Is the bit a ‘primitive and cruel’ method of control?

Written by Monday, 11 January 2016 00:00

For the last 10 years, there have been quiet rumblings of a revolution in the equine world- the transition from bitted to bitless bridles. There are riders who team chase very successfully in bitless bridles and there is now even a dressage competition for those who have binned their bits! When you think about it, the bitted bridle can’t feel comfortable and perhaps we should consider a more sympathetic way of using the bridle as a mechanism for safety and control for both horse and rider.

The bit is universally used in the equine industry and I will hold my hands up and admit that I am one of them. But, I’ve had my moments recently of thinking about the possible negative effects the bit has on the horse. However, the idea of moving towards a bitless bridle begs the questions, how can you feel in control of your horse without a bit? What if you feel unsafe? But as riders, do we ever have full control of these beautiful wild animals that have complex minds of their own?

Robert Cook, PhD and professor at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, who designed the 'Dr Cook's bitless bridle" argues that the bit is not as effective as we imagine and ‘it is hard for us to accept that we have been wrong for so long’. Through his research, Dr Cook has found that bitted bridles are ‘primitive’ and essentially ‘unnecessary for control of the horse’. Dr Cook considers the bit to be cruel and counterproductive, as it controls the horse through the threat of pain- similar to a whip. In response to this discomfort, the horse can easily evade the bit, positioning it between their teeth or under their tongue, you could therefore be taken for an unexpected gallop. Bit induced pain can cause a raft of issues, such as; ‘bolting, rearing, bucking, head shaking, napping, balking, stumbling, pulling and jigging.

But is it the bit that is the problem in some of these cases or just bad hands? And wouldn't you still get some of these evasions even without a bit? Bitted or bitless, a horse can still experience discomfort in other parts of his body and how do we know some horses aren't stressed by pressure to their nose or poll. Also, horses, as we all know, have their own minds and sometimes may just feel a bit fresh or argumentative.

Arguably, many riders have become ignorant of the effect the bit is having on the horse and various methods of, ‘bit avoidance’, are unfortunately ignored, or misunderstood and put down to  the horse being ‘naughty’ or ‘excitable’. These common occurrences in the sport we all love are being seen in a new light, as the horse’s mouth is such a sensitive area. Although of course, all horses are different and some are un-phased and perfectly happy wearing a bitted bridle, joyfully snatching a clump of grass, or nibbling a yummy section of foliage whilst out on a relaxed hack, plodding along with no problem at all!

So do you think the bit is the problem or do we just need to improve our riding through a better understanding of biomechanics and the way we use the bit? Have any of you used a bitless bridle? Would you consider using one or would you feel unsafe? But are we ever really ‘safe’ on this ride called life?

Megan McCusker


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  • Comment Link Tamsyn Fowlie Sunday, 21 February 2016 20:56 posted by Tamsyn Fowlie

    I have learnt to ride mostly through watching and listening to people who know how to ride and especially people who train horses. I have had some formal lessons. The place where I learnt the most was working at a horse trekking stables where the general emphasis on riding was if you are having trouble riding a horse it is you who is the problem not the horse. I firmly believe this and our 20 trekking horses all went nicely in a snaffle bit with no noseband or if there was on it was a plain one that came with the bridle so we might as well use it. Most of our horses went fine for beginners through to experienced riders, with a lot of experienced riders surprised to find that the lovely responsive horse they were riding was ridden regularly by beginners. This was mainly due to the way we had people ride (beginners with a loose rein only gathering the reins up to give the horse an instruction). If you look at the information for the bitless bridles, rope halters, etc. it usually suggest learning a different way to ride, which generally has something to do with soft hands using your seat, legs and balance to influence the horse, etc. Stuff we should be doing with the bridle. There are probably are some instances where the bit is not good for a certain horse (odd mouth conformation, teeth, etc.) and I have seen horses that have obviously had a bad time with the bit in the past and would benefit from bitless (I saw an OTT thoroughbred that was chomping and chewing while being ridden in a halter, my guess is the bit was not used kindly on it) but I think generally the bit is not the problem the rider is. A bitless bridle is definitely capable of causing pain as much as bitted if you don't believe that put it on yourself and get someone to lean on the reins with their full weight. In the end I think it is personal preference and what works best for the work that you are trying to do with the horse. I think it is time people stopped trying to make others feel bad because they don't go bitless.

  • Comment Link Rebekah Nelson Tuesday, 26 January 2016 21:48 posted by Rebekah Nelson

    I think first of all no matter what type of head gear you use you need educated hands that will not do damage to the horse's nose or mouth or upset him. Second, I think different horses prefer or go better in different headgear. All of my horses go well both in halters (rope) and for more precision (dressage for instance) I have a couple favorite bitless bridles, one from Scott Purdom of Advantage Horsemanship and one from ebay (BlackBrookRanch - Indian Bosal Hackamore). I have 3 horses - one is just getting started under saddle and I've only ridden her in a rope halter so far, one by far prefer's bitless if we are doing any kind of contact/precision work (if trail riding or riding on a loose reins she is fine in a bit, but I ride her almost exclusively bitless), and my gelding has 2 favorite myler bits he likes for precision/dressage, I ride him in a bitless bridle for trail riding (easier for him to eat and drink on breaks and I can tie him with Scott Purdom's design). I think there is a level of connection that can be the best with a bit when doing precision/dressage riding. All my horses take the bit easily and I ride with careful, smooth, quiet hands. As a professional trainer I go out of my way to find out whatever is most comfortable for each horse I train - some horses prefer different varieties of snaffles, some prefer bitless, and some really like myler bits. I have a variety of bits for owners to try (disinfected between each horse of course) so they can find what works best for their horse without spending a bunch of money buying different bits.

  • Comment Link Naomi Khan Tuesday, 26 January 2016 18:11 posted by Naomi Khan

    I have tried both bitted and bitless with my boy and he's easy in both. I would not ever hack him out or do fast work in a bitless just yet as I haven't had him for long enough and I'm just starting to really work with him, but he's very accepting of the bit and I'm never rough with him.
    Bitless works for some but not for others, and that's what people are struggling to accept. I know an ISH, who's incredibly fit and well trained but you'd be dead in a second if you put a bitless on him. He'd just go.
    I'm lucky my boy doesn't do the same.

  • Comment Link Maria Glenn Tuesday, 26 January 2016 16:13 posted by Maria Glenn

    I am a firm believer that if you train a horse correctly from the ground up, you can have a bitless horse that is just as 'controllable' as a bitted horse. I was a bit user until I raised my own youngsters. I decided to try a different tack, teaching them to move based on my body movements rather than due to any sort of pulling or kicking. I use voice commands in particular. I agree that it can be very hard to retrain a horse that is used to a bit, although it can be done. I had about a 50% success rate with ex riding school horses in their teens. Some of them thought it was a great excuse to eat when hacking out! But my youngsters have all been raised bitless with 100% success. Bitless isn't a quick fix, but it works well if you can put in the time and effort from birth with a horse. I appreciate that not everyone can do this.

  • Comment Link Julie Moore Tuesday, 26 January 2016 13:17 posted by Julie Moore

    I'm a big fan of Mark Smith and what he'd done to promote bitless riding and I have used a Dr Cook. However I then got into classical and straightness training as one of my mares kept getting a bad back and going lame, which sorted her out by the way, and from doing that I dont't feel you can get the proper connection through the horses back without a bit. I think this is a debate worth continuing though as we have so much to learn and through it we can keep improving our riding and the training of horses. Here's to more enlightened training!!

  • Comment Link annette todd Thursday, 21 January 2016 16:13 posted by annette todd

    i ride my mare in either a bitless bridle (in the school)or a german hackamore out hacking. i do know that the german hackamore is not a particularly kind device in the wrong hands. i don't think i will ever get her to go in a bit - something must have happened to her in the past that has really freaked her out. it has got me thinking about different ways of riding and you can see online some fantastic videos of bitless and even bridleless dressage.and there are some animations of what happens inside a horses mouth when bits are used - even if they are used 'kindly' - that have made me think that if i had a young horse just starting out i would probably not use a bit

  • Comment Link Alyson Camire Monday, 11 January 2016 23:10 posted by Alyson Camire

    I have an ottb mare who has been majorly scarred from wearing a bit and does beautifully in a bitless bridle and she is much happier and will do anything you want. My ottb gelding has a strong head and a strong will and did not do well in a bitless bridle as he was very dependent on me. He's in a relatively gentle bit and does very well. I think all horses are different and it depends on what they are used to and how they were trained.

  • Comment Link Ellie Fells Monday, 11 January 2016 11:31 posted by Ellie Fells

    I used to ride a horse who went in a Hackamore, but she was ridden in a riding school and it was often found that people riding her didn't know how to give the correct aids needed with this kind of bridle. Eventually she just would end up putting her head in between her legs to resist the pressure, and we found that she actually went better in a snaffle despite her sensitive mouth x