a very far way. He had no problems eating the treat with a bit in his mouth.
Then began the inevitable Discussion.
I put everything I’d learned from my reading and Steffie’s guidance, and Kim’s lessons. Mostly I kept my shoulder blades back and down, determined to not slouch. I took up a nice, soft contact on his mouth, and decided we would mostly walk.
Trooper just as determinedly tried to get his head back. Up down, shake the head, pull down, he tried everything to avoid contact. I wasn’t being hard on him, not at all. I kept the reins, though. For the first time in my life, I was conscious of the bit in his mouth. I realized that in my entire life, I had never, purposefully ever really had ‘contact’. I had kept so much slack in the reins that I’d never been able to appreciate that one can feel the horse mouthing the bit. Trooper didn’t do much of that. After a few experimental chews on the bit, he left it alone.
But resist, he did. After a nice long warm up walk, I asked for a trot and got it…and somehow, it was a little different. I had brakes. I could rate him. But it was still a great deal of work, as it’s always been. That’s because he kept his head up, still refusing contact.
I’ve always admired the people who seem to trot endlessly, without effort. I’ve heard all the talk about ‘letting the horse toss you up.” It never worked for me.
After 45 minutes of arguing, suddenly, Trooper relented. He lowered his nose, accepting the bit, and I felt, for the first time, what they mean by saying “he came up into my hand.” He was carrying himself. I asked for a trot and suddenly, it was easy. My shoulders back, my back straight, I was posting correctly, feeling the power underneath me, feeling Trooper honestly carrying himself.
Patti saw me and said, “Oh my gosh, look at YOU! You look GREAT!”
I felt great! It felt RIGHT. Trooper was carrying himself. I was carrying me. There was a lovely straight line from my elbows to the bit, and Trooper was tossing me up out of the saddle, just like I’d read it was supposed to feel. He was being honest with me for the first time.
Now I know why I’ve always been worn out after a relatively short hour or so of riding. I’ve been doing all the work, ALL of it. Trooper, like every other horse, took advantage of the lack of a bit and my kindness in insisting on riding without contact. Once again, he’d taught me something.
It wasn’t ego that kept me riding bareback and bitless. No, I thought I was being gentle to the horse. But maybe I was making it harder than it’s supposed to be, and I know sometimes it really put a load on ME, making me sorer than I should be.
I won’t be riding bitless anymore. I’ll be ‘normal’, like everyone else.
Although it’s nice to be able to think that at my age, I’m still strong enough to carry a horse.