Reprinted from a Facebook post at Angie Hughes Horsemanship.

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“A single pair of good hands is better than having a thousand bits.”

Wise words from a horse trainer I met at a clinic in Central Oregon the early 2000’s. It was the hottest clinic I have ever taught at or attended. I think we all melted! We were in a fully inclosed arena with no air circulation in 115 degree heat and it felt much hotter inside that indoor arena. Can you imagine walking outside and feeling cooler in the direct sunlight of 115 degree heat? Yikes it was hot!!! I’m probably lucky I remember much from that trip. 😉
I digress….
The young man was outstanding colt starter, just a few years older than me. We had similar backgrounds both growing up around horses and working for horse trainers as youth riders, learning to start horses at a young age.
Watching him handle the young horses in the clinic was like watching poetry in motion. He was an excellent hand; kind, forgiving and had outstanding timing but what caught my eye was his impressive understanding for the mechanics & functions of bits (it’s hard to impress me – even then;)

There was probably close to 40 of us at that clinic teaching or riding and I remember a gal that boasted about having an extensive bit collection. I want to say 200 to 300 bits, quite a collection.

Now this young man was a quiet feller.

You know the type.

The type of man who only speaks only when something should be said. Ya that type 😉

He simply said “a single pair of good hands is better than having a thousand bits.”

Blow me away why don’t-ya.

Later on during the clinic we had a discussion on bits. I proudly brought my shiny, silver 8″ correction bit with a stainless steel mouth piece and copper inlays hanging from a $700+ headstall I bought at a consignment store for $250. I was in college at the time and I managed to saved up to buy that headstall and bit by cleaning stalls. I was real proud of my bridle and in a few simple words my world was crushed.

My bit was holding me back.

The horse I was riding I had retrained completely from scratch. It had been a long journey, we had come so far but I was struggling to get her finished. We’d slip leads, sometimes have fits and become moody, get dull and lack the spark I knew she was capable of. I just couldn’t get her there and those that I rode with were pushing me to change horses. I wouldn’t hear of it! She had the talent and the potential. I had the skills and the polish, I just didn’t realize that my tool was interfering with our progress – not until he told me.

It was my bit!

The correction bit I was so proud of!

It was THE bit to be riding in and IT was in our way.
All the breaks in the correction bit muddy my communication, added time to my pick up on the reins causing no reaction to overreaction and it didn’t allow for body balance in the shoulders. Which is why I always had to perform reverse arc’s to keep the shoulders up. The bit allowed and caused my horse to become heavy, dull and lack true engagement. Yes, we were able to go through the motions but it wasn’t amazing – not yet. 😉

In four months time a simple change made a world of difference in both of us and we found a new level of riding; her flying changes became amazing! She floated! She was happier than I had ever seen her and I was very proud to say she was a finished horse. When we showed she won everything we entered, we went back to basics; made it good with the right tools and never looked back!

Sure wish I could remember that young man’s name – I need to track that down and see what he has been up to.

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Bits are tools for communication; they either help you or hinder you! Remember that a few outstanding bits is all you need for you and your horse BUT never stop striving for lightness.

Lightness what is it?

To ride in lightness we must start as light as we can —- sounds simple but it can be interpreted many different ways in our horse industry.

Riding in Lightness does not mean that we ride bridle-less and never apply pressure.

Lightness is not the absence of pressure.

Lightness is in us!

Lightness is how we use our tools to communicate to our horses.

When discussing Lightness in our hands most experts will say that the hands don’t matter all that much but they really do. Our hands are important because they can be used to build confidence and trust in our horse or destroy it. Bad hands can quickly reverse a horses training.

What should you do?
Hold your hands relaxed but firm, just like you would hold a pencil. Relaxed enough to move your fingers independent of each other but firm enough that you don’t drop them.

Here’s a fun exercise I was taught in Pony Club:

Experiment by signing your name holding a pencil the normal way. Then clench your fingers in a fist and try to sign your name.
Tell me what you noticed.

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Riders with the best hands develop self-control and awareness in our bodies and our hands remain light, forgiving and adjust to the horses’ needs at any given moment. It’s almost a sliding hand, quiet and discrete but communicating to the horse.

To ride with lightness, me must start and end each conversation with lightness.

Start with a squeeze of the reins.

If you need more, increase to a wiggle, if you still need more then add a light bump and continue to increase the level of communication until you get your desired results and then get light again. Go back to a squeeze of the reins and increase only when needed.

Trust me your horse will thank you!

~Angie
Making Dreams come true one stride at a time…

Photo credit: Sarah Hoffman Creative