Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Whole Bitless Better

I first had an opportunity to ride with an endurance rider a little over a year ago.  She had gotten in touch with me and offered to show me some of the trails in the area that endurance riders train on.  One of the things I noticed was that she rode her horse in a hackamore (I think it was an s-hack).  When I asked about it, she explained that while she used a bit for dressage lessons, she always rode on trails with the hackamore because she thought it was easier for her horse to eat and drink.  Her explanation got me to thinking and I decided that using a hackamore with Nimo out on the trails was something we should aspire to.  But I figured it would probably be years before I felt safe enough to go without a bit in the wilderness...

I put the hackamore idea on the backburner, although I still thought about it every once in awhile, particularly when I was ordering a new bridle from Taylored Tack.  At the time (which was about 6 months ago), I decided not to even think about ordering anything remotely related to a hackamore because I just didn't think Nimo was ready to make the switch.

And then a couple of months later, I was at the Dover Saddlery store looking for a new bit.  Swapping the bit from my dressage bridle to my trail bridle was getting annoying and I wanted to get a second bit so I had one for each bridle.  I had every intention of getting the exact same bit I already had, which was an eggbutt Myler snaffle with the MB-02 mouthpiece.  It was the first and only bit I'd ever used with Nimo, and I prided myself on my responsible choice to get a bit that was made to fit a horse's mouth better than many on the market.  I admit to nearly complete ignorance about how bits really worked and I honestly believed that because I was using this simple snaffle that had a shaped mouthpiece to provide tongue relief, I really didn't need to know anything else.

As it turned out, the Dover store didn't have my eggbutt snaffle.  They had D-ring snaffles.  I hate D-ring snaffles.  I can't really explain why; it doesn't make much sense.  The only thing I can think of is that the D-rings always seem so big.  And yet, I don't hate full cheek snaffles, which probably have at least as much of a cheek piece as the Myler D-rings.  I also hate loose ring snaffles.  Again, I think it's the size of the ring.  The eggbutt just seems so much more civilized.  Anyway, I digress.  So there I was in the Dover store just mad because they didn't have an eggbutt snaffle and I noticed these Myler pamphlets that described different levels of bits.  And being a curious sort, I opened one of the pamphlets up and read it.

There wasn't a huge amount of information in the pamphlet, but it was enough to make me think that maybe I should be buying Nimo a different bit.  Maybe a LEVEL 2 bit.  I mean, he was 12 years old and he did actually seem capable of doing some legitimate stuff in the dressage arena (this was before our dressage show in September...).  So, I ended up buying a Myler Low Port Dee Snaffle with Hooks (the MB-04 mouthpiece).  For those of you unfamiliar with Myler bits, here's what the Dover catalog has to say about this particular bit:  "It's designed for horses with basic training established and uses more bar than tongue pressure. Independent side movement allows the rider to isolate one side of the bit for bending, balancing or lifting a shoulder. It features a low port that offers tongue relief and optional hooks for leverage." I mean, it sounds awesome, right?  I imagined I'd be able to do all sorts of fancy things with this bit.

OK, so at this point, you're probably wondering why I bought a D-ring snaffle when I just said I hated D-ring snaffles.  You might also be wondering when the heck I'm going to get to the bitless part.  I'll answer the first question shortly.  You'll have to wait a bit (ha, ha!) for me to get to the second - this is a journey after all:)

The reason I got the D-ring snaffle was because that was the only cheekpiece the tack store had for the Myler bits (except for the combination bits, and I wasn't ready to experiment with that yet), and I was too impatient to go home, look through the catalog and be overwhelmed by choices that would paralyze me.  Some things are best purchased when you can hold them in your hands and be convinced by the flashy marketing:)

Anyway, I immediately put the bit on my dressage bridle and ventured forth into the arena. I wasn't sure what to expect, though.  I'd never used a different bit on Nimo and while there were definitely similarities between the old bit and the new bit, I really had no idea how he'd react.  As it turned out, he didn't really care.  So after wandering aimlessly around the arena for a few minutes, I figured I'd put the bit to the test by taking him out in the woods for a ride around the farm.  No problemo.  The new bit was absolutely not on Nimo's radar.

So, it was back to the arena over the next few days and a lesson that weekend.  What I found before my lesson was that Nimo seemed to like the bit a lot.  He stopped trying to rip the reins out of my hands at random moments (something that I knew he did and was kind of annoyed by, but had become so commonplace that I think I stopped really thinking of it as a problem) and he seemed to be more responsive to rein aids.  Then, at my lesson, before I'd had a chance to tell my instructor that I'd gotten a new bit, she exclaimed over how really, truly "on the bit" Nimo was.  While I'm not going to say that miracles occurred, Nimo was definitely a better, easier ride with the new bit.  And I discovered how much I missed that new bit during our ill-fated dressage show in September because the new bit is not currently "legal" under USEF rules.

I was so excited about this new bit that I bought a book, called The Level Best for Your Horse, to read more about bits from the Myler company.  I realized that maybe I'd been doing my horse a terrible disservice by not being more knowledgeable about what I was putting in his mouth.  And then I read the section on Bit Resistance and Tongue Pressure.  In this section, the authors (the Myler brothers) say that after analyzing a lot of different types of bits that use a lot of different types of pressure, they concluded:  "excessive tongue pressure is the source of most bit resistance...To understand the importance of tongue pressure, try this simple test: stick your finger in your mouth and press down on your tongue.  Hold that tongue pressure and start running.  How far did you get before you had to swallow?  Swallowing is a reflexive action -- your body does it involuntarily, as does your horse's body.  The tongue is a muscle, attached to muscles in the horse's neck and consequently in his back.  Inhibiting its ability to swallow impedes the performance of that entire group of muscles.  As you found when you restricted your own tongue, you must be able to elevate your tongue and swallow in order to continue moving forward.  Anything that interferes with your ability to swallow also interferes with your ability to move forward."

Well, I think that section did a lot more for me than the Myler brothers intended.  It was like a slap in the face as I realized that I was asking my horse to perform not only dressage movements but soon 30 plus miles on the trail with something in his mouth that was impeding his ability to swallow.  He needed every advantage I could give him, and the thought of him trying to swallow with constant bit pressure was too much for me.  But what was I supposed to do?  It was literally a month out from from the Fort Valley ride and I had read enough endurance books to know that changing a major piece of tack right before a ride could have disastrous consequences.  But I couldn't stop thinking about the bit in Nimo's mouth and how awful it must be for him to give his best physical effort without being able to swallow properly.

I started doing some reading and I found quite a bit of compelling information about why bits should be used with care or not even used at all.  Most of the research I read is listed on the Bitless Bridle website.  I didn't even have to read the full text of the articles to get the gist of Dr. Cook's perspective.  Waterlogged lungs, asphyxia, bleeding from the nostrils, and serious behavioral issues are all identified as related to the use of bits in horses.  Some of the information is speculative, but some of it does appear to be based on reasonable research.  However, because Dr. Cook also sells a bitless bridle, I felt like there was a conflict of interest in what I was reading, so I searched for some other sources of information.  That lead me to Dr. Gerd Heuschmann's books, Tug of War: Classical Versus "Modern" Dressage and Balancing Act: The Horse in Sport - An Irreconcilable Conflict?  Dr. Heuschmann does not advocate for riding horses without bits; in fact, he lumps bitless riders into a group of unacceptably extreme natural horsemanship nutcases.  I got the impression from reading his books that if you aren't a dressage master with the foundations of your training in "classical dressage," you probably shouldn't be riding because you just aren't capable.  That begs the question of how you get to be capable, which is presumably riding with one of these lauded masters.  And of course, we all know how easy it is to find a capable dressage trainer that meshes with you and your horse, is affordable, and is within a day's driving distance... (if you missed it, that was heavy sarcasm) Anyway, he does write something interesting in the Tug of War book.  Here's an excerpt:

"The length of the lever that the rider has available for his rein influence extends from the poll to the bars of the mouth.  A pull on the reins in order to bend the neck acts on the bars of the mouth.  The connecting line between poll and bars is between 11.8 and 15.7 inches (depending on the length of the horse's head).  This creates a lever ratio of approximately 1:7 to 1:10.

"To simplify matters, calculating with 1:10 yields 66 pounds of force (lbf) on each rein, which creates a pull of 132 lbf on each bar of the mouth.  If the mouth of the horse doesn't yield to this pressure, a force of up to 1,323 lbf occurs on the occipital bone--approximately 10 times the amount acting on the bars!  Now, how can a horse's back swing if it has been fixed by hundreds of pounds of pulling action via the back's ligament and muscle system, as explained to you earlier?  How can this horse possible allow its rider to sit comfortably with such tension?  And, how can its back--and legs--remain healthy?"  (see p. 104)

I think those are good questions and they might explain a lot of the physical issues that performance horses have.  And I think those statistics probably apply, with respect to the occipital bone, even if you are riding with a bitless bridle.  Anyway, they made me really question the physics of what is going on when I ride.  If I could find a way to communicate without putting pressure on the bars of Nimo's mouth and find a way to lesson the pressure I'm putting on his head in general, I would be doing a Good Thing.

But I didn't stop with Heuschmann's books.  I kept going...and part of me wishes I hadn't.  There are two books that I almost hesitate to mention, simply because I cannot bear to re-read them right now to provide you with citations or to do some independent confirmation of the information. One book is Equestrian Sport: Secrets of the "Art" by Alexander Nevzorov.  In it, the author presents a study he put together on the kind of force that can be applied by a bit if the rider jerks the horse's mouth and, assuming his results are even remotely accurate, it is not pretty (I think it might have been about 300 pounds per square inch on the bars of the mouth).  The author also wrote The Horse Crucified and Risen.  I don't recommend reading either of these books unless you are prepared for an emotional onslaught and have a support network in place.  The author is not particularly gifted in terms of writing (although that might be partly because of the translation from Russian) and he is arrogant and chauvinistic at best, but the content is so compelling and thought-provoking that I couldn't stop reading.  The fact that he basically pummels his readers with a very one-sided view of history and human interactions with horses does not diminish the importance of the information he does present.  One of the reviewers on Amazon said something along the lines of there being a Before and After in terms of reading these books and I think that is true.  There are nightmare-inducing images burned into my brain now that I can't get rid of and that I desperately wish I could.  As I read these books, I alternated between wanting to annihilate the entire human race and shooting myself so I could stop turning the page and reading about one more horror.  If you are a horse-lover and you want to continue your happy life with your horse, don't read these books unless you are prepared to spend some time soul-searching.  Someday I may be able to write about my thoughts, but I'm still pretty raw right now.

The research that I was doing convinced me that at least trying some kind of bitless bridle would be a good idea and sooner would be better than later.  And if I decided to continue riding in a bit, I needed to think through exactly how I was riding, because the information I'd read gave me a cause for concern.  I don't have awesome, soft, consistent hands.  They aren't bad, but I'm not going to sugar-coat the fact that Nimo has probably gotten slammed in the mouth because I made a mistake.  I don't use the bit as punishment, but I still struggle with making sure my contact is consistent, and to be honest, the idea of contact was making me uncomfortable now because I wondered about how even light pressure was acting on the bars of Nimo's mouth.

Prior to doing my research, I was already aware of four different types of hackamores just through life experience or seeing someone use one.

  1. The mechanical hackamore.  I've seen two versions of mechanical hackamores.  One version is a noseband connected to metal shanks (often quite long) and a chin strap/chain.  It seems to work by creating pressure on the nose and chin and possibly the poll, depending on how it is adjusted and how the hackamore is designed.  I've ridden in one (a long time ago) and I found the action to be potentially quite severe. Another version is the s-hack, where there is still a noseband attached to metal shanks and a curb strap, but the shanks are shorter and angled well back toward the horse, which I think has the effect of lessening the severity of the hackamore.  These types of hackamores appear to be commonly used by endurance riders.  You can read a review of one by Ashley at Go Pony to get a little better idea of how they look.  The s-hack was the type of hackamore I was leaning toward at this point, although I was concerned a little about the potential for "nutcracker" action if I used it too forcefully.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanical_hackamore
  2. The bosal.  The bosal is typically a pretty sturdy noseband made out of rawhide that has a large knot under the horse's jaw where the reins connect.  It is used almost exclusively in the western world, I think.  I didn't really consider a bosal as an option just because it doesn't seem like a tool that can provide much finesse in terms of aids.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosal
  3. The cross-under/over bridle.  I think the most well-known model of this type of hackamore is The Bitless Bridle by Dr. Cook.  This is how the website describes the action of the bridle:  "The Bitless Bridle distributes its gentle pressure to far less sensitive tissues and distributes even this amount of pressure over a wide area. It does this through two loops, one over the poll and one over the nose. Essentially, it gives the rider an inoffensive and benevolent method of communication by applying a nudge to one half of the head (for steering) or a hug to the whole of the head (for stopping)."  I've also seen versions of this bridle on various endurance tack websites.  There's obviously been a lot of research done on this bridle, but there were three reasons I didn't really consider it at this point:  1) There are a lot of straps on this thing.  I didn't want to be messing with a cumbersome headstall; 2)  Dr. Cook states that the noseband/chin strap portion of the headstall should be adjusted pretty snugly, so that one finger can fit between the chin strap and the horse's nose - that is tighter than the USEF's position that a cavesson noseband should be adjusted no tighter than so that 2 fingers can fit between the noseband and the horse's nose, and I worried the tightness would interfere with eating and drinking; 3) The noseband rests pretty low on the horse's nose and I was concerned that the adjustment process would be finicky - too low and there is no structural support or too high and the bridle loses its effectiveness.
    http://www.bitlessbridle.com/index.php?main_page=page&id=1#q1
  4. The sidepull. The sidepull appears to work simply by pulling on the reins to create direct pressure on the horse's nose.  I've also seen this type of hackamore used by endurance riders and it appears pretty widely available on endurance tack websites.  My only concern about using this type of hackamore was that it just seemed like riding in a halter.  I was looking for something with a little more to it.
    http://www.horseforum.com/natural-horsemanship/tell-me-about-bitless-63257/
None of the above four options was a clear winner.  While I liked the s-hack better than a regular mechanical hackamore, I still felt like the principle was more like a nutcracker than a communication tool, and I also felt like the design compromised steering ability.  And, while the sidepull hackamore seemed less severe and like it would provide better steering, I wondered how easy stopping would be without putting in some transitional training.

It wasn't long before I stumbled on something called The Horse's Hoof, probably because of either an ad or a friend's "Like" on Facebook.  If you haven't seen it, The Horse's Hoof is a quarterly e-magazine about barefoot hoof care and trimming and the website also hosts a membership forum with additional hoof trimming resources and a forum.  I ended up subscribing to the magazine (which is worth taking a look at if you do your own trimming) and then I explored the website a little more.  (There are a bunch of interesting articles that are worth reading.)

That was when I discovered this story and this additional information about riding bitless.  Eureka!  This lady (who was one of the owners of The Horse's Hoof) trained in dressage and rode out on the trail and she had found a bitless option that seemed to work as well as a bit.  That was exactly what I needed.  The problem was that I discovered that her preferred bitless option, called the LG-Zaum Bitless Bridle, was no longer sold by The Horse's Hoof online store due to some kind of issue with the manufacturer.  As far as I know, this is the only place you can order it in the U.S.:  http://shop.nwnhc.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=95.  It's not cheap and I was worried that if I ordered it, this company would tell me they were having trouble keeping it in stock too.

LG Zaum: http://shop.nwnhc.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=95
Another good option seemed to be the Orbitless Bridle.  In fact, I liked the way this one looked even better - the slots seemed neater and less cumbersome that the wheel of the LG.  The problem?  It has to be ordered from the UK.  I was in a serious time crunch and didn't want to have to wonder when my bitless bridle was going to arrive.

Orbitless Bridle: http://www.orbitlessbridle.co.uk/

Finally, the current issue of The Horse's Hoof came out and it had an update on the bitless option that this lady was using.  She'd tried Zilco's Flower Hackamore and pronounced it comparable to the LG Zaum.  The Zilco hackamore is available from a bunch of different reputable companies in the U.S. for between $40 and $45.  Ding, ding, ding!  We have a winner.  I ordered mine from Riding Warehouse because I needed a couple of other things and I had enough stuff (but not too much) that I could get $5 two-day shipping.

Zilco Flower Hackamore: http://www.ridingwarehouse.com/Zilco_Flower_Hackamore/descpage-ZFH.html
And so it was that less than a month before our first real ride, I received the flower hackamore in the mail and was ready to try it out.  My plan was to get it fitted to Nimo and figure out how it worked.  Then, the next day I would ride him in the arena to try it out before hitting the trails with it over the weekend.  Step 1 worked out great.  I put the hackamore on Nimo's trail halter/bridle and got it adjusted the way I thought it should be.  But, the next day, it poured rain when I was at the barn, so I couldn't ride.  I did put the bridle on and practice walking Nimo up and down the barn aisle to see if it would really bother him, but that was the most I could do.

So that's how I ended up at the Phelps Wildlife Management Area, planning to do a conditioning ride by myself, with a new bitless thing on my horse's head.  A little over a year after I sort of thought that maybe I should eventually, in a few years, try to ride Nimo out on the trails with no bit in his mouth and here I was thinking that it was a good idea to try going bitless for the first time out in the middle of nowhere by myself. (I was definitely channeling my inner Funder!)

As luck would have it, I parked in a little-used parking lot because the one I usually parked in was jam-packed with trailers.  I know that doesn't sound lucky, but it is.  As I was saddling Nimo, a lady on a horse came up to me and asked if I would like a riding buddy.  I guess she lived across the street from the park and had been complaining to her husband about not having anybody to ride with that weekend.  His response was, "Well, why don't you go over and ride with that lady in the parking lot?  She looks like she's  by herself and could use some company."  Yay!  Now I had someone to ride with who could either call 911 or at least help me catch my horse if he freaked out and dumped me in the middle of 4,000 acres.  As a bonus, she was very familiar with the trails at the park, which was so helpful because they aren't marked and I've spent innumerable hours aimlessly wandering around trying to put together routes with a decent distance for conditioning.

Here's what happened.  Nimo was absolutely, totally, 100% fine.  At no time did he act like there was anything weird going on.  He just accepted the hackamore like it was his normal bit.  I think we ended up riding 8 or 9 miles, with a fair amount of trotting, over a variety of terrain.  He spooked a little at some logs, which was normal, and I had no trouble keeping him under control or steering.  It may be that having a buddy helped, but there was no drama at all.

Nimo wearing the flower hackamore
So I kept riding in the hackamore.  I rode a few times at the barn and even did a dressage schooling session one night.  I didn't do anything too motivated because my heart just wasn't in it (I was too busy having a panic attack about our impending Fort Valley ride).  I also took Nimo out the following weekend with a couple of fast-paced endurance riders for a 15-ish mile ride at Andy Guest.  No issues.  In fact, Nimo finally started eating and drinking a lot better on the trail.  Up to this point, he'd been inconsistent about drinking and wouldn't eat grass much at all (although he would eat carrots and mash).  I followed up with an 18 mile ride the weekend before Fort Valley where we were by ourselves and had to deal with a lot of trail traffic as well as busy highway crossings.  Again, no problems, and he rocked on eating grass and drinking!

I did have to play around with the fit a little bit and there is no real guidance from Zilco on how to adjust this hackamore.  Here is where I ended up for the Fort Valley ride:  I moved the halter noseband up so that it was just below the bony point of Nimo's cheek (so a little above where it is in the picture above) and I tried to keep the flower of the hackamore in the middle of the bony point of the cheed and Nimo's mouth (again, I moved it just a smidge above where it is in the picture).  I wanted to be sure the noseband was firmly in the territory of bone and not cartilage and that it was below the halter noseband.  In terms of the tightness of the noseband, my goal was to keep it loose enough that Nimo could eat and drink comfortably but tight enough so that it didn't move around on his face if I pulled on one side of the hackamore.  I ended up with a good eight flat fingers worth of space.  So I could insert both my hands (fingers only) flat in between the noseband and Nimo's face.  I think I could have adjusted it a little more snugly, but that was where I felt comfortable at the time.

The other thing about adjustment that I want to note is that there are some options in terms of how the noseband, chin strap, headstall, and reins are positioned relative to each other.  Different configurations can create different amounts of leverage as well as differing amounts of pressure on the chin and poll.  Because there are some similarities between the Zilco flower hackamore and the Orbitless Bridle, I used the Orbitless guide for adjustment, which is located here:  http://www.orbitlessbridle.co.uk/orbit.html#configurations.  The setting I used for Nimo is quite similar to the second option described on the Orbitless website, which gives the action that you'd get from a sidepull, with the addition of minor leverage from the position of the reins.  When I pull on the reins, the chin strap tightens ever so slightly, but I don't think that there is any poll pressure.  However, I plan to experiment a little to find the adjustment that Nimo seems to like the best.

Anyway, I started the Fort Valley ride worrying about anything and everything except the hackamore.  You may remember that the first 9 or 10 miles of the Fort Valley ride were brutal in terms of Nimo acting like a nutcase and believing he could keep up with a bunch of Arabs.  The pulling Nimo did was exhausting, and I've thought about whether I should have done what some riders do, which is to use a bit for the first loop and switch to the hackamore for the remaining loops.  My conclusion is that Nimo would have acted like an idiot regardless of what was in his mouth and if he had been wearing a bit, all that pulling would have put a lot of pressure on the bars of his mouth and his tongue.  I don't think that kind of damage would have been conducive for encouraging him to eat and drink and so I think starting with the hackamore was the right thing to do and will continue to be what I do.  There is no question that he eats and drinks so much better with it and that is so, so important for him.

So great, the hackamore works for the trails, but what about dressage?  Good question.  Aside from one basic schooling session, I hadn't done any dressage work in it and I was curious too.  After giving Nimo a week off from riding after the Fort Valley ride, I started with really basic work in the arena.  The first day, all we did was an extended warm-up and cool-down, so just basic walk and trot in big circles, with a tiny bit of canter.  The second session, I asked for a little bit more.  And by the third session, I was working on circles, serpentines, leg-yields, transitions, shoulder-in at the trot, and more canter work.

Then, I had a lesson this past Saturday.  I have to give my instructor credit.  She didn't even blink an eye when I walked into the arena with Nimo wearing his endurance halter/bridle and the hackamore.  I think a lot of dressage trainers would have balked at working with me and I know a trainer that I worked with for many years would have yelled at me and refused to teach me until I put a bit in my horse's mouth.  There is an overriding belief in the dressage world that dressage cannot be done without a bit.  To even suggest riding bitless is anathema in many circles. To be honest, I'm too new to the world of bitless to know what can and can't be done at higher levels, but I do believe that at least lower-level stuff can be done without a bit, just based on the limited work I've done with Nimo so far.  As of right now, the Netherlands is the only country where bitless options are legal for competing and that is only at the levels below FEI.  A few other countries are looking into it and I really believe that it won't be long before at least many countries allow bitless dressage.  However, I think hell might freeze over before the FEI allows bitless dressage. Of course, that only reaffirms my suspicion that the FEI as an organization is composed of many, many people who have anything but the welfare of the horse under consideration.

Anyway, I explained to my instructor that I'd recently started using the hackamore with Nimo for our endurance work and that I really wanted to continue that work in the arena so that I could be sure that we had the most effective communication out on the trail.  She was totally supportive.  I think her support came easier for her because her mother is a distance rider who uses an s-hack and she has done work with jumpers in the past and my understanding is that hackamores aren't all that uncommon in the jumper world.  I also think she's just a good trainer and believes that there is more to doing dressage than the bit.

And exactly what those other things are became apparent in my lesson.  It's hard to know how Nimo would have done if we'd done the lesson in his regular, sort of newer, bit.  We hadn't done much work since the show and our last lesson was almost 2 months ago, so it's entirely possible he and I would have been rusty anyway.  But I like to think that riding in this hackamore uncovered a couple of issues that had been hiding.  First, Nimo was just not reacting to my leg for bending exercises like he should have been.  Our circles were wooden and our leg-yields were more like leg-drifts.  So, we worked on my leg aids and voila!  Beautiful, forward circles and lovely, engaged leg-yields.  (If you are curious, to improve Nimo's response to my leg, we did quick transitions between all gaits as well as some uneven cavaletti at the trot with immediate canter after the last step of cavaletti.)

Second, I quickly found out that I can no longer use my third finger to "massage" my horse's jaw through the  reins to get him into frame.  There is no question that using that technique is a bit of a cheat.  Ideally, you should be riding your horse back to front and the impulsion of his movement should push him through to your hand where he then yields to contact from the bridle and miraculously holds whatever frame is appropriate for your level because you are such a gifted rider.  It's possible that this kind of thing has happened to me by accident, but I am definitely guilty of not riding back to front as well as I should.  Well, with the hackamore, there is no cheating.  If I rode Nimo properly and "on the aids," I got a nice contact and frame.  If not, well, my failure would be obvious to a 4-year old.

Some other things I discovered.  You have to use two hands together on the reins.  If you let one rein go or even have significantly uneven contact, your horse might possibly either stop and look at you like you are an idiot or aimlessly wander around looking for direction from roosting pigeons.  So, for circles, both hands move over slightly in the direction of travel.  Same thing for shoulder-in.  And the opposite for leg-yields.  For example, if you want to do a leg-yield to the right, you move both hands just an inch or two to the left, keeping them the same distance apart as you would when riding straight.  You also need leg aids.  Like functional, clear leg aids.  No fussing with the reins or massaging of the jaw will get you anywhere.  Also, Nimo's canter improved virtually immediately even though we've done diddly-squat with it for weeks.  I noticed the improvement the first time that I cantered him:  he stopped being so high-headed and seemed much more willing to move into contact and maintain an even rhythm.  My instructor noticed that during our lesson too.

All in all, I really like this hackamore.  Nimo has responded quite well to it, including being willing to work on contact.  In addition, I am already becoming a more effective rider because it seems to highlight any ineffectiveness in my leg and seat.  Plus, Nimo eats and drinks on the trail so much better than with a bit.  At this point, I have no intention of ever using a bit for our trail work again and I'm seriously considering not going back to the bit for our dressage work.  That last consideration could be problematic for our budding dressage career, though.  (After our last show, we really have nowhere to go but up!)  As I mentioned before, bitless options of any kind are not legal for dressage competition.  So that leaves me two options if I want to compete:  I can switch to the bit for brief periods right before a show and compete in the bit or I can ride hors de concours, if allowed.  Hors de concours is a French term meaning "out of the competition" or something like that.  In dressage, it basically means you can show and your test will be scored, but you cannot be placed or receive points or awards or whatever for your test.  I think it might be used more in cases where someone is trying out a new musical freestyle or maybe doing some kind of demo ride, but I think it is available to regular people too.  Because I couldn't care less about getting a ribbon (as demonstrated by my repeated willingness to compete on a crazy animal), I like the second option.  I'd still get a score, so I could gauge how well we compared to the standard and if we did well, maybe that would encourage more people to consider bitless options for their horses.  On the other hand, I don't want to completely rule out using a bit if it seems like the best choice at a later date.

There is one other thing that I want to share with you that just didn't fit well into the narrative of the post, but is worth mentioning.  There is a questionnaire designed by Dr. Cook as part of his research on the effectiveness of the Bitless Bridle.  Here is the link:  http://www.bitlessbridle.org.uk/docs/Bitless-Questionnaire.pdf.  To read a little more about Dr. Cook's philosophy and the survey, click here.  Even though I decided not to use the Bitless Bridle for our endurance work, I'm not ruling it out to try for our dressage work.  I never want to be in the mode that I was before, where I stay away from trying new things just because what we have is working, particularly if there is a possibility it could improve Nimo's comfort.  Anyway, Dr. Cook's research has investigated a lot of behavioral issues that horses have and he has linked many of them to the use of bits.  I encourage you to take a look at the questions to see if your horse is demonstrating any behavioral issues that are linked to the use of a bit.  There are some issues that Dr. Cook believes are 100% caused by bits and others that he believes could be caused by bits or something else.  I answered the questions for Nimo before I put the flower hackamore on him with the intent of checking to see where he was after using the hackamore for awhile.  Because this post is already so long, I don't want to go through the whole list, but I identified 35-40 behaviors on a list of 114 that Nimo was either a Yes or a Maybe on.  Some of them were bit-only induced behaviors and others were not.  What I'd like to do is a follow-up post that goes through the questionnaire for Nimo and then discusses what improvements, if any, were made by using the flower hackamore.  Ideally, then I'd like to follow that up with a re-assessment after trying the Bitless Bridle to test Dr. Cook's claim that the Bitless Bridle is really the ultimate solution for a bridle.

I also want to note that I'm not really trying to convince anyone that bits are bad.  I do think there is some compelling information available that indicates that using a bit during an extreme athletic endeavor or using a bit with a lot of force (like as a punishment) is not in the best interest of the horse.  On the other hand, there are a lot of people with far more experience than me who claim that a bit is actually the best tool for communicating rein aids.  This is definitely an area that I want to spend more time researching and exploring and I'd love to hear your comments about things you've read or tried that either worked or didn't.

32 comments:

  1. "The eggbutt just seems so much more civilized" - *lol* you and I are so alike, our experiences, our tastes.

    I've ridden in an s-hack and found fine steering an issue, but stopping good. I've watched a friend in a flower hack unable to control her horse at all, but her horse was pretty comfortable: ) I own a "vosal" - an aluminum bosal, (rubber coating over the nose) again no fine steering, and a mean stop. A friend of mine does dressage (no shows) in a LG Zaum (also known as Gluecksrad - "happy wheel"), a very, very popular thing here. All of this is so horse-specific, there's no way for anyone to remotely judge or predict how they would work on other horses. For one thing, I don't know how to analyze the interior of a horse's mouth (tongue, pallate). I know my horse's mouth is 13 cm wide, that's it.

    I am late getting on the Myler bus but after the Legerete clinic, I really want a tongue relief bit. So odd to think a French Link is a *bad* thing. I contacted a dealer in the UK and the one I want to try in a trial is the one you got, but in Eggbutt, for the civilized look.

    Like Nimo previously, my horse also roots, a worrisome annoying habit, and I'd love to find a bit that stops this. I'm so light with my contact, I know it's just habit.

    Anyway I love this post, want to thank you for sharing all your research (and I know to avoid that Russian guy's books just after seeing his youtube videos, du liebe zeit!). If I were to go bitless, like you, I'd also want something civilized looking.

    What do you think of these? I think they look cool:

    http://bk-endurance.de/de/Biothane-Kopfstuecke-Halfter-Trensen-Sidepull-Biothane-Produkte/Kopfstuecke-Biothane-Trensen/Biothane-Mini-Hackamore.html

    Especially this one, it's almost sexy when compared to the LG:

    http://barefoot-saddle.com/de/en/Horse/Bitless-Pieces/Barefoot-Bitless-Bit.html

    Thanks again.

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    1. I definitely had a worry about either stopping or steering or both in a hackamore. Luckily (perhaps because he's been under saddle so long) Nimo seems to be pretty accepting of the hackamore and I'm hopeful that means we'll have a good experience with it over the long-term. And I still like the idea of the Myler bits. Providing as much tongue relief as possible without causing other kinds of discomfort seems like the best way to go if you're going to use a bit, but as you said, horses are individuals, so sometimes they don't read the same books we do and have their own preferences:)

      Both of the hackamores you linked to look very interesting - especially the second one! It seems like Europe has a much nicer selection of bitless options than the U.S. does. I would definitely like to experiment a little with different options to see if Nimo has any preferences.

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  2. This post was fascinating to me because I've been seriously considering the bitless option for Lily for competition for a while now. I already bought the S-hack but will need to buy a smaller cob-sized noseband for it (hello Black Friday/Cyber Monday!) before I can play with it on her. Plus she has been a little...shall we say "weird"...with the weather changes and my main reason for having a bit with her is to keep her from putting her head down when she bucks. Because if she is upset, she has a nasty, NASTY buck that will NOT stop if she is able to get her head between her knees! So I definitely want that S-hack to be able to be correctly adjusted and not too loose before we venture into that experiment! :)

    For the reasons I just stated, I can't really talk about my experiences with bitless. I have always been drawn to it though. I have ridden jumpers in mechanical hackamores and Lucero went in a mechanical hackamore when I was starting him under saddle (Pasos are started in "jaquimas", bitless. I took him from a "jaquima" to a hackamore to a bit), but all of that was so, so long ago that I can't really say how it compared to bit work with those horses, especially because I didn't know half the stuff I know now. I never had any significant issues that I can remember though. The jumper I rode the most in a hack, Sunlight, LOVED to gallop around course like a maniac and I had no problem getting him to focus on the fence I actually wanted him to take.

    What you wrote filled in the gaps for me from something I learned a couple of years ago: I've written ad nauseum on the blog about the one classical dressage clinic I attended. The guy was really into ported bits and I didn't really understand why. He had a big focus on allowing the horse to swallow and even training the horse to swallow as a method of relaxation and engagement (Lisa Maxwell has some videos on Giddyup Flix where she teaches this as well, but with a snaffle.) So now I understand why he was so big on the ported bits: because of the bar pressure, it is easier for the horse to swallow.

    I think, like everything, this will all depend on the individual horse, discipline and rider, like you mentioned also. I've met horses that loved French link snaffles and others that hated them; horses that go fabulously in curb bits and others that will freak out over the curb chain; and I know a horse that is ridden in a Dr. Cook bitless who collects and engages like a third level dressage horse! Beautiful! I agree that bitless should be allowed at dressage shows...and I think it would be interesting to see if that minimizes the use of rollkur, though I can see riders still managing to force their horse into a low, deep and round frame even without a bit. >.< I'm curious about the hors de concours option. You must tell us if this is allowed at lower levels! Because I would totally do a Training Level test at a show in my Alta hors de concours, just to get the scores.

    I'm even more excited to try the S-hack with Lily now after reading your post, though because of the nature of her own shenanigans, I will probably be one of those riders that starts in the bit and switches to bitless at the first vet check. :) We shall see! Thank you for this awesome review and for sharing the journey of how you came to this decision!

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    1. I really like the idea of starting a young horse without a bit and then transitioning to one later after the training is more advanced. That seems like a more gradual (and hopefully) gentler process. Although I don't remember really having that much trouble starting Nimo in a bit, I think for the future, I will consider starting any young horse I get in some kind of hackamore. And I'm becoming more of a fan of curb bits simply because of the tongue relief they can provide. When I rode western, I often used some kind of curb bit, but because rein contact isn't expected and the horse I used a curb bit for was already quite well-trained, I don't know how using a curb bit would translate into dressage, especially at lower levels.

      As for hors de concours, I can already see a whole post about that option coming for the future!:)

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    2. I tried Ashke in a hackamore, similar to the one you are using, with the padded noseband. He hated it and I had zero control on trail. I think I have finally found the perfect bit for him. It has a low port that lifts pressure off his tongue and he gets foamy just having it in his mouth. He is so much more responsive and I am really happy with how little head tossing or argument I get from him. I was riding in a level 2 myler, which resulted in him throwing his head up and bracing his front legs. I think whatever fits your horse and makes him the happiest is the correct thing to ride them in.

      I did try the Dr Cook and hated it.

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    3. It's great that you took the time to find something that worked for your horse, Karen. I guess our horses are the ultimate research tool - as long as we pay attention, they tell us what they need and want:) And you're not the only one who doesn't like Dr. Cook's bridle, so I'm going to approach using it with caution but I'd still like to give it a try for dressage work so I can at least satisfy my own curiosity about how it works for Nimo.

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  3. Sorry to add to such an awfully long comment, but I must apologize for not looking up the correct spelling of palate.

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  4. As a warning: the Dr. Cooks tends to tighten under the jaw and then not release after the pressure has been removed; horses tend to get really panicky and/or totally unresponsive when this happens. Some models allow the release to happen, others not so much, but I've seen more than one really bad wreck when a horse in a Dr. Cooks just decided to check the F out and gallop away out of control.
    Also, Dr. Cook is spreading some weird and false knowledge about bits.... one of the things he claims is that bits cause the horse to salivate, which stimulates the production of acid in the stomach, which leads to ulcers.... so in his mind, bits = ulcers. However, this is total bunk science.... horses produce acid 24/7, and saliva actually has buffering bicarbonate in it, so the salivating they do is actually helpful to their stomachs... not to mention any horse that is relaxed in his back will drool and salivate whether or not he is bitted.
    Some food for thought, as I'm pretty sure I hate the guy now!

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    1. Thanks for your perspective, Andrea. I do have some concerns about Dr. Cook's bridle, particularly how tight the noseband is supposed to be. On the other hand, I think the bitless option is nice to have so I feel like I owe it to my horse to at least try it to see how he feels about it:) In terms of the science of salivating and chewing, I'm still learning! Dressage riders like to see a nice foamy mouth, but I haven't seen a correlation between foam and relaxation in Nimo. I'm not sure exactly what that means except that I need to pay more attention, I guess. And the lady who recommended the Zilco said she saw foam when she used it on her horse, so no bit was needed for her horse. The whole area is fascinating to me, so I'm hoping to learn more!:)

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    2. Yes definitely! Out on the trail O goes in a long shank hackamore with a sheepskin fleece noseband, so that she can eat and drink when we're out. She is also a nightmare hellion when she wants to be, so the hackamore *kind of* provides some brakes, although god knows she can run through it if she wants to. Weirdly enough, she drives exclusively in a happy mouth mullen mouth eggbutt, and drools more than I've ever seen her drool since I've had her - but did not drool (or do more than just shut her mouth and clamp down) when being ridden in the same bit, and also I had no steering or brakes. Weird mare likes what she likes, and hates what she hates!
      A relaxed back will produce some drool and saliva, but a horse that is majorly anxious will also produce some massive foam (watch race horses in a post parade, they are flinging slobber EVERYWHERE), so not all foam is created equal and not all horses will produce that coveted white lipstick. Gogo always had a very small, very green (from hay) line of wetness on her lips when she was relaxed - you couldn't see it unless you looked right at it.

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  5. I love this post, Gail - bits can be very confusing due to all of the conflicting information out there. Ruby has hated every bit I've tried in her but it's possible that her previous owners used a high port, shank bit which are very popular down here. She went okay in a side pull but,as you stated, there was no finesse in turning. I decided to give Moss Rock's Evolution bridle a try. It's convertible and can be used as a bitted bridle, side-pull, or Dr. Cook's style. She goes VERY well in it - we could easily do dressage movements if I was only a better rider. As Andrea mentioned, I was concerned with some of the posts regarding the 'release' of these style bridles, but Linda's made this a non-issue with her bridle. She made the chin straps of a much smaller width biothane and used slightly bigger-than-necessary rings so the release is immediate. I can't speak for other types of bitless bridles but I am very happy with the Evolution - and Ruby is too. Things may change but I can't see us going back to bitted at this point. Ruby hated my S-hack, but it has a leather nose-band and chain curb strap. We probably could have gotten away with a biothane S-hack. Still, I feel that due to the way this bridle works, we have more communication than we could get with the S-hack.

    FWIW, Ruby is a horse without enough 'whoa' but I have plenty with this bridle. But then, she is very sensitive to cues so your mileage may vary.

    I apologize that this post is so disjointed; I'm still waiting for my coffee to kick in.

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    1. Thanks, Melissa. And your comment wasn't disjointed at all:) I'm very excited about your tip about the Moss Rock version of Dr. Cook's bridle. That sounds like something I'd like to try!

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  6. I loved this post! Lots and lots of details and comparisons.

    I've dabbled with the idea of switching Fetti to a s-hack. I like that there is less on her face and in her mouth. But. She does have a history of spook-to-spin/bolt, and when she does spook, she'll generally stop when she hits the bit if I catch it fast enough. (I freely acknowledge that if she's going to totally lose her shit, it matters not at all what she has on her face, but we're more often hitting that intermediate stage of only kind of losing it.) I am not confident that the nose pressure of a s-hack will give the same results. It seems like we'd be fine for 99% of the time, but that 1% of spooks and I'd quite possibly be screwed. The theory is good, but not good enough to risk safety! So bitless remains on the back-burner for the foreseeable future.

    Fetti also has absolutely no problems eating or drinking with a bit in, none at all.. currently running the barrel 3-piece Myler bit in either the full cheek or combination, but that's been true for every bit. Ponies!

    If we start doing 50s, there's a good chance the last loop of a ride could be ridden just in the halter part of the halter-bridle, so there's that. I'd love to ride with less, but need the option of having more if she's being awful.

    I'm glad it's working well for you and I totally believe that dressage can be done bitless!

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    1. Thanks, Figure! Nimo used to do the whole spook, spin, and bolt routine, but he actually hasn't done it in maybe a year or so. I never really felt like the bit helped me much because Nimo would sort of fade out quickly on his own. But I can absolutely understand why you'd feel vulnerable without a bit:) And it sounds like your girl does really well in what you're already using. I'm not sure I would have made the switch to bitless if I'd been happy with the way Nimo was eating and drinking...

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  7. Wow I love this post! I might have to read it again. There is so much information I'm still processing all of it. In the comments with Saiph you were talking about starting horses bitless. That's what I did with Chrome. I rode him in a sidepull for the first two years. He's only been in a bit for six months. I cringe to think of the pressure being put on his mouth when he gets excited and I have to hold him back... luckily we ride with no contact most of the time. Actually what I've been wanting to do for a really, really long time is to have a halter/bridle and put a set of reins on the bit and a set of reins on the halter. Then I could ride off the halter, but I would have the bit as back up. So I have to ask... where did you get that halter/bridle with the adjustable noseband??? The blue one that Nimo is wearing. I really want one of those (in that color obviously hehe)! I would definitely have to figure out a bitless option for Chrome if we decided to do any sort of distance riding though because he thinks it's impossible to eat or drink with a bit lol.

    I'm so glad you found a great option for Nimo. I've never seen the flower hackamore. I like it more than the scary looking, long shanked mechanical hackamores. I'm glad you moved it up. I always worry about things being too low on the cartilage of the nose.

    I just realized something.... I looked over at the picture of Chrome on my desktop and I still have my rings on his noseband so technically I could put a second pair of reins on his regular bridle.... I'm totally trying that tomorrow!!!!!

    Sorry for the long comment. Thank you for this post! It's really good food for though.

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    1. Thanks! The halter/bridle Nimo is wearing came from Taylored Tack (www.tayloredtack.com). Amanda Taylor, who makes all the tack, will do custom sizes and configurations, but you might want to check out the 3-N-1 Trail Bridle that has a sidepull with bit hangers so you can do exactly what you are talking about:)

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    2. Wow that's a LOT of bridles!! Which one is Nimo wearing? The 3-N-1 looks awesome, but yikes it's out of my price range right now!!

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    3. Here's the link to my post about the bridle: http://fit2continue.blogspot.com/2014/06/nimo-gets-new-bridle.html?m=0. Probably should have posted that sooner:). Anyway, it is the Classic Jubilee with a few modifications like double ears and Horse Shoe Brand hardware.

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  8. And yet another post of yours I have saved to my feedly for later readings. I think I have done that with nearly every one of your posts lately. I'll have a Book of Gail soon...

    Thank you for compiling so much information and research into one place and sharing your thoughts on it! LOVED reading this. ...especially as I'm planning to purchase some sort of hack for Q on black friday... I'm now a little conflicted about what to try, but thankful about having options and information to peruse further to help me make a good choice for her.

    I filled out the questionnaire, too, just to see. Of horse questions (all but those last 9 or so), I could relate only 12 to Q. Of those, 7 were *'d as being due to bits. I think the one I found most interesting of all of the inquiries on that form was the one about rubbing their face on their legs. Q ALWAYS does this. It was one of the few things on that form that I could check with a very firm YES instead of a "yes, but only when...." I had never thought of the behavior as a bit related/pain thing. Q definitely does it with bit or without though...so I'm more inclined to continue thinking of it as I always have - she's itchy from the sweat stuck under all that strappage on her head. What do you think?

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    1. Ha! The Book of Gail!:) As for the rubbing, I'm curious about that too. I will say that Nimo used to do that quite often after I rode and he doesn't seem to do it anymore. I do think that just getting the bridle or halter off might make a horse want to rub. I agree with you that it could just be a strap thing. I'm not sure what made Dr. Cook classify it as a bit-related behavior instead of allowing for other possibilities. It will be interesting to see if it goes away for Q if you ride her in a hackamore.

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    2. Follow up. After months in the hack, she still rubs her face. I think it's just itchiness as it isn't something she stops moving to do but more of something she does at the end of rides (always) and sometimes during a moment's rest on the trail when we aren't moving.

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    3. Thanks for the follow-up, Liz!

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  9. Overall a really interesting post with tons of great information presented in a way that was super helpful and non-judgemental! Thanks so much for sharing!

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  10. This is AWESOME information, and so well-written! I hope it's okay that I shared it on my Facebook page, The Healthier Horse, as well as Yvonne Welz's page. Don't you just love her?

    I actually stumbled upon this post today when I was looking for Yvonne's instructions for fitting my new Zilco Flower. I was so excited to read your opinions! While I'm not a fan of Dr Cook's bridle because of the delay and/or interference from the rings the reins must go through, I'm a big fan of bitless bridles in general. My favorites are the LG-Zaum, the Zilco Flower, and the LightRider.

    I recently submitted a request to the USEF to allow bonafide bitless bridles in all competition in every discipline and division. Maybe you could submit one also? They must be received before June 1st, but since they don't have any other requests on their docket, maybe we'll get lucky and they'll at least consider our requests. They really do need to evolve into the 21st century.

    Again, thank you for this blog post, it's fantastic!

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    1. I'm so glad this post was helpful, Robynne:) And yes, it's totally fine that you shared the post! I do love Yvonne Welz and all her work with bitless bridles.

      I have been considering submitting requests for bitless bridles to USDF and USEF but I'm concerned that there is still too much prejudice in the dressage world to allow it. But it never hurts to ask!:)

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  11. Gail, I hope you will! The only way bitless bridles will ever be allowed is if the USEF and USDF hear from a whole lot of people. I heard a few rumblings several years ago that the USDF was considering allowing them. Unfortunately, I don't think enough of their members have even tried riding bitless, let alone submit a rule change request. Too many dressage riders insist they must communicate through the bit. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try, right? Those who wish to ride with a bit may continue to do so, and those who prefer to ride bitless should be allowed to. However, I don't believe all bridles that don't use bits should be authorized; S-hacks, mechanical hacks, bosals, etc, are not technically bitless bridles. Only bonafide bitless bridles should be allowed, like the ones mentioned here.

    I've enjoyed chatting with you, Gail! Maybe someday we'll meet up at an endurance ride. I don't ride endurance (I'm too old, and my horse is too fat), but I'd love to volunteer sometime.

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    1. It would be great to run into at a ride. And for what it's worth, there are a lot of "old" people in the endurance world, some of them in their 70s! And Nimo used to be fat once upon a time too, so there may be hope for you:) Regardless, I'm glad you stopped by the blog and I'm also glad there is another bitless bridle supporter out there!

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  12. One more thing: I actually learned about the LG-Zaum from another blogger several years ago. Dawn Diovera of Horse and Man wrote about her opinions of several, and now she places bulk orders for her readers. Just fyi :)

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  13. I would like to read it but it has been written in such a difficult way to read... Too much text all stuck together, this tires me out too much.
    I will need to restyle all the text if I want to start reading it!

    Which is a pity because I feel there is interesting information in it...

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    1. I'm sorry you had trouble with the formatting, Ama. On my screen, I can see the paragraph breaks, but it is a long post, and I understand that not everyone has the time to go through something really lengthy.

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