Last Saturday was the first time I rode Gem using the side pull feature of her new headstall. Since I know nothing about her life pre 2009, I can only assume she has never been ridden bitless before.
My initial impressions:
1.) Gem was really confused. She had no clue if I really wanted her to move on or if I was testing her and her first few steps were very hesitant.
2) She lost all her confidence. Gem really likes a soft contact when out on trail. It isn't so much for collection as it is her safety blanket. She likes to know I am there and that I have her back. With the bit gone, she looked at things more and was much more reactive to pretty much everything.
3) Along with #2, I have no clue how much contact to maintain with a side pull. It felt odd to throw away all the contact and go on a super loose rein. Kind of like I was abandoning her. It also felt odd to keep a contact on her face. It isn't as subtle as a bit and just felt wrong to keep that pressure on her nose.
4) I needlessly worried about her breaks in it. Any slight pressure on the reins resulted in her immediately stopping. It took a long time to get her to understand that I was just asking her to slow down for mud or collect up for a particularly root or rock filled section of trail. I do that all the time with a bit in and she responds to the lightest of touches, but any amount of pressure resulted in a halt. It took a lot of leg to push her forward and keep her legs moving.
5) She seemed unsure what to do with her mouth. At one point she started to chew a little. At another I saw her tongue sticking out. Most of the time she had her jaw clamped shut with her muscles working over time. It was like she didn't know what to do with herself.
6) She refused to believe she could bend in it. At all. When the trail made a sharp turn or there were choices of what track to take, it took a lot of force to get her to bend along with a lot of leg. This used to be a problem when I rode in a D ring snaffle and was the reason I changed to a full cheek which helped. The moment I decided to turn around and go back, I tired to turn her and she just braced against it. It took me running my hands up the reins nearly to her face and then asking fo rher to actually bend her neck at all. Plus a ton of leg. Not sure what that was all about.
7) I like the thought of the freedom it gives her to eat and drink and honeslty she doesn't need to carry metal in her mouth for 40 miles when it is unnecessary. Since she didn't eat or drink under saddle on this ride, I can't say if the theory pans out in reality or not.
Overall, I like the headstall a lot and it fits her well. I think we need to spend a lot more time in the side pull before I can make a determination as to whether or not she likes it. Based on the first outing, I don't think she does. I think she really likes the security of feeling the contact with the bit and without it she loses that confidence.
I will keep working her in the side pull for short stretches and hope to get some arena work in as well to work on bending and suppleness as well.