Open Up and Say Aaah: The Quest to Find the Holy Grail of Bits

004We ask our horses to do this on an almost daily basis.  Please put your head down, open your mouth, and politely put this piece of metal in your mouth.  Just think about it, the closest we come to that experience is when we wear braces and, for some, the dreaded headgear.  Now think about how much thought you put into the current bit you are using?  No really, how much?  Was it the cheapest?  Was it used by the former owner who claimed it was the only bit that the horse would accept?  Did you find it on eBay?  Did you close your eyes and order the bit that your finger selected?

I don’t think any of us would trust ourselves to put on our own braces, but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an easier answer for bit selection.  Selecting the correct/best bit for your horse can feel like heading out on a quest for the Holy Grail.  Checkout any website that sells tack and you will see page upon page of bits.  So many shapes and sizes.  Lots of different alloys and types of metals and polymers used in the mouth pieces.  Which mouthpiece size, thickness, or cheek piece is best??!!  Oh yeah, then check out the rulebook for your chosen sport to make sure the bit you have selected is legal for competition.  Calgon, take me away!

If you have followed Ike’s adventures, you know my struggles with giving Ike a correct half halt and Ike’s difficulty responding to my efforts.  He has had a tendency to hang on the bit and run through my aids to the point that it physically hurt to finish my ride.  We started with a JP Korstel loose-ring with a French link that quickly transitioned to a basic loose-ring snaffle with a medium thickness for the mouthpiece.  It seemed to work for a while, but the stronger Ike has become (read: bigger muscles and more stamina), the less effective the bit and I became at giving clear aids.  Where to go next?

Enter a Level 1 Myler bit with a loose ring cheek piece.  Now we were getting somewhere.  Ike was much more responsive and apparently can carry himself.  What a shocker.  Why didn’t I know about this sooner?  We still struggle to get the correct flexion and struggle even more at getting Ike’s body in correct alignment, but those are young horse issues, not a bit problem.

And then I was offered an amazing opportunity to try a European brand of bits that are just entering the US market – thank you to the Florida reps for the Neue Schule Company [German for New School and pronounced “Noya Shoola”] for allowing Ike and I to be American guinea pigs for your products.  I shared details of our adventures with the representatives – Ike’s age and training, what bits we have tried before, and how he feels while I ride.  Yes, I even told them that I feel like I have to carry him around the arena.  Based on the information I provided, they sent us their Verbindend bit to try: http://nsbits.com/global/index.php/dressage-legal/verbindend.html.

9010-12-140-_sr55_h_5The mouthpieces of their bits are made from an alloy called Salox® Gold.  For you science geeks out there (don’t take offense, I am one too), there is a great explanation of the science that went into the engineering the alloy used on their website: http://nsbits.com/global/index.php/technology/the-science.html.  Who knew you could combine your love of science with your love of horses?  Awesome.  What I have found thus far is that Ike salivates A LOT with this bit.

The Verbindend bit is designed to help those who have horses that tend to be heavy on the forehand.  I’d say Ike falls into that category when he allows me to carry him…not exactly the feel we are going for in dressage.  This bit is designed to “greatly emphasis the signals through the reins.”  The Verbindend bit definitely has helped me better execute a half halt and since using it, I’ve not had stabbing pain in my arms and shoulders during my rides.  Ike carries himself and I’m able to execute a range of half halts from two fingers to a full squeeze and feel Ike give a response to the aid.  Oh, so that is what an effective half halt feels like.  Ms. C even had us playing with working trot to trot lengthening and back to working trot and showing clear changes.  It is a new concept to Ike, but one that was made relatively easy since he was clearly hearing my aids.  We even toyed with walk-canter transitions with some success.

This guinea pig is a big fan of the Neue Schule Verbindend bit.  Can I say that it is the be-all-end-all for every horse and rider out there?  Probably not.  There are honestly too many variables in equine conformation, equine age, equine training level, rider skill level, and riding disciplines to say that there is one bit that is always going to work on every horse.  But I will say that you should consider this brand of bit if you are in the market for a new bit.  My best advice is to contact the company representatives for any brand you are considering.  They are very knowledgeable about their product lines and want you to be pleased with your purchase.  Be honest with what you tell them and you will find that there just might be that perfect bit for you and your horse.

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One Cicada, Two Cidada, Three Cicada, No More

005We are in the midst of a cicada invasion of the 17 year variety.  If I looked like these creepy creatures with big red eyes and orange wings, I’d hide under ground for 17 years too.  There are so many in the woods out near the farm that I feel like I’m on a distant planet in an old Star Trek episode as they buzz away.  They normally don’t bother me as long as they keep their distance.  Over the past few days though, we have had a few close calls.

At least 6 cicadas dive bomb my windshield with every trip to the barn.  I’m starting to question their maneuverability.  I’m also weary of scraping the residue off the glass.  On another day, poor Ike kept looking at one of the empty buckets in his stall and then looking at me.  I finally caught a clue and peeked in the bucket and found a cicada buzzing about apparently unable to find its way out.  I assisted its departure and Ike was much relieved.

The worst run in came yesterday at the end of my lesson.  I’m just glad that there were no cameras around or I’d be a star on YouTube by now.  I was still mounted and walking Ike to the gate when I heard a buzzing sound behind me.  Next thing I know, a “friendly” cicada decided to land on my shirt collar and THEN start to take a stroll up the nape of my neck and then down my shirt.  EEK! UGH!  I start squirming and screeching while trying to hold onto the reins and swatting away the offending creature.  This causes Ike to jig and become a bit worried.  I’m undeterred since there is no way I’m going to let the offending creature hide in my clothing.  Although it felt like forever, the struggle was over after about 15 seconds.  My new-found friend and I parted ways.  No offense, but I don’t think we will be hanging out in the future.

Riding this week was challenging as well.  Work, a trip out-of-town, and the weather all kept me out of the saddle more than I liked.  Ms. C did ride Ike for me one day and had positive things to say about our progress and the Myler bit.  She put Ike through the paces to gauge our recent progress.  She stressed that he is at the point in his training that we need to be black and white in what we want from him.  My sloppy habits aren’t going to help our progress.  If we don’t train for excellence, then it cannot be expected on centerline at a show.  It won’t be fixed in the next week, but I am going to try my best to think about what I am doing as we work rather than putting on the cruise control as I’m prone to do.

I’m still loving the new bit as are my arms and shoulders.  It is a great feeling to actually be able to give a correct half halt in the canter and have Ike respond appropriately.  With my other loose-ring snaffle, Ike would just lean on the bit.  I was just not strong enough to speak effectively.  Say what you like, but it is what it is.  If all I can do is whisper, but Ike needs me to yell, then we aren’t going to progress until we learn to communicate well.  The true test comes this coming weekend when we hit centerline.  Will the judge’s see what I am feeling or will they just see the flailing cicada-wearing rider?  Find out in six days!

Forgive Me Kind Readers For I have Sinned

001It has been 30 years since my last confession and six days since my last blog post, but hey, who’s counting?  Please forgive the lack of updates on our progress and goings on around the barn.  I have just finished a rather sloth-like week.  My only explanation is the July like weather that decided to park itself over the mid-Atlantic region.  All I have wanted to do was hide indoors and do a lot of nothing.  This weather has not inspired me to walk the dogs, or work in my flowerbeds, or ride my horse.  I did ride three times with two of those rides being lessons with Ms. C, but it would have been nice to have a gradual warm up rather than immediate searing heat.  By scheduling lessons, it forced me to commit to some serious riding.  We now have just two weeks before our first two-day dressage show.

I have been struggling lately to get an effective half halt in the canter.  Heck, some days the trot is a challenge as well.  Ike, as you know, is a big boy and there is a serious amount of strength in those long limbs and giraffe neck.  When you add the power of the canter to that strength, Ike can take advantage of my lack of strength and blow through any attempt of a half halt.  There are days that my arms burn and ache from the exertion; I feel cramps in my fingers and pain in my elbows and shoulders.  Ugh.  It is so very frustrating since our progress is stunted by these issues.  I was at a loss on what to do other than use large doses of ibuprofen to mask my pain.

Then Ms. C had an idea that took hold during the first of my two lessons this week.  She left the ring and a short time later emerged from the barn with a bridle in hand and suggested that we switch because of the bit on that bridle.  I’ve been riding Ike in a basic loose ring single-joint snaffle.  This other bridle had a Myler Level 1 Bit in place.  Not knowing much about it, but trusting Ms. C, we switched bridles and carried on with my lesson.  We gave Ike a few minutes to adjust to the change.  The new bridle had no flash, so Ike walked around with his mouth gaping open and tongue hanging out as he played with the new bit.  Ms. C was laughing so hard that I thought she’d collapse in a fit of giggles.  After this short adjustment period, we put big man back to work.  Interesting.  Ike definitely felt lighter in my hands.  With our regular bit, he has a tendency to lean on the bit even when I politely give a half halt.  With the Myler bit, he seemed to carry himself rather than asking me to carry him…maybe that is why my arms ache…

I was intrigued by the difference with the Myler bit, so I did some research while hiding from the heat.  Level 1 and Level 2 Myler bits are approved by the USEF for dressage competition (DR121.16.A).  The Level 1 bits apply evenly distributed pressure over the tongue with very little bar or lip pressure.  They are recommended for horses just starting with their training.  The bars of the bit are curved (known as a “comfort snaffle”) to allow for more space for the tongue under the bit.  My research didn’t show any negatives, but before committing to the purchase, I set up a second lesson with Ms. C to try the Myler bit one more time.

For my second lesson, we put the bit on my bridle that has a flash.  [Note to self: Ike keeps his mouth closed with the flash secured – do not buy a bridle without a flash.  I don’t think the judge would appreciate Ike sticking his tongue out at them.]  My second lesson was even more successful than the first.  Ike appeared to hear my half halts and responded correctly in both the trot and canter.  It was nice to be able to execute a half halt and see and feel a difference in Ike’s stride.  I had no aches or pains in my arms during the lesson which was a nice bonus.  Ms. C noted that Ike appeared lighter in his movement because he can look heavy when he leans on the normal snaffle.  I can assure you that he is heavy when he leans.  The key with this bit is making sure that you keep your hands soft and following.  Not hard to do when your horse doesn’t have a death grip on the bit.  The order has been placed for a Myler Level 1 bit of our very own.

So while I may not have ridden all that much this week, our work we did accomplish was quite positive.  I am feeling much better about my ability to communicate with Ike.  I wouldn’t say that a different bit is the magic elixir we need to boost our scores.  If it does allow me the means to better communicate with my horse in a positive way, then it seems to me that it is a step in the right direction in achieving better harmony and more thoroughness and maybe even an extra point or two in our scores.  We will find out in two weeks…

Alison

p.s. For those who might be wondering how the DEET is helping our tick situation, it appears that strategic use of the DEET bug spray (wiped on Ike’s ears and nose, sprayed on Ike’s neck, lower legs and tail) is helping keep the ticks at bay.  Haven’t seen one in over a week.  Seems well worth the $7 spent.