Carriage driving expert Muffy Seaton did a terrific series on “Bitting the Driving Horse” in Driving Digest magazine. (1) I highly recommend these articles to anyone curious about this topic. Muffy often drives ponies, breeds driving ponies, and is considered by some to have facilitated the advancement of ponies in combined driving.(2) Because of her association with ponies, I keep an eye out for anything she writes. In this series of articles, I wasn’t disappointed because embedded in the series content, there were a number of pointers particular to ponies.
First, an important caveat. Bits are not tools for control. They are tools for communication. Used incorrectly, bits can inflict pain which makes productive communication impossible. Used correctly, they can enhance our partnership with our ponies since they are an intimate and only physical connection when we drive. In Seaton’s words, the right bit “might make the difference in subtle ways to achieve a happier and more willing driving partner.” (3) It is through our partnership with our ponies that we control them, not the piece of hardware in their mouths. We should strive always to be worthy of putting that hardware in such a sensitive place.
Seaton begins her series discussing bridles since they are necessary to hold bits in place. Because ponies’ heads vary significantly in size and shape, Seaton prefers open buckles on cheek pieces since they allow for more adjustment. Seaton also notes that some ponies have small ears so she likes a gullet strap on her bridles as extra security to prevent a pony from shaking a bridle off.
Regarding bits, Seaton begins with an important but sometimes not obvious point. “Just because a bit came with your harness or is pretty does not mean it’s the right bit for your horse.” (4) In my experience, single jointed snaffles are the most common bit to come with harness. Seaton says that many ponies (and Morgans and minis) have fat tongues and low palates that cause the joint of these bits to stick up into the roof of the mouth and be painful. Seaton prefers to start an equine on a French link double-jointed mouthpiece to avoid this problem (and others.)
Seaton has used a Dutch gag bit with success “with a few Haflingers and drafts that have been so pulled on with solid bar bits they have become pretty numb…” (5) Seaton emphasizes that “a bit change is fine-tuning…. Remember we are trying to make our horses comfortable in their mouths so they will be willing to listen to our attempts to communicate to them through our hands and reins, so before you try a bit, think about how it works and what nerves it will press on with your horse.” (6) Her articles are a great place to start this thinking.
I appreciate that Seaton closed her series saying she lets the individual equine choose the bit they prefer. “If he’s not comfortable in the first place, he’s not going to be willing to receive my communications.” (7)
- “Bitting the Driving Horse: Part 1” about bridles and mouth piece fitting is in Issue 188 of Driving Digest, March/April 2014. “Bitting the Driving Horse: Part 2” about solid bar mouth pieces is in Driving Digest Issue 189, May/June 2014. “Bitting the Driving Horse: Part 3” about moveable mouthpieces is in Issue 190, July/August 2014.
- Hoyt, Sandra. “Small Ponies are Revving Up Combined Driving!”, Driving Digest issue 199, January/February 2016, p. 38.
- Seaton, Muffy. “Bitting the Driving Horse: Part 2”, Driving Digest issue 189, p. 18.
- Same as #3, p. 21.
- Seaton, Muffy. “Bitting the Driving Horse: Part 3”, Driving Digest issue 1990, p. 17.
- Same as #5.
- Same as #5
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016
For more practical information about working with ponies, buy the book The Partnered Pony: What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally on Amazon and by clicking here.