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A Bit on Bits with Michele McLeod

The combined knowledge of master bit and spur maker Greg Darnall and multiple National Finals Rodeo qualifier and futurity champion Michele McLeod is immense—so much so that the two teamed up to design a line of bits specifically designed to address many of the common issues riders face with barrel horses. Drawing on McLeod’s years of barrel racing experience training, competing and teaching clinics, Darnall used his expertise and craftsmanship to create bits to help barrel racers achieve a balanced horse and get the desired response from their hands. And, in contrast to most popular bits used in barrel racing, McLeod’s new Greg Darnall bits are not gag bits.

Barrel Horse News visited with McLeod about bits, horsemanship and how they intertwine in training. Be sure to pick up a copy of the May 2019 issue of BHN for a detailed profile on one of McLeod’s favorite new bits in her Greg Darnall line.

BHN: How did you and Greg decide on what you wanted this line of bits to be like?

McLeod: “I’m not a bit expert, nor have I ever been, and I laugh because people always ask me ‘What bit?’ and I’m the one who rides every horse in the same bridle. Now that I’m done rodeoing and back training horses, I’m realizing it is truly the people’s hands that matter. What works for me is not going to necessarily work for the majority of other people. I’ve tried to realize that and figure out what can be accommodated.

“When I sat down with Greg, he actually came out and watched me ride and saw how I want my horses want to be. I can ride in a certain bit, but the majority of people aren’t going to be able to, because I don’t use my hands as much as everybody else does, per say. I’ve gotten away from a gag, because I feel in our horsemanship in the barrel racing community, we think that it’s okay if the nose drops down and they give, but in all essence we’ve lost their hind end and we’re just riding the face. I ride the whole body, and I want my horse balanced. To find that balance, they need to know where to go on the bridle and stay right there, so I’ve taken the gag out.”

BHN: Can you explain the effect of a gag bit?

McLeod: “With the gag, I find people think that their horse’s face is set and they’re traveling correctly, but in all reality they don’t have the feel. The gag will set just the throatlatch and the face, but the hind end is not driving up underneath the horse. It can give a false sense that you have the horse ‘in the bridle,’ per say. During a run, if it’s too much gag, to me it shoves too much rein in the turn. If you start the turn and you’re pulling or not so confident in your hands, all of a sudden you’re pulling more and more so you tend to get more nose bent into the turn, and then you’ve lost the hind end. So their nose is turning the barrel while the hind end is scrambling on the outside behind, and you’re taking way too many steps. I ride a lot of the hind end, I square up a horse a lot, and I want less steps around the barrel to be more efficient in my footwork. I slow down the hind end and reach with that outside shoulder to come around the barrel and I end up turning the barrel in less steps.”

BHN: On the contrary, what is the response with a more immediate-response bit that has no gag?

McLeod: “If the horse is broke and traveling how it should, then all I need to do going into the turn is keep my hand straight above my saddle horn. If I’m going two-handed to the turn, then I just drop to my saddle horn with my outside and then I barely lift up with my inside hand turning the barrel, and that horse is going to come around the barrel and turn. I am barely guiding them. I ride more by turning my torso and shoulders around the barrel than I do so handling my horse with my reins. My theory behind that is, our sport has gotten down to hundredths of a second, so the more I’m handling my horse the more time I’m losing. I try to really be in partnership and in tune with my horse so I’m riding more with my body and less with my hands. I want my horse balanced and fluid turning around the barrel, and basically for me to stay out of their way.”

A self-proclaimed hackamore person, Michele McLeod runs Slick By Design at the 2016 National Finals Rodeo in the long-shank ‘Slick hackamore.’ Photo by Kenneth Springer.

BHN: Do you switch bridles a lot when training at home?

McLeod: “I switch around bridles depending on the horse. If I get a horse in for me to tune on and they’re really pushing or lugging on the bridle, I’m going to go to a little more severe bridle or a longer shank—if the horse is heavy, not responding to my legs, not responding to my body, they’re getting pushy in the bridle. I’ll go to a longer shank and try to get them softer, then move back into a shorter shank.

“When I’m on a young 3-year-old, once they get comfortable in a snaffle I’ll start switching around and go to a shorter shank bit, then a little longer, and I’ll even ride them in a ported bit. I’m a true hackamore person—I love hackamores—so I will eventually go to a hackamore and figure out which horses are comfortable in it, and some are definitely not. Usually if a horse ends up through my barn long enough, you’ll see me running it in a hackamore. That’s my personal preference. [On the day-to-day,] I will ride every horse in the same bridle and stick with it through the whole herd unless there’s an older horse I’m having to tune on where I have to do something different. After that I’ll go to something else, and switch them all up and go to another bit. I change it up and try to make them well-rounded and accepting of any bit I put in their mouth.”

BHN: Do you train and compete in different bridles?

McLeod: “I tend to personally ride in more during the week in training and run in less, and my theory behind that is I’m not perfect and I make mistakes during the run, so I want to make sure I’m not going to drastically take ahold of my horse in the run because of my mistake of my body.”

BHN: Do you use other headgear, like tie-downs, bonnets, martingales?

McLeod: “I’ve had to depending on the horse, but in all reality in the big picture I think they’re just a Band-Aid, so if I can start from the ground up I try to not use any of that. I try to just get them as broke as possible and traveling balanced, but there are times I will go to a tie-down or a brow-band (bonnet). I do a lot in the round pen with a chambon, and I got that from the English side. I really like how that works on all horses, from colts up to finished horses, that aren’t traveling correctly, pushing on the bridle, hollowing their backs. I’ll go work them in the round pen in a chambon, and I’ve had great success with that.”

BHN: When selecting a bit, what are some general qualities to look for?

McLeod: “I make sure it’s a good quality, handmade bit, where it’s laser-cut, stainless steel, things along that line. I try to find a reputable bit maker where I know it’s more handcrafted than put through the mill. I look at how it hinges from the shank to the mouthpiece, because I don’t want to get my horse’s mouth sore. That’s very important to me—how it comes in the corners of the mouth, that it would never be where I would get a horse’s mouth sore.”

Interview by Blanche Schaefer. For more information or if you have questions, please contact Michele at [email protected].