Which bit? Which bridle?
Last revised April 25, 2017.
A Riding Halter1 that is adjustable, comfortable, needs no brow band.
Bits and Headgear
Bits, spurs, and saddles are all potential sources of injury, and thus of pain. As pain warns us of pending injury, a horse that feels pain from a bit or spurs or a saddle is in the process of being injured. The pain or injuries from these “aids” won’t be obvious at first — at least to us, but over a period of time the injuries may show themselves.
Bits and spurs are tools that provide more control over a horse, and riders universally favor more control. Wishful thinking helps us believe that something so useful for our needs is not something that is hurting our horse. Riders will tell you that the way they use bits and spurs doesn’t injure their horse, or cause it pain.
You might ask whether a horse would be so willing to allow a rider to mount them if the bit hurt so much. As McGreevy and McLean have noted, “It is by no means certain that horses connect pressure in the mouth with the rider. They have not evolved to expect that another animal can apply pressure to the inside of the buccal cavity via a piece of metal.2”
But there are many who argue that neither bits nor spurs are necessary for a great day of riding.
A bit is a contraption placed in a horse’s mouth and connected to reins. A snaffle bit works by pushing the center joint up against the upper soft palate. In response, the horse is likely to open his mouth, or perhaps try to put his tongue (just as sensitive as the palate he is trying to protect) between the bit and palate. In response to the open mouth, the rider may use a nose band to keep the horse’s mouth closed. In response to the tongue on top of the bit, the rider might change to a bit that keeps the tongue pressed down. Or the rider might change to a bit that presses down on the lower jaw — a thin bone — with the effect that the sensitive gum is crushed between bit and bone. The horse might try protecting the gum by squeezing its tongue in between the bit and gum, further damaging the tongue. With the tongue jammed in over the gum, the horse may then open his mouth to try to relieve the pressure of the bit, reducing the contact of the bit. The rider, in turn, may add more tension to the reins.3 There is no happy ending to this cycle of pain for the horse. No wonder so many horses don’t run to the gate to meet their riders.
Jodie Foreman gallops bitless in Bonnie Doon, Victoria Australia. Horses don’t need a bit in their mouth. They willingly follow body cues.
Would a horse choose to have a bit if it had never previously used one? I doubt it. Using a bit is “conventional”, and going without one is “unconventional”. In England and the northeastern U.S., people ride with helmets and English saddles. In the American south and west, they are likely to ride with cowboy hats and Western saddles. In Australia, they are likely to ride with Australian saddles and helmets (though white helmets are common, and rare in England and the northeastern U.S.). None of these is right. All are conventions. Conventions are always safe — everyone will agree with you, no one will challenge you. But there might be a deeper truth that we don’t get to vote on.
There is no denying that a bit can cause pain, and can lead to injury. Many defenders of bits would like to think that in the right hands (their hands), bits cause no harm, no foul. But at various events, I see horses and mules ridden by such people, and I see horses and mules who look like they are in great pain.
What is a typical horse’s experience with bits? Recently, four veterinarians did a study of oral ulceration in Swedish horses when ridden with bit and bridle and when unridden. They found that “horses that were currently being ridden with a bit and bridle had a significantly higher prevalence of large and acute buccal ulcers opposite the maxillary Triadan 06 teeth and of the commissures of the lips, as compared to horses that were not being currently ridden.” They concluded that using a bit and bridle can cause oral ulceration even in horses that have regular prophylactic dental floating4. I suspect that most riders are not quite as adept as they fancy themselves to be. I suspect that horses know this.
An Italian study carried out in 25 riding centers with 650 horses found that “the prevalence of behavioral problems was lower among those horses ridden Western style than among those ridden English style; the latter employs more hand to bit contact.5”
Bits are usually tucked inside the horse’s mouth, and the mouth is normally closed. Out of sight, out of mind. But it is pictures like that below — and those images you’ll find with a Google search for “horse tongue cut by bit” — that make us realize that bits can hurt.
From the horse’s mouth: the horrors of equestrian sport6.
But bits do not merely cause discomfort, pain, and injury. Cook (1999) summarizes the problems with using a bit:
- “It can be responsible for a horse’s poor attitude to exercise and many behavioral problems in all types of equitation from dressage (e.g., head shaking) to racing (e.g., dorsal displacement of the soft palate)…
- The bit can be the sole cause of abnormal inspiratory noise (stridor) at exercise.
- To govern the speed of a racehorse using a bit and traction on both reins depends on poll flexion, which obstructs the airway and leads to premature fatigue, poor performance, and asphyxia-induced pulmonary edema (“bleeding”)…
- A bit triggers digestive tract reflexes, which are physiologically opposed to rapid breathing. Horses are being expected to eat and exercise simultaneously, two activities that are mutually exclusive.
- As the bit interferes with breathing and as breathing is coupled with locomotion, the bit also interferes with locomotion.
- A horse that leans on the bit loses self-carriage, and becomes heavier on the forehand. Its stride becomes shorter and, therefore, slower. In addition, greater stress is placed on the tendons, ligaments, joints and bones of the forelegs…
- Resistance to the bit causes rigidity of the neck, which is incompatible with optimum performance, and also reduces the effectiveness of some important energy conservation mechanisms. Human athletes need complete freedom of their neck.
- The horse is an obligatory nose-breather. At exercise, a horse’ s lips should be sealed and mouth closed so that no air enters the digestive tract. A bit breaks this seal and the mouth is often open.
- “Nonacceptance of the bit” includes problems such as buccal ulcers, wolf tooth sensitivity, pain during eruption of cheek teeth, star fractures of the mandible, lacerations of the lip, tongue and gingiva, open mouth, tongue movement, tongue behind the bit, tongue over the bit, swallowing the tongue, flipping the palate, headshaking, fighting the bit, chewing on the bit, bit between the teeth, boring, pulling and bolting.
- The safety of rider and horse are imperiled when justifiable resentment of bit-induced pain leads a horse to take the bit between its teeth and bolt.”7
Bits can cause pain and damage to a horse no matter the type used, no matter the skill of the rider. To the rider, the pain is not evident, because like other animals, horses have evolved to not express pain. I won’t devote this book to a war on bits. There is an ample scientific literature available that shows that bits are distressing, inappropriate, and unnecessary8.
What is the alternative to a bit? This one is easy: no bit. If you stop using a bit, your horse won’t salivate excessively, won’t be caught with his tongue out (or even with his mouth open), won’t throw up his head or toss it, and won’t need a martingale, a noseband, a tongue-tie, or a bit. If you have promised that you will never hurt your horse, then you must keep reading this section, and give the alternatives a fair try.
If you use a bit, and don’t want to hurt your horse, you will have to deal with your anxiety about what will happen without one. My mule Bud is a three year old as I write this. He was only “broke” a month before I bought him, and his next month he spent with a very good trainer, one who rode horses and mules professionally 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. Jason spent a month riding Bud with the requirement that he use a halter, no bit. Jason didn’t think it could be done, but was amazed to find that he had no problem doing this. At the end of the month, Jason rated Bud as perfect. But Jason was unconvinced that a halter would be enough for other horses and mules. He is certain that Bud is an exception to the rule. I hope he gives others the chance that Bud had.
Some riders use a bit because they are concerned about runaways. G is a Thoroughbred off the track. When we met, he was often ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. But he has never run away, and has always been bitless. Secrets to my survival:
- If your horse begins to go too fast, and doesn’t respond to a symmetrical pull on the reins, then simply take one rein with both hands, and pull hard on it. This will turn his head, which will turn his body. He can’t run while doing donuts on the trail.
- Act early. If you let him get to a gallop, you have your hands full. So begin braking when you first object to his speed.
Any alternative to riding with a bit and bridle must be able to turn your horse left and right, and must be able to bring him to a stop. Over the last 11 years of riding without a bit, I’ve thought about these issues. Once my horse reared and ran back to the barn when we were attacked by a big dog. I was glad he saved his own butt, and never thought that a bit could have prevented that wreck. Another time we nearly stepped on a small herd of deer. You know what happened. I never thought that a bit could have prevented that wreck either. So when is a bit needed? If you and your horse love each other, the answer is “never”. On a trail ride, do we use the bit to force him to turn left or right? My horse doesn’t need force. When we come to an intersecting trail, my horse is quietly asking “which way, boss?” My answer might be with a slight twist of my trunk or squeeze of a leg or touch with one rein or hand signal. All he needs is an answer, and away we go. If I want to stop, all I need to do is signal this, and he obliges. We don’t fight. I don’t need to bully him. He wants to cooperate. Unless you have a very special case, your horse should be as willing to cooperate with you as my thoroughbred who spent his early years running hard.
There are several options for leaving your bit at the barn:
A Bitless Bridle is one designed to provide some leverage without causing discomfort. There are several styles available. In a cross-under bitless bridle, each rein connects to a strap that passes through a ring on the side of the noseband and subsequently crosses under the horse’s jaw and up the cheek on the opposite side, goes behind the ear and joins the opposite rein at the poll. Thus, pressure is applied to the bridge of the nose as well as to the branches of the lower jaw, cheek and poll joint. The cross-under bitless bridle will tighten on the nose whenever the reins are pulled for a stop or turn, and may not fully release the nose when you release the reins, and the cheek pieces often get too near your horse’s eyes, so I have stopped using them. If you do use a bitless bridle, you may find that leather rein extensions that run through the grommets sometimes get turned while riding, making them cut in a bit, so you may prefer using soft nautical line for the work under the chin.
A cross-under bitless bridle9.
A halter. I have found that a standard halter is a fine alternative to a bridle with bit. Because it is a fairly loose fit, does not offer leverage, and does not put any intense pressure on any sensitive area, it offers limited lateral control and limited stopping control. Halters are not allowed in recognized competitions, except for competitive trail riding and endurance riding.
The horses and mules I’ve used them on have understood immediately what I was asking, and seemed to me to behave as well with it as they had been with a bridle and bit. I prefer a halter that won’t cut in and apply pressure to any small spots. I like to have it adjusted so that the noseband is far up the nose, where the bone is stronger and less sensitive. I just clip my reins to each side of it. Rope halters, especially those with small diameter rope that is knotted at key pressure points, offer more control, and more opportunity to injure your horse. I do not like them.
A horse wearing a nylon web halter10.
A Riding Halter is a halter designed to keep the cheek pieces away from the horse’s eyes, does not interfere with jaw motions like a bitless bridle can, and is intended for maximum comfort of the horse. It is worn with a loose nose band, maximizing the horse’s comfort. It offers limited lateral and stopping control.
A mule halter,11 which works as a riding halter as well. It is made of nylon webbing with a broad leather noseband. Can be connected as side pull, center pull, or no pull. My mule and I use the no pull setup on the trail, the center pull when we are both on the ground.
A Sidepull Hackamore has a noseband, usually of rope, rawhide or heavy leather, with reins that attach at the cheekpieces. It offers significant lateral control but limited stopping control.
A Jumping Cavesson (Jumping Hackamore) is a hackamore with a leather noseband and side rings for the reins. The noseband is often leather wrapped cable. It is essentially a sidepull hackamore that is more closely fitting. Compared to a sidepull hackamore, it offers less lateral control and more stopping control.
Closeup of Jumping Cavesson13.
A Bosal-Style Hackamore has a noseband with a “bosal” (knot or button at the bottom), and the pressure on the nose is what gets the horse’s attention and turns it or stops it. The reins are a single length of soft rope (a “mecate”), tied to define the size of the bosal. The looped reins may be tied to any length, and leave an extra length, so that when untied, they serve as a long lead rope. The noseband is typically made of stiff rawhide. Be sure to adjust this hackamore so that the noseband is far up the nose, and doesn’t put pressure on the tender bones near the nostrils.
A Mechanical Hackamore has long metal shanks and a curb chain that runs under the jaw. They offer great stopping power with their leverage, but are not very effective with lateral control. Their use is almost certain to cause pain to the horse’s sensitive nose. I urge you not to use a mechanical hackamore!
A pinto in a mechanical hackamore14.
If you are considering riding without a bit and have never done so, give it a try in the round pen or ring, where Mr. Horse can’t get going too fast. Wear your helmet and vest, gloves and lucky charms. When you are dressed for success, and Mr. Horse is dressed for success, what can go wrong?
1 Photo source: Dressage Naturally. http://shop.dressagenaturally.net/Dressage-Naturally-Bitless-Bridle-p/dnbb.htm
2 McGreevy, Paul D., and Andrew N. McLean. “Roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 2, no. 4 (2007): 108-118.
3 See the video “The effects of the bit part 1” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0a-aV0Rsxmg
4 Tell, A., Egenvall, A., Lundström, T., & Wattle, O. (2008). The prevalence of oral ulceration in Swedish horses when ridden with bit and bridle and when unridden. The veterinary journal, 178(3), 405-410.
5 Normando, S., Canali, E., Ferrante, V., & Verga, M. (2002). Behavioral problems in Italian saddle horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science,22(3), 117-120.
6 Photo from “Ridden for the Ribbon: Thoughts on Bits”, from Nevzorov Haute Ecole. Posted at http://riddenfortheribbon.blogspot.com/2015/08/thoughts-on-bits.html
7 Cook, W. R. (1999). Pathophysiology of bit control in the horse. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 19(3), 196-204.
8 If you haven’t seen the science that argues against the use of bits, read these studies: Ashley, F. H., Waterman-Pearson, A. E., & Whay, H. R. (2005). Behavioural assessment of pain in horses and donkeys: application to clinical practice and future studies. Equine Veterinary Journal, 37(6), 565-575.; Cook, W. R. (2002). Bit-induced asphyxia in the horse. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 22(1), 7-14.; Cook, W. R. (2003). Bit-induced pain: a cause of fear, flight, fight and facial neurolgia in the horse. Pferdeheilkunde, 19(1), 75-82.; Cook, W. R., & Strasser, H. (2003). Metal in the mouth: the abusive effects of bitted bridles. Sabine Kells.; Nevzorov, Alexander and Lydia Nevzorova Equestrian Sport: Secrets of the “Art” Paperback – July 31, 2012 Nevzorov Haute Ecole.
9 Photo source: Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitless_bridle
10 Photo source: WIkipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halter
11 Photo source: “Mule Halter”. Outfitters Supply. http://www.outfitterssupply.com/Mule-Halter/productinfo/WTK150/
12 Photo source: Online ad for Barefoot Sidepull Acorn. At http://www.hoofsteps.de/Barefoot-Sidepull-Acorn
13 Photo source: Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitless_bridle
14 Photo source: WIkipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hackamore