The 2017 season marked Anna’s debut at Third Level; while we certainly didn’t make anyone nervous, as my former coach used to say, we also didn’t get arrested by the Dressage Police, so it would seem that enough of our movements were recognizable at the level that they allowed us to go on our way.
Making the jump from Second to Third level is a significant step forward in the horse’s training. The purpose of Third Level (as is stated at the top of the test) is as follows: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having begun to develop an uphill balance at Second Level, now demonstrates increased engagement, especially in the extended gaits. Transitions between collected, medium and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement. The horse should be reliably on the bit and show a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage than at Second Level.”
Oh gee, is that all?
But in all honesty, what I have found when the average dressage rider is debating moving up to Third Level is that they are worried about two things. 1) Will my horse do a flying change? 2) Can I ride in a double?
The double bridle, also known as the full bridle, is a somewhat controversial piece of equipment. Third Level is the first time its use is permitted under USEF rules. As its name implies, it has two bits—a snaffle, known as the “bridoon,” and a curb, also called a “Weymouth.” The bits serve different purposes. The snaffle helps to achieve lateral and longitudinal flexion, as well as encourages elevation in the frame. It is also used to help position the neck left or right, and encourages the horse to open the frame when necessary. The curb’s role is to increase longitudinal flexion, helping to “close” the frame by bringing the head more towards vertical. The correct use of a double bridle requires that the horse is classically trained; the rider’s hands should initiate but not force the horse’s head and neck into the correct position.
It is the use of the curb which makes the double bridle both so helpful and also potentially so harmful. For centuries, the curb was used alone and often one handed, by knights and soldiers needing immediate control and submission from their mounts. The double bridle was not commonly used until the close of the 1700’s, likely due to the influence of French masters Pluvinel and de la Guerniere. Each horseman taught that the curb bit could be used to enable the rider to achieve a higher level of communication with the horse, not simply domination. By employing two sets of reins, the rider could use the snaffle and curb bits separately or in combination, which allowed a greater degree of refined control for military maneuvers.
The curb must be carefully chosen and fit to the horse; when used appropriately, it can allow extremely refined communication between horse and rider. It is a leverage bit and applies pressure to the poll and chin groove, as well as to the bars, tongue and the neck; any force applied to its rein will be magnified on the horse.
The strength of the curb depends on several factors. The overall length of the cheek of the bit is important, but so is the length of cheek above the mouthpiece versus below it. This ratio effects the way the leverage is applied to the horse. The tightness and fit of the curb chain is also significant, with the ideal being that when the curb chain is engaged, the lower shank is brought to 45 degrees relative to the bars of the mouth. It may require some adjustment in the curb chain tension to find just the right setting. Ideally, two fingers fit between the curb chain and the chin. Finally, the shape of the mouth piece itself influences the severity of the curb. The unique size and shape of the horse’s tongue, bars and palate all must be considered. Usually, the length of the shank is about the same as the width of the mouthpiece; the curb should be a minimum of 5 mm wider at each side of the mouth to avoid the lips being squeezed between the shanks. But a too wide curb will cause muddled signals to the horse.
de la Guerniere said, “The mouthpiece has to be chosen based on the inner construction of the horse’s mouth, the levers in relation to his neck and the curb chain based on the sensitivity of his chin.”
Of course, as with any bit, its severity is directly related to the skill of the user. For example, while one might assume that a shorter shanked curb is less severe, its effects are felt more quickly and so it is not ideal for someone with unsteady hands.
I soon found that fitting the bits correctly, including consideration of the placement of the noseband, is almost an art form. I still don’t think I have the adjustment just right, as will be seen in some of the photos here.
I have ridden in doubles before, but it was only over the course of this season that I realized how little I really understood about the bridle, its use, and its effects. The horse is only ready to begin using a double when they have developed a degree of collection and self-carriage. When the hindquarter is properly engaged, the horse is then better able to lift their withers and base of the neck. The curb uses even pressure to cause the horse to yield with relaxation in their lower jaw.
I was really on the fence about whether or not Anna was ready to start working in the double, because of our ongoing connection issues. But after a session with my dear friend Jen Verharen in March, I felt sufficiently confident to at least start asking her to hack around in the double and get used to carrying two bits in her mouth. Anna’s first ride in the double was only remarkable in that it was utterly unremarkable. “Ho hum,” she seemed to say. Just another day at the office.
I began riding Anna in her double once per week, usually on days when I was mostly doing stretching work. Even before I started to take a greater feel through the curb rein, I noticed an improvement in the shape of her topline and neck, which I attribute (perhaps falsely) to the style of her bridoon. Anna’s usual snaffle is a medium thickness KK loose ring with a lozenge; the bridoon on her double is a thin single jointed loose ring. I wonder if the simplicity of the bridoon is more comfortable for her; of course, I haven’t actually gotten around to swapping out her regular snaffle to determine this! Perhaps this is a project for the winter season.
Gradually, I began to take more feel on the curb rein and introduced Anna to gentle pressure from the leverage bit. I found that it was important to make sure that she was sufficiently loosened first, and already reaching through her back, before I took this additional contact. When I attended a clinic with Jan Ebeling in April, I brought the double with me, but I didn’t feel confident enough yet to actually bring it out in such a public venue.
So when I took Anna down centerline for the first time at Third Level in June, I had had no direct coaching with her in the double. However, I felt that its use sufficiently improved Anna’s outline and way of going such that it justified its use. In reviewing the photos, I can tell that the curb helped to improve her elevation in the trot work, but I was not fully utilizing its benefits to help her in the canter. I knew I was still being too tentative.
Thankfully, I was able to work with Verne Batchelder over five sessions in July, August and September, which helped us to make excellent progress and gave me better insight into the use of the double during this horse’s training. Verne encouraged me to ride Anna in the double more frequently, citing its positive effects on achieving a more correct shape through her topline and especially in her neck. “Do not go into battle without your gear,” he laughed, as he also encouraged me to picture Anna working more towards Third Level Test 3 than Test 1.
Most of our sessions focused on positioning Anna’s neck such that she was unable to use it to block the flow of energy. Usually this involved taking her nose slightly past the degree of flexion in her neck, waiting for her to relax, then gently straightening her by using my outside elbow. Verne emphasizes the need to be able to swivel the horse’s head and neck at the poll; this helps to develop the muscles of the upper neck to the degree where it actually draws up and refines the area around the throatlatch.
Anna has quite a good walk, and really is capable of achieving scores of “8” or higher on these movements, and so we played with some walk exercises which also would help to further improve her connection. We did a series of half turns in the walk, all the while asking her to take a rounder outline through her topline and neck, more towards an FEI level of carriage, for short periods. These turns were larger than competition sized, and we worked towards shorter, quicker steps. This technique should help to develop greater activity in the half pass. Afterwards, we returned to forward riding on lines and larger circles.
Flying changes are actually quite easy for Anna, and these are also an opportunity for higher scores in the show ring. Verne worked with us on riding changes with greater elevation of the forehand, so that they could become bigger and more expressive. He encouraged a gentle lift of the inside snaffle rein during the change to coincide with the leg cue; this will lay the foundation for a prompter response to a subtle aid in tempi changes later on.
Finally, we spent some time working on developing Anna’s medium trot. The medium gaits are defined by their uphill tendency, which is of course the result of better engagement, self-carriage and true collection. The horse should lift their shoulders and withers, not just flick the front feet. If the rider only thinks about power, most often the horse will do a lengthening and instead fall to their forehand. In the double, Verne reminded me to keep my elbows bent and to focus on riding Anna’s shoulders up. We increased the thrust for a few steps at a time, using these as building blocks to develop strength and carrying power.
Verne feels that the double bridle is a valuable training tool for a horse like Anna, who lacks natural elevation. “The double bridle helps with elevation of the shoulder and neck in horses which are not naturally elevated,” says Verne. “The withers follow the reins, but the rider cannot just lift the hand. They must keep an active half halt and the connection into their elbow.” I learned too that it is extremely important to keep a steady feel on the snaffle, not pulling just holding, whenever Anna was pushing towards a higher degree of balance and throughness.
I always like to give Anna a little down time as I transition back to full time work in the fall, so in September we hung the double up for a few months and focused on stretching in the snaffle and hacking on the trails. Even without the influence of the curb, it is clear that the work we have done in the double has helped to improve the shape and correctness of Anna’s topline.
There has been some debate in recent years regarding whether the double bridle should remain mandatory equipment at the FEI levels; when showing nationally, American riders can choose to ride FEI tests in a snaffle alone. There seems to be some belief that those who can do Grand Prix in a snaffle are better riders. But in the right hands, the double bridle should be regarded as “an instrument of finest understanding between horse and rider” (Rottermann, Eurodressage 11/3/14). A correctly trained horse will probably do well no matter which type of bridle they are wearing.
As far as Anna and I go, we of course need to continue to improve the quality of our communication. I am sure there are some riders and trainers who will judge me for choosing to work this horse in a double bridle before every bit and piece of Third Level work was fully confirmed. But truthfully, it seems like it was the right choice for this horse, and using this tool tactfully has helped to further her training and improved her strength and suppleness.
Edwards, E. Hartley. Saddlery. London: JA Allen and Co, Ltd. 1987.
Politz, Gerhard. “History of Bits, Evolution of the Double Bridle”. Posted 7/17/2008 (www.equisearch.com/articles/double_bridle_071708)
Rottermann, Silke. “The Double Bridle: An Instrument of Understanding”. Posted 11/3/2014. (www.euroressage.com/equestrian/2014/11/03/double-bridle-instrument-understanding)