A soft, light hand is essential in riding and training horses. The lighter the hand a horse is trained with, the lighter and softer the horse will be throughout its life and career.
I have found that more often than not, horses prefer a their riders to be light on their mouths. Some horses like more of a feel than others, but I think that those horses have simply not experienced a soft hand. I find that horses that are trained to flex and be “on the bit” early on tend to be a little heavy. Although we like a lower head carriage in the hunter ring, they should still have the space to look up at where they are going. I don’t like a horse too flexed when I am jumping. I feel like cannot really look where they are going. Also, they typically do not do as well in the hunter ring. Honestly, when I am working with young horses I do not teach them to flex and bend right away and it actually comes naturally with time. And when they do start to get on the bit, it is softer and more relaxed.
There is an obsession with getting horses “on the bit” in the equestrian world these days. Horses are given more and more bit until they give in. They are ridden with draw reigns, and other contraptions far too frequently in my opinion. When I was riding for people, I would ride horses that were constantly ridden in draw reigns; when I would ride without them (for whatever reason), they would go around like giraffes. I could not get any connection and they were so stiff. They learned to only connect with the rider’s hands when forced to. While it is important to have a connection to the horse’s mouth, it should not be forced but rather taught slowly over time.
I honestly never really thought much about this before I owned Chance. Sure, I knew that it is important to stay soft, but I frequently rode horses in heavy bits and draw reigns when I “needed” to. With Chance, though, I couldn’t. He would not tolerate draw reigns, and he fought most bits. He really did not start working well into the bridle until I put a happy mouth on him; and it was still probably a year before he would really frame up. He does get into a frame and on the bit pretty easily now, and he does it on his own. I stay soft with my hands and if I am using adequate leg, he frames up on his own. No force, no contraptions other than a happy mouth bit, very minimal work on my part and he just does it. He is happy to get on the bit and in a frame these days. Years ago, when I would try to force him into it he resisted and would get very fussy. So, I sort of gave up. I began to focus more on my seat and leg while rode, staying very soft with my hand. It took time, but he gradually begun to work into the bridle. He learned at his own pace. He also is still softer and lighter through the bridle than many hunter jumper horses I have ridden, which I much prefer to a heavy horse that just sits in my hand. I think that it is important to feel a connection to the horse’s mouth, but the connection should not feel heavy. It should not feel like the horse is pulling, but rather it should feel easy and light.
I guess I am becoming more and more an advocate of more natural riding practices. Next year I will probably be posting on how we should all ride without bridles HA! Just kidding, although I do want to try it ;). I just see so many show horses that just wear so much bit. So many of the horses I have ridden in my career were so heavy that they couldn’t be ridden without a lot of bit. It took owning a horse that doesn’t tolerate much to see that there is a huge problem with current horse training and riding methods. We don’t need fancy bits, we need patience and our horses will do just about anything we want them to do.