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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