Shiloh and I Make Our Virtual Horse Show Debut

Ever heard of online horse showing? I get the impression that virtual horse show participation increased in popularity this year due to COVID19.

The organization FOSH, Friends of Sound Horses, is in its third year of hosting the “Gaits Wide Open” virtual horse show in conjunction with the North American Western Dressage organization. FOSH shines light on abuse within the gaited horse industry and wants to promote more humane methods of training. You can learn more about FOSH at http://www.fosh.info. The website for North American Western Dressage is https://www.northamericanwesterndressage.com/.

I am aware that some traditional dressage riders blanch at the thought of western dressage competition and even more so at the gaited horse. On the other hand, basic dressage principles can be used by any rider/discipline to improve a horse’s way of going. It is in that spirit that I decided to participate.

Shiloh, as an older restarted horse, definitely has some issues with movement. I, as an older re-rider, certainly have plenty of issues of my own. Neither of us qualify as what I’d call naturally “good movers”. We are evenly matched in that way. We may always look a bit goofy in how we go, but that is no reason to avoid trying to improve. In the two years I have had Shiloh, I have tried to incorporate my own limited understanding of basic dressage principals into my riding.

To make entering a virtual show as simple as possible, the “Gaits Wide Open” shows offers a “walk only” test. Yes, you read that right. My first reaction when I read about it was to laugh and look for the “mount your horse and just stand there” test.

But you know what? The “walk only” test is perfect for where Shiloh and I are at. His gaiting undersaddle is improving but still not super consistent. We practice cantering on the lunge but I don’t feel he is balanced enough to do it under saddle yet (at least not with ME in the saddle). A walk test we can actually do.

The walk test incorporates the working walk, free walk, halt, straight lines, turns and circles. When you have a horse like Shiloh that finds doing a four beat walk difficult, walking in a straight line difficult, stopping without putting his head up in the air difficult, bending in the direction of a turn difficult, you might find that a walk only test is plenty to tackle. Viewing the video of my own walk test was like watching paint dry, but it was surprisingly challenging to ride.

Practicing the basic elements reminded me how far Shiloh and I have come. Shiloh is naturally a quiet and good natured horse, but when I first started riding him, he kind of rode like a zombie.

He was so out of physical shape, resulting in in a heavy, crooked and super pacey way of moving. He couldn’t walk over a single ground pole without stumbling over it. He would walk right through my halt aids, completely tuning me out. I was really never sure when he would actually stop.

If I would get him halted and ask him to walk again, I couldn’t get him to walk straight. I would ask him to walk forward, say heading North, and he’d step out immediately to the left or right, sending us due West or East. He would toss his head at any pick up on the reins, even in bitless bridles. And he was sooo slooowww. I felt like we were always riding through a big vat of molasses.

Most of those issues have thankfully improved as we continue to work on the very basics.

I had wanted to enter the Gaits Wide Open virtual show last Fall but couldn’t manage to coordinate a video-recording session before the start of Winter. With my husband now home, I have a ready photographer at hand. I finally completed my video and submitted it last week.

It was actually a bit of a production to get the video done. Without my own arena, I struggled to find a big enough flat space around my acreage without divots, holes, slopes, etc …. to space out the cones that formed a make-shift dressage arena.

The filming process contained multiple bloopers including camera malfunctions, dark skies that cast me in shadows during sections of the test, and pilot error like when I stopped Shiloh on the outside of a cone, putting his nose into an adjacent bush that he used as a snacking opportunity.

We ended up scrapping the first day’s attempts at filming and came back to do it all over again on a second day in a different location that didn’t cast shadows and was devoid of shrubbery.

I should get my test results sometime in October. I feel like the test that I submitted is pretty representative of our average ride, including things we do well and many of our trouble spots. I am not so much interested in my placing against other competitors but rather in seeing the movement scores and judge’s comments.

I envy the detailed feedback that dressage competitors receive through individualized, written scores and comments for each element of a test. Other horse show placings can sometimes feel random. With dressage tests, you know what the judge really thought of your ride. I hope to use the test feedback I receive to tweak and focus my riding.

This week, I printed out one of the “two-gait” dressage patterns so we can start adding some foxtrotting into a pattern. Shiloh and I may not be ready to submit a two-gait test for judging before the end of the year, but it gives us a goal to aim towards.

If you are interested in exploring the possibility of your own participation in a virtual horse show, check out this article from Horse Illustrated at https://www.horseillustrated.com/virtual-horse-shows. It contains descriptions of various reasons/ways people compete online as well as a great list of related links.

UPDATE: Click on the following link to read about the show results and final thoughts about our first online show:

https://thebackyardhorseblog.com/2020/11/23/shilohs-first-virtual-horse-show-experience-results-and-conclusions/

What Are Your Favorite Cordless Clippers?

I have a Wahl corded clipper that is still working just fine after almost twenty years of use. I probably would have stuck with it and never bought a cordless clipper if not for my barn electricity issue.

Sometime before the year 2010, the electricity in my barn area stopped working. After consulting with a couple of electricians, we determined that fixing the issue would be prohibitively expensive.

While I can set up electric cords between my house and my barn area, I eventually decided that having a set of cordless clippers would be easier. I don’t do a lot of clipping, but I do regularly like to trim bridle paths so halters, bridles and grazing muzzles fit and stay on better. Being able to whip out the cordless clippers and quickly trim up a bridle path is preferable to dragging out and hooking up a series of extension cords from house to barn every time.

For eight happy years, I used an Andis rechargeable cordless clipper. Now the rechargeable battery will no longer charge. I contacted Andis, figuring that I could purchase a new battery. I was told that the clippers and the battery for my unit are no longer in production. Rats, I liked the weight and feel of these clippers as well as the adjustable blades.

So I thought I would turn to you, dear reader, for suggestions. What are your favorite cordless clippers and why do you like them?

Please let me know in the comments section. Cyber Monday isn’t too far away, and I might try to snag some cordless clippers when equestrian retailers have their sales. In the mean time, I will be getting an extra work out stringing up extension cords from house to barn whenever I want to clip.

Sand Pile Doubling As Equine Sleeping Bag and Trail Obstacle

Recently I ordered another pile of sand for my horses’ paddock. After Bear’s diagnoses of PPID and EMS as well as suspected hind-limb arthritis, I began a few years ago keeping him on a small section of pasture that essentially then became a semi-dry lot.

For ten plus years, Bear was healthy with 24/7 pasture access on a couple of acres or so. As he entered his twenties, his weight gain and a series of laminitic episodes put an end to that. He has needed restricted pasture access ever since.

When horses are in a larger area, they are naturally going to have more options about where to comfortably stand, lay down, find shade, etc . . . I know that to most people, a pasture is just a pasture, but if you really take the time to notice, you will see that different sections can vary considerably in how flat/smooth/cushy they are. Weather can makes a big difference too in how muddy and soft vs. dry and hard the ground becomes.

Bear, at 25, definitely has more aches and pains than when he was younger. So do I. As I age, I have become increasingly aware of how much the type of footing affects my pain level and how well I am able to move across a particular surface. Too much time spent standing or walking on concrete? You will see me limp. But a fairly level, dirt trail? I can hold up better. I can’t say for sure that aged or unsound horses have the same experience, but I suspect they do.

So in order to provide Bear some different options for standing/laying down, I like to periodically bring in some piles of different types of footing. Pea gravel and sand are my two favorite for outdoor areas. A fluffy bedding like wood shavings is my favorite for a run-in shed.

I suspect that providing a couple of different footing options is especially important for dry-lotted horses. More folks are having dry-lots designed with specialty footing. This is terrific, but some dry-lots I have walked on are quite hard. I wonder if the horses may end up with problems from only standing and laying on hard surfaces. I have also read that some people think that arthritic horses actually like laying on hard surfaces because it provides a hard surface for them to lift off of when they rise. I can see this logic, too, but in watching Bear out my back window as he has aged, I can say hands-down that he has so far preferred to lay on a cushioned surface.

Sand and pea gravel move over time of course (and sand gets blown away by the wind too). I had noticed that Bear’s “sand box” had become pretty flat this year. It was definitely time for a refill.

Before I rake and flatten the mound, I like to mark its arrival by using it as a trail obstacle of sorts. Some folks with fancy, built-in trail obstacle courses will have a big mound of some kind of footing permanently kept as one of their obstacles. This is my backyard version of that. I played around with riding Shiloh over it during a recent ride. I also asked Bear to walk over it at liberty and do some little stretches and bows on top.

Always use caution and discretion in trying something like this. Some horses may have trouble navigating deep, unstable footing. It can be physically difficult for some and just plain scary for others. With an unfamiliar horse, I will introduce something like this slowly. I start in-hand by walking around the edges and letting them explore the mound by sniffing and pawing before asking them to tread up/down/across.

Barn Hack- Cat Litter Containers As Water Storage While Traveling

Using cat-litter containers is a simple and practical barn hack that fits on the reduce-reuse-recycle continuum. I like to carry water when I travel with my horses for three reasons.

(1) I want to have water in case of trailer break down

If I have a trailer issue and am stuck on the side of the road, I want to have a way to offer water to my horses.

(2) I want to have water easily accessible when I arrive at my destination

Since I am typically alone when I travel, I like to make things as easy on myself. There have been several horse shows where I was parked out in a field somewhere, quite far from the barn water source. Having to walk from wherever my trailer is to wherever the water source is at my destination while hauling water buckets? Ugh. On an even worse note, have you ever gotten to a trail head only to realize that there is no water source? Not a problem if you have brought your own water.

(3) I want to reduce the likelihood of an equine infection transmission

My horse, Bear once came down with influenza after attending a small, local horse show. The other horse that I took to the show did not get sick. I suppose that Bear could
have caught an airborne bug, but the vet who diagnosed him surmised that Bear might have caught it from the water. I had used the show water source with attached hose when I filled up his water bucket.

The easiest way that I have found to transport water is to use a plastic cat-litter container with a handle because

(1) The containers are quite sturdy, last forever and are easy to handle even when full.

(2) You can stack them easily on top of each other if you want to take multiple containers of water.

(3) The lids snap on and prevent water from sloshing all over the inside of your trailer.

I usually fill up my horse’s water buckets with the container water, but the opening is also big enough that the horse can drink directly from the container while you hold it for him. Obviously, you want to clean it out thoroughly before first use. I clean it by hand and then run it through the dishwasher by itself to remove any litter residue/smell.

If you find that you get back from your travels without having used all the water that you brought with you, use it refill your horse’s home water buckets, help clean out the trailer or water the barn plants/flowers. I don’t usually leave the water in the container as I want to take fresh water with me for each trip. I also don’t want the water to freeze in the bucket during a cold snap.

If you don’t have cats yourself, ask a cat loving friend if you can have their cat litter container leftovers.

Have You Tried the Tiger’s Tongue Horse Groomer From Epona Products?

A brand-new Tiger’s Tongue on the right and, on the left, the Tiger’s Tongue I have been using since Spring.

Have you tried the Tiger’s Tongue from Epona Products? I got one of these in a gift box last year and finally brought it out to use towards the end of shedding season this Spring. I liked it so much that I bought a second one this Summer so I could have one in each of my horses’ grooming bins.

The Tiger’s Tongue comes in a compression package and then fluffs up to its full size once opened. Its something like a curry, a brush and a sponge all in one product.

While I still suspect that a curry and brush are always going to give you the best deep clean, I like the addition of the Tiger’s Tongue to my grooming tools. It is great for knocking the surface dust off their coats before you apply fly spray or for scrubbing off sweat marks after a ride. You can use it both dry or wet. It is not absorbent like a sponge, but it works pretty well for applying water or a cooling rinse/liniment from a bucket to the horse.

It is tough enough to take dried mud off the coat and yet soft enough to use on the face- just adjust the amount of pressure you use depending upon the job at hand. My horse, Bear, who is known to be sensitive about certain grooming tools, readily accepts my using The Tiger’s Tongue all over, including face, lower legs and even between the hindquarter cheeks where horses often get sweaty on a hot day or after exercise.

I also like the size of this product. If you have arthritic hands or otherwise have trouble gripping smaller grooming tools, you may find this more comfortable to hold than curries or brushes.

You should be aware that The Tiger’s Tongue is made of polyurethane. Some label polyurethane as more environmentally friendly than other plastics due to its durability, but it is still a plastic.

If you are looking to try something a little different to add to your grooming box, you might want to check out the Tiger’s Tongue. It retails for about $7 or so. I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth from the product already this year. You can learn more about the Tiger’s Tongue product from the manufacturer at http://www.eponaproducts.com.

The Highs and Lows of a Horseman’s Journey

This quote is from the AskAnnie Podcast Facebook page. Part of the online offerings from Horse and Rider Magazine, you can find the AskAnnie Podcast at https://horseandrider.com/podcasts/askannie.

While I don’t feel like this all the time, I certainly HAVE and no doubt WILL feel like this sometimes. What I like about this quote is that I think it succinctly communicates the highs and lows of a typical horseman’s journey as we tackle certain challenging experiences with our horses.

The lows can be so frustrating and the highs phenomenally exhilarating. I am not aiming for a roller coaster ride in my horse relationships, but I think every horse relationship I have ever had did contain an “element of roller coaster” at times.

The quote also makes me think that an easy, pleasant day with my horse is something to be treasured.

Maybe nothing terrible happens and maybe nothing spectacular happens, but there lingers this quiet feeling that all is silently right in my world.

I am relaxed and happy in my horse’s presence and hopefully my horse feels the same way in mine- more like floating down a river in an inner tube with my eyes closed than screaming my lungs out while bug eyed as I am on the down-hill swing of a rollercoaster.

Float on, my friends, float on!

What Horse Books Have You Read in 2020?

When you are not riding or otherwise with a horse, what is the next best thing?

Do you like to think about them, watch a horse-related video, listen to an equestrian audio book/podcast or read about horses? Or maybe talk to a friend about them?

For me, hands (or hooves!) down, the next best thing to being with a horse is equine-related reading.

Below are three quotes from three horse-books I read in 2020.

If you are interested in obtaining any of these books and your library doesn’t have them in their collection, you can order them at http://www.horseandriderbooks.com.

***UPDATE: As of December 2020, The Backyard Horse Blog now hosts an affiliate link to the HorseandRiderbooks website. When a reader clicks on the link below, the blog receives a portion of each book purchased.***

Once on their website, click on each book’s link to download a free sample of the book. I absolutely love this feature. Great way to get a sense of the book before I decide to spend my money. On a related note, I usually read a book, take copious notes and then resell the book online to further save money.

You could also inquire at your local library. I requested that the Linda Tellington-Jones book be obtained by my county library, and they actually added the book to their collection! Doesn’t always work, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Great way to save a bit of cash and build your local library’s horse collection too.

The Ultimate Guide to Horses in Need: Care, Training, and Rehabilitation for Rescues, Adoptions, and Horses in Transition By Stacie G. Boswell, DVM, DACVS

“To be consistent and fair, you work to maintain an even keel, matter-of-fact approach. You are confident your horse can do what you ask, and he will develop confidence in himself as he progressively succeeds in the task set before him. You don’t exaggerate your excitement, nor act angry in your corrections to him. You are steady, with your emotions under control and balanced. It takes practice to achieve and maintain this balanced emotional state.”- Stacie G. Bosell, DVM, DACVS

What Horses Really Want: Unlocking the Secrets to Trust, Cooperation and Reliability By Lynn Acton

“Preparing for ordinary situations is not glamorous work. Success means events are boringly uneventful. We do not win ribbons, score points, or make the news. But good safe manners grounded in confidence helps horses make friends wherever they go. It helps them find and keep good homes, and raises their chances of a nice retirement when they can no longer work. Teaching them good manners is one of the kindest things we can do for our animals. It is a way of giving them our protection even when we are not with them.”- Lynn Acton

From Training and Retraining Horses The Tellington Way- Starting Right or Starting Over with Enlightened Methods and Hands-On Techniques By Linda Tellington-Jones

“Practice Positive Intention and Visualization: What does the ideal horse look like? How does he behave? How would the perfect connection between you feel? Imagine your horse exactly how you want him to be every day in all you do together. Do this even when you are not with your horse.”- Linda Tellington-Jones

Feel free to share in the comments section a favorite horse book that you have read in 2020. I am always looking for new reading material and would love to hear what book strikes a cord with you.

Severe Weather Preparation Resources From The Horse.Com

Thank you to Ralph Ravi Kayde on Unplash for use of this photo.

My heart goes out to folks whenever I hear in the news of severe weather events. The first thing I think about is how are the horse owners.

I once evacuated with two cats at the last minute ahead of a hurricane when I lived down South. I did not have horses of my own at that time. I still have no first-hand experience in equine evacuation.

I can tell you though that evacuating with the two cats, and choosing to leave behind a third semi-feral cat because I couldn’t catch him, is not an experience I want to repeat. I still recall that horrible, sinking feeling I had in the pit of my stomach as I drove away. Fortunately the left-behind cat did in fact survive the hurricane unscathed. I also remember my husband, young son, the two cats and I sleeping in our car in a parking lot for the first night of our evacuation.

We had no where else to go. We couldn’t find an open hotel room since we were one of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the same weather event. Having an evacuation plan might have saved us a lot of grief.

For anyone facing a potential evacuation now or for those of you who would like to make “what if” plans for future severe weather events when you have to shelter-in-place, here is a link to ten resources on thehorse.com website at https://thehorse.com/148328/10-severe-weather-preparation-resources-on-thehorse-com/. Another useful link is to an Equus article at https://equusmagazine.com/horse-care/prepare-for-emergency. And this link is all about ideas for watering your horses during unusual cold snaps/power outages at https://thehorse.com/197528/making-sure-your-horse-has-water-during-severe-winter-storms/.

For me, an evacuation plan or a shelter-in-place plan is kind of like an emergency-aid kit. You want to have one, but you hope you never have to use it. If you do need to use it, you end up being very glad that you made the effort to have it on hand.

Thought For The Day- How to Say “Horse” in Different Languages.

Thank you for the use of this photo by Chema Photo as seen on Unsplash

I ran across a website that lists the word for “horse” in many foreign languages at https://www.indifferentlanguages.com/words/horse#region-5.

It is not an exhaustive list, but it is still an interesting read with about 80 languages featured.

Just think, there is someone out there on the other side of the world who is riding a horse right now.

By almost every measure, this person and you are different in almost every way.

Yet if you met each other, you would be able to bond over your appreciation of the horse.

How cool is that?

Obstacle Idea For Practicing the Back Up, Turn on Forehand and Hindquarters

This is one of my favorite obstacle ideas that is simple to set up yet challenging to execute well. It is a great exercise for Shiloh and me, especially as the back up and turn on the hindquarters are difficult for him.

As with many other things, Shiloh came to me already knowing how to back up, sidepass, and do the turn on the forehand and hindquarters.

But he was quite rusty and tended to rush, throw his head in the air, muddle about, etc . . . He still struggles to maintain a rounder frame during the maneuvers, having a tendency to push down through the shoulders and raise his neck rather than relaxing and lengthening through the back.

I get the distinct impression it is actually physically difficult for him to relax and lengthen those top line muscles while moving undersaddle. I am hoping that the more I can encourage him to do it that it will occur to him that he can actually move with more fluidity than when he is stiff as a board.

Here are my favorite aspects of this particular obstacle set up:

-Only requires four ground poles
-Backing through the poles gives both horse and rider a little more structure to encourage a straighter back up than might be achieved without them
-Only requires one or two steps of turn on the forehand and hindquarters (great for practicing the maneuvers without requiring a full turn around)

I play around with the spacing of the poles, both between each set of parallel poles AND between the two sets themselves. I don’t want my horse to have to back too far between the two sets but yet I want enough room for us to complete the turn on the forehand and the turn on the hindquarters.

If you can arrange for a ground person the first time you set up this exercise, that person can help move the poles around so you can quickly try different settings. The general rule of thumb is to start off with a wider set up and narrow it as you can execute the exercise with increasing precision.

The first time I did this exercise with Shiloh, it was a bit of a disaster. Three of the four poles were completely rearranged as we weaved side to side. We did a pretty clean 1/8 turn on the forehand but muddled through the 1/8 turn on the hindquarters. Now, we can generally do the exercise without disturbing the poles, with a more even two-beat back up and with pretty clean turns. Progress!

Bear’s Meeting With A Colorado Brand Inspector

Last week, I saw my husband for the first time in over a year! We weren’t separated because we wanted to be but rather for economic reasons. If you are wondering what this has to do with the title of this post, please bare with me for a minute while I give you some background. 🙂

Six years ago, my husband and I moved from the Midwest to Colorado (with horses and cats). My husband is from New Mexico. I had been wanting to move back there forever, but the closest job opportunity that came up was in Colorado so we grabbed it.

But after our Midwestern home did not sell, we made the choice for him to continue working in Colorado while I returned to the Midwest with the horses and cats to take care of our property. We figured we would eventually get the house sold. Then I would move back to Colorado.

In the interim, the industry he worked for shrunk dramatically. Every thought we had of my putting the property back up on the market and moving back out to Colorado became increasingly financially impractical, especially with the horses and cats in the mix.

We hung on year after year, thinking that things would eventually turn in our favor. Then his chronic health issues worsened. Then COVID19. Then he was laid off. So now he is back home with me, the horses and the cats.

I really don’t know how many marriages would survive such an adventure. It is not necessarily a path I’d recommend, but it did come with a lot of lessons. I learned something about grit, about weathering all kinds of uncertainty, about failing at what I had set out to do and yet continuing to live and grow and love.

I personally learned that I could care for just under five acres of property by myself while caring for our critters and a lengthy series of foster horses and cats. I learned that I didn’t let any of the drama of it all keep me from riding. Overall, it was a big lesson that life can still be rich and meaningful even if it doesn’t go according to plan. My goal is still to eventually move back out West again, but I need to figure out a path way.

Believe it or not, all that is a segue way into the title subject of this post.

In the course of cleaning house in preparation for my husband’s return, I came across Bear’s brand inspection paperwork.

In some Western States like Colorado, you can only prove legal ownernship in one of two ways. Either a horse owner officially registers a brand symbol with the State and the horse is branded with that symbol OR a State brand inspector issues an official identification card or certification from the State’s livestock board.

Bear didn’t come to me with a brand, and I did not want to brand him when we arrived in Colorado, but I DID want to have legal proof of ownership. We rented a horse property in Colorado so I could continue my backyard horse-keeping in our new State, but I anticipated having to move around a bit. Maybe boarding the horses before we actually purchased a property. With all the unknowns in our situation, I wanted to be sure I had legal proof that these horses I had just moved across the country really were mine.

So I scheduled an appointment with the local brand inspector to start the process. I thought it would mostly be handled online and the paperwork be digital just like many “proof of coggins test” paperwork is now. Turns out the process was very old-school (granted, this was back in 2014. Things may have changed by now. But even by 2014 I was getting digital coggins paperwork). The process didn’t even include photographs, which I had previously assumed would be included.

On the day of the appointment, a Colorado stock inspector came out to our rented property to eyeball me and the horses (at that time, my remaining horses were Bear and Pumpkin Spice). He verified that neither horse had a brand. He then filled out the paperwork by hand, noting identifying marks. I paid my money, he filled out the rest of the form, and he handed me back my official brand inspection paperwork for each horse, enclosed in a plastic sheet with parts of the State of Colorado seals visible at the bottom. There ends my “long and winding road” of a story.

So what about you? Do you have a horse with a brand of some kind or a horse who has been brand inspected?

Horse People and Power

I found this out there on the internet, credited to @iamnotanartist. I smiled with a knowing nod when I saw it.

By most measuring sticks, I am a conservative rider. I am cautious when it comes to being on the back of a horse, trying to set up my rides in the safest way possible. You know, “the safest way possible” considering that I am getting on a thousand pound prey animal.

I will say though that I do sometimes enjoy a good challenge, a fast ride or a new activity. Not all the time. Not every ride. No way.

BUT there’s a little daredevil somewhere inside me that pops out periodically. I suspect every rider has one of those, just in varying degrees. Otherwise I don’t think we’d ever consider something as challenging as climbing up on a horse’s back.

I won’t go looking for a romp on a horse. I kind of dread a romp on a horse. But I have to say that when things go sideways, as they sometimes invariably do, it IS a bit of a power rush if I am still on top of the horse after all is said and done.

Not power over the horse. But power over myself. For me, the rush is in the power to ride with and through the fear. The rush in knowing that my body reacted automatically in a way that resulted in a positive outcome. The rush in having beaten chance during a dicey moment.

It strikes me as the weirdest feeling ever for a conservative rider like me, but it exists nevertheless.

Bitted or Bitless?

“Does anyone agree on bits? No. Is riding bitless the perfect solution? No. I’ve been asked for some bitless information, and I’m not sure I can even do that without talking bits, too. Even then, it’s idle chatter if there is no horse in the conversation.”

– From the book “Going Steady: More Relationship Advice From your Horse” by Anna Blake

Have you ever ridden bitless? I am not “anti-bit,” but you may have noticed that I ride my horse, Shiloh, in bitless bridles. I thought someone out there might be curious as to why I made this choice. Thus the topic of this post.

I have ridden with bits, currently have bits in my collection and no doubt will ride with bits again. At the same time, I am a big fan of riding a horse who is feeling comfortable. If a horse is telling me that they are not happy with carrying a bit, I am motivated to try an alternative.

I can read all about how great a particular bit (or any piece of equipment) is. But then I remember that the horse doesn’t read the same magazines and websites that I do. They react organically to what they feel, not what I think they should feel. I’ve been wrong plenty of times.

When I “test drove” Shiloh for the first time, I noticed that he spent most of the ride chewing the bit, a simple full-cheek snaffle. He had been turned out to pasture for the previous five years with only a handful of rides during that time. I figured his chewing was probably related to his feeling fuzzy about this whole riding thing. I surmised it would probably go away with time. On the other hand, I was also told that he had been kicked in the face as a foal and was left with a slightly off-set jaw. So I also wondered if there might be an anatomical reason for the fussiness.

Long story short and whatever the reason, as I began to ride Shiloh at home, he kept chewing, gaping and fussing. I got the distinct feeling from him that he was so distracted by the discomfort of the bit that he was having trouble paying attention to any of my cues. Changing bits didn’t help. Adjusting how high or low it sat in his mouth didn’t help. One link snaffle, two link snaffles, straight bar snaffle, curb bit, metal bit, rubber bit, plastic bit- all rejected.

Fortunately, I have ridden other horses in bitless bridles and am comfortable doing so. When I tried one on Shiloh, it became immediately apparent that bitless was the way to go with him. No fussing or mussing with his mouth or carrying his face at slightly funny angles. He felt more relaxed and less distracted under me. I WOULD still like to find a bit that he might carry comfortably just so we have that option, but two years on now, we continue to make progress together while riding bitless. So bitless we remain. At least for now.

I have seen several varieties of bitless bridles out there, but I only have two that I rotate. One is a Dr. Cook’s bitless bridle in the Western style in leather. It is a quality headstall that has stood up nicely over time (I think it is about seven years old now). While a lot of research seemed to go into the design of the bridle according to the marketing literature, I have read that others have criticized the bridle for hugging the head to closely and not providing enough release of the rein aids after rein pressure is applied. Having had the bridle for many years now, I have to agree that I can see why folks say that as compared to other designs. Even so, Shiloh and another horse I have had previously, seemed to go quite well in the bridle despite this apparent issue.

The other bitless bridle I use is a European design called the LG-Zaum (Zaum is the German word for bridle). I first saw it advertised on the well-known USA based blog HorseandMan. The “bridle” is a leather nose piece and curb strap/chain connected by two metal wheels (with or without shanks) that you can attach to many different kinds of headstalls. I currently use a Weaver Leather Stacy Westfall ProTack Browband Headstall that I bought five years ago from Valley Vet Supply and attached it to the bitless nosepiece. The LG-Zaum can be used several different ways depending upon where on the metal wheel you attach the reins in relation to the nose and jaw pieces, with the reins either on top of OR below the jaw piece. You can see the current configuration that I use in the photo below.

If you are interested in reading more about bitless bridle options, I noticed that the September 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated contains a pretty balanced article about the subject. The article interviews several professionals including Linda Tellington-Jones, Karen Rohlf and Luke Gingerich about the pros and cons of bitless riding.

Having started with an Anna Blake quote about bitless riding, I will leave you with one more of her thoughts on the subject. It is something I aspire to in my riding but am still learning to achieve.

“Instead of conversations about which bit is kinder, I would rather see people actually make the effort to learn kind rein contact with a good trainer. It’s the most subtle and challenging work a rider a rider can take on, learning to maintain a neutral seat and working in balance with a horse. Learning to quiet our instinct to control the last four inches of a horse’s nose and instead ride the entire horse, relaxed and forward. There is simply nothing more important.”

– From the book “Going Steady: More Relationship Advice From your Horse” by Anna Blake