If you go down to the river, you may see a fisherman. Ask him — they are almost always hims — whether a hook in a fish’s mouth hurts the fish, and you’ll hear what I always hear: “No. Fish don’t have any feelings. They don’t feel pain. A hook doesn’t hurt them.” If you go down to the stable, you may see a rider. Ask her — they are almost always hers — whether a bit in a horse’s mouth hurts the horse, and you’ll hear what I hear: “No. Even a very severe bit, in the right hands, can transmit extremely subtle, nuanced signals that cause no pain to the horse.”
Logic tells me that this can’t be true.
Horse training approaches should involve the principles of learning theory (the principles of how all organisms learn), and consider motivation, associative learning, reinforcement, punishment, shaping, and habituation. In addition, horse training should consider equine ethology (the study of the horse’s natural behavior), so that we use stimuli similar to those that horses naturally respond to, and reinforcers that they find reinforcing. This seems needlessly complicated, but that’s how the world works. In fact, basing our training on learning theory and ethology simplifies everything. Without understanding these fundamentals, we enter a world of accidental results and mythological explanations of those results. And that is today’s world of equestrian coaching.
Touch is very important to your horse. It is the main way that you communicate with him when you are on his back. Horses bond through touch, and relax when they are touched by a loving partner. And because his vision up close is very poor, touch becomes very important to him when you are up close.
The importance of touch is made clear when we learn that his side, where you might have once kicked him, is more sensitive even than a human fingertip or the calf of your leg, and that he can react to a touch that would be too light for you to feel at all.
In the history of human dispersion, the pattern of extinctions has always been the same: add humans, subtract species. We learned to hunt, but never learned the difference between kill and overkill. Many wish to believe that climate change produced a change of habitat which had fatal effects on the horse population of North and South America, and that this happened to coincide with the arrival of humans. But another view is possible: climate created land bridges, humans arrived, the horses disappeared, and the habitat they once maintained through grazing now changed.
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.”