June 18, 2007
No one can say for sure when or where the first bit came into being, but I speculate it was when the first man tried to use a horse for transportation instead of a meal. The first mention of a bit in a horse’s mouth is in the Bible and we know the Roman culture used them on their chariot teams and war horses.
American Indians used one rawhide thong in their horses’ mouths. The white man called them “war bridles.” I don’t know if you have ever tried one, but they do work well if you are not trying to compete in some fancy reining contest.
One summer after a bunch of us had been to Jackson Hole to a rodeo, I dropped a friend of mine off at his corral late one night. He had thrown his saddle and stuff in the back of my pickup for the trip. When we dropped him off, it was late and he had to ride about 6 miles up to his cabin. The next day he called me on the crank telephone and told me he had left his bridle in the back of my truck.
I panicked and asked how he got home. He said he just fashioned a war bridle and rode the 6 miles to the cabin, but he sure could use the bridle as soon as I could get it to him. So, I got in touch with the trail crew and got it to him as fast as I could.
The history of bits is an interesting story and the “Horseman’s Bible” contains an excellent history and drawings of bits. But, bitting horses is best done by an experienced horseman, and never overdone! To get the “collection” desired, horsemen will often put too much metal in a horse’s mouth. Most horses can be ridden for pleasure and show in a snaffle bit; it just takes a lot of work getting the horse to flex and respond to a lighter touch. I have been guilty of this fallacy myself.
Developing light hands in people who are used to sports that need the hand to grip ” basketball, tennis, archery, baseball, and biking ” have trouble with soft hands on a rein going to a horse’s mouth. The best example of light hands are those used in the arts, such as violin, painting (not the kind who slap paint on a fence), or a ballerina. These hands are used to direct, encourage and produce the flow of music or artistry.
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This is what we are trying to accomplish in riding ” to direct the flowing movement of the horse by directing the natural ability with the most effectively light, sympathetic hands.
Have you ever just sat and watched free-roaming horses at play? Try that some time and observe the smooth fluid movements of a horse at play. They romp smoothly because every movement is their idea. This is what we are trying to accomplish when we ride a horse. Make your idea become the horse’s idea and he/she will move smoothly. A leg cue used before the rein movement puts the horse’s attention in that direction, then when the rein indicates the turn it is the horse’s idea.
When teaching students to achieve lightness, I like to play “Bitting the Rider.” Have students pair up and one pretends to be the horse. Hang the bridle around the neck of the “horse.” Then have the “horse” take the bit in his hands where it would normally rest in the horse’s mouth. Then have the “rider” stand behind the “horse” and take up the reins with a light feel of the “horse’s mouth.”
“Horse” responds by moving forward, turning, and halting at the “rider’s” indication. “Horse” should tell the rider if contact is too heavy, too sudden, rough or tactful.
The “horse” and “rider” change positions after a test of hands and repeat the movements. Besides developing sensitivity, “horses” are amazed at how easily they feel vibrations from the “riders.”
Roger Thompson is a CHA certified instructor of advanced Western horsemanship and beginning English riding.