Birthday Fun

Long-time blog readers might remember that I’ve experimented with riding Flurry in the bitless configuration of the Micklem bridle.  I found it ok… but not perfect.  Flurry always felt heavy in it, and particularly unyielding for arena work.  I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to trail-ride bitless, it would be ok, but that was before my little adventure with Marie-Christine!  Now, I have no intention of trail-riding bitless – I want to be able to stop when necessary!

So I had pretty much abandoned the Micklem as a bitless bridle.  And then, I started to get notions about riding Aero bitless.  Why?  Well, there are times when he clearly tells me he doesn’t want the bit in his mouth, by clamping it shut when I go to bridle him.  Some days, he opens his mouth willingly; others he just says “NO.”  He’s a good horse and an honest horse and if he there are times when he doesn’t want a bit in his mouth, well, maybe there’s a reason.

The first day I rode him bitless with the Micklem he was surprisingly good.  I spent a lot of time in halt initially, teaching him that when I lift my hands, I’m asking him to lower his head.  He seemed to get the idea, so we set off in walk around the arena.  Now he seemed to have forgotten what he had just learned, so I halted again and spent another ten minutes just lifting my hands, putting pressure on the reins and dropping them completely when he submitted.  Off into walk again and he was better this time… we tried a little trot, we tried a few turns and circles and all seemed good.  We even tried a canter circle on each rein – the brakes and steering worked but I’m sure he wasn’t ’round’ like a dressage horse!  I was very pleased and I continued to use the Micklem a couple of times a week, but Aero’s outline deteriorated steadily.  He just stopped listening to my requests to lower his head, and there were times when I felt I was really hauling on his noseband, to no effect.

Last week, I rode him bitless in my lesson to see if Alexandrine could help.  She watched for a while, saw what was going on, gave some advice and eventually suggested lowering the noseband, but nothing changed.

Finally, she suggested I try riding with the rope halter.

I’ve never liked the idea of riding in a halter – the notion that both reins are attached under the chin just never sat comfortably with me.  Surely you need a rein on either side of the head to be able to steer?  But, I had asked for Alexandrine’s advice, and I figured I should try it.  The Micklem was removed, the rope halter was fitted and I mounted.

What a revelation.  Within minutes, he was dropping his head obediently every time I asked.  We worked long and low for a while and then we worked on asking him to close the angle of the jaw, bringing his nose in and working in a more correct ‘long and low’ outline.  Aero loved it, and became looser and looser the more we did.  I finished the lesson on cloud nine and I came home to the LSH saying “For the first time ever, he really felt like he used to look when Tansy rode him.”  The reason there was such a huge improvement?  Well, the noseband of the rope halter is far narrower than the thick, padded Micklem noseband, so he feels the slightest pressure and the slightest release immediately.  Yes, it’s technically more severe – but I never felt like I was hauling on it, as I had felt with the Micklem.

I’ve ridden him with the rope halter a couple of times since, mostly working on turns and circles.  These aren’t great.  It seems I rely on the bit far too much for turning!  Riding with the halter will really improve how I use my legs and how the horse pays attention to my leg and body aids.  So although I will never ride a dressage test in a rope halter, it’s a really good way of improving my riding so that I become less dependent on my hands.

Yesterday it was Aero’s turn to be ridden, but I decided to ride Flurry.  Well, it was my birthday and I wanted to share it with my favourite little yellow horse!  My plan was to do some schooling for half an hour and then practise our travail sur sol for the Equifeel competition that’s coming up, so we rode up to the arena, carrying the rope halter.

Flurry was in great form – supple, obedient, willing.  We ran through our repertoire – circles, serpentines, straight lines, leg-yielding, direct transitions, shoulder-in, haunches-in.  Well, why don’t I try him with the rope halter, I thought.  Just for fun.

Wow!  Turns, circles, weaving in and out of obstacles, leg-yielding, all with a weight shift or the touch of a leg!  I barely needed to use the rope reins to steer at all!  It seems that Flurry is far more tuned-in to my body language than Aero.  Well, it makes sense – I made Flurry what he is and we really understand each other.  He quickly grasped the idea of working in an outline with the rope halter, too.  I was thrilled.

Eventually I dismounted and we took some selfies :

Then we finished up with some ground work, practising his remote halt.  He’s supposed to halt wherever he is when I raise the schooling whip, and wait there.  He’s not as good as Aero’s, but he’s improving.

What a great start to my birthday.

The rest of the day was pretty damn good too.  Granny and the BFF are visiting (the BFF was Granny’s present to me this year, great idea!) and we all went for lunch in the Cafe de la Gare at Bonnieux.  This place was made famous by Peter Mayle in A Year in Provence and, up to last year, was still owned by the same family.  We were disappointed to find that it has been taken over by a Pierre Cardin operation and is now staffed by handsome but inefficient waiters.  They are still doing the €14 set menu lunch, but they no longer include your wine and the whole place has a posh feel to it.  Although the food was good, we won’t be rushing back any time soon.  It has lost its charm.

The day ended with a trip to Forcalquier, where a friend was having an art exhibition.  We had fun chatting and sipping wine, before going for a birthday drink with a bunch of other friends, where we chatted, sipped more wine and ate chips (French fries).  And I got one more present… look very closely…


Thanks, Marie!



8 thoughts on “Birthday Fun

  1. Welcome to my world–Harley is extremely heavy on the forehand with the bitless bridle and I have to say, I’m no help when out on the trails. I do minor “schooling” out there, but I tend to get very lazy and sloppy, especially after a few hours in the saddle. Hence my hollow-backed, head in the air OTTB! John has ridden Rolex in just a rope halter, but he’s also tried using just the leather halter with reins clipped onto each side. Just as you say–riding bitless does make you use your seat and legs more, something I’m always working on out there in the woods! Yes, we have our “no brakes” days, especially if we’re headed home on a cold day and they think it’s a race for home (whoopeee, we’re back at the track)!
    I don’t aspire to doing any dressage shows, especially since Eeyore (aka Harley) won’t load easily (another thing to work on–gasp!), but you’ve inspired me to try and do some ring work, or even minor stuff out on the trail.
    Oh, and Happy Birthday!


    • For sure, if you have an arena or even a level corner in the paddock, you might find that you’re able to improve yourself and Harley. Have you tried a rope halter on him? One of the very skinny ones? I really am a ‘believer’ now!


  2. I’m a big fan of bitless bridles. My last horse, Jordan, came to me with big issues regarding the western curb bit he’d been ridden in. (I bought him from a lessons stable). He would head toss continually, root like a pig, star gaze, anything to get away from the bit. He was very mouth shy, wouldn’t allow his mouth opened, and would only reluctantly take the bit. He was not responsive at all to the bit.
    I put him in a snaffle and that didn’t do a bit of good.
    About that time, I discovered something I’d missed when purchasing him (I didn’t have a vet check done)…his left tush had been torn out, forcibly. The scar on his jaw/gum makes me think he’d been in a bit that got caught on something, he panicked….(I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest).
    SO I put him in a bitless bridle. First it was a mechanical hackamore, but soon after I put him what we call an English hackamore, basically a heavy noseband.

    It took a few moments for Jordan to figure out that there was no metal in his mouth, but he LOVED it. All the head issues-tossing, rooting, star gazing, shaking-stopped immediately. I never bitted him again. He would turn on a dime just from a light pressure from my knee.
    He was such an intelligent, forgiving horse. I’ll never forget that look in his eye when he realized that he wasn’t in a bit. A horse can’t say , oh, my goodness, thank you any clearer than he did.

    He never stopped being mouth shy, but that was such a small thing, and one I could easily understan the reason for it.

    We’ve ridden Raven in a bitless bridle and he likes it, but is prone to taking advantage of me. I am forever being admonished to take up contact, and Raven knows it. Given my druthers, I’d have no reins at all, but…that’s not an option, is it? So we put him in a lovely Myler bit and he’s perfect in it. He’s fairly long backed so is already heavy on the forehand. The bit helps, a lot.

    As for rope halters: they came into being during my unintentionally imposed hiatus from horses. So I didn’t come to use a rope halter until I started riding Raven. I became a fan of the rope halter. It’s far lighter in weight, and once I figured out how the knot is tied (so the tail end is pointing away from his eye) I came to really appreciate them. The one problem I have with them is they have no breakaway mechanism, but because the only time he wears it is when he’s being moved actively handled from the ground, i.e. moving from paddock to stall, hand grazing, or being groomed, etc, it’s a fair trade off. I’ve never put a horse up in his stall or out to paddock wearing any halter and never will.

    Some folks hate them, I suspect it’s because they think the rope halter is ‘cruel’ by applying pressure to the trigeminal nerves. But, the more orthodox halter makes you work harder to get the same amount of compliance from a horse, should you be asking it through the halter. It’s like a choke chain for dogs. Most folks these days think choke chains are “cruel”, but I obedience trained dogs using a choke chain and think they’re far more effective…in the right hands, than anything else. (mind you, I’m not talking about the chain collars with points digging into the neck that the pitbull people all affect. No, I’m talking about the plain ol’ chain link collar.) Nor did I allow my dogs to wear the choke chain all the time. The choke chain was for training, and once the training was complete or the walk done, the collar came off.
    That’s the point, I think: a rope halter and a choke chain can be instruments of pain, if the human on the other end is cruel to begin with. But if one is cruel to begin with, anything can be used to hurt a horse, or a dog. We humans are pretty inventive when it comes to inflicting pain using the most benign objects. And if one is cruel to begin with, one shouldn’t be handling any living thing.


    • I have to say it was a revelation to me that both horses are so much lighter in the rope halter. Flurry sounds like Raven, long-backed and inclined to fall onto the forehand, especially in canter. When I start attempting canter turns and circles in the halter it will be interesting to see if he is still light enough in front to be able to comply with my requests. Time will tell…
      As an aside, years ago we bought a very talented 12.2 pony for our youngest, who was a very petite ten year old. Pony had been competed by a very large 12 year old boy in a snaffle – one of those kids who is the size of a young man at an early age. Well of course he could control her in a snaffle – by hauling her around a course of jumps. We ended up using a jointed pelham and the YD could control her with the lightest touch. Many cognoscenti tut-tutted but I have to say that IMO the pony was far more comfortable being ridden in the more severe bit with a softer hand…. same thing, eh?


  3. The perfect birthday. I am fond of rope halters too – Bod was broken in one and much prefers it to the bridle – I used to compromise when hacking (and perhaps needed brakes – big horse!) and pop the rope halter under his bridle. Rode him off the halter but had the bit and reins handy just in case. Worked a treat 🙂


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