Riding School goes 100% bitless

It was a dull, dreary day last November as I flopped down on the sofa after a morning’s work to read the latest issue of Your Horse. I was idly hoping to find an idea for a new topic. Our lesson topics, themes which can be followed through exercises in walk, trot (rising and sitting), canter and jump, change every fortnight, and I was keen to find a theme which would encourage the children to ride with a softer, but still active, contact.

Then I saw it! The answer to every prayer in my head regarding horses’and ponies’ welfare during riding lessons. It was a photo of a horse being ridden in a Dr Cook bridle, and I instantly knew this was BIG. My heart rate increased as I read the article, and as soon as I got to the end, I emailed Johanna McArthur, mentioned in the article: how about a whole riding school going bitless? Sheila at Bitless Bridles would prove to be wonderfully patient with my endless queries, and very encouraging throughout.

From that moment on I could think of little else. Monique, my business partner, was highly sceptical: Health & Safety? How would the children stop their ponies? I gave the article to Caroline, our one livery (we don’t do livery, but our GP neighbour asked for 5 years...) and she became the bemused recipient of a 100mph torrent of speech. Katee, our junior instructor, was more reserved in her reaction: Hmmm, no bits? However, she was intrigued.

While I was gathering information regarding efficiency of control (to persuade Monique) and the financial implications of Park Farm Riding School going bitless, Caroline bought a bridle. The yard was abuzz as we carefully fitted the wondrous object to her horse Cyril’s head. All good so far. Though, to be fair, Cyril was still in his stable. A tentative squeeze on both reins (“Cyril, this is Stop.”) produced no drama. A light motion on the left rein (“Cyril, this is Turn Left”) resulted in a beautifully soft and relaxed bend, similarly with the right rein. My heart was hammering. Horse and owner proceeded to the sandschool, observed by all and sundry.

It was a beautiful thing to watch. Where, before, Caroline had asked, and been told, “Okay” by Cyril, now she was suggesting, and being told, “But of course, with pleasure, no problem.” My heart was singing. Monique observed that Caroline did appear to have control, and she had to admit the horse looked remarkably happy and relaxed.

That evening I put the (kindly lent) bridle onto Satchmo, our 15.3hh Polish Warmblood. What did the rider think, after her lesson? “He’s softer. He went up into canter much better than normal. That’s the best lesson I’ve ever had. I love that bridle.” The same thing happened with our other horse, a black lightweight cob-type, Dab.

That evening, I bought three Dr Cooks, one of each size. As soon as they arrived, I fitted them onto different ponies. A girl who had always struggled with steering achieved perfect control in sitting trot for the first time ever. She was overjoyed. I was overjoyed. The pony, Charlie, was like a better version of himself.

One after another the ponies were ridden in Dr Cooks, and one after another they all, instantly, morphed into New Improved Ponies. Ponpon, a traditional Gypsy Cob (so incurably slow that one of my attempts years ago was to feed him straight oats. He stayed slow and got fatter) had the most dramatic transformation of all. It was as if he’d just been given access to his second lung. Seeing him cantering happily around the sandschool was the highlight of the season.

One awkwardness: once I’d seen them in Dr Cooks, I couldn’t bring myself to put their bitted bridle on again, so a frenetic period of borrowing ensued, until each horse and pony had their own. This was our Christmas present to them, as a thank you for the job they do.

And what did the children think?

“His neck is really bendy now.”

“He’s softer, his neck is softer.” (This from a girl who’d only been riding a month)

“He’s happier, he wants to go wherever I want him to go.”

“It’s easier to stop.” (That girl was escorted to Monique to talk some more!)

“It’s really nice, you don’t have to worry about hurting their mouths anymore.”

“Joey likes jumping much more now.”

“It’s easier to steer.”

“He feels more balanced.”

“He’s more cheerful.”

“He’s faster.” (Ponpon)

But what about the pesky question of brakes? I had to find out, so off I set one winter’s morning, on Satchmo, to see what my control would be like. I sought out an area where Satchmo would feel unsafe and keen to escape (stallion the other side of a tall hedge, big open field on the homeward side), and WOW, I discovered I had the most wonderful Stop Button. In his flight-mindset, Satchmo found the action of the bridle reassuring, and calmed instantly. Hardly the response you’d get with a bit, which would hurt the horse, thereby adding to his stress. I did the same experiment with the other two horses (on Dab I had the good fortune to encounter a furiously barking dog rushing towards us), and the same thing happened. I proudly and delightedly reported my findings to Monique, who finally gave her blessing.

When eventually the rain stopped, in late spring, I bundled a horse, a pony and a particularly intrepid child rider (Samantha H) off to our local cross-country course, the fabulous Denne Hill in Womenswold. What a joyous experience it was! Several times as we restrained our somewhat over-enthusiastic mounts, we thought, “Thank goodness we’re not in bits.” I’ve since been back with other customers, and they’ve loved their introduction to xc.

Jumping in general has, I believe, become a less risky affair for the horses, as their principal anxiety must surely have been the impact on their mouths of their riders’ balance imperfections.

So thank you, Dr Cook, on behalf of the horses and ponies of Park Farm Riding School.

Park Farm Riding School's website is here: http://www.parkfarmridingschool.co.uk

(Please note the photos are still of the ponies in bridles, as the swap to bitless was less than a year ago. The website will be updated with bitless photos soon!)

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