Okay so fair warning, this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. If you have spent time with me you probably already know my thoughts on this subject. If not, then lets start at the beginning.
A lot of jumpers are ridden with large bits – often gags or elevators – and martingales to further increase the rider’s strength on the mouth. This is accepted as normal and not considered a training issue.
If we look at why the horses generally end up with big bits – because they certainly don’t start that way – you will hear people saying that the horses need bigger bits as they are more educated to increase their rideability. If we look at this plainly the horses need bigger bits in order to be rideable when they have more training. This sounds like poor training to me. Shouldn’t you need less bit and less strength as the horse is more educated and able to be softer / listen and respond better?
So why do jumpers often require more bit instead of less as their training progresses? If we look at how the typical jumper rides you will see a horse galloping at fences with a rider balanced back on her hands pulling the horse into a fence where they then get a small release. This horse is always hollow with his head up and back dropped down as he gallops. The rider pulls in order to slow the momentum so that the horse is able to lift his shoulder and jump. As the fences get higher you need more energy to get over them. If your strategy for creating this energy is to gallop and then slow the front end it seems logical you would need a bigger and bigger bit to slow that ever more powerful gallop. But is there another way?
I’m sure many riders have wondered if they really need a bigger bit or simply a better line of communication. However, as the horse progresses in this training program it gets harder and harder to go back to a smaller bit and more sensitive horse. In order to get the horse lighter and able to be ridden in a smaller bit the horse must learn a new way of gathering energy in order to jump the big fences.
If we instead teach a horse to stretch down into the bit and lift his back we will not only save him years of back pain and joint stress we will also give the horse a new and much more powerful way of collecting energy. Once a horse is properly stretching into the bridle and lifting his back we have only to half halt and push the horse’s hind end further under him to create energy and lift in the shoulders. This sets the horse up for a much bigger, less challenging jump. With this system the energy is created from the legs instead of the hands which means that we don’t need anything more than a plain snaffle or simple bitless bridle to control the horse – even over the largest of fences. This system is taking the classical principles of dressage (which means training) and applying them to educate the horse on how to athletically use his body, otherwise known as collection.
You may be wondering if this system actually works for jumping and if you are then you don’t have to look any further than at Puissance classes. Watching these horses they will always canter up to their fences in a slow collected canter so unlike the gallop seen in jumpers. This gives the horses the power to clear the large fences seen in the Puissance classes. You can see the differences in how the horses are rounded in their backs and sinking down onto their haunches every stride. This takes a good deal of strength, but leads to a lot more power.
A correctly trained jumper trained in this manner will be more powerful and more balanced, making turns and bursts of speed more accessible and rideable. However it is so rarely taught because it requires more time spent on the basics and a softer, quieter rider to ride effectively. To properly train collection it takes 2-3 years of dedicated strengthening of the horse’s body. The horse must learn to be relaxed, supple, and engaged through his core. Once the horse has learned proper collection the horse requires a quiet rider who can sit without disturbing the horse’s balance and thus destroying the collection. This means it takes more education of the rider to learn to properly sit without using the reins as a seatbelt of sorts. Pulling on the horse will always result in hollowness and poor movement.
Although properly training a horse to carry himself before jumping has its downsides, it is well worth it. Horses that use themselves correctly are better able to hold up to the rigors of a competitive career and can often be seen jumping competitively into their 20s. Furthermore, proper training allows a rider to be a soft, feeling rider instead of having to use force to coerce the horse into submission. At the end of the day no one really wants to force a horse into something even if it is the industry standard devised to get horses fast, clean, and competitive in the quickest amount of time.