Tuesday, June 23, 2020

charlie's bitting journey

Believe it or not, we're rapidly approaching the 4 year anniversary of owning Charlie Murray! Wayyyyy back in September 2016, I met Charlie at After the Races - where he'd been for about a week following his final race the month before.

I didn't get to ride him during that first meeting but felt confident enough in his disposition that we'd be ok. And, spoiler alert, we've been ok haha.

pc Austen Gage
It's been a crazy ride ever since -- with both of us having to do a LOT of learning lol. Charlie obviously had to learn to be a riding horse instead of a race horse. And we all know about all my own many imperfections and shortcomings as an adult amateur trying to figure this whole eventing thing out.

So I figured it might be fun to spend today reviewing where this journey has taken us through the specific lens of bitting.

Herm Sprenger loose ring KK Ultras, one in Aurigan alloy, the other is maybe just silver?
Charlie's first set of gear and equipment were virtually all handed down from Isabel -- including his loose ring Herm Sprenger KK Ultra bits. I discovered these bits with Izzy, and have more or less stuck with them ever since.

They're simple and straight forward and in my mind are a "neutral" sort of bit, from which you can figure out if anything else is needed. For Charlie, they were an excellent starting point.

heavy silver eggbutt snaffle
At an early clinic, Stephen Birchall suggested something different: a big fat single jointed snaffle, which I found on eBay for like $20 using the keyword "heavy." The idea was to make the bit a nice friendly place for Charlie to go by using something fatter and more stable.

But ya know... a clinician only makes recommendations based on what they see that day -- vs a regular trainer who sees a bigger picture. My normal dressage trainer C disagreed with this bit choice since it enabled Charlie's leaning habit. Thus, we returned to the KK Ultra.

Myler Correction bit
Time went on and Charlie plateaued in his flat work. Which, ya know. He raced until he was 7. He carried his body and used himself in the same way for a long time, plus he's just a big old lumbering giant. So that spring, Brita suggested the bit that helped her OTTB Wick have a breakthrough.

The Myler correction bit is a LOT of bit, and inspired a fascinating reaction in Charlie. I doubt he'd ever worn anything like it before, tbh. This clearly wouldn't be for "every day" use, but we probably rode in it every few weeks, 4-5 times total. Just like with Wick, it helped Charlie have an "aha" moment about how to shift his longitudinal balance - after which I could get the same feeling with the loose ring KK.

Herm Sprenger KK with Universal cheeks + leather curb strap. pc Megan Kiessling 
Meanwhile, Charlie's tendency to lean and pull was becoming increasingly apparent as we dove into the 2017 competition season. Getting run away with at Jenny Camp - Charlie's first proper Intro xc course (that basically amounted to a sliiiightly watered down BN) proved that.... the loose ring snaffle was probably NOT our xc solution LOL.

Herm Sprenger KK with Universal cheeks + curb chain
So I found the exact same Sprenger KK mouthpiece bit, but with some oomph via the Universal elevator cheek pieces. I put two reins on this bit to start, and later added a leather curb strap.

Still got absolutely run the fuck away with in this set up at Fair Hill (we ran the intro here even tho Charlie'd already done his first BN bc.... I was worried the BN at Fair Hill would be too much -- esp with Charlie's WATER ISSUES), so we replaced the leather curb with a chain.

This would continue to be our jumping setup for a long while.

Myler Comfort snaffle
And in the meantime, we always ended up coming back to the Sprenger KK Ultras for dressage after every other experiment. That is, until the winter of 2018 when I decided to try Charlie in a Myler Comfort Snaffle for the flat.

I can't remember exactly why we tried this... but probably bc we again felt a little stagnant in the work. Honestly, tho, the stagnation had more to do with my skills in training the horse than in him having the wrong bit. But we stuck with the Myler for more than a year anyway.

Myler Comfort in action
Notably, over time I found myself using the dressage bridle with Myler bit more and more often in our jumping lessons and at-home schooling, reserving the KK Universal elevator bit for xc outings or competitions.

Eventually, I made a second jumping bridle with the plain KK loose ring on it. When Charlie ended up going very nicely in it, I decided to ditch the Myler altogether for dressage too.

mechanical hackamore
Then in late 2018, after struggling with Charlie's sulking and getting behind my leg at Plantation, I experimented with jumping in the mechanical hackamore.

Typically that bridle was reserved for trail rides or conditioning work (trot sets, etc), but actually I really loved the feeling Charlie had in it. He had complete respect for the brakes, didn't lean on it, and always gave me the feeling of wanting to add more leg -- generally a successful recipe. Only downsides were that it wasn't great for flatrwork or steering.

mechanical hackamore + Sprenger KK Ultra. ooooooh boy did this setup inspire some hate mail!
So I continued the experiment in the spring of 2019. I wanted to try using the hackamore in competition, but felt like I still needed a snaffle particularly for the warm up and turning questions.

To do so, I picked up a different style of mechanical hackamore with thinner shanks that wouldn't interfere with the snaffle cheeks, and used rein converters to hang both the snaffle and hackamore from a single crown piece.

hack-a-snaff in action
And oh my word, some of you fucking HATED this bridle haha. Hahahahaha.

The snaffle on it's own? Fine. Hackamore on it's own? Fine. Put them together, tho? Honestly you'd have thought I was literally trying to kill poor long suffering Charles, and probably some puppies too, based on the judgmental and hateful comments lol...

getting runaway with in the hack-a-snaff. pc GRC
But ya know. Fuck that haha. Bc it turns out -- while this get up wasn't our permanent solution, I credit it (much like the Myler Correction bit from above) as a game changer for Charlie.

We rode in that bridle a grand total of three times: twice at home, and once in competition -- where, yes, I still got runaway with and had to do an emergency circle after nearly dying at the water LOL.

back to the Sprenger loose ring KK
And you know what? That was the moment Charlie finally realized that, despite his years as a race horse, the game was no longer about getting home as quickly as possible. Suddenly, from there out, I had a ratable, adjustable horse on course - in any bridle.

Which, naturally, opened up a whole new world for us haha. Suddenly, we were getting better results even in the loose ring KK for jumping -- like at the above jumper show.

Sprenger Universal KK, single rein + no curb strap. pc Amy Flemming Waters
And at this point, I decided to simplify things with the elevator bit. We ditched the double reins and the curb chain, and honestly never really looked back.

Sprenger Universal KK, single rein + no curb strap. PC Austen Gage
With Charlie's growing education, it became easier to ride him faster while trusting that the brakes would still work. Whereas before, I'd always wanted to ride him a little too under the pace since it was never really clear if I'd be able to stop him once he got rolling.

basically just recently realized i never shared these pics <3 <3. pc Austen Gage
For me, the biggest proof of concept was when we finally started completing full xc courses without needing to circle to regain control or balance at any point.

And esp in the derby we did last winter (source of these previously unpublished pics by Austen!!), we were finally able to ride more forward without ever really flattening out or anything.

the bestest horse ever, and his little antlers too!! pc Austen Gage
So far this year, we haven't actually ridden in the KK Universal elevator at all yet. The couple times I've gotten out for xc have been in the loose ring snaffle or hackamore, and we did all the jumper shows (Oldfields here and AOPF here) in the snaffle too.

I'm curious to try a rein converter on it now to dampen the curb more while still using a single rein. Hopefully will have an opportunity soon to experiment. We shall see, I guess!

It's interesting looking back at what effected change in Charlie, and what didn't. He isn't a horse with many opinions about mouth pieces (for instance, single joint, double joint, etc) but cheek pieces make a difference. Likewise, he is a quick learner but simultaneously kiiinda dull, lol. It's taken some fairly "loud" adjustments to clue him in.

But once he "hears" me, he figures it out and listens better the next time. This aspect of Charlie's trainability gives me hope that I'll be able to continue shifting focus away from the brakes and toward more and better forward riding on my part. 

Or at least.... That's the idea LOL.


  1. Funny timing, I just wrote today about how much Connor hates my KK loose ring French link. They are all SO different!

    1. For sure - it’s so worth it to figure out what works too

  2. I haven't had many that are very picky about mouthpiece until Eros. That boy has a lot of opinions, and currently is happiest in his leather bit. I haven't had a chance to try jumping in it yet though. I really like how many horses feel in the two or three ring bits (if they need more, I also would prefer a regular loose ring, but I'm not of the opinion that every horse will go well in one.)
    That's a wonderful quality that Charlie is able to learn something and have it translate when you switched to a lesser bit. He's such a smart boy!

    1. oh man, for real i'm so so so SO grateful that charlie doesn't seem picky about mouth pieces haha... i'll be curious to hear how Eros does jumping with the leather bit. idk if you remember my friend brita's spicy little gray mare bella, but i think they tried a leather bit once with good-ish results.

      and yea actually charlie's the first horse i've tried in the three ring, and i actually really like it with him too! probably will be his go-to xc bit for... ever lol, unless something massive changes

  3. I actually really loved that you went for the hack-a-snaff, and I had faith that it would really work well. The feedback was surprising considering the amount of thought you put in before even trying the darn thing.

    1. honestly i was really pleased with how well the hack-a-snaff worked too! anything that helps the horse better understand what i want is a win as far as i'm concerned! as for the feedback... eh. there are always gonna be horse people who believe there's only one narrow definition for the "right" way to ride. and ya know, let them be smug in their convictions, right? lol... meanwhile i'm gonna keep doin my thing and having a blast while i'm at it!

  4. It is def interesting to me - maturity, temperament, discipline, etc all play a role in bit selection! And then of course, as the horse gets to know it's job and the expectations, yet again the bit choices change haha.

    1. oh man ain't that the truth.... possibly the lesson charlie has tried to teach me again and again and AGAIN is that he adapts and evolves wayyyyyyy faster than i do lol. which on one hand is actually pretty nice, tho on the other hand i always feel like i'm playing catch up lol

  5. People really can get the knickers twisted. I'm honestly glad that I do not have documentation of all the bits Carlos went through - both Ramone and Dante have gone through a less eccentric list of them than Carlos did - though people on Instagram got really judgey on the JW Elevator bit I used (which has a plain snaffle mouth piece) even though if you look at the picture second rein is hanging. I personally don't like the 'look' of mechanical hackamores (just too busy with all the stuff) but I admit that they prove to be the correct piece of equipment for some horses in some scenarios and I myself never know when I'll end up using one.

    1. oh lord the judgy horse people.... beezie madden did a video on her hybrid approach to pulling / trimming manes, and a youtube commenter was "NO! OUCH! You should NEVER pull manes!!" which like... ok haha. no matter what you do with horses, there's always gonna be someone who thinks it's wrong. myself included lol.... i remember one blogger put her very green horse in a double bridle just to be able to canter him around an arena, which i considered "over the line" in the same way that people probably think the hack-a-snaff above is "over the line." that's just how it goes i guess lol! but yea, like you say, sometimes it's really just about finding a useful piece of equipment when the situation calls for it..

    2. I mean I judge when people cut the mane with scissors... like I'll still be friends with you but I probably won't let someone near my horses mane lol

    3. LOL thank you for still being my friend, just don't look too too closely at charlie's mane ;P

  6. Damn, I missed all the hack-a-snaff drama. Went looking for it briefly just to see. I think people get their panties in a wad because they see something horrible posted on FB (there was a jumper that was in a hack and a heavy duty bit and so many straps) and then they jump to the conclusion that it's all bad. Like shoes.....god help us.

    Carmen goes well in my stubben golden wing. But something I think it might be useful to have a bit with a bit more 'oomph' when she's a barging mare sort of mood. something to get her to rock back without me having to come onto her mouth.

    1. lol in fairness i happily admit to occasionally deleting the fuck out of some comments ;)

      for real tho, some of the most interesting experiences with charlie happen when we change something up a little bit. which.... is kinda funny bc i'm generally very change averse haha. but it's like in those moments when something is very different (like a very different bit), it somehow becomes easier for me to "feel" some aspects of our co-dependencies in ways i normally can't. can be a useful exercise for figuring out what needs fixing, if that makes any sense.

  7. Oh I forgot about those photos! And the hack a snaff drama. 🤣 Such an interesting journey. You know my thoughts. It's important to find what the horse is comfortable with, but the rider seems to be the biggest part of the equation (and for those darn OTTBs, time and relaxation).

    1. lol clearly i forgot about the pictures too since it took this long to get them posted....

  8. I mustve missed the hack a snaff drama too! lol Great that you have the pics and info to know what was working/not working with Big C-Man. Especially as his training evolved, he needed different support/control.

    I briefly worked with a western coach who insisted all her riders use a certain bit because a couple local BNTs used it. No thought given to how/why/when it should be used... I refused and she sure didn't like me arguing with her logic. lol

    1. lol yea.... i've definitely been part of programs where every horse went in basically the same exact bit. like the place where i learned to ride, every horse went in a mechanical hack until the rider was "approved" to ride with a bit, and then they all wore full cheek snaffles. the hj barn where i rode in college, they all went in full cheek snaffles and standing martingales too haha, with few exceptions. and ya know... most horses were fine lol, but the ones that weren't did get different equipment

  9. Haha I missed the hack-a-snaff dramma too! That is very cool to see your bitting journey with Charlie, and I totally agree that with some horses you just need that little bit of "oomph" sometimes that can really teach them how they can be different. I know that some bits I've used on horses in the past would totally have people screaming at me lol. But once the horse understood, back to their usual bit (or slightly different one, whichever worked).
    Amber has the Myler comfort snaffle mouthpiece preference. A bit with that mouthpiece will work every time, so at least I don't have to worry about that lol. She's not too picky on the cheek pieces, tho she can have a slight preference on that haha. Crazy how they're all so different in their likes and dislikes!

    1. i really liked the idea of the myler comfort snaffle, but think charlie's mouth is honestly just a little too hard for him to wear something so narrow. like maybe if he had a softer mouth it'd be a better solution? i honestly don't know haha, glad that it works so well for Amber tho!

  10. I haven't noticed any real, consistent difference but I kind of cycle between a Myler comfort snaffle, KK loose ring double jointed, and a baucher plain snaffle. Plus a Myler combo bit if I think I'll need more brakes!

    1. i mean, honestly barring any major incidents or whatever, those first three bits are all pretty straight forward simple solutions -- with just slight variations. the myler combo bit i've heard a lot of people who have never tried it hate on it, and i've heard a lot of people who HAVE tried it LOVE it lol. ain't that always the way!

  11. Hahaha I remember the drama over your combo rig! You're much more willing than I am to experiment with bits- both P and Leo go in Nathes, and Leo flats in the loose ring KK Ultra, which used to be P's dressage bit. When I ran XC on P in the rubber gag for the first time, I had heart palpitations!

    1. lol see, sometimes i feel like i'm not experimental enough -- like i never tried anything with a twist, or a waterford, or a different style french link with a flat plate instead of a bean with charlie... but eh, if what we're doing is working, does it matter? and lol i bought a crazy expensive nathe for isabel that somehow ended up stolen or lost, but i can't even imagine trying to ride charlie in that. we'd definitely both die via synchronized face plant!

  12. Bits are so interesting. So many choices. Trainer AB has very distinct tastes and strict requirements in bits and I haven't really experimented too much with Eeyore. Currently he goes in a single jointed full cheek snaffle on the flat and in a wonder bit for jumping.

  13. I ride a tank of an ISH (btw I am from a similar area as I recognize Loch Moy, etc. haha) anyway, we go in a big ass polo gag for XC. tbh if people don't like the pellhams and huge gags they haven't ridden a lot of... *cough enthusiastic event horses. It would be far more dangerous and irresponsible of me to ride my horse around at prelim in a snaffle than it is for me to ride in a strong bit. Which my trainer would never let me have if I couldn't responsibly use. ANYWAY came here because I was curios about the hack-a-bit because we still have some... bull in a china shop problems in SJ that I would like to fix before intermediate - I am glad to read about someone else's journey to help mine because it has been a ride. Do what's best for you and your horse. My mare goes in a nathe lol just depends on what you're sitting on. Sorry that was a very long comment XD


Thanks for leaving a comment! If you have trouble with this form, please email: fraidycat.eventing at gmail.