Finding the right bit has been a real struggle with Ashke and I, and I have collected a couple of bits in the process.
We started with the eggbutt snaffle in sweet iron, similar to this:
The one I used was thicker though, with a heavier butt, made of sweet iron.
That didn't work very well so then I tried a D-ring snaffle with a copper mouth piece like this:
He hated this one even more than the first
Then we tried a sweet metal loose ring french link snaffle. Hated it. Wouldn't close his mouth around it.
Then we went to the Raised Rockin' S snaffle, which he was comfortable in but which gave me zero control over his stop:
I finally decided I needed something I could get him stopped with, so I bought a Myler Level 2 Low Port 5" shank bit. That worked for a while, but I just can't keep using a bit that might make his mouth bleed.
So, then I got a Myler Level 2 D ring low port comfort snaffle with hooks.
It was a no go.
Tried the Kimberwick recommended by Saiph.
It worked okay but not great when trying to stop a speeding horse on trail.
Throughout this process, one thing has held true. Ashke is always braced against the bit. You can't achieve softness or lightness when either the horse or rider is braced or moving with tension.
I think part of the problem is that Ashke has a small mouth, with a very low, narrow palette, and big tongue. This is due to his confirmation: petite head with a dished face and small muzzle. He can wear a 4.5" bit and a 5" is way too big for his mouth. He has demonstrated this by lolling his tongue, throwing his head in the air and bracing his jaw against the pressure. I could continue to buy bits and try them (which J would think was insane and considering a lot of bits cost more than $100 each, I am loath to try) or I could figure out a way that would allow me some control on the trail, and keep him from reacting to bit pressure. Even the lightest contact is creating pain and watching him try to flip the bit in his mouth just reinforces that.
Ashke is really sensitive and uses his mouth a lot. He is constantly touching me with his muzzle, lipping at hair, my shirt, licking my hand. It is obvious that one of the ways he interacts with his world and with me is through using his mouth. The barn crew laughs, because he will try to help them pick his stall and lips and pulls at their clothes, stealing small items to carry to his run if they are left out for him to pick up. By the way he acts, his mouth is both sensitive and special to him.
According to Mark Rashid in A Journey to Softness, pressure applied creates pressure back, so if I pull he is going to push, which pretty much sums up what we have been doing. The other thing he said (which he heard from a Aikido Master) was the axiom "Let us practice kindness today".
Think about that. Let's practice kindness today. With everyone we meet, with everyone sharing the road today, with our spouse and our children. And with our horse. For Mark, that means that every moment of the day needs to be infused with kindness, in every action, from picking up your first cup of coffee, to interaction with your dog, it all needs to come from a place of kindness. No cussing in your head. No badmouthing your neighbor in your thoughts. Just kindness. It's a difficult path to begin to walk if you have a tendency to be brusque and abrupt in your interactions. I think life has a tendency to wear away at our ability or desire to be kind. However, just holding that thought in the forefront of your mind when you are interacting with the world around you is a start. (I really need to remember it when I am trying to pry T out of bed in the morning. I have been known to be less than kind in that situation.)
With that thought in mind I decided to start by getting out of Ashke's mouth. During the above mentioned trials, I did try a sidepull and discovered that although he may be okay in the arena with it, it would not work on the trail. I have used a mechanical hackamore in the past (Queenie) and that particular device would allow Ashke to graze on the trail if we were riding in an endurance ride, plus it might be strong enough that I might be able to slow or stop him when we are racing after Cali. It was worth a shot.
I purchased this one:
I picked it 1) because it looked small enough to fit Ashke's face, 2) it has a fleece padded noseband (kindness) and short shanks. This kind of hackamore uses leverage on the nose, the poll and under the chin to create pressure. I hoped it would be better than the bits we've been trying.
When I got to the stall yesterday, I held the thought that I wanted to be kind in my mind and walked out to greet Ashke. He came to me with pricked ears and after eating my offering of carrots, seemed pretty happy to follow me to the grooming stall. He was covered in mud, turning my white horse brown. I went over him slowly, but firmly, listening to the response of his body and lightening my touch if he seemed sensitive. I know the stiff brush can be too much on his thin skin, so I made my strokes shorter and lighter. I used the super soft brush to finish him off. Picked his hooves.
Then I went in an loaded up my pockets with peppermints. One of the things that has always caused Ashke to brace is lifting his front legs out in front of him. We've never been able to do stretches or pull the skin smooth under his girth, because trying to lift his leg out in front of him causes him to rear in protest. I started by asking for his foot and waiting until he was ready to give it to me (patience combined with kindness). I waited because he knew something new was happening and needed a moment to adjust to the request. When I lifted it up from the knee instead of the hoof, he pulled back in a half rear. I released and calmly petted him. The second time I just lifted the leg up and held it while telling him what a good boy he was. I set the foot down and gave him a peppermint. He went Oooooo, I'm learning something new. The third time I lifted he allowed me to lift from the knee and stretch his leg out in front of him, hold for a couple of seconds, and then set it down. He got two peppermints for that. When I went to lift the right leg (this one has always sent him into a panic) he readily lifted it for me, stretched it out in front and held. I set it down and gave him peppermints as a treat.
I fitted the hackamore to the medieval bridle and adjusted it on his head, then we went to the indoor arena to test it out. He was so incredibly light and responsive to every thing I asked. He only braced his head once at the very beginning, but when he realized there was no bit to hit against, he relaxed. At the end of a canter all I had to do was think "trot" and he came down into the trot. When I verbally cued him "whoa" he gave me the most balanced, quick stop to date without me having to do more than just touch the reins. He was so much more willing to tip his nose downward when I asked, and was able to maintain a collected headset when doing all of our lateral work, instead of throwing his head straight up into the air. Now we just have to test my ability to control him without him freaking out when on trail with another horse. Every time we stopped and I told him what a good boy he was he would snort in agreement with me. He was very relaxed during our ride.
When I took him back to the grooming stall and removed the bridle, he asked me for rubs. I rubbed the sides of his mouth and scratched his cheeks. As I went to move around him to undo the breast collar and put up his stirrup, he reached out with his chin and hooked my shoulder pulling me into him. I gave him a hug and we stood there for a moment, just enjoying the contact.
I think he was saying thank you.