So, how does this quasi-miraculous device, the cavesson, work? What are the biomechanic and psychological principles that make it so particularly effective? How is it fitted to the horse? How do we start the horse's education in the cavesson?
First, it was a particularly clever man who first reasoned that since the horse's spinal vertebrae are attached to the skull, not the jaw, it would be more effective to ask the horse to bend his head to the inside of a turn by applying pressure to the front of the skull rather than to the jaw and mouth.
If you apply lateral pressure to your own nose, you know that your head turns freely and without complications, whereas if you try to turn your head by applying pressure to your jaw, things get quickly quite complicated, since you can move your jaw sideways while maintaining your skull straight on your spine.
And indeed, this is what a horse often learns to do in the process of resisting the lateral pressure of a snaffle on the delicate tissues of the mouth. We call it "crossing the jaw", and promptly tighten the noseband to try to stop it. Sometimes this works, but it can then create other problems, such as that of a pinched tongue, which may be pulled back in the mouth or protruded out the side to escape pressure on it.
These problems can be completely avoided by the proper use of the cavesson to teach the young horse to bend laterally.
The cavesson I prefer to use is a simple u-shaped piece of iron, with one, two, or three pillars, depending on the intended use (which I will get into later): covered completely with thick leather, it is integrated into a headstall which fits very much like a bridle, rather than a halter. In Spain, where this device is most widely employed today, the nosepiece is called a serretta, and the entire headstall a cabesada de doma or training halter.
The cavesson needs to be adjusted at least four fingers above the top of the nostril, (or later, one finger above the ring of the bit, so as not to interfere with it). Extremely important is the tightness of the noseband to which it is attached, for if it is too loose, it will move around on the nose and poke into sensitive muscles on the side of the face. If too tight, then we fall into the same sins as those who use a crank noseband and flash. If you can fit one finger comfortably under the part that fits across the front of the nose, then the cavesson is properly adjusted so it will not slide.
It is very helpful to have a strap positioned on the cheekpieces of the headstall, which can be buckled snugly under the jaw, like a throatlatch, only lower on the cheek, to keep the cheekpieces from coming too close to the eyes if the horse pulls strongly sideways. The concept is to have a well-fitting headstall which acts very effectively without causing pain to the horse under ordinary circumstances. A lunge or lead is then attached to either the center ring, or in the case of a 3 ring cavesson, to the ring on the side one is handling the horse from.
The best way to introduce the cavesson to the young horse is in a stall, where it can be done quietly and without violence, and where the horse is not tempted to bolt away if it becomes frightened. It is vitally important to be gentle, but firm and to reward compliant behavior lavishly during these first sessions, so that the animal can conquer its fear and actively engage in the learning process.
When lateral pressure is applied to the cavesson, the horse simply turns its head in response. If downward pressure is applied, the horse quickly learns to lower his nose, sparing a struggle with the bit which might cause pain or injury to the bars or tongue. Likewise, upward pressure should produce a raising of the head and neck. I cannot emphasize enough that one should not lead or lunge the young horse with the cavesson in a large open area until these first lessons are well accepted by the him, so as to avoid any mishaps should the horse become excited. The leather covered cavesson can be severe in rough or ignorant hands, and while it is necessary and desirable to have the extra leverage the cavesson affords in order to control a disobedient and fractious animal, one must not use it to discipline unfairly. This is the case with any tack we use; bits, spurs, whips, stud chains, all can be used judiciously to obtain obedience, or abused,
depending upon the self control of the person wielding them. I do think it is important not to delude ourselves: the goal of training is to subdue a wild creature and tame it to our bidding, and we use reward and punishment to achieve that goal. It is how we conduct this process that will reveal our humanity. Will we do it with compassion, patience, kindness and justice, treating the horse respectfully? Will we always be mindful of the sacrifice the horse makes, and which he feels deeply, that of his freedom ? We must transform that sacrifice into a willing collaboration between human and equine. Unless we do, the horse becomes an automaton, the light of his intelligence and beauty is diminished, and our own soul becomes deadened as well.
Until next time!