Choose The Right Reins

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RIDE RIGHT//NOV-DEC 2015

 

Online extra! For Julie Goodnight’s tip on using color-coded reins for kids, go to TrailRider.com.

 

Choose the Right Reins

Learn how choose the right reins, and use them safely on the trail, with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

BY HEIDI MELOCCO WITH JULIE GOODNIGHT ~ PHOTOS BY HEIDI MELOCCO

 

On the trail, your reins need to be safe and functional, and help your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue.

And, your reins need to be comfortable. If your reins are too long, too much to hold, or are just uncomfortable, you’ll tend to shorten your trail rides. If they feel good to you, you’ll relax in the saddle and enjoy long rides.

Your horse is highly attuned to how you hold and cue with the reins. When you move along at a casual pace, he appreciates a long rein to give him room to move. Your reins also need to be long enough so that your horse can reach down to drink.

At the same time, when you speed up, you need to be able to easily shorten the reins to collect your horse and give a more direct cue when necessary.

Here, top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight will first cover rein quality, types, and attachments. Then she’ll tell you the best ways to attach your reins to the bit and how to rein your horse. Next, she’ll give you ground-tying safety pointers. Along the way, she’ll give you riding-glove tips for safety and control.

 

Overall Quality

“It’s all about quality,” Goodnight says. “The heavier the rein is, the easier it’ll be for your horse to feel what you’re doing with your hands and the more subtle a signal you can give.

“Plus, when the reins are made from quality leather or rope, your horse will feel the rein release right away, so he’ll learn to be more responsive.”

Riding with well-weighted reins will remind you to give your horse enough slack, because you’ll feel the downward pull of gravity. He’ll feel the rein’s weight, and your cues will be amplified because of the weighted drape.

If you use reins made from inexpensive, lightweight material that flops around, your horse won’t feel the rein and may have a tough time feeling your rein aids. This means you may find yourself pulling on the reins more than should be necessary (and therefore applying undue pressure to your horse’s mouth) to get a response to your cues.

To experience what your horse feels when the reins are weighted just right, stand up, and place your arms straight out in front of you with your palms up.

Imagine you hold a penny on your right index finger and a feather on your left index finger. Now think what it would take to balance the item on each finger.

You likely imagine that you’d be able to balance the penny easily, but need to shift your finger to keep it under the feather. The same law of physics applies to how your horse feels and balances himself within the weight of your reins.

If your reins are made from lightweight leather or nylon webbing, there isn’t much weight, and it becomes difficult for him to feel the reins and stay balanced.

With high-quality leather or a thick marine-type rope, your horse will be able to feel your hand movements and balance himself more easily. He’ll know what you’re asking because the weight of the reins echoes the slightest movement from your hand.

 

Rein Types

Here’s a rundown of common Western rein types and how to use them. Find reins that feel best in your hands and as you ride on trail.

* Split reins. If you opt for split reins, choose quality leather. Split reins are long and versatile — you can make them long or short, and use them independently or ride one-handed. Split reins can be great for trail riding, because you can easily ground-tie by laying the reins down on the ground. But some find them cumbersome and they can be easily dropped.

You can hold split reins in a variety of ways. You can choose how you hold them and where you hold them to cue your horse.

The traditional pistol-grip hold is the rein hold used for competition. Hold both the reins in one hand with your index finger in-between the two reins.

The trainer’s hold or bridge is made by laying one rein on either side of your horse’s neck, crossing the reins over each other, and holding one rein in each hand or both in one hand. Hold your hands as though you’re holding bicycle handles, while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over your horse’s neck. This allows you to ride with two hands and work each side of the bit independently. You can also use a bridge while riding one-handed.

When riding Western, the traditional rein hand is the left hand; it’s assumed you’ll need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope, open a gate, rope, etc.

If you’re riding with split reins, make sure the bight (the tail of your reins) lies on the same side of your horse’s neck as your rein hand so his neck doesn’t interfere with your cues.

* Continuous-loop reins. If you choose to ride with continuous-loop reins, choose high-quality, heavyweight rope for trail riding. These reins fill your hand for comfort and control. They’re easy to use when you’re following a trail and don’t need to guide your horse’s every step. Rope reins are easy to hold onto, as well as to shorten and lengthen.

Hold rope reins right in the middle to ride on a loose rein. “The reins I’ve designed have a marker in the middle so you can easily check to see your reins are even,” Goodnight says.

Consider length. On the trail, your horse needs to be able to drop his head to drink and move in a relaxed frame. Most trail horses do well with a 9-foot rein. However, if your horse has a very long neck, you may prefer a 10-foot rein. Find a length that also helps you ride on a loose rein with a relaxed hand.

 

Rein Attachments

Traditional Western reins can also include a mecate or romal. Here’s what you need to know.

* Mecate. The mecate is a long lead on a continuous-loop rein that comes off of the left side of the bit. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate; off the horse, there’s built-in lead line. But others find the extra rope bulky and a lot to handle.

“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle,” Goodnight says. “I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle.

The trainer’s hold or bridge is made by laying one rein on either side of your horse’s neck, crossing the reins over each other, and holding one rein in each hand or both in one hand. Hold your hands as though you’re holding bicycle handles, while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over your horse’s neck. This allows you to ride with two hands and work each side of the bit independently. You can also use a bridge while riding one-handed.

When riding Western, the traditional rein hand is the left hand; it’s assumed you’ll need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope, open a gate, rope, etc.

If you’re riding with split reins, make sure the bight (the tail of your reins) lies on the same side of your horse’s neck as your rein hand so his neck doesn’t interfere with your cues.

* Continuous-loop reins. If you choose to ride with continuous-loop reins, choose high-quality, heavyweight rope for trail riding. These reins fill your hand for comfort and control. They’re easy to use when you’re following a trail and don’t need to guide your horse’s every step. Rope reins are easy to hold onto, as well as to shorten and lengthen.

Hold rope reins right in the middle to ride on a loose rein. “The reins I’ve designed have a marker in the middle so you can easily check to see your reins are even,” Goodnight says.

Consider length. On the trail, your horse needs to be able to drop his head to drink and move in a relaxed frame. Most trail horses do well with a 9-foot rein. However, if your horse has a very long neck, you may prefer a 10-foot rein. Find a length that also helps you ride on a loose rein with a relaxed hand.

 

Rein Attachments

Traditional Western reins can also include a mecate or romal. Here’s what you need to know.

* Mecate. The mecate is a long lead on a continuous-loop rein that comes off of the left side of the bit. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate; off the horse, there’s built-in lead line. But others find the extra rope bulky and a lot to handle.

“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle,” Goodnight says. “I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle. This means there’s less to hold. And when you tie your horse, you aren’t tempted to tie with a rope that’s connected to the bit.”

* Romal. A romal is attached to the set of closed reins; the entire assemblage is called romal reins. The romal was developed to help a rider move cattle. Romal reins are held without a finger between the reins, so you have less ability to articulate with the reins than you might with split reins. You ride with two hands — one hand cues your horse, while the other holds the romal. These reins are best used on a well-trained horse that neck reins well.

 

Bit Connections

Goodnight advises against using a metal snap to attach your reins to the bit. Although convenient, the metal-to-metal connection can annoy your horse. The metals rub and vibrate, which he feels constantly.

A rope or leather bit connection gives you a better feel and helps you know when your horse moves or makes a change. You don’t need to change the bit or reins frequently; take a few extra moments to tie on your reins or otherwise secure without a clip.

“A leather or rope connection is fine,” says Goodnight. “Although I’m not a fan of decorative slobber straps — they’re too bulky and don’t allow me to finesse the reins. Plus, they’re cumbersome to put on and take off.”

The ideal connection for a continuous-loop rein is a corded quick connect, says Goodnight. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, and also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with your horse.”

A split rein will usually have a tied-on connection — a kind of slobber strap made from the same leather as the rein. The leather piece is a breakaway and may save your horse from getting hurt if you drop a rein and he steps on it. If that piece does break, it’s easy to repair while on the trail.

 

Holding the Reins

Whether you ride with one hand or two depends on the type of bit you use, and your horse’s training level and his obedience.

Snaffle bits (bits without shanks) are designed to be ridden two-handed with a direct rein (applying pressure directly from rider’s hand to the mouthpiece of the bit). Riding in a snaffle bit with one hand causes the bit to collapse around the horse’s tongue and pinch his jaw in a nutcracker effect.

 

Curb bits (bits with shanks) are designed to be ridden one-handed However, if the bit is designed so that the shanks move independently from each other, you may also ride with two hands when your horse is in training.

 

Ground-Tying Safety

When you dismount and lay the reins on the ground, a horse trained to ground tie knows that means he should stand still. Laying the reins on the ground should only be done with a split rein, not a continuous-loop rein.

Split reins have no dangerous hoof-catching loop. In the worst-case scenario, your horse may break the split-reins’ leather, but he won’t get caught up or pull excessively on the bit with a material that won’t break.

Never drop loop or continuous-rope reins in front of your horse. Rather, hold loop reins in your hands or over your arm to keep the loop far from your horse’s feet.

If you want to ground-tie with a loop rein, keep the loop over your horse’s neck, or attach a lead rope to a halter beneath your bridle, and allow this lead to hang down. Or you can use the traditional neck rope for this purpose, known as a “get-down” rope.

For safety’s sake, make sure that some part of your reins, bit, and headstall is made of a breakaway material. For instance, if you have rope reins, connect them to a leather headstall. Something needs to give in case of an emergency.

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Riding-Glove Tips

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Well-fitted leather gloves are handy on the trail when reaching to ride beneath branches.

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When should you wear riding gloves? You’ll need gloves if you’re riding a fast-paced trail or endurance challenge, as you’ll hold the horse with contact and you’ll feel friction on your fingers. You may also want gloves if you’re riding in heavy brush and you’ll need to reach up and break branches.

“I always want gloves on if I’m ponying a horse or doing any kind of rope-pulling work,” notes Julie Goodnight. “I always make sure there are gloves in my saddlebag in case I need to help pony a horse in an emergency.

Consider glove material. “I like a leather glove for the feel,” says Goodnight. “The new technical fabrics are great, though, too.

No matter what the material, fit is key. “If the gloves fit well without extra fingertip length, you’ll be able to feel the reins better and not lose the feel of the reins as you’re shortening and lengthening them,” notes Goodnight.

 

On the trail, your reins need to be safe and functional, and help your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue. Here, top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight will help you choose the reins that are right for you. Shown are Goodnight (right) and Twyla Walker Collins riding with split reins.

 

[SPLIT REINS]

 

Leather split reins are long and versatile, and best for ground-tying. But some riders find them hard to use, and they can be easily dropped. (Note the leather-to-metal connection at the bit, rather than a metal snap, which would annoy your horse.)

 

[ROPE REINS]

 

If you use continuous-loop rope reins on the trail, make sure they’re long enough to allow your horse to ride in a relaxed frame, turn and bend without constant contact, and reach his head down far enough to drink.

 

 

Rope reins are easy to hold and convenient on the trail — especially if you’re worried about dropping a split rein. The reins can be held in one hand or two, depending on the bit and your horse’s training level.

 

The ideal connection for a continuous-loop rein is a corded quick connect, says Goodnight, who designed the reins shown. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, and also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with your horse.”

 

[ROMAL REINS]

 

With romal reins, you ride with two hands — one hand cues your horse, while the other holds the romal attachment. These reins are best used on a well-trained horse that knows how to neck rein.

 

In-Depth Thoughts On The Combination Bit

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Why would you use a rawhide nose band to achieve results with a lighter touch? Why not just do the training to have the horse understand the lighter pressure with a softer nose band? Rawhide is tough and rough and hurts.

A: Just like with a bit in the mouth, it is only rough and tough in the wrong hands. To me, the horse will actually be lighter in the rawhide and you will almost never use mouth pressure because the horse will respond softly to the lightest feel of the rawhide noseband—making it very easy to ride with lightness. Often horses will lean and pull on a flat/soft noseband which ends up with a very heavy-handed rider, using a lot more pressure to get an inferior response.

Why jump straight to a myler combination? My mare absolutely hates an eggbutt snaffle bit and prefers the simple myler that I have, so I’m not against myler at all. But a combination bit seems like you used a gadget to overcome a gap in training instead of just doing to training.

A: Although it has the look of a gadget, it is actually greatly simplifying the cues to the horse because it allows you to ride off of nose pressure only—the simplest of pressures. Probably the two greatest things about the combo is that it takes pressure off the mouth (which is a godsend for many horses), and that it gives you more control with less stress (those two things turn out to be critical in many cases—especially with sensitive or hot-blooded horses) .The reason why I say if I could only have one bit to ride every horse in the world—this would be it, is because even a well-trained horse without a bitting problem would love the combo because of the comfort and reduction of mouth pressure. Remember, often times reducing stress is the most important thing for moving a horse’s training forward.

Also, shouldn’t the wonderful happy contact with your hands cause a little salivation? Excessive saliva is a bad thing. And saliva produced from the metal of the bit is covering up that your hands didn’t make a happy connection.

A: Horses salivate 24/7 no matter what you do but the tangy-ness of the bit can be pleasing to the horse. While I hope my horse is tolerant of my soft hands, I am not sure any horse is really happy about contact. Yes salivation is good; drooling is not. A horse that is drooling is doing so because he cannot swallow. That means either he is choking or the bit is causing him to not be able to swallow—could be because of too much pressure on the tongue or it could be because the horse is sucking his tongue up into his throat to avoid the bit pressure. That’s why horses usually do better in bits with tongue relief.

 

More info at: http://juliegoodnight.com/bits

Dale Myler’s Visit to the Ranch; Personal Bit Clinic

I’ve been having too much fun this week taking a private bitting clinic from Dale Myler, of Myler Bits USA. Dale was kind enough to come and give us his undivided attention for a couple of days to impart a lifetime of information on bits and bit design. I invited a several friends—all riders and/or trainers and over the course of two days, we worked with 15 different horses. Everything from an unbroke three year old who never had a bit in his mouth to Rich’s finished bridle horse—with a big variety of training levels in-between .

It was the most fun with horses I’ve had in a while and I don’t have enough time today to write all the things I learned (hence the fun). I fell in love with Myler bits years ago when they first came out and gradually through the years, they became the only bits to hang on bridles in my tack room. I knew intuitively why I liked them, knowing from the beginning that they had an ergonomic shape and must be more comfortable in the horse’s mouth. Although I was the only one in our group that had much experience with Myler bits, we all figured out right away, from Dale’s power point presentation, why the bits would work. It wasn’t until we were in the arena trading horses and bridles like crazy, that we could see the results first-hand.

What I got the most from the clinic, was learning why I love the Myler bits so much. First off, looking at a dental picture with the horse’s teeth closed but lips opened by a speculum, you can see that the tongue fills the entire mouth when his teeth are shut—just like yours does. Having your tongue up in your palate is normal and feels good. It is not possible to put a bit in a horse’s mouth without it being pressed into the palate by the tongue. Pressure on the tongue does not feel good and if you don’t believe it, try poking your finger into your tongue.

Everything a horse can do to evade bit pressure has to do with him looking for relief from tongue pressure—whether he throws his head up, roots the reins, gapes at the mouth, sucks his tongue up in his throat, puts his tongue over the bit, comes behind the vertical. He’d rather have pressure anywhere than the tongue and by going through these gyrations, he always finds tongue relief. Even the bars of his mouth can take a lot more pressure than the tongue (try pressing on your bars—behind your molars and you’ll see what I mean). Myler bits are designed to relieve tongue pressure and distribute the pressure to other areas (like the nose, chin, poll, bars) in order to make the horse more comfortable and relaxed so that he is trainable and can perform to his fullest.

Here’s another interesting thing Dale said, a rider will never learn to have quiet and soft hands until she rides a soft and relaxed horse. That makes so much sense. If your pulling and struggling and hanging on for dear life, where’s the feel comes from? What I learned was that sometimes we can bit a horse differently so that he can tolerate the rider’s uneducated or inarticulate hands. Because I sell a lot of finished horses to novice riders, I already knew this and it’s one reason why I always send the horses to their new home with the right bit.

What was fun about the clinic was switching bits on horses and seeing instant results. I was pleased to learn that the bit I was already using on my horse Dually was probably the best thing for him but I realized I can get the same mouth piece in a snaffle side piece when I want to do more schooling on him. Rich had bought a Myler hand crafted reined cowhorse bit for his new horse a few months ago and Dale felt it was the ideal bit for him for show and we tried a few different bits on him for home-use. It was really interesting to feel the different bits on a very finished horse—a small change in the bit would be very noticeable in how Diggs responded and we settled on the same bit that I use on Dually for Diggs.

A lot of people these days seem to be asking, “why use a bit at all?” While many, if not most broke horses will work okay in a halter, a bit can provide the communication and precise cues that will help you achieve great performances. When used improperly, the devices can be treacherous, but with education and proper, kind use, a bit can help you better your communication and control. There are many things that compel us to use bits: more control, subtle communication, training to a high level of performance or maybe because the rules for your discipline compel you. What about you? What do you think about riding in a halter only or riding bridleless and without a bit? And are you happy, or more importantly, is your horse happy with the bit you use? Every time I’ve given a presentation on bits, the room has been full of people with lots of questions. I find it’s important to ask horse owners a few questions, too: How and what have you learned about bits? Why are you using the bit you use? If you have reasons beyond “that’s what someone told you to use,” do the reasons make sense? It’s a big subject! Post your thoughts here!

 

Opinion Of Myler Bits

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Question: Dear Julie,
My question to you is what is your opinion of Myler bits? I came across a book recently that talked about the Myler comfort snaffle. I was surprised to learn that not all snaffles are exactly what they are supposed to be. The reason I’m asking is my horse Montana is in a D-ring snaffle. I have noticed at times him pulling the reins and opening his mouth. Even when I put him in the round pen with saddle and head stall on he does the same thing and I’m not even on him. It seems to me that it’s bothering him more and more. From what I read, snaffles can keep a horse from swallowing because of the pressure on the tongue. I keep checking my hands to make sure they are not harsh. I even notice it when his head is down and he’s relaxed like Western pleasure…he still opens and gaps his mouth, pulls the reins and goes sideways. I have been working on changing some of his habits from before I had him. Who ever had him before used to put lots of pressure on his mouth so he’d rout out. He’s come a long way from doing that; I just want to make sure I haven’t missed something or over looked anything. There are so many bits on the market how does one decide which is best? If you have any ideas I’d appreciate it. Thanks so much
Lisa
Answer: Hi Lisa,
There is a lot of confusion about bits and many misconceptions. Many people do not really understand the difference between the two main types of bits, snaffles and curbs (or direct pressure and leverage bits) and many people think a snaffle is automatically mild and a curb is automatically harsh. In reality, nothing can be further from the truth-there are many incredibly harsh snaffles out there and there are many very mild curbs. And the joint in the middle of the bit is not what makes it a snaffle, so a bit with shanks and a jointed mouth piece is not a snaffle-if it has shanks and the reins do not attach directly opposite the mouthpiece, it is not a snaffle (see the Q&A on my website about Tom Thumb bits).
There are other common misconceptions about bits. First, it is not important whether or not the bit is mild or harsh; what’s important is the way the rider uses her hands. The mildest bit in the wrong hands can be harsh and the harshest bit in the right hands can be mild. Also, changing bits will not fix a training problem with a horse. In other words, if you have a horse that is going too fast for instance, putting a stronger bit in his mouth will not fix the problem; only more training will fix it. Going to a harsher bit will often make a training problem worse because it causes more anxiety for the horse and usually exacerbates the problem, especially in the case of the fast horse since horses have a tendency to speed up when they become more anxious.
As for your question on Myler bits, I love them and have a tack room full of them-both snaffle and curb. It’s all I use. I’ve used them since they came on the market 10 years ago and am now lucky to have them as a sponsor. That said, I make sure I like what sponsors have before we talk business. These are the bits I’ve used and recommended for a long time. I like them because they are manufactured with the highest quality materials and craftsmanship, they are ergonomically designed to fit a horse’s mouth comfortably and they are also designed for specific effectiveness. There are a huge range of bits available through Myler and each one is rated for the horse’s level of training, so that your horse can move seamlessly from one bit to another as his training level increases and his needs change. You’re right when you say that there are so many bits on the market that it is sometimes hard for people to make sense of them. Myler has worked hard to educate horse owners about what makes a bit mild or harsh and how it works in the horse’s mouth. So that even a person that knows little or nothing about bits can read the pamphlet that comes with the bit, view the video on bits and look at the rating of the bit to make an informed decision about what bit is best for their horse.
My favorite Myler bits are the comfort snaffle and the jointed curb bits. The snaffles have a curved mouthpiece, so that the bit is actually the shape of the horse’s mouth, giving him tongue and palate relief and making the bit more effective working off the corners of the mouth with the lightest possible pressure. The mouthpiece is made with sweet iron with copper inlays, giving the horse a sweet and saliva-producing taste in his mouth. I like the bit with the copper roller in the middle and this is my bit of choice for the snaffle horses. I have about every level of curb bit too, for the Western horses that need to work in a curb and they are made with the same high quality materials and an effective shape and function.
For your horse, it sounds like changing bits might be helpful. If the horse is fighting the bit without a rider, I would be highly suspicious. Have you checked his tongue for scarring? Have his teeth been checked and have his wolf teeth been removed? Have you tried riding him in a bosal, side pull or rope halter to see if that alleviates the problem? This might help determine how much of the issue is bit fit, how much has to do with the rider’s hands and how much of it is a training issue. If there is a physical problem, obviously that will have to be addressed before you decide on the best bit or bridle for your horse. It is possible that your horse has never been properly bitted out and he does not know the correct way to respond to pressure on the bit. A surprisingly high number of horses were never really trained properly, they just had a bit stuck in their mouth one day and forceful pressure made the horse respond. A horse must be systematically trained what to do when he feels pressure on the bit and how to give both laterally and longitudinally (vertically) when he feels pressure. Or, he may have had his mouth anti-trained from poor riding, learning to be defensive about his mouth and/or to ignore light pressure because he never got a release.
After ruling out a physical problem, I would spend some time with him in the round pen with an elbow- pull biting rig (see the Training Library on my website) and see if the horse can learn to give longitudinally to the bit and be soft in the mouth and jaw. Then we would do some lateral flexes until the horse gives to the side, and then start over from the saddle teaching him to give to light pressure both vertically and laterally and find the release.
Many, if not most bitting problems originate with the rider’s hands-maybe yours or maybe the hands that came before you. No horse wants pressure on his mouth, so he will always look for an escape from the pressure. If doing the right things (dropping his head and giving to the pressure) doesn’t get the release he is looking for, he begins to try other things, like throwing his head or inverting or rooting the reins, until he finds something that does get him a release. If he inadvertently gets a release when he is doing the wrong thing, the wrong thing becomes a learned response.
Without seeing you in action, I can’t really guess whether or not your riding is causing a problem for the horse but it seems like from your description, he is not happy with the bit you are currently using. Certainly putting him in a snaffle that has a more comfortable fit would be a good place to start. Assessing whether or not there are any physical issues preventing him from accepting the bit and better training to teach him the proper response to pressure on the bit are necessary steps as well. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
http://www.juliegoodnight.com

The Different Types Of Bits

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Horse Master How To
“Get it Straight” Helping a frustrated rider find the right bit and cue her horse to move straight ahead
By Julie Goodnight

In the Horse Master episode we named “Get it Straight,” master bit maker, Dale Myler, joined me to help a horse and her frustrated rider move ahead with relaxation—and without a constant fight as the horse yanked the reins out of the rider’s hands. The show, featuring Julianne and her horse “Cherokee,” was named in part because Cherokee took any bit pressure as a cue to turn her head and move into a circle; it was also named to allude to the mishmash of information available about bits and bitting. As the Mylers like to say, “Help a horse be relaxed first and he can focus on what you’re asking.” If a bit is too big or has pressure points that interfere with the horse’s ability to swallow, the horse can’t relax and can’t easily focus on what the rider wants. While choosing to ride with no bit is an answer for some, the truth is that a kind and thoughtfully-created bit can provide you with a chance to cue your horse precisely for advanced maneuvers. Not all bits are bad, but it’s time to “Get it Straight.”

Types of Bits
There are two main types of bits–snaffles (direct pressure) and curbs (leverage bits). You may think that a snaffle bit is automatically mild and a curb bit is automatically harsh. Nothing can be further from the truth. There are many incredibly harsh snaffles on the market and there are very mild curbs.

In a snaffle bit, the reins are attached directly opposite the mouthpiece and cause a direct (pound-for-pound) pull on the horse’s mouth from the rider’s hands. A leverage bit has shanks (bars running alongside the horse’s mouth) and a curb strap (or chain) and the reins are attached below the mouthpiece. There isn’t direct pressure but leveraged pressure on the horse’s mouth. A curb bit can apply pressure to the horse’s lips, tongue and bars; as well as the poll, chin and palate.

A joint in the middle of the bit isn’t what makes a bit a snaffle; direct pressure, with the reins attached at the line of the mouthpiece, makes a snaffle. A bit with shanks, a traditional-styled jointed mouthpiece and a curb chain isn’t a snaffle—that bit is called a Tom Thumb and is one of the harshest bits available.

The Rider’s Hands
Many, if not most bitting problems originate with the rider’s hands. No horse wants pressure on his mouth, so he will always look for an escape from the pressure. If doing the right things (dropping his head and giving to the pressure) doesn’t get the release he is looking for, he begins to try other things, such as throwing his head up or rooting the reins. He’ll look for an answer that provides a momentary release. If he inadvertently gets a release when he is doing the wrong thing, the wrong thing becomes a learned response.

It isn’t important whether or not the bit is mild or harsh; what’s important is the way the rider uses her hands. The mildest bit in the wrong hands can be harsh and the harshest bit in the right hands can be mild. Also, changing bits will not fix a training problem with a horse. In other words, if you have a horse that’s going too fast, putting a stronger bit in his mouth will not fix the problem. Only more training will fix it. Changing to a harsher bit will often make a training problem worse because it causes the horse to feel anxious. A fast horse already has a tendency to speed up when he feels anxious, so the problem escalates.

The Horse’s Comfort
My tack room has been filled with Myler bits since they came on the market in the 1990s—and long before Dale Myler appeared on the TV show. I love them and have a tack room full of them-both snaffle and curb. They’re manufactured with the highest-quality materials, they’re ergonomically designed to fit a horse’s mouth comfortably, and they’re also designed for specific effectiveness. Myler makes a variety of but styles and each is rated for the horse’s level of training, so that your horse can move seamlessly from one bit to another as his training level increases and his needs change. The bits also come in a variety of cheek pieces—so you can choose the amount of leverage depending on who is riding and how educated the rider is about how to keep their hands quiet.

My favorite Myler bits are the comfort snaffle and the jointed curb bits. The snaffles have a curved mouthpiece, so that the bit is actually the shape of the horse’s mouth, giving him tongue and palate relief and making the bit more effective working off the corners of the mouth with the lightest possible pressure. The mouthpiece is made with sweet iron with copper inlays–giving the horse a sweet and saliva-producing taste in his mouth. I like a bit with the copper roller in the middle. I have about every level of curb bit too, for the Western horses that need to work in a curb. They’re made with the same high-quality materials and an effective shape and function.

Proper Introductions and Training
Many horses were never properly “bitted out” (taught to work in and accept a bit and understand the bit’s cues) and don’t know the correct way to respond to bit pressure. A surprisingly high number of horses were never really trained properly. Instead, well-meaning trainers stuck bits in their mouths and forceful pressure made the horses respond. A horse must be systematically trained to know what to do when he feels pressure on the bit and how to give both laterally and longitudinally (vertically) when he feels pressure. (I describe this process fully on my Bit Basics DVD available at www.JulieGoodnight.com.) Many older horses that fight the bit have become desensitized to bit pressure because their riders pulled too much. It’s common for horses to come “untrained” because of poor riding when they become defensive about their mouths because they never felt a release of pressure when they cooperated.

Many horses who have learned to ignore bit pressure—or who never learned how to respond in the first place—can learn quickly in the Goodnight Bitting System. The piece of tack, commonly called an elbow-pull biting rig teaches the horse to give longitudinally to the bit and be soft in the mouth and jaw. Without a rider on board and while working in a round pen, the horse gets an instant release when he places his head in the optimum self-carriage position. With his new learning in place, horses can more quickly understand an educated rider’s rein cues and move ahead without fighting and without confusion. It’s also important to do lateral flexes until the horse gives to the side, and then start over from the saddle teaching him to give to light pressure both vertically and laterally and find the release.

Good luck finding the correct bit for you and your horse—and keep in mind that you, the rider, have just as much to do with what bit will work best as what the horse is used to and most comfortable feeling. For more precise answers to your bitting questions, check out Dale’s multi-part video series online with a link at www.JulieGoodnight.com and visit the Myler’s online bitting questionnaire and guide at: http://mylerbits.com/bitting_assistant.php
–Julie Goodnight

Issues From The Saddle: Good On Trail, Bad In The Arena

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I recently purchased my second horse, a twelve-year-old gelding. He has impeccable ground manners and is a pleasure to ride on trails but as soon as you get him in an arena it’s a disaster. He is unmanageable beyond a walk for a period of time. By unmanageable I mean that he leans on my hands so much that I can’t slow him down at all and we end up full gallop at a cavaletti or around and around the arena. I have tried many thing such as “sponge hands” to collect him and keep him from leaning on me, circling smaller and smaller, pulling back on one rein and pulling his nose to my knee with no luck. Selling him is not an option as I am rather attached and wouldn’t sell him even if I couldn’t ride him. Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated. All of his tack has been checked and fits, his teeth do not need floated, and he isn’t lame. I consider myself a competent rider and he is using a kimberwicke jointed bit. Thanks a lot.

Heidi

Answer: Heidi,

It sounds to me like you have a horse that is untrained. He knows what to do out on a trail because that is pretty obvious and not too complicated. There are many excellent trail horses that do not know what to do in the arena and visa versa. He has probably never been asked to collect or circle or stay on the rail and he is out of his element. Sounds like you need to embark on a campaign to train him for the arena. You could take him to a trainer for 30-60 days or do it yourself, if you have the time and the capability.

The first thing I would do is put him in a Myler snaffle or the Myler 3-ring Combination and teach him to give to the bit. My DVD on Bit Basics demonstrates the traning and bitting process for a young untrained horse and also for an older horse with bit “issues”. You’ll work the horse in the round pen until he learns to give to the bit, both laterally and vertically. He will eventually learn that when he drops his head down and in, the pressure on his mouth goes away. Then he has to learn to give laterally to the bit: when you pick up the right rein, he should bend his neck right and visa versa. He also has to learn to stop with your weight and maintain a steady speed when asked and to steer.

It may seem odd to think about, but a trail horse doesn’t really have to know these things. They just follow along the trail or follow other horses at whatever speed is asked. Horses do this quite naturally; it does not require much training. On the other hand, going around in circles in the arena makes little or no sense to a horse. It is quite possible that whatever work your horse has had in the arena, gave him a bad taste for arena work and he shuts down and becomes resistant when you ride in there because he views it as a confusing and frightening place. Lots of horses work better out of the arena, because of the training baggage that surfaces when they are in the arena. Horses are very keen to associate a place with a memory or emotion.

I think you need to start over with this horse in the arena as if he was never ridden before. Do not assume he knows anything. As well mannered as he is on the ground and on the trail, he would act that way in the arena too if he knew how. Be patient and break everything down into the smallest components and spend whatever time it takes; do not rush him. I suspect he will progress pretty quickly since he is so cooperative in every other way.

Good luck and let me know how it goes.
Julie Goodnight

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Talk About Tack: Which Bit For Neck Reining On A Finished Horse?

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Question Category: Talk about Tack

Question: Julie,

How do I know what bits to try on a horse that is new to me? And can I ride western (neck rein) in a bit without leverage? My 7 year old gelding was ridden western in a bit that looks like a broken snaffle with a copper roller in the middle and a slow twist, with long shanks and a tie down. I’ve tried a D-ring broken snaffle and he doesn’t seem to like the action (backs away from the bit), tried a solid kimberwicke but he is tossing his head a lot, tried a curved eggbutt with a French link and a cavesson (English rig) which seems better but out in the open he is blowing through that. He seems to neck rein well (was light in the western rig I tried him out in) and not so good at direct reining (English). Should I stick with the harsher western bit and gradually try to move to the English bit? Can he get used to 2 different bits? I’d like to ride him both western for trail riding and English (hunt and dressage).

Thanks so much!
Sallianne (and Pride)

Answer: Sallianne,

Snaffles are direct pressure bits, which are designed to be ridden two-handed. Curb bits have leverage and are designed to be ridden one-handed. Just because it is a snaffle, it is not necessarily harsher than a curb bit, and visa-versa. While you can ride two-handed in a curb for training or correction purposes, you shouldn’t ride one handed in a snaffle.

From what you describe, it sounds as though your horse is ‘finished in the bridle,’ meaning he is trained to ride one-handed, neck reins well and is comfortable with the curb bit. If he works best in a curb bit, ride him that way. You may not need as harsh a curb bit as you describe, with the long shanks and slow twist; if he is compliant and responsive, consider going to a milder curb bit with shorter shanks and a smooth mouth piece with a low port and/or with a curb strap instead of chain.

Any time you want to, you should be able to revert back to the snaffle and ride him on contact, as with riding English, or to work on training exercises like flexing and collecting, but always ride two-handed in the snaffle. Remember, if he is a finished Western horse, he is not used to being ridden on direct contact, so don’t try and ride him with heavy contact. Just the lightest contact will work and in the beginning, just ask him to accept direct contact for short periods of time and gradually increase. If you have trouble controlling him out in the open with a snaffle, you need to work on the one-rein stop and the pulley rein.

There are several Q&As on my website that relate to bits, bitting problems and solutions and the one-rein stop and pulley rein. I am a firm believer that a harsher bit will never fix a training problem, although going to a milder bit often does. One more really important concept is that the harsher bit in the right hands can be mild and the mildest bit in the wrong hands can be unbelievably harsh.

JG

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.