Thursday, June 18, 2015

Can You Do a Half-Halt in a Bitless Bridle?

I'm not sure how many of you are regular readers of the magazine, Dressage Today, but if you are, you may have seen an article called, "The Bitless Bridle Debate," in the June issue.  I knew about the article because I'd seen a couple of references pop-up in my Facebook newsfeed, but I had decided against even caring that much about the article.  I knew the bitless dressage community wasn't that happy about the content of the article and I wasn't in the mood to be irritated, so I forgot about the article.

Then, I happened to see an issue of Dressage Today at the Tractor Supply store.  While I'm not a regular reader of the magazine anymore, I picked up the issue to see if there was anything of interest.  And I saw the article listed on the cover.  I sighed in resignation, and added the magazine to my ever-growing pile of merchandise.

When I got home, I took a few days to get around to reading the issue, but when I did, I remembered why I no longer subscribe.  Articles like "Find Your Dream Horse: Part 1, The European Shopping Adventure" are just not relevant to my life.  It is, quite frankly, unbelievable to me that a person couldn't find a decent dressage horse (or a horse for any discipline) in this country, and it seems like such a waste to go spend $100,000 on a European horse when you can waste that kind of money on an equally neurotic animal here.  (I'm being a little sarcastic - I know there are good horses in Europe and in the U.S., but anyone I know who has one of the "fancier" dressage horses, whether imported or not, owns a basketcase.)

Anyway, eventually I worked my way to the bitless article.  I was quite underwhelmed, with the exception of one excerpt which I'll share with you below, when I read it.  If you have never heard of riding without a bit, the article may have provided some useful information, but it was this statement that sent me over the edge. The article is quoting Anne Gribbons on her experience riding bitless.

"I missed the feeling that somebody was home at the other end of the reins.  If I had to pick one key ingredient in dressage riding and training, the connection that the horse gives you - or does not- is the most critical.  If the relationship between your hand and seat and the horse's mouth is disturbed, you cannot access his hindquarters.  There is no 'transmission.'"

The article continues to cite Ms. Gribbons.  "Without a bit, she adds, the half halt is essentially useless as a tool to contain and direct the horse's energy.  'There's nothing like the feeling of a horse with a great mouth responding to the slightest closing of the hand and a whisper with the leg by immediately engaging his hind leg and coming up under your seat in a power surge that carries you both forward.  The thrill of real throughness is hard to imagine without a bit because there's nothing live on the other end,' she says." (see pp. 52-52)

WHAT???  So the horse's nose is dead and if I ride in a bitless bridle, I can't communicate effectively with my horse and achieve the nirvana of dressage (and any other equestrian discipline, really), which is an engaged and connected horse and rider?  And even worse, I can't use a half halt, which is possibly the most used word by dressage trainers and the most attempted action by dressage riders.  Dear God, however have I been getting my horse around the arena in a hackamore?  Am I so clueless a rider that I didn't notice I was attempting to communicate with his dead nose instead of his live mouth for the last 9 months?  Even worse, is my dressage trainer so stupid that she's been telling me to use half halts in my lessons?  Doesn't she know it can't be done?

Deep breath.  In the event that some of my readers don't know what a half halt is because you have better things to do with your lives than attempt the unnecessarily convoluted discipline of dressage, I will enlighten you based on my (now) clearly uneducated perspective.  A half halt is simply a way that dressage riders use to rebalance their horses.  There is this complicated sequence of instructions which intimidates all but the most advanced riders and it goes something like this:  Apply gentle leg pressure at the girth with both legs and a nanosecond later, engage your seat to drive the horse toward the bit, while a nanosecond later harnessing the forward surge of power from your horse with your hands.  I used to be quite the student of the half halt and I've seen variations of those instructions from a variety of sources.  There are, of course, different types of half halts, depending on your objective.  For example, my trainer will often tell me to half halt on the outside rein, which basically means that I need to get a better connection on my outside rein, so it that case, I might just use my inside leg, seat, and outside rein for the half halt sequence.

All right, who am I kidding?  I've only managed a handful of truly amazing half halts in my riding career, and those were probably by accident.  Part of the issue is that I am uncoordinated.  Another part is that I have a tendency to overthink the whole process and take too long to get through the sequence of aids.  A third part is that I have a horse whose ability to sense that there might be the opportunity to slow down is off the charts.  I have determined that if I want to execute a half halt, I have to sort of think about but not focus on slowing down, otherwise, Nimo will literally stop dead in the middle of whatever we're doing because he's so excited to stop working.  He's actually not a lazy horse, but he is so attuned to halting that even when I want to actually halt, I still need quite a bit of leg and seat to keep him from falling apart as he stops.

But there's another reason I have trouble with half halts.  It is because I really got my initial riding education in western pleasure. The whole concept of western riding in general, and western pleasure in particular is effortless communication with the horse.  Not something that looks like effortless communication (dressage), but something that actually is effortless.  A good western rider on a good western horse will work cattle or perform patterns in an arena and the audience will see no movement from the rider.  No yanking on reins, no shifting of weight, no moving of the legs.  But how is this accomplished?  The western horse learns to stop from day one.  Before anyone ever gets on, that horse is taught to "whoa" immediately from a verbal cue.  And I'm not talking about a gradual stop, either.  No matter what speed that horse is going, when he hears the word "whoa," he needs to be completely stopped within 1 second.  There are, regrettably, some abusive methods of achieving that whoa, but it is perfectly possible to teach the stop kindly, it just takes more time.

Anyway, western riders don't use a half halt when they start training young horses.  They use an actual halt.  Your horse out of control?  Stop.  Walk doesn't seem right?  Stop.  Horse trotting too fast or too strung out?  Stop.  Then, once the young horse can do that under saddle, a back (or reinback for dressage) is added.  So a typical training sequence might look like trot, lope, stop, back, lope, walk, trot, stop, back.  The horse learns to engage his hindquarters and rebalance through the repetitive stop and back movements.  Because it isn't possible for a horse to stop and back without using himself to some degree, adding the forward motion and using quick transitions really focuses the horse.  I don't mean to imply that this method works quickly, because it doesn't.  It takes just as long to create a beautifully trained western horse as it does a horse of any other discipline, but it is the background I came from into dressage.

The other component of the stop in western riding is called the "spur stop."  This may sound cruel or make no sense to some, but western riders don't want to use their reins.  They are working cattle or opening gates or focused on looking fabulous for a judge.  They don't want to be using their hands to tell the horse what to do.  So they use the spur stop.  Which doesn't have to be done with spurs, actually.  Any gentle leg pressure will do.  Western horses are trained to stop with pressure from their riders' legs.  And spurs actually make it work even better.  Not because the rider needs to gouge the horse's sides with them, but because they extend the rider's leg and allow the least movement to make contact with the horse.  If you watch really good reining horses, you should not see any movement from the rider telling the horse to stop.  Instead that rider is using his legs/spurs (or maybe an aid from his seat if they are higher level competitors) to produce a spectacular sliding stop.

Another important thing to know about western riding is that there is an expectation that the horse will continue to perform whatever gait at whatever speed in whatever manner (low, swinging head or higher, more collected frame) until he is told to change by the rider.  While the horse is performing, the rider DOES NOT interfere with the horse.  There is no nagging with the legs or the seat.  There is no slight movement of the hand.  There is just stillness.  Obviously, young horses need guidance, but a well-trained older horse will not.  He will do his job just fine without his rider messing with him.

So I was indoctrinated with this objective of a beautifully moving, balanced horse that does not need constant communication from his rider. What he needs is for his rider to shut up and sit there, so he can do his job.  When I moved to Virginia, there was a serious lack of western anything, and I admit that the idea of cross-country jumping and soon dressage started to appeal to me.  I'd seen quite a bit of abuse in the western show barns I'd been at, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.  So I was looking for a way to try something new that didn't involve doing something that I thought would hurt my horse.

Soon I was taking dressage lessons and I felt like an idiot who didn't know how to ride, and I still feel that way sometimes.  Especially when it comes to half halts.  While I don't dismiss the idea of needing to rebalance the horse at certain times, I struggle with the implementation under dressage rules.  If I was riding my trusty Arabian mare from my youth or my young horse from my 20s and I needed to rebalance them, I would use only my seat and legs.  Not my hands.  At all.  So the idea of harnessing energy with my hands is weird, because in my mind the horse should have done that part himself.  But Nimo isn't a western horse.  So he doesn't know that he's supposed to do something on his own.

Anyway, the point of this post isn't to convince anyone that western is better than dressage, just explain a little bit about where I'm coming from.

Now that I'm riding Nimo with a hackamore, theoretically I have to relearn or reteach some communication methods.  But I haven't found that to be true at all.  I ride pretty much like I rode in a bit.  The only exception is that I don't use a direct rein much anymore.  The type of hackamore I ride in (a Zilco flower hackamore) doesn't work well if only one rein is applying pressure.  Instead, there needs to be a balance, so I use both hands for every aid, which is quite honestly how I should have been riding in the first place, but riding with a bit allowed me to get away with some bad habits (like twitching my little finger to get more jaw engagement instead of actually generating more energy to give Nimo the ability to engage his jaw from his own energy instead of me sort of forcing it on him).

As for the half halts, I have to disagree with Ms. Gribbons and state that she doesn't know what she's talking about.  I am as capable of performing a half halt in a hackamore as I was in a bit (which you now know is hit or miss).  However, what if Ms. Gribbons is right?  After all, what do I know?  Nobody interviews me for horse articles:)  I would say, so what?  Bitless riders could learn how to do what western riders do, which is communicate with their seat and legs.  Western horses DO NOT need a bit to be balanced and engaged.  They may carry one in their mouths, but their riders don't use it to keep them collected.  I would argue that the whole concept of the half halt is simply a rebalancing of the horse.  That rebalancing can be achieved without anything on the horse's head at all.

And of course, this gets to the root of bitless dressage and why it is controversial in the first place.  There are apparently trainers and riders out there who believe that it is anathema to ride without a bit.  That a horse and rider cannot properly communicate without it.  Yet, there are probably thousands and thousands of equestrian performances that show fluid, balanced horses under saddle with hackamores or even nothing at all.  You might say, well those horses are really advanced in their training or it's some kind of a trick.  I would argue, then, that FEI level dressage horses should be shown bridleless.  If advanced training is all you need for riding without a bridle, then there should be no place better to look for advanced training than upper level dressage.  And yet, those horses are shown with TWO bits.  That makes no sense.  (And yes, I am aware of the general argument about using the snaffle bit to communicate certain things and using the curb bit to communicate other things.  I just don't buy it.)

I'd also like to address the point about the horse's nose being dead as compared to the horse's mouth being alive.  I admit the horse's nose doesn't move like a mouth.  It's a static object.  And you know what?  That makes it way easier to communicate!  When I rode with a bit, I had to deal with Nimo chewing and yawning, which made my attempts to communicate inconsistent while I tried to equalize the pressure on my reins due to his movements.  Now, I have a nice solid nose to communicate with.  If I want to gently squeeze my outside rein to transition downward, guess what?  Nimo feels it immediately and responds immediately.  No more wondering if I got through, no more pulling to make the aid stronger.  I'm not an expert, but that seems better to me.

The point of this post isn't to convince you to switch to bitless riding, just to address what I think are some misconceptions about riding without a bit that are now in print in a national magazine.  The fact is, we have a lot of options for our horses in terms of tack, and good riders will keep looking until they find what works best for their horses.  So if you are thinking about bitless dressage, please know 2 things:  1) Riding without a bit isn't going to make you a better rider instantly - the same issues you had when you rode with a bit will be there without it.  2) If your horse is more comfortable without a bit, you may experience some advances you wouldn't have otherwise simply because your horse can listen to you better without the pain or irritation that was caused by the bit.

I'd love to hear about your experiences with bitless bridles (good or bad), so feel free to leave a comment!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Midland Outlaws Ride

You may remember that I rode with the Midland Outlaws last year at a trail ride hosted by a gentleman who lives just a few minutes away from the barn where I board.  I really liked being able to go on the ride, partly because I met a lot of friendly horse people, but also because I could just ride Nimo over instead of having to trailer.

I convinced a couple of other boarders at my barn to join me this year, and the three of us headed over a little before 11 am.  Like last year, the start time of the ride was a bit fluid, so we ended up getting out on the trail at around 11:30.  Unlike last year, the footing was fairly firm, so our pace was a little faster.  We still mostly walked, but we did get a few good solid trot/canter sections in, which I was happy about.  I only let Nimo canter in one section for a short time because I was still a little gun shy after The Incident a few weeks ago, which resulted in me parting company with my horse at a speed other than zero miles per hour.  Nimo did well at the canter, though, with no sign of wanting to crow-hop or buck.

There was one section of the trail where we went through a small ditch (no water) while turning a corner where Nimo would normally have slowed from our brisk trot to a careful walk, but he decided to keep moving through it, and he did give a little hop coming up from the ditch.  I was expecting that, though, because it was a new-to-him maneuver, and I suspected he would be a little uncomfortable.  He did just fine with his balance and I stayed on too, so that ended up working out well.  I'm trying to get in the habit of letting him choose his pace whenever possible, unless it feels unsafe to me or I think he's rushing because he's anxious about being left behind.  In this case, he was motivated (but not out of control) to keep up with the 5 or 6 horses in front of us, but I felt like that motivation was a good thing and helped him get through an obstacle that normally would have intimidated him a bit.  He didn't feel panicked, just determined, so I wanted to let him move out.

About 3 miles in to the ride, the trail went not only through a creek, but stayed in the creek for about 100 feet.  The creek wasn't too deep, although it probably did get to about 3 feet deep at one point.  Last year, I was pretty sure Nimo was going to roll in it, although I got him through it without ending up in the water.  This year, he did still paw a bit, but his desire to lay down was much more muted and he seemed happy to just slowly wander through it.  It was a nice way to cool the horses down because the temperature was probably at about 90 by that point and the humidity wasn't doing us any favors either.  We stopped just after the creek in a lovely little meadow to wait for our 4-wheeler escort to get in front of us to open a gate.  (We were riding through many different pieces of private property with permission, and part of the coordination of the ride involved sending people ahead to open and close gates.)

Grassy/shady field where we stopped for a break
After maybe a 10-minute rest, we headed out again, with the trail covering some paved road, forest paths, and the edges of planted fields.  After about another 3 miles, we got to The Water Obstacle.  Last year, I admit to being mostly horrified as what appeared to be dozens of riders took their horses through what I considered a booby-trapped and unfair water obstacle.  There was a giant pond, maybe 2-3 feet deep, and just before a steep, muddy, short hill that the horses had to struggle up to get out of the pond, there was maybe a 2 foot drop-off that the horses had no way of knowing was there.  I saw some pretty scary riding and I gratefully took the go-around to avoid what I knew would be an obstacle that Nimo would never forgive me for.  This year, the pond water level was much lower, and the drop-off happened to coincide with a sand bar, so the horses knew they were going into water, just not how deep it was.  I still didn't take Nimo through it, but I could see how someone with a brave and adventurous horse would probably see it has a reasonable path.  Interestingly, out of the dozen or so horses that did the obstacle while I was there, two of them lost their riders and a third gave a rodeo performance worth paying for (his rider stayed on...barely).  I still maintain that this particular part of the trail is best reserved for experienced horses who can cope with unknown footing without panicking and it's not something that I would voluntarily ask Nimo to do at this point.  He is just too worried about where his feet are to think that kind of riding is fun.  Maybe someday, but for now, we are sticking to the go-around.

At this point, we were about halfway through the ride, and there were volunteers with water, soda, Gatorade, and snacks.  We took about a 15 minute break, and then headed out.  I should mention that I found the two breaks we took completely unnecessary, and the endurance rider in me was chafing at waiting, but it was good to teach Nimo to wait and many of the horses on the trail were not endurance horses and probably needed a short rest, particularly because of the heat.

The rest of the ride went faster, particularly when Nimo took the lead.  We'd been trotting down a private driveway and approached a small, regional airport.  Last year, Nimo really took off at this point in the ride (perhaps sensing we were nearing the end and also he was desperate to catch the 4-wheeler in the lead).  This year, the ladies I was riding with actually slowed to a walk.  Nimo wanted to keep trotting, though, so I let him.  I knew the way from that point and Nimo was asking to trot, not pulling or demanding it, so I wanted to see what he would do.

He trotted slowly (for him, anyway), and after being well in front for several minutes, a couple of other riders cantered/galloped up and past us.  Their horses couldn't handle being behind, I guess.  I loved that Nimo let himself be passed by a galloping horse without any change in pace.  I realize that passing like that is poor trail etiquette, but I welcomed the opportunity to test Nimo, and he did great.  Ideally, I want Nimo to be the kind of horse who can handle any terrain and any pace and any ill-mannered idiots out on the trail because it is going to happen.  He's still not there yet, but it is moments like this one where I couldn't be happier with how he is doing.

We did a couple more trot sets, including one that was on a wide, mowed path through a field with woods on one side.  The path wound around, so there were blind corners, which made it seem more challenging (and more fun!).  And there were 2-3 horses in front of and next to or just behind us, but Nimo kept a nice steady, brisk trot through the whole trotting session, again even as other horses changed position around us and cantered or even galloped.  It was a nice way to finish the ride.  The group I was with ended up cutting off the last 2 miles of the ride because no one wanted to wait for a gate to be opened, and honestly, it was just plain hot and miserable outside.  We certainly could have done the extra 2 miles, but finishing up with 10 miles was fine with me because I was done with being outside.  We've been having unusually hot and humid weather almost all of May and my body is completely rejecting acclimating to it.

So Nimo redeemed himself after our last organized ride and behaved just like I expected and hoped for.  He was motivated to keep up with the group, but not out of control, and he handled the change of position and pace of the horses around us very well.  I don't think we've ever been passed by a galloping horse before, and it happened maybe 3 times on this ride, with Nimo never batting an eye, so I'm thrilled with that response.

What I'm not thrilled about is the heat.  I'll admit that I haven't been riding as much as I should have been because of the heat these past few weeks.  I just wasn't prepared for the 90 plus degree days and increase in humidity.  We've been having July/August weather, and I don't like it.  In fact, I ended up feeling pretty ill for several hours after this ride, despite drinking even more water than I usually would.  It looks like temps are going to cool down a bit this week, but otherwise I may have to get some kind of portable AC unit in order to keep riding this summer...or possibly I am going to move some place cooler, like the equator...