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Double or Nothing, Working Your Dressage Horse in the Double Bridle

There are lots of tricks to the trade when it comes to fitting and riding in the double bridle. The latest one is to address the new rule concerning the crank noseband issue. Take a glance around the Wellington showgrounds this winter and you'll see a lot of riders employing the nifty Equifit curb chance cover. Made of T-Foam, it is the perfect 'sane' solution to the new rule requiring finger wiggle room in the noseband. While it was designed for the curb, it works effectively on any part of the bridle.

My plans to head to Florida for a little sojourn myself this month were cast in disarray by my inadvertent cracking of a couple of ribs. Bruised maybe, cracked more likely. Like most horse riders I have been through this experience before. So, while they heal, I am not interested in a plane ride no matter how short so no return to the sunshine of Naples and West Palm for me.

Instead, like many of you, I have been enjoying an 'English/American' winter. Relatively temperate and little to no real snow events. Just loving it. Horses are shedding, the grass is 'pinking up' with green and it's not even St. Patty's Day yet. How many days of Regis in the rain have I seen on the NYC parade route. A lot. Cold and blustery and miserable. Let's hope this weekend stays bright for all my Irish mates. The advantage of this weather has been an early and more productive start to the Spring season for prepping our horses here at Willowview Hill Farm.

I am blessed to have a couple of lovely performance horses which while I cannot ride myself right now, Grand Prix rider hubbie has taken up the double reins. I have been enjoying training someone other than students for a bit. Paul has had so many years of instruction and from such an early age, his 'go to' is to just do exactly as I instruct. As a trainer this is awesome. You make a slight correction, immediately see the result in the horse and can make fine tuning adjustments. It is truly wonderful and reminds me why I love to teach. The immediate results. I am able to play with different training ideas through him and can see exactly how the horse responds from the ground, reading the equine eye and ears and tail and all the muscles and steps and frame.

When we produce Grand Prix horses here at Willowview Hill Farm, they spend most of their time in a snaffle bridle and for the most part, without the 'beak strap' or flash. But it is important that they learn to carry the weight of the double bridle bits, which are significantly more than just one loose ring French snaffle, and that they respond to the indirect reins and light use of the weymouth.

When you first start a horse in the double, once a week is enough or you'll tire his neck. Building it up gradually is the way to go and be certain that you have two reins sets of different widths to make it easy to 'feel' and not look, when you pick them up. The standard is 5/8 inch and 1/2 inch reins. The Horse Studio has some lovely double bridles at very reasonable prices if you are looking, and some have the weymouth rein stitched instead of buckled which is very useful. They also have the very latest innovation, the convertible snaffle/double, made by the car maker Jaguar. I have one, and I love it to pieces. It is made of the very finest leather and hardware and I like being able to switch instantly without having to think, did I bring my double. After time you soon learn to just read the width of the reins, and if you don't have an independent seat please don't use the double.

Some horses especially some of the warmblood crosses can have bigger shoulders, thicker necks or shorter necks and these may warrant the early use of the double. I recall visiting with Lendon Gray, watching her work Sauvage Diamont in draw reins and his head pinned to his chest. His back was exposed and frankly no, I did not like it. But as a trainer I respect that she might be addressing a specific issue of which I did not know. Must admit though, I scratched my show entry that morning. Would the use of a double bridle have been better? Who knows. I think yes.

I know all about the rollkur and controversy and also recall the days of Nicola Uphoff and Rembrandt, prior to Anky and the others who used hyperflexion extensively. That for sure is a whole other topic. I am a classicist through and through. I like to bring a horse to the double bridle earlier if his conformation warrants it. This is never a shortcut, it is just a reminder to the horse to address his front end. The horse must always first be very strong over his topline and be happy in all gaits, both directions and have at least the making of all the fourth level/medium level trot and walk work.

Sometimes we will put a double bridle on a horse that is in retraining that needs to better understand the bit action. It is temporary but will help redress his opinion as far as understanding flexion. In this event the horse will be ridden mostly on the bradoon or snaffle bit. As you can see from the horse below, his topline is not developed enough for the double bridle but it's temporary use here helped us to convey to him that he didn't need to toss his head or fidget above the bridle. Once it was established he returned within days to the snaffle and had a clear understanding of what we wanted with a tickle of the reins through the little fingers. Flexion.

I have found that when you come to work the canter, you will have a beautiful 'unmessed with' canter gait and expression if you spend much time first on all the lateral moves at the trot. I want to keep a strong three beat canter with lots of pop, ready for pirouettes and changes. I try not to mess with the walk, and allow minimal rehearsal of collected walk. The horse needs to be supple and to be able to counter canter and work all lateral moves before you introduce the double. Though I do confess to using a double bridle for trail work on one or two horses for added security on the road. That was a long time ago and for very specific purposes and safety. The horse must always be introduced to a new bit or bridle in a controlled environment however.

Schooling flying changes I find easier in the snaffle, at least until the three's. After that the fine tuning you can do with the double bridle is an expedient method. You want to be sure to keep your horse sensitive to the workings of the weymouth bit throughout. Check your connection often. I always follow the Klimke and Podhasky methods of working the horse evenly in all four reins. Ideally the horse will have the poll as the highest point during most of the work and his head slightly in front of the vertical.

When your horse exhibits a foamy mouth during work, the kind that gets all over your black vest or riding jacket, then you know he is working happily with all the hardware.  One of my horses was gelded late, and is a bit of a stallion about his bit at times. Angst quickly shows and he gnashes on the bit. It is a stern reminder to me to watch my hands and to be certain that I am not overtaxing or overtiring him.

When I purchased my first horse in the USA he was an ex Grand Prix jumper and had been shown in the double bridle for six years in the GP ring. Imagine. I tried him in a snaffle and naturally he bolted with me into next week. Several times. Poor Raul de Leon would encourage me, with Bert de Nemethy at his side, to just not worry. Until one day the horse took off in the indoor and they saw what I was talking about. But Raul had the horse plonking about like a donkey with me aboard by the end of the lesson. He was of course, a leg shy horse. I was able to switch to the snaffle and in that bit he remained for the rest of his time with me. I  made him into a dressage horse at lower levels. Unfortunately the sound of a PA system had him bucking with exuberance and excitement, and settling him down to show in the dressage ring was consequently never an option. But we had fun. It just goes to show that double bridles are used for many purposes.

Choosing the bits can be difficult. I go with the lowest port and shank I can to start with, and I do switch from my French snaffle to the traditional bradoon snaffle with the single joint. I try to keep the weymouth bit light and as thick as the horse's mouth will allow. Talk to your equine dentist when he/she comes by and take a good look inside your horse's mouth. Some are narrow. My equine partner Charrington has a mouth like a cathedral, so I have a lot of options. Lafite, or 'lightning ears' on the other hand has a regular sized mouth. Fit is crucial. If you are not familiar then buy a book on the subject or consult an experienced trainer. The Bit and the Reins is an excellent book.

So while my ribs heal and Spring arrives I shall enjoy working horses from the ground. Long lining for passage and piaffe are options to keep my horse fit and happy and I have followed Fritz Stahlecker and some of his methods for years. My other favorite is Alfons Dietz. Plus having hubbie ride my horses for me. All in all it will work out. His riding is better than mine overall and who knows, maybe between us we shall improve the horses work in the dressage movements. It is always good to have an experienced 'other' train your horse occasionally, just as it is beneficial to sit on more than one horse.


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