Whither Competition?

“‘The bit is no stronger than the hand holding the rein’. So they say but you know that is complete rubbish. Riders who can control a 600 kilo warmblood with their bare hands alone are far between. Most need bits. It is the bit which confers real strength to the hand in the first place.

“In addition to the advantage gained by the rider who uses any bit, the purpose of a curb is to make it even more powerful, relative to the hand that holds the rein. A curb amplifies whatever pressure is applied by the rider’s hand. Agreed? This does not mean a double bridle must necessarily hurt the horse. There are riders out there who can ride with one without causing pain. But if the rider is not skilled enough, the risk of him or her hurting a horse will be increased when a curb is used, compared to riding in a snaffle or even perhaps a halter for the very least able. Everybody knows this. It’s not rocket science. It’s not even news.”

– See more at: this entry at epona.tv

Look, I can ride my 500 kilo reining horse with a mild low ported grazing bit and a leather curb strap that barely touches his face under any circumstances… and I can direct his motion at hand gallop, when bringing him to a sliding stop at 25mph, or in lateral work. I can ride that same horse and direct him with a halter that has a rein strapped to either side. And I can take all that off and still direct him with soft leg pressures on the order of ounces.

He will turn and weave and back up, depart, change leads, stop and spin, gallop and then just stand there. All with pretty much nothing in the way of pressure in mouth or sides. Because he’s been well trained through a delicate pressure and release dance that spanned years of learning without ever needing to cause pain.

I always felt that the highest form of horsemanship was to become one with the horse so your ideas are his, his motion is yours, and and the end of it, he stands in the arena, yawning, not from exhaustion (though it probably was a good workout) but from the relaxation of having had an exquisite ride.

I never understood the Vaquero, who says – I have a bit too powerful for normal mortals to use – you will require seven years of training to be able to use it without injuring the mouth of the horse.

Why bother?

I never understood the dressage rider who says – I cannot control this horse to do fine lateral work or expect him to obey the subtlety of my commands without using two bits, either of them very powerful, and the pair so powerful that it takes years of training to even think of using them.

Why bother, when you could be so subtle after all those years of work as to be able to ride that horse with nothing in its mouth at all?

I never understood a sport that said – “at the highest levels of the sport you can use nothing less than the most powerful and potentially painful bits, maybe even two of them at once”.

I never understood a rider who thinks – “to achieve the highest art with the horse i must treat him like a machine, not directing him with the subtlety of my body, but compelling him with forces similar to attending a dentist without novocaine or being stabbed in a knife fight. Otherwise, he will be unresponsive and will not assume the painfully difficult shape i require of him as he performs.”

To me, that is a recipe for sadism and a clear sign of bad training, bad horsemanship and maybe the wrong fashion in body position – can you get by with your horse holding its head somewhere comfortable so you can let go, after all?

I still don’t get it. And I don’t want to get it. It’s not what I want from my horse or from my riding. And there’s no excuse for saying that’s the only way to ride any horse in any discipline.

The FEI, USEA, and the other associations should alter the grading scale and give additional points to riders who ride with less bit, less spur – and the highest points to those who ride with no bit, no spurs and no bridle. (I’m not a bareback fan – the saddle is the best way to distribute the weight of the rider across the back of the horse and keep him safe). Nosebands hide the distress of the horse – they should be banned and horses who are gaping, whose tails are flailing with discomfort should have their signals read by judges and their riders should be marked down.

That doesn’t necessarily control what goes on at home, but it does incent the best behavior in the ring, which will, with time, leak back into training, practice and instruction just as the horrible bad practices of today have.

The thing is, you can’t inspect your way out of welfare problems at competitions – the culture has to be changed and it will take time. You need to create and hold up better examples and reward the right performance. You need to help people see they can have a better success without the levels of force they used to use, and no success at all unless they stop.

Then things will change. From the renewed love of the horse.

Not a Bit of It

Gunsmoke Still DSC02905 with Blur Harness Removed

In a universe of overbitted, overbent, overdriven nervous horses, real horsemanship still consists of riding with the lightest possible leg aids and the barest touch on the bit.

I was taught to have my horses to self-carry, which means I tell them what to do, they do it and keep doing it, and then I leave them mostly alone until I want them to do something else. They ride in the mildest low port grazing bit with a tiny three inch shank and a leather curb strap that kind of barely touches the jaw when the bit is full back, in a position I pretty much never have to use. And for spurs, well, I wear them, but they have little knobs on the end, and I try only to touch with a postage stamp of force.

This makes both Gunsmoke and Lensman very light. I can get then to put their heads down by lifting the reins an inch or two off the withers. It’s hard to know how they sense this. The bit doesn’t rotate, or at least not so you’d notice – but they obviously do. The edge of the rein across where the neck emerges from the shoulders with a tiny finger press pushes them into a turn. Stops are take the legs off,  but not too fast, especially for Lensman or he’ll bury his butt in the ground all locked up when I want him to trot into the stop for a few strides.

I ride them from time to time at all three gaits with the reins tied off to the horn. They steer from seat and balance with a tiny bit of leg or an edge of rein or a gnat’s touch of spur as a correction so this isn’t really anything except taking away the neck rein as an aid. I don’t ride reinless using a high pressure technique like Stacy Westfall (who is constantly patting her horse with her legs to set its rate) – I just use seat following or leading the motion to change speed and then settle back into the speed I want. It’s mostly like riding them normally.

But tonight was a “bit” of an experiment. I strapped two reins to the the cheekpieces of a halter, put it on Gunsmoke and went out into the arena.

And then I did everything I normally did.

Horses are intellectually capable of basic generalization and it was clear that actually worked. Even though the forces are mostly different raising reins attached to a halter, he listened to it and put his head down at the stop. It clearly felt at least a slightly different, because his head came up a little as it used to when he was first learning the cues and trying to overcome his working cow horse high head, worrying about where the darn cow was. But he still did it.

When I ask one of the horses to do lateral work like turn on the forehand, they have to stand still ,and sometimes pivot – and since I won’t pull on their face to get them to not move forward if I can help it, I hold the reins up high like a spike to rotate around. Would Gunsmoke be able to tell this was the same thing when I did that with the halter?

Yes, he would. He did.

At the walk, I got a great headset – he didn’t feel awkward about the halter at all. And at the jog, his head came up a little, but I made the usual sweeping motion to bring his chin back, and he listened to that and lowered his head, rated his speed. I was able to correct him when he would start to stray from the rate and bring him back with a bit of backpressure on the reins, quickly released.

The lope was very controlled, but there must be something that makes the bit important when pushing the hip over for the depart from the stop, because his left departures were less accurate than the right departures.

But he did walk and trot serpentines and loped circles and ovals. Did rollbacks and walked, jogged and loped off.

What’s the lesson? First, like riding with the reins tied off, it’s not just revealing weaknesses  in the horse’s training, it’s revealing of errors the rider or trainer is making unconsciously and subtly.  Secondly, horses do generalize the aids. For humans it might seem child’s play to tell that the similar movement of the reins anchored to the halter  means the same thing as when the reins are moving a bit – but for the alien intellect of the horse, there’s no guarantee they’ll come to that conclusion – yet for this they do.

And finally, if you ride light enough, taking the bit away is meaningless.

Which is great, because it makes such an enjoyable, free ride possible.




Horsey Games


When we think of horses, we don’t always remember that they are playful creatures who not only have fun rolling and chasing each other, but who are capable of invention and games with “implements”.

A number of years ago, when Gunsmoke and Lensman were still being boarded, they used to be kept in a large outdoor paddock. After they were dropped off there in the morning, the barn owner would loop the lead rope over a rail of the gate in a shape similar to a clove hitch.

Sue and I were coming to visit and ride, and we were driving down the access road toward the barn, which passed the boys paddock. We suddenly noticed their heads jerking back and forth. Then, as we drew closer, we realized they had the lead rope in their mouth and were playing some sort of tug of war.

Lensman was the closest to us, and as we pulled up to look at them, he noticed us first and his mouth opened to drop the rope, for all the world standing there looking like a kid pretending to be innocent. Gunsmoke, in the flush of having won the tug of war, took a moment longer to notice us, and Sue rolled the car window down. He stood there with the rope draped down from his mouth – and then his eyes widened like a kid caught in the act and his mouth opened and he dropped the rope like it was a hot potato.

We were in stitches.

But what was really interesting,later, was to realize that they had invented their own game, using an “implement” they had to obtain through some effort. Unlooping the lead rope was certainly not an easy process, and assuming trial and error rather than reasoning,was probably time-consuming. Yet even the goal of removing the rope was apparently reinforcing enough to cause them to keep at it.

Later, we found they would play the game when we were tacking them up ground tied in the aisle of the stable. One or the other would initiate the game by picking up his lead rope and offering it to the other horse. The recipient would do some apparent spatial reasoning and select an approach which would often succeed first time in letting him get the rope. This is harder than it seems, because the place right in front of the nose and in a line up the nose, when really close, is in the horse’s blind spot.


Once the rope was seized the tug of war would begin.


Often, they would work their way, like arm wrestlers, into a close engagement position that seemed to offer better leverage.


Leading to a culminating set of yanks.


They also play this game with a stick or plant stem, as in the image at the start of this post.

A simpler game is played with halters, where one horse grabs the other by the halter leather and tries to lead him somewhere. This game seems to be “won” by making the other horse take a step or two, and then they typically let go and try again.

And then there’s the “nosey game” where the horses push faces at each other and grapple for advantage.



Intelligence is a multidimensional capability, and gaming is certainly part of it.The fact that horses can have a whole spectrum of gaming, that they have the ability to obtain and use instruments in their games, some of which are impossible for them to have evolved to use, is significant of an unmeasured area of equine capabilities to generalize (if not conceptualize) and to set and execute against goals.

And, it’s fun and charming to enjoy.