Amateurs Like Us: For The Love Of My Horse

Sep 23, 2015 - 4:28 AM
The love and appreciation I feel for this horse really can't be measured.

Let’s start off with the obvious: I love my horse. A lot. She’s super cool and I’m unbelievably lucky and she’s the best ever ever ever in my world. Now that we’ve established that for the first of many times in this post, I’m going to talk about some other things. But I really love my horse.

Time For More Tools

After much thought, I decided to switch programs and move to a much more jumper-oriented barn than where I was before. Although I loved where I was and was doing quite well when I competed, I was not improving my riding, and was consistently double clear but too slow in the jump-off. I’m never going to be comfortable going fast down to big jumps, but it was time for me to go somewhere that could give me new tools for my proverbial tool bag to help me be more successful.

So, with that in mind, Nikki and I made the move to Roundabout Farm to ride with Heidi Hildebrand and Pat Vogtle. Both last year and this year, I was consistently second to Heidi, so the choice seemed completely logical to me. And to be honest, I was nervous for my first lesson—because I did so much on my own for the past year and a half, I was afraid of making mistakes in front of people! 

Being back in a jumper program has been a lot of fun for me, and while I miss my family from my old barn, I still see them at horse shows, and I know that this move was the right decision for my riding.

I Like Big Bits

Every time I have a blog post that features an adorable headshot of Nikki, there are questions (and plenty of complaints!) about my choice of bit. So, let’s talk about bits.

To clarify, this section is not for the people who hate on my bit. Anything I write in a blog won’t change their minds about the soft, flexible rubber bit setup that my horse loves and armchair grand prix riders abhor. This is for the people who actually want to know why I use that bit and why I’d rather use that than a snaffle on this particular horse. I don’t have to defend my tack to anyone—but I’m happy to explain how it works.


The hackabit that I use on Nikki frequently inspires a lot of comments.

Before I launch into that, I have to give a shout out to the person in the Facebook comments of my last blog who changed lyrics from “Baby Got Back” to “I like big bits ‘cause I cannot ride.” I don’t agree with your sentiment, but you’ve provided hours of mirth for my barn, and for that, we are grateful!

How does my bridle work? It’s important to remember that a bridle and bit work on far more than just the horse’s mouth. You can have effects on the poll, under the chin, the nose, the corners of the mouth, the bars, the tongue, and the roof of the mouth. Different bits will affect different areas with more or less pressure, and that can be magnified by the noseband (or lack thereof).

The hackabit I use has a straight, flexible, soft rubber bit and a hollow rubber tube for a noseband. Because the bit isn’t jointed, it does not affect the roof of the mouth, whereas a single-jointed snaffle would. Nikki really hates single-jointed bits; if I use something that has no joint, is double-jointed, or multi-jointed (like a Waterford), she’s far happier than in any single-jointed bit. The main pressure with this bit affects the poll (due to the gag action), the corners of the mouth, under the chin, and across the nose. Due to the softness of the bit and the noseband, the pressure is quite moderate.

Why do I use a hackabit? To put it simply, that’s what Nikki goes best in while I still have enough control. She jumps really well in a hackamore, but I don’t have enough in the braking department. Nikki would love to do all rounds at a jump-off speed, and sometimes I need to step in and discourage that in favor of a more collected option.

Nikki hates snaffle bits. I have tried pretty much every bit under the sun with this horse, and don’t worry, she lets me know if she doesn’t like one! Nikki’s biggest quirk under saddle is that she can get quite strong and bears down on my hand sometimes. With the hackabit I use, I have just enough leverage to keep that from happening while Nikki is happy enough to still attack the jumps off the turn.

Could I get it done in a bit that appears to be softer? Yes, I could, but to be frank, when you’re galloping down to a 1.50-meter oxer, you don’t really have the luxury of wondering if your half-halt will work and knowing you’ll be okay even if it doesn’t. The margin for error is quite small at the grand prix level, and I can fight with Nikki in a seemingly milder bit, ultimately using a lot of hand, or I can use a soft touch in this bit, which is made of rubber, as is its noseband component.


Flying over a triple-bar together.

I know a lot of people are believers that every horse should go in a snaffle, and I’m going to stick my neck out there and say I disagree. I prefer to find a bit that both horse and rider like and can work together with, and for some horses, that’s not going to be a snaffle, or bitless, or what have you. For this horse, this is the best setup for both her comfort and mine. The hackabit could certainly be a razor in a monkey’s paw if someone without educated hands used it…but you can do a lot of damage on a horse’s mouth see-sawing on a plain loose-ring snaffle too. Some horses go great in a plain rubber snaffle. Some horses go best in a more intense setup. I do what works best for each individual I’m riding, and for Nikki, that’s a mild bit with some leverage.

At the end of the day, what matters most for me is whether my horse likes her bit, her job, and her life. Nikki doesn’t owe me a thing; she’s given me her heart, soul, and more good memories than I can count. I owe it to her to do what I know is best for her in how I manage her care, how I choose her tack, her classes at shows, what she does at home, et cetera. And I owe it to her to not pick fights with her, which I would be doing if I put her in a bit I know she’d hate.

We’re all in this sport for the love of the horse. Let’s remember that.

Frosting

Our first show training with Roundabout was back in Mason City, Iowa, the second week of September.  Nikki and I entered our usual classes and jumped some double clear rounds to wind up with top-three placings. But that’s not really what I’m going to talk about because I think hearing about how Nikki was amazing and I made some mistakes but she covered them is a little repetitive.

When we landed off the last fence in the grand prix with a clear round and music playing, all I could think about as we cantered up the long side of the ring was how incredibly grateful I am for Nikki. I couldn’t stop grinning because it’s so much fun to be partnered with a horse who loves her job so much and does it so well. Nikki was showered with tons of petting, cookies, and even a few hugs (which she protested mightily), and I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I appreciate her, and love her, and cherish every moment like that. 

Going clear in a prix is a pretty fun moment any time, but especially when you’re dwelling on the 10-year partnership that you’ve had and your pre-prix prep was cuddling together…although some carrot bribery was required for the cuddling to last more than half a second.

The fact that we had our most competitive jump-off round in a prix so far, just missing the winning time, and that we were second for the fourth time in the prix at this show (out of five times that we’ve done it—how’s that for the consistent bridesmaid?), was just frosting on the cake. Because at the end of the day, I’m just so thrilled to be part of the team for an amazing little redheaded mare with the biggest heart in the world and springs for legs. Is she the next Authentic, or the next Sapphire? No… but she’s got her biggest fan for life thanking her lucky stars every day—and ponying up the PopTarts.

Emily Pope, 24, started her relationship with Seize The Moment, an off-the-track Thoroughbred and a chestnut mare, in 2006 and they began in the junior hunters. Emily quickly realized “Nikki’s” talents lay in the jumper ranks, and they worked their way from the junior jumpers to the grand prix.  

Emily graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2013 with a B.S. in animal science, spent a semester studying aboard in Madagascar, and now works in cancer research. Read Emily’s introductory blog, “Taming My Inner Gecko.”

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