A Few Weeks in the Two-Rein

Novels for Horse-Lovers

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We’re having a really lovely late summer. Really, the whole summer has been surprisingly nice, but the last few weeks have been particularly gorgeous. Accordingly, we are logging lots and lots of barn hours.

With King gone and Nevada getting a little break, Brian and I have reverted to our previous breakdown of mounts. I’m riding Steen and Aiden. He’s riding Laredo and Oliver. (This choice is mostly due to the fact that my saddle fits Aiden better and his fits Oliver better.)

All the horses are doing well, but the most exciting thing going on for me is that I’ve finally made a total transition into the two-rein with Steen. I dabbled with the set-up on and off for quite a few months, but every time I rode in it it made me aware of things that were missing or not quite right with my communication in hackamore. We’d go back to the hackamore to work on the deficiencies.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I tried the two-rein again. For the first time, it felt all good all through the ride. I rode in it again the following day, and it felt really good. The third ride was even better still.

That string of riding brought me to a decision. No more dabbling. With Steen being 14 and this being my first time using a spade, if we’re going to do this, now’s the time. We’re not going to find a better moment.

It also helped that we recently watched a video by Bruce Sandifer that went into an in-depth exploration of the mechanics of the spade bit and how it works in comparison to a lot of popular bits commonly in use today. This helped me really set aside any lingering fear that I would somehow accidentally hurt Steen with the spade, plus gave me increased understanding of how the spoon and mouthpiece work, and why.

So, for the last few weeks, I’ve ridden Steen exclusively in the two-rein. We’re both increasingly relaxed about the headgear, and he’s rapidly building up his understanding of the signals. As his understanding and my aptitude increase together, I’m starting to get glimmers of why a spade bit is so unbelievably cool. I have seen other people ride in spades, read about them, watched videos on them, and collected all sorts of abstract information about them. But finally really riding in one is something else entirely.

Unfortunately, it’s the kind of thing that’s really difficult to talk about. Much of what is different isn’t really quantifiable. The most obvious elements is the subtlety. On Steen in the hackamore, I can usually put him exactly where I want with only a little pressure/effort. On Steen in the two-rein, it takes even less. I’m starting to learn how little itty bitty twitches of my fingers cause the bit to signal, and Steen so far has shown very little difficulty in translating these minute shifts into instructions that reach his feet.

The other things that are different about riding in the two-rein are a lot harder to describe. Increasingly, I understand why Martin Black says the work he does with young horses is essentially geared to get them into the two-rein as quickly as possible. He talks about the two-rein being his favorite part of the bridle horse progression. And that brings me to what is perhaps the most noticeable difference in riding Steen in the two-rein. It does feel like leveling up. For both me and Steen, there’s a lot more to think about. There are simple changes, like just riding around with two sets of reins, and there are subtle things, like the way the spade moves in his mouth when he holds his head at different angles. It’s like adding an entire new layer to our potential to communicate.

We have yet to have a moment where the bit gets in the way or causes a problem. Every time I ride in it, Steen is more relaxed about taking it and holding it from the get-go. Of course, we still have a long, long way to go. I’m trying to be realistic about what’s ultimately possible for a horse like Steen, who has a very checkered training history, two traumatic leg injuries, and is now past his prime, particularly given the fact that he’s in the hands of someone who is learning as she goes. Still, it seems that as long as we’re both enjoying the learning process, there is no reason to stop pushing on.

Horseback Hours YTD: 173:10

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As long as the horse is sound and interested, I think teaching them new things is great! My guys are in their 20's now, and I'm still trying to teach them new things (mostly lateral work these days). I'll admit that I think the spade bit is beyond where I want to go at this point. Even if I had a younger horse, it's just too fiddly for me. I get the appeal of subtle and nuanced communication, but I'm not sure I'm really ready for that level of responsibility. I'm still trying to work on getting my seat to… Read more »