Brian went out last week for a solo ride on Cal, and things didn’t go so well for the two of them. Although she is trained Western Pleasure, Cal’s neck-reining sort of comes and goes as far as effectiveness is concerned, and Brian encountered increasingly frequent moments when she took his directional guidance with a grain of salt. Brian is at least considerate and educated enough to know better than to try to direct-rein with a curb, but when he got home and told me about all the difficulties he’d experienced, I felt something had to be done. So, I dug out the one snaffle (a big, fat loose-ring) I kept from the eight or nine varieties I tried on Steen while we were trying to find what he responded to best and put it on Steen’s old headstall. Yesterday we returned to the barn, armed and ready with just about the mildest metal bit out there.
We arrived to find the feed-lot herd a little riled up due to a tractor moving dirt in their pasture, and we had to return to our bribery methods for catching Cal. It wasn’t a hugely auspicious start, but Cal and Brian did some ground-work, and that seemed to go quite well. Then I put the bridle on and adjusted everything. Wonderfully, the bit was the right size for her. I did some flexing from the ground with her, and she responded well. Then Brian did some of the same. Finally, we took Steen and Cal outside and he mounted. I had him practice one-rein stops and more flexing from the saddle, and I thought I saw a distinct change in her body language. She relaxed and began to yield and soften, instead of holding her neck rigid in front of her.
So, we decided to hit the trails. I wanted to get Steen out again and it seemed like a good test-drive for the bit, since Cal is a follower. But things didn’t start off real well. There some harvesting going on in a corn-field near the soybean-field we like to ride in, and the equipment and the noise got everyone a little nervous. Cal started trying to turn towards home. But Brian stayed patient and was able to bend her back in the right direction and keep her going.
By the time we made it out of the bean-field, things were going better, and the rest of the ride stayed consistently mediocre. Both Steen and Cal were a bit prone to weaving, but they went. We trotted here and there, and made it back to the strip without incident. I hopped off to watch and Brian and Cal did some work in the makeshift arena. And that is when I became really convinced we’d made the right bit call. Gone were all the frustrating behaviors Brian has been battling with lately. Cal was almost energetic, even, trotting nicely, loping when asked. She’d veer a little towards Steen at times but she’d never just lock her jaw and plow towards him like last time I watched him ride. They managed several nice circles, a number of figure-eights, and a good, long lope. Most importantly, they weren’t fighting anymore.
So, once again I am left digesting a lesson. The more I ride and work with different horses, the less I see the point of ported bits. I know they were developed so ranchers could ride with one hand, but if you are not trying to rope cattle, why even go there? The (borrowed) bit we had in Cal’s mouth was simply harsh, and by making her nervous and uncomfortable it was actually inhibiting Brian’s ability to communicate with her. I’m very curious to see how things go from here.