There are a few possible answers to this question.
- To be kinder to your horse by removing the metal bar from their mouth.
- In order to eradicate unwanted behaviours in the horse that may be caused by the bit.
- To improve the health of your horse.
- To improve performance.
- To increase your personal safety and reduce the likelihood of accidents while riding.
- To foster a more trusting relationship between yourself and your horse.
- Because you want to ride your horse in a more natural manner and with less hardware.
Sometimes it will also be a combination of the above or some other reason altogether. To go into more detail;
Being Kinder to Your Horse
The oral cavity is an extremely sensitive part of the anatomy. Even a gentle pressure in the mouth causes pain. The bit (most commonly metal) puts pressure on the bars of the mouth, tongue, corners of the lips and sometimes the roof of the mouth. How much pressure is applied to each of these areas depends on the design of the bit and the riders hands.
Some riders feel a particular bit is ‘kinder’ to the horse due to its design, e.g. the French snaffle is often said to be kinder as it doesn’t have a ‘nut-cracker’ effect like a single linked snaffle and so doesn’t put pressure on the roof of the mouth. However what it does instead is sit snuggly on the tongue so when pressure is applied it applies a very strong pressure on the sensitive tongue.
In reality the bit must put pressure inside the mouth as that is where it is housed and pressure in any part of the anatomy of this sensitive area will cause pain. The scientific term for when an animal (or human) learns to accept pain as ‘normal’ is called LEARNED HELPLESSNESS. Plus the horse as a prey animal has evolved to hide its pain as much as possible to avoid attracting predators.
Just to put it into perspective imagine if someone invented a bit for dogs. If a revolutionary method of dog control were put on the market today whereby you controlled your dog via a metal bar in its mouth, the uproar would be enormous. People would object to it strongly, animal rights groups would protest loudly and (most) people just would not buy it and use it on their dogs.
Dr Cook carried out a survey of 65 horse skulls in 3 different locations and found that 75% of them had bone spurs on the bars of the mouth. Bone spurs are caused when the bone is damaged by the bit. The bone, while trying to repair itself, remodels and has sharp bony outgrowths from the surface of the bone. When a bit is subsequently placed in the mouth it then also impacts on these bone spurs, causing increased pain levels.
To Eradicate Unwanted Behaviours
Not all horses suffer all the time from learned helplessness. Sometimes a horse will suddenly flip out and bolt, buck, rear or show some other reaction to the ongoing mouth pain. Some horses never accept it and are always on edge, tossing the head, over-bending, sticking the head up high, chewing on the bit, bolting, rearing, bucking etc.
Dr Cook has categorized the reactions that horses have to bits into 5 groups. These are fright, flight, fight, freeze and facial neuralgia.
- Horses frightened of the bit may be difficult to catch, unfriendly when handled, resistant to being bridled, difficult to mount, anxious, nervous, ‘hot’, fearful, inclined to panic, sweaty, stressed, unfocused, slow to learn or show no progress at all.
- When the flight response is triggered the horse may be difficult to slow or stop, bolt, jig, prance, rush, fidget or have hair-trigger responses to the rein aids.
- A horse reacting by fighting may buck, pig root, rear, spin, pull, be argumentative, aggressive, confrontational, resistant, bossy, cranky, surly, resentful, heavy on the forehand, difficult to steer or stiff-necked.
- The freeze response is a reaction to pain or fear and is seen with horses napping (refusing to move forward), backing-up, lack of confidence/courage, lack of impulsion and refusal at jumps.
- Facial neuralgia (caused by nerve inflammation in the mouth due to bit pressure) is seen as an open mouth, head tossing/shaking, flipping the nose, being above the bit, behind the bit, rubbing the muzzle on the leg, hypersensitivity to light, snorting, biting the riders boot, teeth grinding, head tilting and difficulty to handle around the head.
Horses working without the above have better balance, a reduced likelihood of lameness and break-downs, bleeding from the lungs or sudden death from exercise. Stress and its associated physical results such as weight loss and ulcers are likely to be reduced.Emotional health improves with the removal of the bit. Imagine the emotional torment of not being able to avoid or run away from pain, of being trapped, and having to suffer whatever the rider does.
Also direct issues such as bruised/cut tongues, damaged mandibles, bone spurs growing from the bars of the mandible, nerve damage at the bars, soft tissue damage, bruising and infection of the bars, bruised gums, lacerations, inflammation, infection, chipped teeth, fractured jaw, lacerated tongue, nerve inflammation and split/bleeding corners of the lips no longer occur.
A horse working without pain usually has better brakes, smoother transitions, a lengthened stride, a better response to the aids, more stamina and speed, more graceful movement and is more rounded and engaged. Removing the bit often results in a calmer horse that then learns better and proceeds faster in their schooling.
Increased Safety and Reduced Likelihood of Accidents
As the bit causes pain and fear, removing it increases rider safety. Horses run from pain. It is not ‘safe’ to hurt and frighten an animal as big and powerful as a horse while you are sitting on it. Bits can make horses frightened, nervous, spooky, apprehensive, highly-strung and dangerous to ride. Such a horse will be distracted by the pain in its mouth and not pay attention to your aids.
In situations where a horse ‘spooks’ at some invisible monster, the rider may automatically grab at the reins to regain control. This then adds pain to the fear that the horse feels, thereby reinforcing in the horses mind the fact that the spooky object is indeed life threatening. When using a bitless bridle the situation can be brought under control without pain and the horse therefore finds it much easier to ‘let go’ of their fear and continue on in a calm manner.
A Trusting Relationship
As horse people most of us want a good relationship with our horses. We expect our horses to trust us (and hopefully we return the favour). However if every time we ride them we are causing our horses pain it is obviously a big ask to then expect our horses to trust us. If our horses are exhibiting undesirable behaviours we can begin to become frustrated and unsure of ourselves and lose our pleasure in riding and our confidence in ourselves as horse people. In some cases riders become annoyed, even angry with their horses and their relationship spirals downward.
Removing the bit from your horses mouth enables you to be kinder to your horse and improve its welfare both mentally and physically. You are likely to have a calmer more relaxed horse that then listens to your aids. Reduced stress for both you and your horse every time you ride leads to a much healthier relationship between you and to increased happiness.
There is a big movement now toward riding horses in a more natural manner. One of the first steps in this process is to remove the bit from the horses’ mouth. Many riders want to do this but feel they don’t have the skill level to ride and be safe on their horses without a bit or long-term extensive training of both themselves and their horses. By using a bitless bridle the bit can be removed immediately without losing control and without long-term training. Training can then proceed more effectively and in a more relaxed way for both horse and rider.
As with everything it is always an individuals decision whether to go bitless or not. However if you are riding with a bit and are experiencing any of the above problems or if you have just reached a point where you want to be kinder to your horse – the bitless bridle may be for you.