Double Jeopardy

Every four years, the U.S. Equestrian Federation rewrites the national dressage tests, and there’s usually some small controversy that arises out of the occasion. New tests take effect Dec. 1, and for the last few months Internet chat has confidently asserted that the double bridle will no longer be allowed at Third Level.

For those unfamiliar with competitive dressage, graduated tests are sorted into nine levels in the U.S.: five national levels (Training Level plus First through Fourth Levels) and four more international (FEI) levels, although the majority of riders never get past First Level. A plain snaffle bridle is required through Second Level, while a simple double bridle is optional at Third and Fourth levels and required at FEI levels.

If you don’t compete in dressage, you may be asking what the big deal is. Most disciplines can select from a wide array of twists, wires, rollers, gags and elevators, bits that can put pressure on a lot of places besides just the corners of the lips and all of which are verboten the instant your horse steps off the trailer at a dressage show.

But many people feel the double bridle at Third Level, instituted in 2003, is too much too soon, especially in the hands of riders without a fully independent seat or who don’t yet understand how to use a curb bit with finesse.

It’s interesting that the test writers took a different tack, feeling that the option to use a double at Third Level is necessary to prepare some horses for the FEI levels. They came up with a much more interesting solution, rather than sending the curb back to the bit drawer, by adding a 3X coefficient to the score box at the bottom of the test sheet for the rider’s seat and the effect of his aids.

Here’s how it will work. If a rider chooses the option of a double bridle at Third and Fourth levels, but uses it poorly the curb rein is too tight or is dangling, the shank is pulled horizontal, or the horse’s mouth gapes, or the horse is leaning on its forehand the rider will take a big hit in that score box. Sure, he’d be slapped for unsteady hands holding just a snaffle, but the sin will be compounded if a potentially harsher bit is selected. The higher coefficient score will be used across the board at all national levels, so it’s hoped that riders will catch onto the importance of quiet, effective aids and a steady seat before they even get to Third Level where they could ratchet up the potential abuse of their horse’s goodwill.

While those involved in other disciplines probably won’t take notice, there’s a lesson here to be learned for them as well. Undue pressure on the mouth makes the horse’s topline rigid and causes the hind legs to lose activity. Before you turn to a bit to solve your problems, maybe you should pay attention first to how well you ride.

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