The Double Bridle: A Test Of Skill

Sep 7, 2022 - 2:56 PM

Dear Rita,

Greetings from beautiful Hunterdon County, New Jersey! Let’s talk double bridles.

Mandatory use of the double bridle at top levels of FEI competition gets questioned from time to time. I think this is because there is a lack of understanding about how the double bridle functions and how horses are prepared to understand it.

Traditionally, a dressage horse is ridden through its early years in a simple snaffle bridle. This bridle encourages the young horse to stretch forward, out and down as he learns to seek and trust the contact with the bit. Contact with a snaffle bridle encourages the horse to round his neck as pressure on the bit is created with impulsion.

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Hope Beerling riding 5-year-old Vianne in a snaffle at the 2021 U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions. Lindsay Berreth Photo

Over the next few years, the horse uses his contact point with the bit as a “fifth leg”—defining and refining his balance within his own body as he is asked to balance on his own four legs and within the boundary (or frame) that is defined by the fifth leg or contact with the bit.

As the horse becomes stronger in his work—in particular, the hindquarters and loins of the horse begin to strengthen as they are asked to push forward into the contact—the horse becomes more capable of transferring weight to the hindquarters.

The double bridle as a training tool becomes very helpful at this point. When teaching the horse to shift his withers more upward in order to take weight on the hindleg, the curb bit in the horse’s mouth encourages the horse to soften and lift the poll rather than extend the whole neck outward and downward. The curb bit is not a tool of roundness but rather a tool of elevation.

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Catherine Haddad Staller on developing Grand Prix horse Hazel ASK. Sara Hellner Photo

Momentary contact with a properly adjusted curb bit will guide the horse into a more upward expression of power and energy from behind through his withers. Contrary to a common misconception, the curb bit is not intended to force a horse “on the bit.” Rather it is a tool that encourages the horse to change his posture in relationship to the power being created behind the saddle. That posture (or balance) is focused upward.

The curb bit is a passive tool, not an active one. The horse should only ever learn to correct himself if he puts too much pressure on the curb bit. When the horse offers self carriage, the pressure of the curb should be released, teaching the horse to carry himself willingly with no interference from the rider. This is why our best horses go with light to non-existent pressure on the curb bit—because they have learned self-carriage.

Furthermore, the notion that using a snaffle bridle in higher level dressage is kinder to the horses is simply not true. A snaffle bridle can more easily disguise contact problems because a rider can press a horse into the snaffle with great, constant strength. This kind of riding backfires in the double bridle where pressure on the curb should only be felt intermittently. Also, the nosebands used with the snaffle bridle are more effective in disguising issues. The simple noseband of the double bridle cannot easily deter a horse from opening or crossing his jaw or sticking his tongue out.

More simply put, if a horse is performing well in the double bridle, a high degree of skill, good training and competence is being shown.

In an ideal state, the double bridle is the last aid a horse should be focused on. When used correctly, it simply encourages the horse to carry the neck higher so that his rider can push the hindleg into more engagement without all the power and energy of the hindquarters spilling onto the front legs. This results in a more pleasurable experience for the rider, a more beautiful picture for onlookers and a more sustainable use of the horse’s body.

It takes considerable skill to use a double bridle effectively and to teach the horse how it should respond to the curb bit. Because the Grand Prix is a test of the highest level of proficiency in equestrian sport, participants in this level of sport should be able to show proficiency in the use of the double bridle. There are many opportunities to compete in a snaffle bridle. However, if one is seeking to be judged at the highest level of competency, they must be able to demonstrate that competency.

Clearly, in most sports the athlete’s level of skill and competency have to increase as the level of competition becomes more challenging. Grand Prix dressage is a test of horse and rider.

Thus, the skill required to ride with an advanced bridle in Grand Prix dressage should never be considered optional. A rider without the skill to use his reins/bits separately should not be piloting a horse through the highest movements in dressage—like a gymnast without the skill to safely negotiate the balance beam should not be competing in advanced gymnastics. Taking the top technical equipment out of the top end of a sport would lower the standard for the entire sport.

Willi Schultheis always referred to the curb bit as a “ladies’ tool” for two reasons:

1) This bit is made for light, educated and sensitive hands.

2) This bit levels the playing field in our sport. With a double bridle, ladies can ride with more power from the engine, and men have to learn greater sensitivity with the steering.

Schultheis always argued that riding in a double bridle with a light hand and an educated seat was far superior and more enjoyable for the horse than riding in a snaffle with a strong hand and strong driving aids. In a double bridle, a skilled rider will be able to push their horse through from behind with less contact on the bit.

The adjustment of the double bridle can affect a horse in varying ways. If the curb bit has a raised port (which provides more tongue freedom), we never want that bit to rotate more than 45 degrees in the horse’s mouth.  The height of the bits in the mouth and the length of the curb chain should be adjusted accordingly.

A bit with longer shanks will increase leverage and encourage more flexion at the poll; a bit with shorter shanks, less so. A lowered curb bit and looser curb chain will create leverage in a different form and may put more pressure on the horse’s poll when the bit is engaged. A tighter curb chain will reduce the leverage of the curb bit but put more pressure on the lower jaw of the horse.

A skilled rider chooses a bit of shape and width that is comfortable for his horse and then learns to use subtle adjustments to the fit to create the most comfort and best response from his mount.

In dressage, we want the horse to respond to the lightest of aids and to listen to the seat, weight, leg and intention of his rider.

It is essential to teach the skill of riding in a double bridle to competitors in upper level dressage. That skill should be mandatory and showcased at our highest level of competition.

I’m Catherine Haddad Staller and I’m sayin’ it like it is from Khiimori in Califon, New Jersey.

Training Tip of the Day:  Study the mechanical use of your curb bit before using it. Understand how and why it works. When in doubt, consult a professional!

 

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