On Saturday I spent a fascinating day with a Bit and Bridle consultant.
A few years ago, like many others, I followed the anatomical bridle trend and picked up what I believed to be a good fitting bridle and combined it with the bit my horse had been going happily in for several years.
The theory and science applied behind the anatomical bridle is that it gives clearance of major facial nerves and reduces pressure in proven high pressure areas.
My boy is a head shaker and one thing that I observed after his first summer in the anatomical bridle was that he had stopped head shaking. I wasn’t expecting it to solve this problem particularly as I thought it was more of a seasonal allergy caused either by pollen or light but it was an accidental win, I thought.
However, since bringing him back into work after some time off he has not seemed comfortable in his usual bridle and bit combination. And the head shaking has returned.
In his work he has been stuck through his neck, fixed at the poll, unwilling/unable to work over his top line and although his stride behind was never overly expressive it had become shorter than normal.
While these altered posture and gait patterns can easily be attributed to his recent injury, reduced muscle tone and lack of balance, what happened when we started changing his bridle and bit combination was really interesting.
Horses are masters at accommodating and disguising weaknesses, imbalance and even pain within their musculoskeletal system. It is instinctive for self-preservation purposes.
It is the role of vets, therapist, farriers, dentists, trainer and many other animal care professionals to unpick these disguised weaknesses in order to restore biomechanically effective movement patterns.
I went through my check list. I was happy with his saddle. I’d had his teeth checked. I was happy that the rehab I was doing with him was going well, although we still had some way to go, but something still wasn’t adding up.
Enter Horse Bit Fit consultant, Dr James Cooling.
After assessing his current way of going and anatomy of the head and mouth, James opted to change the bridle first and keep his usual bit which was appropriate for his mouth shape and size. The bit, a hanging cheek, is designed to offer poll relief which was being negated by the anatomical bridle he was currently wearing. The new anatomical bridle gave greater clearance of his ear base and the TMJ as well as avoiding the foramen where three of the major facial nerves exit the skull and innervate the facial muscles, skin and sensory apparatus.
This change saw my horse offer a longer, lower neck carriage however we were still not getting much flexion at the poll or self-carriage. The problem was with the hanging cheek bit. My horse had become reliant on the fixed bit for balance. He is only a light horse so it was not obvious. He wasn’t really heavy in my hand but he was none-the-less using me and my hand as a point of balance in his ridden work. Hence the fixed, shortened neck position.
So next, we changed the bit. To remove his ability to lean on the bit we opted for a loose ring. When I got back on and began walking round he was offering a better frame, moments of self-carriage and a longer stride but he felt wobbly and kept stumbling behind. At first I thought the bit and bridle combination was all wrong but then after speaking about what was happening it was clear. I had taken away a point of balance and he was having to reconfigure his movement patterns to allow for the change.
I’m excited to see how this change will enhance his rehab and performance in the coming months.
This change in his movement has highlighted to me the importance of having a bit and bridle fitted and regularly checked in the same way we have our saddles checked and fitted. This will be going on my client question list. I always ask about when the saddle was last checked, when they last saw the dentist and farrier.
The fit of both the bit and bridle and those two things in combination, especially in the process of rehabilitation, are just as important and can have a huge impact on the horses way of going. All pieces of the big puzzle that is equine biomechanics.