Happy New Year!
2016 was a great year for the bitless movement, and we have the highest hopes that 2017 will see an even wider acceptance of bitless riding, training and showing!
There are many ideas of what might constitute creating the ideal world for our horses; living free in a herd, barefoot, bareback, certain types of hay, therapeutic body work and much more. All of these things are wonderful, but, sadly, not all of us have the access or the ability to provide many of these comforts. This is where the beauty of bitless comes in! No matter what your constraints may be; the lack of time, money, or space, making a transition to bitless riding and training is something that any of us can do to increase the comfort and happiness of our horses!
Riding bitless is not only a life-changing gift for your horse, but potentially, the best gift you will ever give yourself. Year after year I continue to see the merits of bitless riding and training. Recently, my own crop of young students have blossomed in to a group of sturdy teenaged riders, and now that they have honed the skills that will help to not give me so many gray hairs, it is time to let my ducklings venture out of the arena and into nature!
We spent the winter holiday training in an open field that we have in the back of our property. Mind you, none of the current school horses has had any recent trail experience. This, coupled with the kids being completely green to riding out, and adding the fact that the horses have never ridden outside the arena bitless, plus cold, brisk weather, could have been a festival of gray hairs for me! But we took it slowly, starting with hand walking out in the field, then mounted, with very slow work, keeping close together. Carefully, each day, we added more questions, and asked the horses to separate more, and by the last day of vacation I had a handful of budding cross country stars...bitless!
They were navigating terrain, obstacles, uneven footing, and easily leaving and entering the group. It was so exciting, and not only did I not grow one gray hair, but the entire experience made me feel 20 years younger! It is invigorating watching the girls and the horses having so much fun, and the very best part... if someone does have a misstep, or their horse has an overly enthusiastic moment, accidental punishment from the bit is not and cannot part of the equation. Riding in nature comes with many unexpected moments, and a nasty inadvertent yank on the bit should not be one of those, especially when learning to navigate hills and obstacles like banks, ditches, and ponds.
In the past, one moment of imbalance and you are certainly looking at an unintentional pull on your horse's mouth. Not so with bitless! Not once in our recent schooling sessions did I have to cringe at the sight of someone hanging, grasping, or balancing themselves on the bit. No gray hairs, AND no cringing, so no wrinkles! Just a few extra smile and laugh lines, as each pair gained more confidence, and any anxieties melted away to sheer pleasure for both the riders and the horses, and for me too, as coach and observer. There were about half a dozen of us who went out to "play" in our back field over the vacation, riders and horses of different shapes, sizes, ages, breeds and levels of training, all making great progress each day, confirming that bitless is a safe and sane choice for anyone in any discipline.
It also confirmed for me what a great tool the bitless bridle is for training, and not just a nice comfort for the already trained. The more clear we are with our training, the easier and faster the process can go. Taking the bit out of the equation makes for a much clearer communication all around. Sometimes one of the horses would knock a leg, because they did not lift it high enough over a log, or took a clumsy step going up the hill, but these little things are the responsibilities of the horse, and every time that I did see a misstep, I saw the horse make a better effort the next time. Now that's clear, direct, and fair training!
Unfortunately, many times in cross country schooling you will see all too many examples of unfair training. It's natural for a green horse to make an exuberant departure from a down bank or into a water hazard, and although that is a fair reaction from an unseasoned horse, if the horse is bitted, he or she immediately gets punished for its effort when the unassuming rider, thrown off balance, inadvertently hangs on the bit. Now I realize why it can take so long for some horses to be dependable cross country horses. There is so much inadvertent conflicting training going on due to the bit which, in turn, perpetuates the need for so much drilling and repetition for the horse to truly understand the task at hand. Sadly, more drilling is more unnecessary wear and tear on both horse and rider.
I never really thought about this when I was eventing in a bit. My horse Speedy was fairly bold and loved the cross country, but wow, I can imagine how much more fun the experience would have been for both of us if we had been bitless! It saddens me that our relationship pre-dates my involvement in bitless riding, but, we live and hopefully we learn. I definitely learned something in these past few weeks as I watched my ducklings swim solo in the "big pond"! Within just a few days in the jumping field, these horses went from tentative, uncertain, cautious skeptics, to acting like a bunch of kids at Disneyland! Actually, by vacation's end, the horses may have been having more fun than the girls! I always remind people that training bitless can take longer, but what I have begun to realize now is, once you have laid your foundation, training bitless can actually cut down on training time! When there is no longer a bit involved, there is a more accurate and less accidental messaging going on between horse and rider, with far less inadvertent negative reinforcement, and this leads to a much more clear and efficient training process. When the rider is able to offer consistent reinforcement, and the horse can clearly understand what the rider wants, it's usually very happy to try to give it to the rider.
When the horse is uncertain of your desires, problems arise, and the bit can be one of the biggest components of confusion. When the rider asks the question, and the horses answers correctly, there should always be some sort of positive reinforcement. But imagine if you will, the confusion of a green horse jumping off of a bank for the first time. He is not quite sure yet that his rider means for him to hop off of this mound. The rider seems to be insisting that he go forward, and to go forward, he has to jump off, so he hesitates, thinks for a moment, and then lurches off with some uncertainty. In the meantime, the rider gets caught off balance as the horse hesitates, and accidentally ends up hanging on the bit, and now, although she is patting him profusely, telling him what a fabulous boy he is, he also just got punished by the bit for making this attempt, and he is wondering why. Why did he get punished? He must have not given the right answer, but, then why was he praised? He is confused.
So we try again, back up to the down bank, and now the horse is a little more anxious, because what should have been an easy 1+1=2, is now appearing to him as some sort of calculus question, so he stands on the bank, trying to figure out what part of his answer was wrong last time. He is a good boy, and he is trying his best for his rider, so he changes something about his answer, something subtle that the rider probably would never even notice, but again, it's an awkward departure, because he is green, and just learning, and the rider is not Lucinda Williams, so, once more the horse gets an accidental jab with the bit, followed by profuse praise, now he is really confused, and there you are both standing at the top of the bank, again, asking the same question, again, and now he has to think of yet some other thing to add or subtract from his answer, so next time he will only get the praise, and not the punishment. so, he changes another small part of his response, but this time you were more prepared to stay with him, and you don't catch him in the mouth, you praise him profusely, and he is very proud that he finally found the right answer. Just to make sure he understands, you go right back to that bank, and because he is so proud of himself, he jumps right off with a bold effort, one that you did not expect at all, so you once more end up accidentally hanging on his mouth, punishing him for giving the correct answer, and then you follow it up with profuse praise, and now he is really not quite sure what to link together.
Maybe he is being praised for enduring the yanking on the bit??? He is not certain. He may never truly ever feel certain about this, and that uncertainty follows him up that bank every time. It's the hesitation that stays with him for his entire career. He is the horse who does a few steps of piaffe before he lurches off, because he needs to stall for a moment to think about this one. This is the hard one, the confusing one. It's so sad, because it's really the easy one, the one that the horse would very likely find in a natural setting, and although its a bit crass, I had an old trainer who said that even a dead horse could go off a down bank, and it's true. It's just gravity.
There will be, of course, another horse, in similar circumstances, that finally, after a few seasons, does becomes bold because over time and much trial and error, he finally understands that what the job really boils down to is to always just go to the other side, no matter what, to keep moving forward, whether you must go up, down, through, or in, no matter how many times the rider catches him in the mouth - just keep going. This can take years for many horses, but what I saw from my first crop of bitless future eventers was so hopeful, and so exciting, and happened so fast! The only punishment these horses endured these last few weeks was due to their own mistakes or unbalance, not their riders, and as I mentioned, these were things the horses clearly understood, and could then improve upon. I'm not saying the riders were perfect, they had their mistakes, but, their mistakes did not inadvertently cause sharp pain or intense discomfort to the horse. Taking pain out of the mix enables the horse to focus on learning instead of focusing on impending pain and discomfort. There are two old sayings I try to remind myself of often: "Be careful what you teach your horse." and "We are at every moment either training our horses or untraining them." It's true. We are unwittingly sending out messages constantly to our horses, accidentally praising, mistakenly punishing, inadvertently setting and resetting boundaries. That's a big responsibility, in and out of the saddle, and that responsibility increases dramatically when we introduce our horses to new challenges, especially in the saddle.
There is only one Lucinda Williams, and I bet even she has accidentally hung on a few bits once or twice in her career. but here is the exciting part... you can take the uncertainty out of the training equation by taking the bit out of the equation! You can subtract that extra element of pain and confusion, by schooling and riding bitless. And, very importantly, cross country jumping is one of the few places where bitless is actually completely legal in competition, at all levels!!! Think about it, if bitless was not a safe and sane option, do you think combined training associations around the globe would allow bitless in one of the most challenging disciplines??
I truly believe our horses enjoy "playing" with us, but it's not fun when it hurts, and its hard to enjoy yourself when the threat of being hurt is always looming. They say we only hurt the ones we love, but in this instance, we don't have to!
Bitless & Beautiful is always trying to think of new ways to promote bitless riding and to raise awareness throughout the equestrian community and the world at large. In 2017, we are hoping that our introduction of a bitless organization and registry, complete with gorgeous year end awards for all disciplines and a Bitless Horse of the Year, will do just that!
We've named this organization IROBE, the International Registry of Bitless Equestrians. IROBE is open to all bitless equestrians, and can be joined through this website. As I have mentioned many times, I believe that riding bitless is an important piece of the puzzle that many of us are trying to assemble, one that completes a picture of a more humane and holistic horsemanship.
It's a brand new year, so open your mind, open your heart, and try something new. Make 2017 your year to go bitless. No matter what playtime looks like for you and your horse, it will look, feel, and be more beautiful, bitless!!!