The next two principles are essentially about equipment, and yet they are central tenants of the French school. Why is ‘kit’ – or the lack of it – so important? Well, because what we’re interested in is reducing the equipment to its most minimal form, and increasing the direct conversation between the horse and human. In addition, physiologically and psychologically, the jaw, tongue and accompanying structures are incredibly important to the horse. A positive connection between the riders’ hands and the horse’s mouth can significantly change how the whole horse feels, moves, thinks, balances and responds. Therefore, we want to reduce any white noise caused by too much equipment, and prioritise a clear line of communication between us. We want to increase our horse’s ability to tell us what he understands about the bit and how he feels about our hands. We want to be brave enough to know and see, rather than try to cover it up and blame the horse.
The bit we choose to begin a horse’s education is a simple snaffle. A snaffle is a merely a bit with ‘direct’ feel, in that it doesn’t add in any leverage or poll pressure – it ‘just’ transmits what we say down each rein. It doesn’t matter whether it has a lozenge or not, whether it is made of copper or sweet iron, whether it has a D ring of Fulmer cheek pieces. The thing that makes it a snaffle is that it is a ‘direct feel’ bit. Typically it is jointed in the middle to provide separate communication left and right. And at least early on in a horse’s education it is useful to have some form of cheekpiece to ensure the message down the reins is a as clear as possible (loose ring snaffles can pull through the mouth of a horse who doesn’t as yet understand how to follow the rein aids). Of course, you will try to understand your horse’s mouth conformation sufficiently to find a mouthpiece shape and size which suits him the best. Some horses prefer lozenges, some do not. Some appreciate more space for their tongue, while others prefer the feeling of a fatter mouthpiece.
However, in the main, a well fitted snaffle is sufficient for most horses – when the rider understands how to use their hands in manner that makes sense to the horse. That is where the responsibility lies, with the person at the other end of the reins. Later in this series the primacy of the hands will be discussed, but in this first instance there are some key things to understand which mean that the snaffle bit is ‘all’ that is needed:*The hands only ever act upwards or sideways, never backwards. Therefore, the bit will never be ‘pulled’ backwards onto the sensitive tongue and bars. Instead, the horse can gain confidence about the positive and understandable relationship between the riders hands and his mouth, as the bit only ever acts upwards into the corners of his lips. We don’t need to worry about a nutcracker action if we’re not pulling backwards. *The riders hands will focus on promoting relaxation, balance, and dynamic posture with the snaffle bit, not imposing external frames or using the pain of the bit to force submission on a horse. This is a process of education – primarily for the rider!
As a horse progresses in his education and understands the snaffle well, the double bridle may be introduced. Typically, the curb used will have the shortest shank possibly, but most critically – yet again – the rider will be educated to use their hands in a way in which the curb only acts when it would be specifically helpful to the horse. It is mostly ‘off’ and only comes on to pose the horse a specific question, and then returns to neutral again. The snaffle was designed for raising the neck (to improve the balance) and bending (lateral flexion). The curb was designed to extend the neck and flex the poll (flexion may proceed extension for some horses). Not all horses will benefit from the addition of the double bridle, so the decision is made based on the needs of the individual horse.In the Ecole de Legerete, riders are educated in the ‘Fillis hold’ where the bradoon and curb rein are clearly separated in the hand. This means that each bit can act specifically and independently, footfall by footfall. What this absolutely relies on is the riders ability to manage their own balance, and a commitment to developing the ‘hands of a pianist’, with mobile fingers, wrists and elbows that allow and guide rather than restrain and hold.But the principle of ‘simplest is best’ is always true. If you can educate a horse to the highest level in a snaffle then why wouldn’t you? And as we will come to in the next principle – you may also find you can abandon your nosebands….
Written by Kate Sandel