In keeping with Renegade Wind's philosophy of Sustainable Horsemanship and non-coercive educating and riding techniques, we do not use bits with our equine partners. The idea of eliciting desired behaviors through inflicting discomfort and pain is fundamentally anathema to our goals and purposes with the horses. Furthermore, I do not wish to teach my students that use of force or intimidation are acceptable means by which to conduct themselves with others. I have been
involved with horses for over 35 years and the majority of that time I used bits. Oh, there were the occasional times I would tie a lead rope to a halter and ride like that. Or, when I thought my Arab was tired during our conditioning for competitive trail riding, I'd take the bit out and ride in his halter. I used bits ranging from a variety of snaffles to a variety of leverage (shank) bits. My reasons for doing so varied as well:
I wanted “brakes” so my horse would stop. (Ever hear of a horse running away with a rider even though the animal had a bit in his mouth? Has that ever happened to you?)
I wanted “control.” (Did I really think I had total control of an animal that was bigger, stronger and faster than me by way of a painful piece of metal in his mouth? How could I not have realized sooner that pain would just add to the horse's fear and make a bad situation worse?)
I wanted to be able to round my horse and put him in a frame. (Again, did I really think contorting my horse through the use of the bit was physiologically correct, in the animal's best interest and a way to form a true partnership?)
Lastly, and probably most abhorrent to me of all, was that I used a bit because it was required in the show ring. (I was allowing others to dictate what equipment and aids I used with my horse instead of thinking for myself and considering my horse's welfare first.)
Thank God for Ace and the education he gave me! The strawberry roan appaloosa entered my life and forever changed my approach to horses. And, if any of you have known an appaloosa, you know they can be very persuasive teachers. Ace was a product of traditional training. He did not seem to have been asked much, but rather told what to do. As a result, he went to fight mode very quickly when he didn't understand or like the task at hand. Although I thought of myself as gentle, I still insisted that he take the bit in his mouth even though he strenuously protested. I would just bridle him in his stall where he couldn't escape. He was desperately trying to tell me something wasn't right and I wasn't listening. His teeth had been attended to, he was being chiropracted, saddle fit had been addressed along with bridle and bit fit (D-ring snaffle). Once the bit was in, he was afraid to let it go when you were unbridling and often would run backwards as you attempted to take it off. Quite a quandary on what to do to help him.
After one of our rides, his caretaker, Sue, spent the night researching and looking for a viable alternative. She came across Dr. Robert Cook's Cross-under Bitless Bridle. The next day she told me about it and we decided to give it a go. I had done all I knew to do at that time to make things better for him and was out of ideas. When it came, we adjusted it per the instructions and I hopped up. He was wonderful. No head tossing, shaking or arguing. To say I was impressed by the immediate change in him would be an extreme understatement.
Next, I tried it on my Arabian. No problems there. Then, on a couple of lesson horses. They all responded the same or better! I was sold on the concept and have never looked back. I retrain horses to bitless, retrain problem horses using bitless bridles and start horses bitless. There are a variety of bitless styles to choose from. The one bitless bridle I do not endorse is a mechanical hackamore. In my opinion, the multiplied leverage provided by the shanks on the horse's delicate nasal bone is too severe.
The Science of Bitless Riding
Some knowledge concerning the anatomy of the horse's mouth and airway may be helpful to you in ascertaining some of the problems associated with use of the bit. The video below gives a very basic overview of this anatomy and the effects of a snaffle bit on the horse's mouth.
The first and foremost drawback of using a bit is the discomfort and outright pain it inflicts on the animal. As in the above video, there are numerous points of pressure that may be involved. To gain a crude approximation of what this may feel like, try taking a nail and poking the head of it into your own palate or pressing the side of the nail against your gums. Imagine how that may feel if the nail is jerked suddenly and quite hard against that sensitive tissue, banging against multiple pressure points simultaneously.
Like us, horses have an extensive neural network around their face. The trigeminal nerve is the primary facial nerve and has three main branches (ophthalmic, maxillary and mandibular) that surround the animal's face. Often, long standing pain inflicted on any aspect of this nerve will lead to what is known as “referred” pain in other parts of the horse's head. This can be noted in a plethora of manifestations such as mouth opening, head shaking, head tossing, sneezing, snorting, muzzle rubbing along with ear and bridling sensitivity to name just a few. The traditional response to the many aversions produced by this pain is to change bits or tie the horse's mouth closed and/or tie the horse's head down to prevent the animal from evading bit induced pressure. And we call this communication? With our friend & partner?
The bit sends mixed messages to the horse's body. Upon insertion, the presence of a foreign object in the mouth coupled with the ensuing increased salivation signals the digestive system, part of which is the epiglottis, which works in conjunction with the raising of the soft palate to close off the trachea and open the esophagus. However, since the horse is now exercising with the bit in the mouth, another reflex is triggered telling the horse to breathe, which would reverse the action of the epiglottis and soft palate. The body receives both signals and has to determine what to do and how to do it. I encourage you to spend some time watching horses in a pasture. You will not see them running with their mouths open.
And, finally, in this very brief conversation, let us not forget the effect of the bit on the rest of the horse's body. As we pull on the bit, the horse may bend (break over, if you will) at the poll. This impedes breathing as it folds the trachea. Again, spend some time watching horses running in the natural. You never see them tuck their heads in towards their chest for more than a few seconds at a time. Try tucking your chin tightly into your chest and breathe. Do you notice it is more difficult? Now try running and breathing that way. Next, try running and carrying a fairly heavy backpack and breathing with chin to chest.
Next, let us consider the hyperflexion that is caused in the horse by intentionally overbending a horse's neck and placing his head close into his chest through riding or use of side-reins. In dressage, this is known as rollkur, although to a lesser degree, it is seen in other disciplines as well. This can cause permanent damage to the horse due to the complex interactions of the skeleton, muscles and ligaments of the horse.
In closing, let me be clear: this information is not intended to condemn you, but rather to educate you. As you read this, please remember that I, too, used bits for many years. However, once I learned of the negative physiological effects of the bit and experienced for myself the transformation in the horses when taken to bitless, I could not deny the incontrovertible evidence before me. In this supposedly enlightened period of horsemanship and amidst all this talk of partnership with our horses, it is past time that we give serious consideration to our ethics concerning the care, treatment and training of these magnificent animals.
by W. Robert Cook, FRCVS, PhD &
Hiltrud Strasser, DVM, PhD
by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann