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To bit or not to bit, that is the question

Trail riding your OTTB
Bits. Out of site out of mind. Not all bits are bad and there are in fact many skilled riders out there. But for those who are unskilled, they can cause a lot of physical and emotional pain to the horse.

I worked w a local horse some years ago. Not an OTTB, but its very relevant to what we do.  He would bolt and throw his rider. Anxious, and no brakes.  Her friend that was “expert” took the horse on a trail ride and said she would “sort him out”. End result was that the rider had to “see saw” w the bit, on his face the entire time. Pulling back harshly on one side, then the other.  The ENTIRE ride.  She could hardly lift her arms up afterwards she was so exhausted. But she was proud. She had controlled the horse and he had not bolted and thrown her. She showed everyone what a great rider she was.  Or so she thought.  What did the horse think of the rider’s technique?

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Eventually the owner was injured so badly she was in three months bed rest.
She asked me to work w him and I did. But it started out with getting to know him, working on anxiety issues that he had and showing him the trail was a place to look forward to, not be anxious about, and it was so much better than sitting in his stall.  Which he did a lot of.

Some horses are what people call great trail horses. They can sit in a barn, day in and day out, have a rider show up and go out for a ride.  No Problem.  But for some horses, that is a problem. No regular work, they become barn sour or buddy sour, maybe have ill fitting tack, pain from a bad saddle fit, perhaps even an abusive home in the past.  These horses, they don’t make great trail horses. Not for people who expect them to be more like a vehicle than a live animal.  If you really want to show up once in a while and pop on that horse, lease them out, hire a trainer to work with them, find a kid to ride them, give them some way of coping w being cooped up.

Better yet find a pasture where your horse can have buddies, play, nap, and sometimes even squabble, but where he  has buddies.  Not only will your horse be happier, you will be safer if he is mentally not a train wreck. The best way to have a great trail horse is to ride your horse.  Frequently, if need be in short sessions until they get comfortable w the trail.  We deal mainly w OTTB’s here, who have for the most part never ever been in the woods, smelled panther or bear, had to duck under palm trees, and watch their footing w cypress knees.  So we start all the horses by taking them into the woods, on a lead line, and getting them used to the sights and smells first BEFORE their first trail ride.  If they are cool and casual about it, then they start their rides sooner, if they are anxious, we work on that BEFORE getting in the saddle.
So what does this have to do with my original story about the bolting horse?  Even though both owner and “rider” had many, many years in the saddle,  using a more severe bit to solve an issue, instead of looking at the underlying cause, shows lack of skill.  It doesn’t mean they were bad people, but just that they lacked the ability to problem solve, probably both doing what they had been taught.  They didn’t know, or believe, in any other way.

I never put a bit in his mouth. We rode out w a rope halter and loose reins.  And this story, it is not so much about me, the owner or the other rider, it is about the horse and how there are different ways to deal with behavioral problems.

The horse was barn sour, so we worked on that. He was anxious about the woods, we worked on that. He hated the bit, I took that away, he had a bad fitting saddle that caused pain, and I got rid of that. Once I got rid of everything that bothered him, we had nice trail rides with zero issues.  Eventually the owner was able to ride again. She told everyone what a difference their was in the horse and she enjoyed a few nice trail rides.  Then he was back to old behavior.  Why? Because while I could work with him and he was open to change, she was not.  Her ways brought him right back to their previous situation.  I don’t think they ride anymore. Horses are easy to work with, humans are not.  We all have our ways of doing things, our fears, our biases, and our learned behavior that is much harder to change.  Even when it clearly benefits us.  Perhaps that is just part of being human.  But its worth consideration if you are having issues w your horse and your safety.

This is a great video that explains how a bit works.  And yes, we can’t see it, so often it is out of mind.  When I train a new student, I never let them use a bit.  Not until they have soft hands and a good seat.  A bit can be a wonderful tool, in the right hands w the right horse. It can be a very bad idea for an anxious horse and a heavy handed rider long term creates so many problems, that take a long time to resolve.

I am also not suggesting everyone toss their bits and ride bitless.  Work with your horse on the ground, can you control speed and direction?  Will your horse stop when you ask him too? If not, you will not control speed and direction from the saddle. Start slow and work your way up.  But it is worth the time you will put into it. Trail riding should be fun AND safe for human and equine.

Happy Trails!

Western style bitless options


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