Cross Country and Bitting

Ah yes, the good ol’ fashioned “how to make eventing safer” debate. Depending on who you ask, there are all kinds of things to blame for safety issues. I’ve heard everything from the death of the long format, to the change over to the popularity of the warmblood, to the footing, to the course design, to the speed, to the technicality, to the level creep, to the fence construction, to the way riders are brought up and trained, to money, to pressure, and even tack choices. To be honest, I think there’s some truth to be found in almost all of them. It’s not a simple situation, and I don’t think there’s one answer. At the end of the day we’re still galloping horses at solid fences, and there’s still a lot that could go wrong.

PHPrelimTrak
like a rider missing a distance, for example… ahem.

First, though, I think it’s important to acknowledge that, statistically, eventing has gotten safer over the past 10-15 years. The fall rate has dropped, including that of rotational falls, since that data started being tracked. There’s no disputing that. We definitely do hear about mishaps more these days, in the age of social media. Everything that happens, at any event, anywhere, is common knowledge within hours. At the same time, I also think it’s true that here’s also more improvement to be made, and more we can be doing.

It’s always interesting to me to hear the perspective of top professionals on this issue. Some of them just kind of shrug and point to rider responsibility, but others have clearly given it a lot of thought and spent a lot of time formulating their opinion. A few days ago Horse & Hound posted an except from Eric Smiley‘s new book “Two Brains One Aim”, in which he talks about how he thinks that a trend toward bigger and harsher bitting setups have led to increased danger on the cross country phase. The full except can be found at the link above, and I highly recommend giving it a read, but I pulled a few quotes that jumped out at me.

Two Brains, One Aim

I first noticed the desire to achieve greater control when the minimum weight restriction was removed from the eventing cross-country phase in 1998 (previously all horses had to carry 165lbs (75kg), made up with lead weight if necessary, for the cross-country phase). At the same time, courses started becoming more technical. These two changes brought control into focus as lighter riders were now riding big, “scopey” horses, and they needed better control to negotiate the more technical courses. The short fix was to find a bit that offered more control.

Asking a horse to gallop at Preliminary (US) or Novice (UK) cross-country speed of 520mpm before he is comfortable with a fast canter (350–400mpm) has every chance of triggering his natural response of “run.” The moment speed becomes a conditioned response to the rider shortening her stirrups and getting into an open space, the rider feels the need to control it. Now problems arise and the perception is that brakes are needed.

The range of bits and gadgets is endless. Some of the most popular are:

The three-ring or bubble bit.
➤ The elevator.
➤ Rings and pulley reins in various forms.
➤ Curb chains — excessively tight.

Every one of these is a potential disaster waiting to happen! The bits I have listed above, and others like them, have an action that encourages hollowness in the horse’s way of going that is detrimental both on the flat and over fences.

 

But by using bits that encourage an incorrect way of going, we create many problems for ourselves and the horse:

➤ The jaw shows resistance.
➤ The head comes up.
➤ The neck goes hollow.
➤ The shoulders become blocked.
➤ The steering becomes delayed and unresponsive.
➤ The back becomes less “through.”
➤ The rider stops using her legs for fear of more speed.
➤ The horse’s hind legs are less engaged.
➤ The rider’s hands become the dominant aid.

Spend a day watching cross-country and you will see some unsightly pictures. Look more closely and there is also a trend: most of the ugly sights are control issues. Look more closely and you will see these control issues will also have a bit issue. Course designers cannot make the jumping phases of eventing higher or wider in their effort to separate competitors, so they have had to use their imagination to test the control of horse and rider.

To produce a suitable canter or gallop, the horse must allow himself to be balanced by accepting the rider’s leg aids. These aids should engage the hind end in a way that doesn’t produce speed, but encourages the horse to accept the contact and the resulting adjustment to speed in a round and rideable way. Failure to do this makes it difficult for the horse to see, assess, and take responsibility for his part in the jump.

Eric’s perspective is one that I haven’t heard many people mention, especially not this in-depth. I don’t necessarily think it’s always true across the board, but I’m sure any of us can sit here and think of many scenarios for which it certainly does apply. You definitely see some wacky bitting rigs on cross country (y’all know how I feel about ML’s choices) and many times, sooner or later, it does end up going the way that Eric says.

Image result for marilyn little bit
This photo from Boekelo will never stop making me cringe

Of course… bad things happen in snaffles too. That’s an undeniable fact. I also think that not every horse can go in a snaffle, no matter how much we want them to. His perspective does get me thinking, though. I found myself going “he’s not wrong…” to a lot of what he’s saying. Examples of misusage of bits and equipment can be found across the board in all sports – most just don’t have as much inherent risk already at play as ours does.

It makes me take a closer look at what I’m doing, and the equipment I’m using. Yes, Henry goes cross country in a snaffle, and yes, we work on adjustability from seat and leg EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. But are we good enough at those things? No, probably not.

PHPrelimgallop1

What are your thoughts on Eric’s perspective? Do you think that there’s an issue with bitting (or, really, a constant quest for ever more control over the horse) across disciplines? Do we cover up basic training issues with bigger bits? And does that eventually catch up with some of us later on down the road? Whether or not you agree with what Eric is saying, I hope you at least think it’s as interesting to ponder as I do, applied both to what you see from others and to what you see with yourself and your own horse.

Oh and totally by random happenstance, I noticed that Trafalgar Square has a 20% off sale today (use code LOVEHORSES), and they carry Eric’s book. I haven’t read it, I have no idea how it is, but I ordered a copy for myself this morning!

26 thoughts on “Cross Country and Bitting

  1. Well said. I was intrigued by that article as well.
    I grew up with a trainer that liked to experiment with bits. We ended up with some pretty harsh bits in some still-learning and not-so-soft hands. It just made the horse harder in the mouth. I moved away from that trainer and made the decision to go back to basics. For the next 10 years, I rode him in an egg butt snaffle and never felt like I needed more.
    I’m restarting a young OTTB now, and I’m trying to decide between an egg butt snaffle or an egg butt french link. (He went in a plain snaffle on the racetrack too!) Train your horses right, ride them right, and you don’t need gadget bits.

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  2. I took a clinic with Eric and really liked his approach to a lot of things. He is very much a “ you have trained the horse, now let him do his job” teacher. He believes that you dont need to set a horse up for the jump – that the gallop should already do that and that your gallop should maintain that same engagement that you need for the fence. Simple but not easy to do. If your gallop was engaged , then your fence would be met correctly , with enough power and engagement that it would be successfully navigated. But that takes practice galloping , and galloping correctly , which a lot of us dont have the space or footing to do often…

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  3. Safety is such a multi factorial issue it gets a bit frustrating to read articles that try to pin point one as the end all be all. I hadn’t read this perspective though it makes a lot of sense. I always found the glory of eventing to be the ability to take a horse that can gallop over solid obstacles into a square box and make them dance with the tiniest of barely visible cues from the ride and then also be able to have the finesse and adjustability in stadium. To me it is the ultimate in showcasing training and partnership. Stuffing them with harsh bits and gadgets seems to go against the very core values of eventing.

    It happens elsewhere though too. In endurance I saw it all the time. Riders “cured” race brain by shoving bits with overly tightened chains in their mouths, added tie downs and when that didn’t work going up the ladder time and again. It did nothing to teach the horse to calm down at the start and I’d counter that it in fact did the opposite: teach the horse when that bit came out they better be prepared for stress. Then I’d see those I admired stroll on up in a rope halter or side pull, slowly trot out of camp to the trail and win. Their horses remained calm, sensible and rideable.

    Personally, and I don’t event really so I could be 100% wrong, I think a lot of it has to do with the push to move up faster, sooner and before the pair is ready. People rush through early basics to “get to the fun stuff” and those holes show up in big ways when courses get more technical. Spending more time perfecting those skills at lower levels would likely reduce major falls, but for a lot of reasons that doesn’t happen.

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  4. I think there is a bitting problem across all disciplines. From western pleasure, to barrel racing, to hunters, to jumpers to breed shows. People want an instant “easy” fix and they have talked themselves into big bits being the answer. It is especially scary when people who don’t really know how the bit works or what it does put those big nasty bits in their horse’s mouth and then yank yank yank. I will try a lot of different versions of a snaffle bit before I will move on to something with more leverage because I REALLY want a horse with a soft mouth.

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  5. I think a lot of issues stem from a lack of training, but not in the way most people think. My feeling is that horses are not taught to have self control on the cross country course, and people are using harsh equipment to break through the adrenaline fog. I see a lot of people who rush their horses up the levels thinking the bigger fences will back them off, but really it just makes them stronger and gets their adrenaline higher. Which then has them reach for the stronger equipment rather than go back to basics.

    My horse was rushed up in show jumping and was majorly claustrophobic when it came to bit pressure. So I had to teach him self control, and I would bring everything to a halt (in the middle of the course if I had to) if he ignored my aids. Sort of a time out, if you will. I only had to do it once, and he got the message.

    I do think we need to have SOME rules about equipment on x-c. Things like minimum bit thickness, or no replacing leather nose bands with chains or ropes. And be a little more proactive about identifying dangerous riding on course. Last fall, I was jump judging and there was a rider that seemed widely out of control. We (me and a bunch of other judges) told the officials and they ended up pulling her off course. I was really happy that they took it seriously and hope that mentality becomes more prevalent.

    I have a lot of opinions and could probably ride a novel, lol. I’ll check out Eric Smileys book, sounds like a great read

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  6. Gosh… I have so many thoughts and feelings about the “good old days” of eventing where everyone evented in snaffles and every jump could be met at an open gallop. (insert eye roll here)

    i went back and watched the 1978 world champs in lex. Video here (Starts with a nasty rotational fall): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZdRaGC7HU0

    I also went back and watched the Dressage portion… and I see horses that are less schooled on the flat and over SJ than today. Maybe it is just that, historically, the focus was really hyper focused on XC vs.SJ and Dressage… Since the quality of those two parts of the competition improved, XC has to be an even bigger determining factor. So horses are forced to be more adjustable on XC and XC has gotten “harder”.

    And… not for nothing… horses get a lot more “set up” for fences now than they did 40 years ago. I see a lot of horses galloped at decent distances at all variation of balance and then scrambling over fences.So… no I don’t think “big bits” are the biggest issue.

    I think eventing’s continued emphasis on XC being the most important part of competition had led to a significant creep in difficulty of that phase vs. dressage and SJ. at some point, you have to wonder if some competitions (those known for their carnage) have simply taken it too far.

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    1. I think the issues that plagued eventing back then were a bit different from the ones that plague it now. Not completely, but a lot has changed and evolved. I didn’t read Eric’s excerpt to be “everything was perfect back then and now it’s carnage”, I read it to be his observation of how things have changed and evolved in competitive equestrian sports, and how many riders have reacted to those changes more with bandaids than with true correct riding. Maybe I’m giving Eric too much credit, but that was how I read it.

      Making the time has also gotten so important that riders think they need to bit up (ML is the shining example) so that they can rebalance at the last possible second, wasting less time between fences. We’ve seen several falls because of that, for sure. And Michael Jung is on the opposite end of the spectrum – a good example of how to be a blazing fast rider while still having all the horses go in snaffles. In that way, I do see the validity of Eric’s argument, even if I can also think of instances where it doesn’t apply as much. I’m interested to read the book as see what else he had to say about it! I’ll also be watching all the big 4* and 5* competitions this year with this in mind, and see how it bears out.

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  7. I’ll start with the necessary disclaimer. I don’t event. I’m a barrel racer and we catch lots and lots of flack and there are lots of stereotypes. Like everything, some are warranted, some aren’t.

    Based on my observations of cross country horses and riding way too many barrel horses down the alley, you’re fighting/training out the natural reaction of both the horse and rider to a known pressure point and the adrenaline hit that comes with running, jumping, lets go do THAT. Some horses (and people) can learn to deal with both of those through exposure and training, absolutely. Some don’t. A bit, especially a “big bit”, is kinda like the hand brake in your car. You don’t use it on a day to day basis but it’s there if you need it. If you ARE leaning on that handbrake on a regular basis (every jump, every turn), then it’s time to go back to driver’s ed because something isn’t working. I think that’s when the safety concerns happen, when that handbrake is used constantly.

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    1. It’s tough in our sport to never or rarely use that handbrake, given how our horses go and what we’re doing. It’s necessary to ride with a relatively constant contact of some sort. They don’t gallop along flat out in short spurts in an arena like barrel racers… they go for long distances, and they cross terrain, going up and down hill over a variety of footing changes, and they jump tight angles and skinnies that come up very fast. We keep a relatively constant contact of the mouth, albeit (hopefully) a light one. In our sport I can understand Eric’s analogy of it being a bit like riding around with the parking brake on.

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  8. I read that article and then hoped you would be posting on it, lol. I too found myself nodding along and thinking, “Well, yeah, that makes sense” and I didn’t get the impression he was saying, “Now everyone, you can only use a snaffle” but more of, “Yes, you are galloping to fences, just because he CAN jump doesn’t mean he’s going to jump correctly or safely every time. You have an obligation to help him and that includes paying attention to the approach. Brakes don’t make the jump.”
    Ya’ll cruising around Prelim and Advanced are riding some rockets and I get needing to bit up for the occasion – like Denny Emerson advises – but bitting up isn’t an “all access zoom zoom pass” just so you (you plural, not you Amanda) can ride around at the ULs. His message really spoke to me about being the rider who can RIDE at the ULs. Which brings me to ML – she was a show jumper and now she’s blazing around xc with those bitting monstrosities and I wonder why. If it’s that hard to control your horse on xc, can it possibly be that fun? If you are so concerned with controlling the horse that you use such bitting rigs as to draw blood (biting his tongue my ass), then why are you riding that horse? Why are you at that level? It speaks to fear, I think.

    Anyway, thanks for spurring the conversation!

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    1. Yes, these are very similar to the takeaways I got from reading the except as well! Kinda like “guys, make sure that what you’re putting in your horse’s mouth for the sake of ‘control’ isn’t also sacrificing all of these extremely important things that the horse needs to be able to do to keep you and him safe”. Thanks for your thoughts! Such an interesting topic.

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  9. I love what he says about balance coming from the leg aids. It makes me wonder about how well a horse understands leg aids and how well that rider understands leg aids if she’s reaching for a stronger bit to address something that can’t really be addressed with a bit. And I am totally guilty of this to a degree, of course.

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  10. I read this article and found it pretty enlightening. While I have always had the belief that bigger bits tend to just hide training holes and do not solve a problem, I hadn’t thought about the effects they can have on a way a horse goes and is able to safely navigate a course. I think sometimes bigger bits also make a horse MORE uncontrollable, as some do not handle the extra pressure or pain well. I took a clinic with Greg Best a few years ago on a difficult mare that I was leasing, and I was pleasantly surprised when he suggested I switch her from my mild eggbutt snaffle to a bitless bridle, and how much calmer she was in that design. She had been over-bitted in the past, and any sort of pressure caused her adrenaline to amp up and she became more and more uncontrollable as the ride would go on. Removing some of that pressure and letting her know that she was not being “confined” by a bit in her mouth allowed her to calm down and be more rideable. While I know that not every horse is as reactive and some are more dull to aids than others, I firmly believe that training and acceptance of mild aids should come before adding a stronger aid.

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  11. Really interesting point, and agreed that there are so many different factors that all play against and with each other. It’s impossible to just isolate one. The point about the acceptance of the leg aids is the number one reason my trainer kept me in a snaffle on Frankie for so long – she didn’t trust my aids with the bigger bit. Once we reached the point that the leg aids were much more strongly understood and installed, the slight leverage allowed a lighter touch even as the jumps got bigger and the pace got faster. Of course I have a pretty lazy horse and my jumps fall down if we hit them, so it’s a bit apples to oranges. But that point about acceptance of the aids and correctness of the work feeding into our equipment choices definitely resonated.

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  12. I don’t think he’s wrong at all. But I also agree with many of the above commenters that this is not limited to XC or the eventing discipline. I see it in dressage, too. People putting a horse in a double because it’s too strong or another type of snaffle, rather than putting on more leg so the hind end actually does more work and correcting the horse’s balance issues. Hell, I have a reformed bolter. I contemplated putting him in a stronger bit, but overall bitting up wasn’t the root of the issue. And the root needed addressed. (Not at all saying I’m a pro or don’t struggle to put my damn legs on every day. Ugh. Self. POWER FROM BEHIND. Stop forgetting it.) I do see a lot of horses go around XC with no concept of a half halt changing the horses balance and shape to IMPROVE their ability to jump. In fact, I am much more likely to see a horse dumped on it’s forehand right before a fence it would have been better served simply taking from the gallop. Overall this feels like an education problem at the very base of US riding. It’s the thing that holds us back from producing a large number of proficient riders. Which is sad. Hell, there’s lessons on the half halt I wish I’d learned before I was in my late 20s!

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  13. I agree with him. I think people also forget that pain = adrenaline (fight or flight) = horse “ignoring” rider – one of the side effects of some bits or the way some bits are used (and especially harsher bitting rigs) is pain…so the rider causes pain with the bit, horse goes into flight, rider puts a bigger bit in (causing more pain), causing the horse to flight, so rider puts bigger bit in…vicious cycle much?

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  14. I don’t really have a dog in this one since I don’t run cross country. But his points all seem quite valid to me. Having a horse that goes correctly and is listening to his/her rider is definitely safer than one that’s dragging you around a course. And we would all love for every horse to do those things in a snaffle bit. But I’m not sure that’s realistic. We all have limitations, and most of us aren’t olympic level riders. Sometimes we might need some help in the form of a little stronger bit. I think the important thing is to use it correctly. If it just stops the horse because it’s a huge contraption, well then yes, you’re likely to eventually have a problem. But if the horse rides up into it nicely (as in, correct shape and contact, through the back, etc) then a touch extra leverage shouldn’t mean the difference between life and death here. I’m mostly thinking of something like a three ring with a snaffle mouthpiece, which he considers to be harsh. I’m not sure a horse will happily come onto a double twisted wire shanked monstrosity, but my horse went quite nicely in a three ring. He came up through his back and traveled up hill into it. I couldn’t achieve that on him in a snaffle bit without essentially just hanging on his face. So anyway, to summarize, I agree about cheating with bits. I think it all boils down to proper training of horse AND rider. But sometimes a LITTLE leverage can be a good thing if used correctly and not as a band aid.

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  15. Has anyone looked back at the horses involved in major falls in the past few years and see if those horses were wearing one of the bits he mentioned?

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  16. I’ll be in the minority and say I disliked the article. It was titled “‘Why cross-country becomes dangerous’ — the indisputable link between bitting and falls” which peaked my interest because I dislike some of the harsh bit set-ups, but I’m not an expert so I try to reserve my judgement of others. Based on the title, I expected research and statistics showing an “indisputable link”. Instead it was just somebody going on about their own personal theories and how they rationalize it with zero evidence that any of it was valid. I was very disappointed by the “indisputable” evidence presented.

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