And We’re Moving On Up, On Up…

005Well, okay, we are not moving into a penthouse suite, nor are we moving to the top of the training scale.  Only in my dreams do we piaffe and passage with the best horses and riders.  No, we are moving on to the next level of Ike’s dressage education which means we will begin schooling first and second level concepts in earnest.

The game changer was last Tuesday when Ms. C rode Ike.  She now knows exactly where Ike stands with his training.  Poor Ike can’t hide behind my poor technique or lack of skills anymore.  Ms. C likes how Ike responds in the Neue Schule bit; he is not too heavy, nor does he avoid contact with it.  She believes that he will have excellent lateral work.  She also said that he now has the physical and mental strength to handle the greater demands that he will now face.

Soooo, that meant that during my lesson on Saturday and my lesson today, I had to be focused and mentally ready to really ride my horse every single stride.  As I’ve stated in past posts, I have a tendency to turn on the cruise control and forget to half halt, shift my weight, move my leg, or do anything to improve Ike’s way of moving.  Ms. C yelling, “why are you letting your horse flatten?” or “where is Ike’s shoulder headed?” usually bring me out of my cruise mode and back to reality.  I’d say that having the ability to focus and ride every stride are probably two of those key elements that separate the talented riders from the rest of us.

So first on the list of skills to master as we embark on this next phase of our training is focus – I knew how to do it when I ran hurdles as part of my high school’s track team.  I could run by bleachers filled with screaming people and not hear a thing.  Nothing.  Nothing but the sound of my shoes hitting the pavement.  Not sure when I lost that ability.  Is it part of the aging process?  Maybe I need some ginko biloba to increase blood flow to the brain and thus, the brain’s capacity to think and stay focused.

The next skill to master is relaxing my arms and legs so that I can improve my sit trot.  If we are moving on with Ike’s training, then I need to be able to keep up as he masters the new skills.  What good is it to have a horse that is ready for Second Level when the rider is still struggling to keep her ass in the saddle without shooting her legs out and bracing.  This isn’t water skiing.  My sit trot during my lesson today was better than on Saturday.  I’ve noticed that there are times that it is still better to rise than to hunker down and fight for the sit trot.  With Ike, when I ask for a trot lengthening, it is better for me to get off his back…at least at this point in the training.  Today I would sit the short ends, lengthen the long sides, and then go back to sit trot.  While it might not have been the prettiest, I do think that we did okay with our efforts.

I’m very excited with where we are with Ike’s training.  I fought for seven years with Cigar and barely made it out of Training Level before his career ended.  He challenged me every step of the way and at times, I would get very demoralized.  I pretty much decided that I had no idea what I was doing.  Ike has helped me regain my confidence and realize that progress is possible.  It might even happen faster than I anticipated…

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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.