In the Netherlands in the old days you could only wear a top hat and use a double bridle when you reached advanced level. To get there you needed to gain points in the lower levels first. Ever since the top hat was replaced by the hard hat, the double bridle was the only status symbol left with which an advanced dressage rider could distinguish himself from the lower levels. As of small tour (PSG) a tail coat did that trick, but getting to there is really a step too far for most amateurs.
However, becoming advanced these days is not that difficult anymore. If you compete a lot and select where you go because of the judges, you can manage as long as your horse has four legs and uses them in a fairly normal rhythm. We could talk more of this, but let’s keep that for another time.
Double bridle is a relic from the time when we still fought wars on horseback. Then it was literally vital that you had good control over your horse, because when you accidentally jumped in the wrong direction you risked having a sword or a lance in your body. Not pleasant. In such a case some discomfort for a horse was a minor detail.
Few enemies are standing ready in today’s dressage ring, at least not with sharpened weaponry. In other areas it is sometimes also a snake pit, but that aside. You are usually not speared, pricked or cut. So why is all the iron necessary in the mouth of your dearest friend…?
Yes, I know all those stories of learning to ride with it and refinement. Well, at advanced level that is big bullshit. It used to take you ten years to achieve that level. Nowadays they ask what went wrong if you are not advanced after a year of riding.
It takes time
To be able to ride well with a double bridle -without risk of mouth and tongue problems, leg or neck injuries- a horse must be able to carry itself. He must be able to collect. That is different from going around with those talented horses of today, who in terms of exterior and talent move in such a way that they give the impression that they are light in the hand and carry themselves. They can’t do that at all after just one year of training- or even less. Or later, but not correctly trained. It is simple biomechanics and anatomy. It’s not going to happen so fast. It is not without reason that young speed skaters compete in a junior’s league first, so that they have time to become strong before they can compete for the top places with the seniors. It takes time.
As a rider you must be able to sit independently and have control over what you do. So you do not accidentally keep the pressure on because you are out of balance or simply do not realize that you are still holding on. You need time to learn that.
When you start with the double bridle – and you only do that if you can do the requested in the snaffle first- you maintain a contact on the snaffle rein and keep the curb rein in a slight arc. So you have no (heavy) pressure on the curb, as I see to my horror happening everywhere these days, even in the higher levels. The curb rein should NEVER be on full contact. Your hands used to be chopped off for that!!!
I would like to reintroduce that custom for some riders.
I can go on for another hour, but I think it’s clear to you that a double bridle is not a quick fix. You have to solve your riding problems with training, not with additional gear. So then I hear people say “I want to use it because my horse is so strong”. My answer to that is: sorry, but then you have really missed the point. The reality is he is so heavy on the hand, because he does not carry enough behind. Your problem is behind and you are trying to fix that in front with heavy artillery, which means that you are blocking the hindlegs from doing their work even more … you are making it worse instead of better. Naturally it feels lighter when you start using the double bridle in such a case. That is because the horse doesn’t want to connect to avoid the nasty feeling. There is no collection, but because of that light feeling it is often thought that it is good. Instead you should do some training to strengthen the hind legs and to shift the balance more to the back, rather than pulling on the front.
Using a double bridle is not mandatory in the Netherlands, not even in the Grand Prix. It would be wrong to torture your dearest friend with it, just to boost your ego. People who know can see if you are an advanced rider. People who do not will not understand the levels in our sport anyway, so you don’t have to use bridoon and curb to prove anything.
It used to be said that “a double bridle in the hands of an ignorant rider is like a razor in the hands of a monkey”.
Is the dressage world increasingly turning into one big baboon rock???
I once did a bitless session for an article. On my then still young but already huge piebald giant. My colleagues were in stitches beforehand but it was a lot of fun and he behaved like a true gentlemen. He didn’t like the jaw crossed bridle. It pinched his head, causing him to shake to get rid of that pressure. He was fine with a version with reins on the noseband. According to instructor Karina Schermer-Dols this was so easy, because he was well trained with a snaffle and therefore understood all the aids well. In that case it does not really matter whether you ride with or without a bit. I also wrote some nice stories with the fantastic Alizee Froment, who rides without bridle and saddle at Grand Prix level. Not in competition because that is not allowed. Alizee said that she trains all her horses occasionally with a bit. She does not ride bitless every day. Every now and then she needs a bit in order to put the dots on the “i’” again. Not that she is using a lot of pressure or force, as she is a feather light rider. She said that with just bitless after a while every horse will try to lean somewhat.
Bitless is sometimes referred to as more horse friendly. It is not always that. Being careful and gentle with a bit can be much softer than tightened leather straps or something that presses on the nose with leverage. I try to ride as friendly as possible with a snaffle that fits well, by always keeping the pressure off. I think that’s what it’s about. Many riders say they don’t ride with much rein tension, but do they really?
Saddle fitting is difficult
Our horses all have their own saddle which is checked once or twice a year. I see certain hypes pass by with some brands being suddenly popular (often because some top rider uses them) and then everyone suddenly must have that brand. I hate saddle fittings. It never feels good right away and you have to quickly decide on something that costs a lot of money.
Socrates has a difficult, sharp back. He therefore needed a custom saddle. It fits him like a glove, but it cost a fortune and if I’m honest I don’t like that saddle. With DD we initially opted for a cheaper (change as he grows) saddle, because he did not stop growing. He now has another saddle with a flexible tree. It weighs nothing. I have tried many brands, but he was quite clear himself that this should be it. That was the “end of discussion”.
I can see if a saddle stays in place, but no more than that. When you bring someone in, people often have a go at the person who has fitted your saddle beforehand (a trait that unfortunately more horse professionals seem to have adopted). Which saddle you should have is personal, so it is difficult to say anything about it. It is clear that it has a major influence on the back of your horse. Although I would like to note that in the past we simply got a saddle from the rack of the tack shop and used it cheerfully, without the horse in question immediately dying of misery. Times and insights change and saddle fittings at home is of course a good development.
A saddle must fit both the horse and the rider. I remember another saddle that fitted Socrates beautifully, but I got so sore on that my legs actually started to bleed and it didn’t get better with time. So, if you get a chance to try a saddle for some time before buying then that is the best way. Usually you know after a week or two whether it is what you are looking for. I once had two saddles that I really loved, but both do not fit my current horses and I therefore said “goodbye” with pain in my heart.
There are so many different types and brands of saddles these days, but it is also the same if we talk about girths. For the London Olympics in 2012 Fairfax came up with a completely new development of a girth with a kind of pressure plate for the chest. A wonder thing that they said contributed to the English Olympic gold and what is good for Valegro is of course good for every horse. So everyone had to have such an expensive girth. Fortunately, a saddle fitter came here and we could try it. What happened? Not all horses moved better with it. I have indeed seen good effects with it, but my DD just crouched completely and did not want to put his front legs forward anymore. I have two girths for him. A long one, made of neoprene which is easy to wash after a trip to the beach. He quickly has rubs from the buckles (bald spots), hence the length. It has elastic on both sides and a kind of soft memory foam layer. I alternate this with a fake fur one without elastic. The other horses have simple, straight neoprene girths, which regularly go into the washing machine.
I am not a big fan of leg protectors, but I do ride Dutch Design with them. Only on the front legs. This is because with his action on the lungeing line he has caused himself a huge splint. It happened like this. We both find lungeing boring. I am not good at it at all, even though I am good friends with Lammert Haanstra (the man who taught me how to ride as a four-year-old and can do magic with a horse on the lunge). It is in my nature (quickly distracted) that I cannot appreciate lungeing, but sometimes it is too hot or I am too lazy, so I give it a go. We have a beautiful paddock that is twenty metres in diameter with a good surface. DD also thinks it is boring and he tries to cheer us up with huge eruptions, which make me laugh, so that does not help.
Lungeing then sometimes turns into a race, so I use front leg protectors. This was also the case on that day when DD threw a tantrum after five rounds. I heard a noise, he was lame for two strides and then flew on. I immediately stopped him and saw that he had hit himself on the inside of his leg, just above the protector. A bump appeared about the size of a ping pong ball. Although the splint has shrunk somewhat, it sticks out so much that from then on I always rode with tendon boots to prevent him from hitting that spot again.
Tendon problems by overheating
Tendon boots can be a risk. They can rub or it gets too hot underneath, which put the tendons at risk. For most of the time it is more a burden than a solution. It is such a human thing to try to protect a horse from harm by using protective material. I have often discussed it with veterinarians Hans van Schie and Frans van Toor. They have wonderful explanations as to why leg protection, especially the use of bandages, is really unwise. In the first place, how do you think it is possible to protect a horse with a piece of cloth or a plastic cap against as much violence as a kicking horse leg? Van Toor compared it to a car that you drop from a great height, which you then put on such a protector, because you think that prevents dents. There are also riders who start talking about support. They did not pay attention in the anatomy lesson because a horse has no muscles in its lower legs. So what are you going to support? If you want to support the bones and tendons, then you should think of a construction with splints and plaster….
The biggest risk of all with “protection” is the temperature. Even under the so called “breathable” types it gets hotter than a bare leg. Heat changes the proteins in the tendons just like when cooking an egg. This reduces elasticity and cracks in cells occur. A horse will not immediately go lame but the damage builds up through daily work and you will get what we call “overload”. I really think tendon injuries are the biggest reason horses become unusable for the sport.
If a horse hits itself regularly (as sometimes happens) around the fetlock, you have to protect it. Then choose a sturdy protector, which is open in places where no protection is needed. Do not put them on too tightly or too loosely, because that in itself creates problems. Don’t put a horse in the field with them on. Before you know it you have chafing marks or those white stripes, which indicate deep skin layer injury. Then the remedy becomes worse than the problem.
In my training to become an instructor I have been dreading the exams about applying bandages. There are equestrian courses where this is still requested. I think it is really outdated and downright bad for a horse, but as long as we still see “top” riders with their horses in white bandages I keep calling out to no avail.