It's pretty incredible to think that a piece of rubber or metal 4-5" long enables us to communicate with an 1100lb animal. More amazing is that they listen. The bit sits on the horse's gums between a front and back set of teeth; this area is called the bars. There are two main actions of bit: the first is to pinch the tongue, as with a snaffle; the second is to put pressure on the roof of the mouth, as with a curb. A horse's mouth is so sensitive to these pressures that a high level dressage horse will carry not one, but two bits with two sets of reins. Even a beginning dressage horse like Century will respond to pressure applied by one finger on each hand. (The horse can also feel the rider through the saddle - I stop Century by squeezing my butt cheeks together.)
For the past few weeks Ellin has become accustomed to the weight of the bit in her mouth (I've been using a Tom Thumb, which is a type of curb bit), learned to eat while wearing it, and has felt mild pressure from the side reins. This week she will be ridden for the first time and her aides will come from her rider instead of her leader. I am trying to build a horse with the softest mouth possible; one who responds to very slight pressure and is sensitive to aides. As a racehorse develops, (s)he will naturally take up the bit and lean on it to balance him/herself at high speeds. The jockey likewise will balance himself on her neck. It's a very symbiotic relationship, a dance of trust wherein the two bodies truly move as one. We want Ellin to be light on her feet, so to speak.
Even slight pressures are shocking to horses unfamiliar with the action of the bit and it is important that the rider be balanced enough not to jerk the horse in the mouth. The trouble is, I have the best hands of any rider currently available to me...and I can't get on the horse! The solution came to me yesterday via Terin: ground driving.
I'm not a fan of standing in a horse's kick zone, and I've never been much for ground driving. Once a horse leads well and knows to give to pressure, you might as well mount up. In this case, however, ground driving allows me to get into Ellin's mouth without being on her back.
This morning we tacked Ellin as usual, minus Ms. Bluejeans, using the English bridle with an eggbutt snaffle (pinching action) instead of the western bridle with the Tom Thumb (pressure on the soft palate). We then attached 15ft lines in place of reins, ran them through the stirrups, and took our usual morning walk. Ellin responded better with me behind her than she did with me beside her, going the 1.6 miles without stopping AND adding two sections of trotting uphill! She turns better with the bridle than with a lead rope but stopping is still a point of contention. I will work more with her and possibly change to a Kimberwicke, which is a harsher snaffle but has a curb chain. I will also use a dropped noseband from now on in place of the halter.
Our Newfie puppy joined us, Ellin acquiesced to be bathed, AND she was bellied twice on both sides with no reaction but to brace herself against the shifting weight! The plan is to repeat today's lesson on Wednesday morning, then back her on Friday. Trackside here we come!