What Merlin Really Wanted Was a Pacifier
Sometime last week while I was thinking about my lack of progress with Merlin I got to thinking about how a horse moves with his whole body. As my body gets more together with riding at a walk I’ve noticed that when:
The horse pushes off with his hind leg,
The front leg on the same side is moving forward (and the top of the shoulder moves back),
The horse’s barrel on the same side is moving out to meet my leg,
The horse’s back muscles on the same side push my seat bone UP and forward some,
AND the horse’s tongue reaches forward on the same side (the other side of the tongue feels passive),
And when I allow the tongue to move forward on the side of the pushing hind leg, the horses never feel like I am blocking their forward motion and they stride forward confidently. If the horse’s tongue is not allowed to make these coordinated movements with the push of the hind leg the horse’s walk becomes plodding and behind my leg.
Then I wondered if I got Merlin’s tongue moving would he move his legs more?
Around a year ago I had finally found a 6” Dr. Bristol bit. Previously we had tried a 6” single-jointed loose ring snaffle and a 6” single jointed JP full cheek bit and Merlin did not like either bit! I had looked far and wide on the web to find the 6” Dr. Bristol, I finally had to order it from England. It had been sitting on my bit shelf gathering dust since Merlin is the only horse I know that I could use it on (he has a 5 ¾” mouth), and I just re-started riding Merlin a few months ago with the Spirit bitless bridle. I dug out the big bridle I had gotten to use with Merlin, conditioned the leather, got out my longest pair of plain reins, my spare pair of leather bit guards and put together a bridle for him.
As you have read in my blogs Merlin did consent to move a little bit with the Spirit bridle, but I had to face the fact that with a bitless bridle there was no way that I could get Merlin’s tongue moving. Sure, he licked his lips when I released a hand aid, but there was no way I could directly influence Merlin’s tongue. And I was getting the feeling that Merlin was getting bored with playing at being a statue. Maybe, just maybe, if I put a bit in his mouth it would give him something else to think about than just stubbornly standing still. If the Dr. Bristol is put on the bridle so that the plate lays flat on the tongue the horse’s tongue can: independently move each side of the bit either separately or together, move the center plate--up in front or up in the back, and comfortably lift the whole bit in his mouth with his tongue. I have found that this bit encourages the horse to move his tongue if there are sensitive and responsive hands on the other end of the reins. Merlin does not have enough room in his mouth for a copper roller, another excellent way to mobilize the tongue, and I have not found a wide enough Wellep bit for Merlin, so it was the Dr. Bristol bit or nothing. Plus I was reasonably sure that Merlin had never had a Dr. Bristol bit with leather bit guards in his mouth before, therefore I would avoid triggering unpleasant memories.
When Shannon bridled Merlin he cooperated with opening his mouth for the bit, whew, I was worried about that. We fiddled a bit with where the bit was in his mouth, one hole was a little too long, the next hole was a little too tight, so at first we settled on the looser hole, Merlin seemed happier with it, and he proceeded into feeling every nuance of this super mobile bit with his tongue. Merlin cooperated when Shannon moved him into position by the mounting stair, one step at a time, still mouthing his new bit, Merlin cooperated with moving through the gate, Merlin obeyed me when I told him not to arc back to Shannon, and Merlin walked past the middle of the ring before he stopped. So I sat up on Merlin praising him for his cooperation as he continued exploring his new bit with his tongue. On a whim, after maybe a minute of standing, I gently squeezed with my legs and Merlin moved off at a walk. More praise, Merlin continued walking, I got him to the fence, he went on walking for a full circumference of the ring obeying me each time I told him he could not dive back to Shannon, and when I told him to go to Shannon he stopped three steps away from her, and he happily stood there as we both praised him to the skies. Every step of the way his tongue was playing with his bit and I rode him on loose reins to make sure that his tongue could do what it wanted to, and when I had to use a hand aid I released it immediately.
Then it struck me, Merlin was using the bit as a pacifier, and since he had his pacifier he was nowhere as resistant as before.
I had some trouble getting him away from Shannon, he started backing up, I asked him to turn mainly with my seat, Merlin turned, started walking forward, and walked along the fence even though a kid started banging on a sheet of tin roofing. Merlin just kept playing with his pacifier, always trying to return to Shannon, always letting me keep him out at the fence (I do not think we went straight at all today, curved in or curved outward, yes, straight, no). Then Merlin started putting his head way down (I think I need to get longer reins), but since he still let me guide him and keep him out at the fence it did not bother me. The next time we got back to Shannon I asked her to shorten the cheek-pieces a hole, and after she did this Merlin gave a snort, he was pleased, people had listened to him when he changed his mind!
Twice more Merlin let me guide him away from Shannon, kept walking when he wanted to stop, stayed at the fence when he wanted to return to Shannon, until we had walked around the arena about 5 times without any major arguments. Merlin even stopped constantly moving the bit around with his tongue, letting it rest lightly on his tongue. My time was not up but I decided that Merlin had more than earned ending the lesson early.
When Shannon untacked Merlin we talked about our successful ride. I told her it would not be good to put most people up on Merlin with a bit, most people do not know when to release the hand aid, and by not releasing the hand aid properly they would end up teaching Merlin to pull, and when Merlin pulls no one is strong enough to hold him. Since Merlin happily cooperates with giving pony rides as long as his head is right up next to Shannon she can still use him for scared beginners, they tend to feel safer on his broad back even if he is so tall. I’ll be the only one riding him in a bit.
Merlin liked having a pacifier today. Hopefully next week he will still like it.
Have a great ride!