Recently I have been asked quite a number of times and have received a good number of emails asking me to elaborate on bitting and ground driving horses in preparation for ridden work, so here we go.
Many novice horse owners or handlers are worried they cannot possibly ‘line drive’ a horse, because of all the possibilities for wrecks. But really, if we’re that worried about a bad wreck occurring, what do we own a horse for? Simple steps to feeling secure about safety are essential. We all can do this if we put our mind to it and pay attention to what’s going on around us. Now let’s get started.
Once a horse is in his third or fourth year, it’s time to progress to further training and get him prepared to be saddled and ridden. To simplify the process and ensure the safety of both horse and rider, I’ll introduce certain components of tack I’m going to expect the horse to wear once he’s being ridden, and certain concepts he will need to understand in order to be ridden safely. Later on, the task of starting a young horse under saddle will be covered -- but for the purposes of this topic, let’s assume he has been accustomed to what he’s supposed to wear.
For older, already trained horses I will utilize ground driving or longlining to give them a tuneup, too. Remember, some things (like snaffle bits!) aren’t always only for the babies in our barns. The term ‘ground driving’ was given to this process because we’re doing just that ... driving the horse while standing on the ground rather than having him hitched to a cart.
First, we need to know and understand what type of equipment is necessary to bit or longline a horse. Obviously a good fitting bridle. The basic bridle will consist of the headstall, cavesson, snaffle bit and sidereins. I prefer soft leather and for my purposes (which I’ll describe a little bit later) I want the headstall fitted with sidecheck rings. Cavessons are generally rather similar, I just want one that fits the horse well, doesn’t rub on his cheekbones and has a noseband that’s not too big around. In choosing a bit, my first picks are going to be either a smooth, solid Dee-Ring for starting youngsters, a smooth, thick Eggbutt or full cheek for my Hunter and Western horses and a smooth half-cheek for my flat saddle English horses. I prefer an inlaid copper or sweet iron mouthpiece, as do most of my horses, for keeping their mouths soft and responsive. There are many variations, but these are my staples. Last, for the sidereins I do not want elastic parts or those rubber ‘donuts’, but rather simple leather reins with decent snaps at each end.
A properly fitted martingale (the type I prefer is called an Arabian training running martingale by some vendors -- I don’t like ‘training forks’, a standing martingale-type contraption, nor do I want the rings placed where it will pull the horse’s head down while in use) is a must, as is a good quality surcingle made of leather or webbing, with a variety of rings at different places along each side. Under the surcingle I’ll use either a leg wrapping quilt [ideal] or just a regular smaller sized saddle pad. Along with that surcingle, I’m going to want to be sure I keep the crupper strap and the crupper itself soft and in good repair, since I don’t want anything that goes under his tail to chafe or bother him.
For some show horses, I will use what’s called a sidecheck or an overcheck. These devices can be helpful in both preventing a horse from dropping his head too low, or keeping him from getting behind the bit.
Now that we’ve covered what we need in the way of special tack and we have a horse who already knows how to wear his leather, it’s time to cover the safety factor. Just as with longeing a horse and riding one, the last thing we need to happen is to become entangled or stuck in something attached securely to the horse. Longlining is a prime opportunity for the handler who isn’t quick with their hands and/or their feet to become caught up in the lines and that can be deadly. Be prepared for anything and always be cognizant of where your lines are.
If the horse is already used to being saddled, then it’s generally no sweat to fit him with a surcingle. Basically, it’s going to feel the same as a normal cinch or girth. What won’t feel right is the crupper. With most horses, I’ll take them into the round pen before placing that ‘horrible thing’ (in the horse’s mind, at least!) under the tail. Some horses have no issue with it. Others almost immediately start kicking out or bucking. This is why my preference is to either have someone hold the horse, or at least to run a long lead rope or soft cotton longeline around one of the pen’s support poles, still holding onto it while securing the crupper in place. I’m not keen on actually tying him yet, because that could put me in more danger should he try to bolt off or kick. Having the ability to snub his nose tighter if he fidgets or wants to leave and using the rope or line to push him over toward the fence, I’m going to be far more safe. Also vitally important to remember is to ALWAYS buckle the crupper on the opposite side from that which you are on, pulling it under the tail and away from you.
A side note about cruppers and why we use them in driving and longlining horses ~ simply put, so that we do not pull the surcingle too far forward on the horse's withers and cause him discomfort or pain.
What is the purpose of bitting up a horse and longlining a horse? While each has it’s own actual purpose, my reasons for using each are unique to the situation and the horse. With a youngster I’m getting ready to train under saddle, it’s a must so that the horse understands what the girth feels like, what it’s like to carry a bit and how to respond to the reins. For a horse who hasn’t grasped the concept of yielding, giving to the bit or any sort of lateral flexion, I want him to learn that he can seek and get relief from the pressure on his mouth. Instead of a rider’s hand releasing the pressure, he will find that relief on his own, by bringing his face toward where I want him to be.
The process of bitting also can be useful in helping to build the horse’s neck muscles in the proper way and teach him to keep his neck in the proper place. A properly bitted horse will be neither too tight or too long, although I will start with a fair length of side rein with an inexperienced horse, gradually tightening until he’s at the desired headset. This should occur over several days, not immediately.
Bitting up a horse is fairly simple, but to do so without hurting the horse or unnecessarily stressing him can be a challenge. I prefer not to leave a horse bitted up in his stall -- i.e., where he lives -- but will do so in the round pen, as long as he keeps moving for the most part. What I don’t want to teach him is how to lean on the reins. If he’s moving and he feels the resistance and pressure of the side reins, he will be far more likely not to lean on them, as long as he’s not left bitted for too long, if he’s not being ridden or driven yet.
Bitting while longeing, on the other hand, not only teaches the horse how to carry himself properly at the requisite gaits (walk, trot/jog and canter/lope), but gives him a goal to work toward without learning to lean on my hands - he must keep himself together while propelling forward and without being allowed to stop when he wants to, as he can while simply bitted up. For the beginning of this exercise, I’ll usually let the horse canter without the reins being attached at first, to get some of the ‘go’ out of him, then slowly start tightening the reins until he’s where I want him. But while that shortening of rein is spread out over quite a few sessions (as described above) for first teaching the green horse, with a horse in training who’s used to being schooled, this is simply accomplished over the span of a mere 10-20 minutes or so, or as a precursor to either longlining or riding.
I personally try to avoid using the bitting rig itself to do most of my training. It’s more a tool of reinforcement and allows the horse to learn proper self carriage, rather than teaching him how to perform his chosen job, as will the longlines. But it is necessary.
By the time we progress to working in the longlines (‘ground driving’), the goal changes somewhat. Meaning, our goal in bitting is as described above - self carriage. Now the goal will be to learn how to apply that self-carriage. Read on.
Since I’ve done my homework, the horse knows how to yield to the bit and will give to pressure on the reins. While I can bend him to one side or the other while bitting up to help with suppling exercises and getting him to flex, I would rather do so at the start with the horse in longlines. That way, I will be able to give him more release from the pressure on his face when he responds correctly.
Something I will take into consideration at the outset, however, is how sensitive the horse will be to the lines themselves. At some point, they will come into contact with his croup, buttock, flanks and/or hocks. Does he or will he spook when they touch him? Will he bolt to get away from them or try to kick at them? If the answer to any of these (or a myriad of others) questions is “Yes”, I’ll need to desensitize the horse to the lines first, before I ask for much work.
When the horse is ready to begin his real work in earnest, after he’s groomed and tacked with the basics, I first free longe him (meaning having him not attached from the bit to the bitting harness whatsoever, and not working him without a longeline) a little bit to take the edge off, then I’ll lightly longe him, softly bitted, while he loosens up and tests his boundaries. By ‘softly’, I mean so he barely comes into contact with the bit.
At that point, he’s probably ready to hitch, or hook, which, in terms of ground driving (versus having him pull a cart), simply means attaching the lines to him via the bit and running them through the surcingle.
Now, where I go from here depends on a couple of factors. First, where is he at in his training? Which stage of development? Then, what is his ultimate job going to be? Once I’ve answered these questions, I will have determined how I need to proceed.
If the horse is a youngster just learning, our lessons will be basic: go forward, stop, walk, trot, canter, turn to go right, turn to go left (always turning him into the rail away from the center as opposed to turning him toward me -- for safety purposes -- so that the horse does not get tangled up in the lines), along with a little bit of flexing down and to the inside, which builds on what he’s learned while bitted up.
I start ALL my horses in lines the same way, regardless of whether he’s going to be a trail horse, a Dressage horse, a Park horse, a Reiner, a Western Pleasure horse, a Jumper...you get the picture. There is never any substitute for a good foundation, no matter the horse’s lot in life.
For horses intended to live out their days as pleasure riding trail buddies, these basics will be enough in lines, then he’ll start on the next step to go onto the next level of training under saddle. But I want the basics mastered.
Only after I’ve had a chance to watch a horse with show performance potential (a prospect who, it’s been decided, will eventually be a show horse) will I decide how to move on after he’s nailed those basics.
With my western and hunter mounts, I want them learning how to carry themselves relatively low, with long reaching strides, plenty of impulsion and a soft, quiet attitude. This goes for horses who’ll move on to any number of areas of expertise: jumping, reining, working cattle, or simply pleasure classes on the rail.
How I accomplish this will entail using a draw rein attachment run through pulleys, connected to snaps which are hooked to the bit and run back to a low point on the surcingle. It’s really not as complicated as it sounds! My goal here is to allow the horse to drop his head (or, in the beginning, at least to encourage him to do so), bending from the shoulder/withers and lengthen his frame.
But, you may ask, how does this lead to a horse who works back off his haunches, such as is necessary for a Reiner...or that ultra slow Western Pleasure lope? Well, it doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a rather long process which involves a gentle nudge toward a horse’s inclination to be lazy and just be himself. In other words, I’ll encourage a Reining prospect, for instance, to play up his athletic qualities and fun-loving attitude by asking him to push against [toward] the rail in a series of rollbacks, thereby teaching him how to roll over his hindquarters without my ever yet having been in the saddle. For a Western Pleasure horse, I’ll increase the bump on his mouth in order to get his attention, then gradually decrease the length of rail I’m letting him jog (then lope) down before asking for that rollback. Train in increments, ask for things slowly. That builds your foundation.
To start a flat-saddle English-type horse or a Dressage mount, I’m going to want him to learn how to set and bridle higher, as well as teaching him to give more flex, or hinge, at the poll. Let me stop here for a moment. Naturally, and this should go without saying, each horse MUST be conformationally correct for the job he’s intended to perform. Only then can the animal be physically comfortable with what I’m asking of him. A horse can have a phenomenal trot, yet be disinclined to give it to you when you ask for it. Such a horse will never make a good Saddleseat or Dressage candidate!
Remember -- training must be goal-oriented. Going back to how I’ll accomplish my goal of training a horse to carry himself more elevated, the draw rein pulley attachment described above will be snapped at a much higher level on the surcingle than would be normal for a western or hunter-type horse. Why is this important? Because I want to give him the opportunity to carry himself higher. It’s for this reason I’m also going to use either a sidecheck or an overcheck, mentioned earlier.
Which I choose for a specific horse depends largely on how badly he wants to fight against being bitted higher. Again, let’s stop for a moment and consider a few things. I never, ever will even attempt to ‘crank up’ a horse’s head without building them up to it slowly first. Do you recall the tale of Black Beauty? How, upon seeing his soon-to-be-friend Ginger for the first time, the reaction to what Beauty termed the “check rein”? The horrid thing which held Ginger’s head up in the air ‘unnaturally’ and was just dreadful? That’s how some horses will initially approach getting used to the sidecheck or overcheck.
With that in mind, taking the attitude and abilities of most English or Dressage horses, I’d rather opt for a sidecheck. If I encounter resistance, I’ll put him in an overcheck. But horses have to be taught how to carry themselves higher, in small increments, even if they’re naturally higher-headed animals. How to teach this? Foremost, start with a horse who has the physical qualities seen in the best English-type horses. Then take it slowly and work toward your goal without rushing the horse and making him resentful of his training.
Keeping all these things in mind, you, too, can transform your prospect into a winner. Or at least get him well on his way before sending him out for training! Just be sure you take all the steps and don’t skip the small stuff, because that’s where holes will show up.