Last year at this time I was proudly riding my Morgan straight up in the bridle. I had worked hard, prepared him as best I could and was pleased at the results I got when I finally put that big ol' bit in his mouth and started riding him one handed. For the most part he performed really well and I thought our days of snaffle and hackamore were behind us. Indeed at that time I was operating under the premise that once you put a horse in the bridle you never went backwards, only forwards,a common belief for those following the vaquero bridle horse tradition.
Then we traveled down to the Cowboy Dressage final gathering to compete in our first ever Cowboy Dressage show. I thought we were doing pretty well, but my horse was nervous and I found I had a little more horse than I had anticipated. Because I was riding one handed in my big ol' fancy bit I found myself unable to help my horse through the show. All I could do was increase pressure and lift on that bit causing over bridling, bracing and loss of bend and my soft feel scores suffered for it. By the end of the show I had put my horse back in a hackamore which helped but I still couldn't get that pretty bend and extension of gait and relaxation that the judges are looking for in Cowboy Dressage.
The next spring we went down to ride with Eitan for a week of Cowboy Dressage school. The first thing Eitan did was suggest I might try going back to the snaffle to fix some of the holes in my horse. As a proponent for the vaquero tradition and proud hackamore and bridle horsewoman I was crushed. How could I hold my head up proudly and ride my bridle horse back in the snaffle?? I thought those days were far behind us.
But what a difference it has made in my horse. When you are trying to establish soft communication and build lightness and create bend, there is nothing better. Don't get me wrong, I love my bosals but I am not horseman enough to get the kind of bend and softness you can create with a snaffle out of a bosal. The bosal is also difficult to establish the concept of light contact. It's meant as a bump and signal device. Holding constant pressure on a bosal does not create soft feel it desensitizes the horse to the bosal.
As I travel around helping folks to discover Cowboy Dressage I hear all kinds of reasons why they cannot put their horse back into a snaffle. I used many of those same excuses myself. The horse is pushy and heavy. The horse runs off. He doesn't like the snaffle and chews on it all the time. He's too old. My trainer doesn't like it. Et cetera; ad naseum. I get it. I didn't want to admit that I had missed some key things and go back into the snaffle either. I'm telling you that going back to basics is the only way you can fix basic problems.
The snaffle is unique in that it has 3 points of contact on that rather simple bit. At the top of the bit you make contact with the commisures of the mouth and lips. This raises the horse's head and helps shift the weight to the hind quarters. You can use the top of the bit to help a horse that has learned to dive down and avoid bit contact. You can also use the top of the bit to slow a horse that is rushing. I'm not talking about a one rein stop but a quick upward pressure on the bit to rock the horse back and shorten the stride and help the horse rate back to your seat. The middle of the bit is used as our director and bend creator. The bottom of the bit is used to encourage a horse to stretch down and out and open his throat latch in the free gait.
The snaffle allows for the rider to clearly and gently express to the horse exactly what is expected. Unlike a leverage bit, it applies pressure only where you apply pressure directly. This simplifies the process of communication and makes it easier for the horse to follow that simple pressure.
While it is true that in Cowboy Dressage we allow and encourage the use of the two handed western bit, if you are having trouble in the snaffle, moving up to a leverage bit isn't likely to fix your problems. Leverage bits are great for creating a little more finished look to your horse, Ideally you can ride a leverage bit with less cue and movement of the reins making your horse look more refined. In Cowboy Dressage when we are asking you to ride with light contact on the reins some horses are so light and sensitive that they will hide from that bit. Perhaps they don't entirely trust the rider's hands or have long been ridden with a large droop in the rein. It's difficult to get these horses to ride with light contact. The snaffle can help the horse to learn to trust your hands again and to seek your hands in the communication.
Soft feel is of number one importance in Cowboy Dressage. In order for Soft Feel to be working properly it must be a two way communication between you and your horse. Those lines of communication are established through the light feel of the reins. When you ride with a completely loose rein with no contact the horse has to rely on the rest of your body for soft feel. Not impossible, but not the goal of Cowboy Dressage. We want to use our entire set of aids together softly to create the perfect partnership. Learning how to properly establish Soft Feel through the reins is elemental in Cowboy Dressage and as important as learning where a 10 m circle goes on the court. You can't move forward in your journey to softness without having a firm grasp on those elemental concepts.
The changes in my horse this year have been astronomical. We have learned to trust each other again, and he has learned to softly follow my feel. I will eventually be able to move back into the bridle again; wearing that silver proudly is our ultimate goal, but it won't mean a thing if we can't ride together with softness, bend and precision. Until I feel he is 100% ready, we are staying right were we are.