Mule Crossing: A Bit About Communication with Your Equine

By Meredith Hodges

img_8697_cc_printOver the past few decades, through trial and error, we equine owners and trainers have discovered that, when communicating with our equines, harsh bits are not really necessary. Rather, it is safer and more beneficial to use milder tack and equipment, to concentrate on learning correct body language and to give clear cues with our hands, seats and legs to elicit the desired response from our equines.

Nowadays, at the beginning of training, more and more riders are learning to ride “by the seat of their pants,” that is, using body language through the seat, legs and hands, rather than with brute force through the bit. Once a rarity, riding bridleless, or bitless is now part of a preferred way of training for both the equine and the rider.

If you are training your equine at home—in a controlled situation and under optimum conditions—riding bridleless and using the right kinds of techniques can be relatively easy, but there is more to consider than just getting the right response from your equine. As long as you are in a controlled situation, it is safe to ride bridleless for general pleasure riding, but if you become involved in showing at the advanced levels of performance, such as the higher levels of Dressage, Jumping and Combined Training, a finer-tuned communication, which bitless bridles or bridleless riding cannot necessarily provide, is necessary.

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When it comes to rider/equine communication, bitless and/or brideless techniques do not work as well as the simple, direct rein action of the snaffle bit in concert with your seat and legs. Many people are under the impression that having a bit in the mouth is painful for an equine, and the seeming “nutcracker” action of the snaffle bit when it is in your hands suggests that it might pinch your animal’s tongue when you pull on the reins. The mouthpiece of the snaffle bit actually “breaks” in the middle, allowing it to slide easily across the top of your equine’s tongue. It does not pinch his tongue, but it does put pressure on the corners of his mouth. The snaffle bit is correctly defined as a bit that promotes “direct rein action,” meaning that when you pull right, you go right and when you pull left, you go left. A snaffle bit does not have a shank. If it did have a shank, it would be considered a curb bit, regardless of how short the shank really is (as is the case with a Tom Thumb bit).

When you pull the rein on a snaffle bit to indicate your direction of travel, the leading rein pulls on the ring that guides the equine into the direction of travel, while the ring on the other side “pushes” his head into that same direction. Always be sure you are light with your hands and that you gently pull with a squeeze/release action or you could easily pull the snaffle bit all the way through the equine’s mouth, which would cause him pain and break the line of communication. When you pull directly sideways on a curb bit, it pulls in the direction of travel where the reins are attached at the bottom of the shank, but the upper part of the shank pushes against your equine’s cheek and can cause confusion by sending simultaneous and opposite signals to your equine because he is being “pushed” in both directions at the same time. It is important to learn to ride with your balance coming primarily from your seat, which your equine can easily follow with the slightest indications from the direct rein snaffle bit and your legs. This will also promote a more secure rider position in your seat, making it easier for you to use the gentle squeeze/release motions with your hands. This way, your equine is encouraged into the direction of travel by the body language of your seat and is gently “guided” by your leading rein, while simultaneously being “pushed” into the correct direction of travel by the off-side ring of the snaffle bit and by your legs.

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Learning to go forward in the beginning of your equine’s training in a snaffle bridle is paramount to properly developing his body so he will learn to carry a rider in a strong and solid frame and in good posture. The forward training teaches him to stretch his head and neck forward, to step well underneath his body to propel himself forward, and to elongate his overall frame to keep the vertebrae in his back from becoming compressed and rigid. When he is moving correctly in a straight line, he will have more suspension and flexibility to his gait, and when he turns he will be able to bend easily through his rib cage.

Although it would seem that a bitless bridle could achieve this same end, it has a different action on your equine’s head and neck, which inhibits proper bending through turns. The straight forward motion can be achieved with a bitless bridle. However, reins on a bosal (a type of braided rawhide noseband used with the hackamore-type headstall), bitless bridle reins, and other bitless configurations do not have the same lateral effect on the equine’s head and neck as does the snaffle bit. The equine’s head and neck form two sides of a triangle. The rope reins on a bosal, although lower on the nose of the equine than reins that come from the corners of the mouth, can cause the equine’s head to twist slightly sideways during the turn because, during any directional indication, the rawhide bosal around the nose twists through the rope reins which are both secured together underneath the jaw. The rope reins pull the underside of the bosal in the direction of the turn, but the nosepiece goes the opposite way and can cause your equine to improperly tilt his head through the turns.

cropheartshorsessadiebrandy-020_cc_printOn bitless bridles, the reins are attached substantially higher than the corners of the equine’s mouth. When you pull on the reins attached higher on the equine’s jaw than where the bit would be (as illustrated in the photo), the angle of pull is sharper and more abrupt, since the head side of the “triangle” is so much shorter than the length of the neck. It will cause the equine to try to turn his head too sharply from the poll, which can cause kinks and pain in his neck.

However, when using the snaffle bit, the direct rein pull coming from the corners of the equine’s mouth affords him a wider range of motion with his head and neck. He is able to stretch his head and neck forward and around in a properly executed horizontal arc through the turn, which, in turn, opens the spaces between his vertebrae, allowing him to bend his head and neck into the arc of the turn, painlessly and with greater ease.

To prove the point, try this experiment: Preferably using an untrained animal, take hold of the halter and gently but firmly pull on the halter in an attempt to make him bend his head and neck to the side.  The higher position of the halter is like a bitless bridle and you will feel slight tension and resistance to this action before the animal finally complies. Next, gently insert two fingers into one corner of the equine’s mouth while standing at his shoulder and by squeezing and releasing your fingers, ask him to turn his head and neck to the side toward you. If done correctly, without yanking on him, he should give easily to your cue to submit and turn his head and neck. You will notice that he extends his head and neck slightly forward before turning it to the side.

Now try this action on yourself. Stand in good posture and, without extending your neck, turn your head to the side. Do you feel the tension at the brainstem on the back of your neck? Now, stand in good posture, stretch your neck in an upward and forward arc and then look around the turn. Can you now feel the release from tension in the back of your neck? Your equine experiences the same feelings. The shorter angle of the side-pulls and bitless bridles will have a more abrupt pull and can cause some pain, while the longer angle coming from the snaffle bit at the corners of his mouth will allow a smoother and painless response. NOTE: Any bit can be painful to an animal when in the hands of an inexperienced rider who uses only the bit for control.

When an equine has been properly schooled and has learned the rules of communication through the snaffle bit, he holds the bit in his mouth and waits for the “feel” of the rider’s cues at the corners of his mouth. After years of practice, he will learn to respond to seat and legs and may not even need constant support of the rein cues—except for minute corrections. As equine and rider progress together, the rider’s cues will become nearly imperceptible until the rider is virtually riding without the active use of the reins. The equine has learned to quietly carry the bit in his mouth in anticipation of any communication coming through the reins. There is no pain because there is no pressure, except for an occasional reminder with a soft squeeze/release of the rider’s little pinky fingers on the reins from time to time.

The equine that has not had this kind of advanced training will possess neither genuinely good posture nor the knowledge of how to respond correctly in an abrupt and unpredictable situation. He will be more apt to be frightened and, as a result, may bolt and run, putting you and everyone around you at risk. However, the equine that is properly and conscientiously taught how to communicate through the snaffle bit will be a safer and more reliable animal to ride and to take into public places. He has learned to stop and wait for cues (communication through the bit) and is less likely to bolt and run if frightened because he understands and trusts the communication coming from his rider. He will now be more correct and solid in his good posture, yielding confidence in his attitude, and he will be a more reliable pleasure and show animal to ride.

When you take the time to train yourself to ride a balanced seat effectively and get in sync with your equine, you will be a much safer and happier rider, and your “finished” equine will be one that you can always depend on. If you like the novelty of bitless and/or brideless riding, using a snaffle bit instead of a bitless bridle during training will help you to achieve strength in correct posture to enhance bitless riding and even brideless riding so that it can be done safely around the farm and in controlled situations like event demonstrations. Properly and consistently training with the goal of clear lines of communication between you and your equine will make everything you ask of him much easier for him to do, and he will become a happy, reliable and willing partner in your mutually satisfying relationship.

For more information about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive correspondence training program, Training Mules and Donkeys, please visit www.LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Also, find Meredith Hodges and Lucky Three Ranch on Facebook and Twitter. And don’t forget to check out her children’s website at www.JasperTheMule.com.

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