When I first met Cassie, her owner used a lot of serious hardware on her. A rather severe bit with curb chain, mouth tied shut and a martingale. A bit excessive on a green, newly backed horse in my opinion, and I requested the bit to be replaced by an ordinary snaffle before I rode her.
When I brought her home, I tried her in a Dr. Cook’s Bitless bridle. That’s what I rode Minnie in and she went very well in it. I never had a problem stopping Minnie and Minnie likes to go very fast, but she would come to a halt from a flat-out gallop in a few strides. I fully expected Cassie to take to the bridle without problems, but she didn’t. She hated it.
Having had such a good experience with the Dr. Cooks, I never really thought about how this bridle actually works and how restrictive it can be. The bridle works on the principle of distributing pressure evenly over the whole head. That means pressure on the poll, nose and jaws by means of the cross under straps. I usually ride with a very loose rein and Cassie was fine as long as the reins were dangling in loops, but the moment I took up a contact, she protested. She would bring her head up as high as she could go, with her nose in the air and her heels dug in. Needless to say I would lose all control if she did that until she brought her head down again. Cassie just couldn’t tolerate the feeling of her head being captured. No Dr. Cooks for her.
I prefer bitless, but I have no problems with bits. I think there is a time and place for both, and a lot depends on the horse. When I was young I used to ride dressage. All the young dressage horses in the yard where I rode were ridden with the reins attached to a cavesson noseband until they were ready for more advanced and collected work. More recently, I did a bit of work-riding on young race horses getting ready for point-to-points. They were all bitted in ordinary snaffles and a bitless bridle would have been out of place there. In fact, in a serious fall you could probably break a horse’s nose with a bitless bridle.
I did some research and settled on the rocking S bit for Cassie. This is a bit designed to lie very still in a horse’s mouth, with a French link to prevent poking in the roof of the mouth. The bit itself is made from sweet iron, which is palatable to most horses, the bitrings are stainless steel. The bit has double rings, the reins are attached to the inner D ring.
The Rocking S bit arrived and I attached it to a racing bridle, which is very light with extra thin straps. Then I tried Cassie in both the bitless bridle and the bit. She made it very clear that she preferred the bit over the Dr. Cooks bridle.
I still had doubts though. Cassie rode very well in it on a loose rein, but she was inclined to come behind the bit on a contact and shake her head a bit. The biggest indicator that all was not well was her behaviour during tacking up. On seeing the bridle, Cassie would turn away from me to stand with her head in a corner of her stable. Judging by the loose droppings she was at least apprehensive, if not stressed. She wouldn’t open her mouth readily. But most of all it was the expression on her face as soon as the bit and bridle were in place. Definitely sour, with her ears back. Cassie is still sensitive about her head, but she has no problems with a head collar and will drop her nose in when I hold it up in front of her. Back to the drawing board.
The choice of a bit or bitless bridle depends on the horse, but also on what you want to do with that horse. If I had aspirations to go back to riding dressage and ambitions to go up to an advanced level, and if I had a horse that was physically and temperamentally suited to do so, I would have no choice but to ride my horse in a bit, because that is what the sport dictates. That is not what I want though and Cassie wouldn’t be suitable. The sense I get from Cassie is that she wants to be free, unrestricted, and she wants to run. I want to do long distance rides with her and for that we don’t need a bit.
So yesterday, I tried her in a home-made bitless bridle. It is basically a cavesson nose band with two rings attached for the reins to clip on. The nose band is made from very soft leather and extra padded.
When Cassie saw me coming with a bridle, she turned away as usual. However, with the noseband open all I really had to do was slip it over her ears and the bridle was on before she knew it. I did the noseband up very loosely to resemble a head collar as closely as possible and stood back. Cassie licked and chewed and was obviously surprised. When I finished tacking her up, she was her normal self, no trace of moodiness.
We rode out with Maire and Ben and had a lovely ride. Cassie was relaxed and responsive and that made me feel happy. Even when she had a fright when a flock of birds flew up out of a hedgerow, she came back to me within a few strides. I will have to do more rides and try it out in different situations to see how it really works. It may not be suitable for schooling and I think the position of the rings might need to be adjusted. Still, it’s a start.