To Bit or not to Bit?
Bits, one of many discussion points between horse lovers. Do we need them?
In this article I'd like to share my thoughts on this subject.
There are those who claim it is not possible, ever, to control your horse without using a bit. To those people I'd like to say: control is not force, control is not reached through pulling an animal in the mouth. Control, if you want to use that word, is reached through understanding and through communication.
Then there are those that say that it is not 'natural' is it to put a piece of metal in a sensitive mouth, and therefore bits should never be used. To those I'd say that in that case, we should not ride horses at all, as it is also not natural for a horse to have a rider on his back.
Yes, a lot of harm can be done by using a bit wrong. I have seen terrible things done in a horse's mouth; from mouth corners bloody and cut, to splintered bars, damaged teeth and scarring inside the mouth.
However, it is also possible to damage a horse's head severely using a rope halter, cavesson or any other tool on the nose bone. I have seen broken nose bones, excessive scarring on the nose from 'serreta's' (cavessons with pointy bottom) and terrible wrong doing with hackamores.
So in my opinion, the discussion should not be about the type of tool ("mine is better then yours"), but let's have a sound discussion about how tools should and should not be used. A rein, connected to the horse's head in whatever way, whether to the mouth or nose, should NEVER be used in a pulling way, there should NEVER be placed force on the horse's head. One main reason of course is the damage that can be done with each tool that takes influence on the skull. Not only the damage I mentioned above, but also damage to the horses esophagus, windpipe, tong bone, salivary glands and neck vertebrae.
Another reason why one should never pull on the reins is a biomechanical one: When a hand works backwards, pulling on the horse's head or mouth, the spine is compressed. This works its way backwards through the spine into the pelvis and results in a flattened pelvis and hind legs that are being pushed backwards out. This creates a bigger push from the horse forwards, which in most cases is then caught again in the rider's hand, which has to pull harder, and so on. In short; it does not work to pull on reins to stop a horse. Actually, pulling has the opposite effect. That is why in racing, you see the riders pull on the reins. It creates a 'pushing' speed. Unfortunately, it also creates a ‘spectacular’ extention in the front legs and it gets awarded with high scores in too many competitions, both in dressage and in gaited competitions. This way of extending damages the front legs and stiffens the back and is in no way a harmonious or natural way of moving.
In the Art of Riding, our aim is to work the hind legs forwards under the point of weight and allow the horse to carry us in a balanced, healthy and harmonious way, with movement that adds beauty to the natural gaits. For that, the pelvis needs to tilt, bringing the tail down. This does not work with a rein that is pulled or simply held (what some call the 'resisting hand'). Even with a hand that does not literally pull but is just held to resist the effect is that of pulling; it pushes the hind legs backwards out.
What we strive for is a horse searching towards a giving hand. This does not mean there is no contact. Our definition of contact is simply lighter than many other trainers. For many, contact equals weight. For us, weight equals wrong biomechanics. Contact should be subtle, should be vibrations, should be energy, should never be strong, should never be fixed. That is why in the Art of Riding, you can see reins slightly hanging through. This does not mean that there is no contact, horses can still feel our half halts and vibrations through the reins, and we can still feel the horse.
You can imagine that using a bit in that manner, or a cavesson or a hackamore or whatever bitless bridle, has a different effect than using a strong contact with tight reins.
So, here is how I like to use my tools:
With a young horse, I prefer to start bitless. I use a cavesson on the nose. I use this tool, because it has an influence on the upper jaw and through the skull into the spine. Snaffle bits and many bitless bridles take influence on the lower jaw, which is moveable. I like the lower jaw to be placed correctly by the horse itself. When I ask with a direct cavesson rein for a horse to look to the left, when his nose turns left, his lower jaw is free to move to the right, aligning the molars on the right side of his jaw. This is what we call stellning, or correct bending at the poll. It creates a freedom between the jaw and the atlas vertebra. When I ask the same with a snaffle or a bitless bridle that crosses underneath, I actually pull the lower jaw to the left, which can result in a tilting of the head, a stiffening in the jaw or a wrong rotation into the horses spine.
With the cavesson, I teach the horse the direct and indirect rein, my half halts, the stops. I bend the horse and send him forward down towards a giving hand.
When I am ready to ask more collection, I add the curb bit. The curb is an unbroken bit with shanks. The use of the curb is through the leverage system of the shanks and the chin chain. The effect of a correct use of the curb, is that it stretches the muscles in the upper line in the neck, causing the ears to move forward and the skull to be placed more vertical with an ‘open neck’. Meaning, the space between the jaw and the atlas should be kept ‘open’ so that the horse’s biofunctions remain intact. A snaffle cannot do this, as it does not have this leverage system and would simply pull the lower jaw closer towards the neck, compressing the windpipe, salivary glands and esophagus.
Many consider the curb to be a cruel tool and a snaffle bit more friendly. Snaffles are widely accepted in the horse community. However, with the snaffle there is much more risk of compression of the neck and of damaging the bars and the teeth. Many riders ride with lots of weight on the snaffle reins. With a curb, you already have a good communication with a loose rein. Yes, it looks more scary with the shanks, but as with any tool it is not that scary once you understand how to use it. Many of the Old Masters would only use cavesson and curb and you can find many images of them riding with a loose rein. That is the beauty of the curb; you have communication with a very loose rein, and you can stay very quiet and soft in your hands. Of course, the image of the curb nowadays is a bit different, as we see many riders misusing the curb, riding with tight contact and shanks pulled backwards vertically.
An alternative for the curb for those who do not want to use or cannot use a bit is the hackamore. It uses the same principle of the leverage through the shanks. Nowadays, we even have a combination of cavesson and hackamore available: the cavemore.
So, for a long time I train my horses with the combination of the cavesson, for bending and half halts, and the curb for collection.
When my communication with my horse is good enough, when my horse understands me through my seat and when my control over my seat is precise enough, I can stop and turn my horse in correct bending and with the right forward-down just from my seat. Then, I do not need to use the cavesson anymore and can ride with curb only. As the curb is unbroken, you cannot use your reins separately. Therefore, the curb should be used one-handed. When I become even more advanced with my seat and my horse is able to collect from the seat, you can take everything off and ride without anything on the head.
This should always be the goal of the Art of Riding; to master the seat and the communication with your horse to a degree that you do not needs as many tools anymore. However, there will be very few riders that have this control over their seat to be precise enough right from the beginning. And there will be very few horses who will instinctively understand what we mean exactly and who are able to execute all exercises without some extra support. For most horses, we will need these tools, whether a cavesson, curb or other bridle, to explain to the horse in a clearer way what we want.
So for those riding naturally, with no contact to the head, the discussion is what kind of communications you can have going with your horse and how many nuances you can have in this communication. Can you ask your horse to place its jaw in the exact position to allow a good biomechanics, can you truly free the shoulders?
For those riding with tight contact, is your horse truly stepping forward under and bringing up the back? Is the jaw moveable and the mouth soft? Can you ask your horse to place its jaw in the exact position to allow a good biomechanics, can you truly free the shoulders?
You see, both ‘extremes’ probably want the same end result; a horse that can move freely, feels good about itself and sits comfortably. But by fighting over the tools and not questioning the use and how we could learn from each other in finding a way to reach our goals, we will not resolve our issues. In both worlds, I see good trainers and bad trainers. The good ones all have in common that they are able to communicate with their horses and give them a biomechanical correct shape.
In my opinion, we should treat bits and all other types of bridles as a tool to communicate with our horses, to be replaced by our seat when our communication gets better.
So in this whole discussion, let’s not blame the screwdriver for doing a bad job, let’s blame the handyman who is using it.
Any device on a horse’s head will be as severe as the hand that holds the reins!
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Is an accomplished rider, clinician and published author who combines her extensive knowledge in classical dressage, biomechanics, ethology, human anatomy and zen principles to guide riders on their journey to self-improvement. The goal: harmony & lightness in the cooperation between human and horse.