I was going through a box of old files during a clear out the other day and was delighted to discover two papers that I thought had been lost forever. One was my original doctoral research proposal on ‘The welfare implications of bit use in the domestic horse’ from 2001. Following a pilot study, I changed direction and ended up doing my PhD on ‘The influence of owner personality and attitudes on the behaviour and temperament of the domestic horse’, which I completed in 2005. However, I have retained my interest in bitless riding, and  so I was even more delighted to find the notes from a talk I gave in (I think) 2002 or 2003 as part of the ‘Equine Insights’ Symposium at The Unicorn Trust in Stow on the Wold, the title of which was ‘A Bit Unnecessary’. I found it fascinating re-reading it, and seeing how my ideas have developed and grown in the intervening 11 years. I was surprised to find that many of the points that I made are particularly relevant at the moment, given the current debate about the use of bits in competition horses, so I have decided to share it verbatim with you here. As you can see my writing style has changed somewhat over the years, I guess that’s what a PhD does for you (LOL) ;-).

 

A Bit Unnecessary

By Helen Toner 2002/2003

I sat down in front of my laptop in order to prepare this talk and I thought “What on earth am I doing?! I can’t talk to these people about bits, what do I know?”. Well, then I realised that that is not what is important. What is important is raising awareness of certain issues in order that people start to talk about them.

This has happened recently as horse owners have begun to discuss stabling horses and whether or not this is a good thing to do. The same thing has happened with shoeing and ways of feeding, new training methods etc.

So, I do not pretend to be an expert at all, I am simply here to share a bit of what I think and feel in the hope that you might all begin to wonder how you think and feel.

Last week I came across a quote from Jung that I thought was very appropriate to the stage that I am at: “Enlightenment is not about imagining figures of light, but of making the darkness conscious.”

What does that mean to ME? For me, enlightenment is a path, a way, it is not a destination or end point. In order to start out on this path I have to address the darkness within me and around me by bringing it to consciousness. This works on many levels and I don’t pretend to understand, but I do feel that it has helped me to think about this talk:

For me this talk is about making the darkness conscious, about addressing an issue that is in many ways considered taboo. I have raised it again and again with people to meet with resistance- why?

Why do we use bits?

  • History- we’ve always used them
  • Control- turn and stop the horse

 

ARGUMENT NUMBER ONE: HISTORY. INSTINCT vs SCIENCE

In his book, Bitting in Theory and Practice, Elwyn Hartley Edwards states that there is evidence for the use of bits in Mesopotamia as early as 2003 BC. The early bits were considered quite barbaric in modern terms, many examples in museums show sharp barbs on the mouthpieces and long shanks for increased leverage, indicating that they relied on using painful stimuli in order to control the horse in situations such as battle and hunting.

Hartley Edwards also says “the nomadic steppe horsemen of central Asia were the exception to the general rule, always riding in light simple bits, although they rode by instinct, without bothering their heads too much about the science of the thing”.

So the basis of this argument is that we’ve always used bits in one form or another since people started to ride horses, why stop now?

ARGUMENT NUMBER TWO: CONTROL. EXCITEMENT, STRENGTH, MAKING LIFE EASIER FOR US vs MAKING LIFE EASIER FOR THE HORSE

Another common argument is that bits are the only way that we can possibly control the horse, by inflicting painful negative reinforcement (Note from author: I have to intercede at this point and say that I ought to have used the term ‘aversive stimuli’ rather than negative reinforcement- you see, I have learned something in the past 11 years!) until they do what we wish (I admit that the degree of pain will vary according to the skill of the rider) and also through punishment for doing things that we do not like.

People often say “but in the heat of the moment, when my horse is excited, I can hardly hold him, even in his bit”.

Why do I believe that these are not good arguments?

Many horsemen will hurry to say that it is not the bit that causes the problem but the hand that holds it. I agree with this point absolutely: we are always seeking ways to make life easier for ourselves– saddles, gadgets, etc. Perhaps what we should question is our skill?

If we are unable to use a bit in such a way as to not cause pain or discomfort, then perhaps we should not use it at all?

How many of us can say that our hands are so light that we could ride on a contact made of cotton thread?

PSYCHOLOGICAL SECURITY AND COMFORT ZONES

Latchford, a famous nineteenth century loriner said “there is a key to every horse’s mouth” but he also said that “of every twenty bits I make, nineteen are for men’s heads and not more than one really for the horse’s head”, suggesting that the bit is more important psychologically for the horseman to feel that he can control his horse, than the fact of whether he actually can.

Visiting today’s saddleries with their arrays of bits, and reading the problem pages of today’s magazines, it is easy to see that this in many ways is still the case.

LEARN TO RIDE, LEARN TO TRAIN

Xenophon wrote “It is not the bit but its use that results in a horse showing its pleasure so that it yields to the hand, there is no need for harsh measures: he should be coaxed on so that he will go forward most cheerfully in his swift paces”.

Elwyn Hartley Edwards, in discussing the importance of the interdependency of mind, seat, hands, legs, trunk and body weight, states that the whole matter can be summarised by the following statement “The answer to the question ‘What bit should I use’ is three simple words: ‘learn to ride’”.

Why Not Bit?

One of the strongest cases that I have come across for not using bits has been presented by Dr Robert Cook in his article Pathophysiology of bit control in the horse, published in the March 1999 Journal of Equine Veterinary Science and available from his website. Cook says that “the use of one and often two bits, in traditional or normal horsemanship, constitute a welfare problem, a hazard to health, and a handicap to performance”.

Xenophon also spoke of the importance of the horse ‘pursuing’ the bit with the tongue, in order to stop the horse from pressing upwards with the tongue, and so tensing through the neck and jaw.

In 1987, Odberg said that “unfortunately, a number of horses appear to have to live with the chronic stress of not knowing what to do to avoid punishment, because the most frequent cause of bad behaviour is simply bad riding”.

WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?

There are many types and forms of bitless bridle available today. However, it is important at this point to think about pain and pressure.

Many of these brides work by exerting considerable pressure on the nose and head, and in the wrong hands can be even more barbaric than bits.

I think at this point I have to state my own feelings on the matter which are as follows:

There is no such thing as a kind bridle- we can have kind hands and a kind heart. In this way it is possible to train the horse to respond to light cues using positive reinforcement.

My own personal belief is that placing a lump of metal in horse’s mouth is invasive in the extreme and constitutes a welfare issue, no matter what the hands are that hold the reins.

If I were to ask you to be an athlete and perform with metal held in your mouth, even without reins attached, you would find it inhibited performance and caused you some distress.

People routinely accept placing bits in horses’ mouths without considering the fact of what they are doing.

I often say, why do you not just put a ring through his nose, or tie ropes to his ears instead?

In fact, you could even insert a metal bar up his nostril, sure you could teach him to respond to that

AFTER ALL

What youngster is born knowing what the bit means?

People are horrified…..

YET how is that different from placing metal in his mouth?

 

On my journey of enlightenment I hope someday to have the skill as a horsewoman and the strength of relationship with my equine partner and friend to be able to ride without saddle or bridle, simply there by permission and acceptance, with mutual trust and respect.

I hope I have set the wheels in motion- clicker training, listening to what my horses have to tell me.

IT IS A LONELY ROAD TO WALK AWAY FROM THE CROWD, TO STAND UP AND DISAGREE WITH TRADITION: MAY THE HORSES MY TEACHERS GIVE ME THE COURAGE TO FACE IT

BECAUSE THEREIN LIES A REWARD GREATER THAN ALL: THE TRUST AND LOVE OF MY EQUINE COMPANION, UNCONDITIONAL AND UNMATCHED.

We need to balance instinct vs science.

Finally, a point:

Who on earth thought it would be clever to attempt to stop a fleeing animal while sitting on his back, and therefore moving with him, by pulling on his mouth?

 

 

My 2014 self reads this talk, and I remember that day at the Unicorn Trust, the passion I felt, the honesty (and naivety) with which I spoke. If I was to do it again today, there would certainly be more that I could add, about the use of aversive stimuli and their role in sympathetic arousal, about the safety issues inherent in this type of approach to training, about individual differences, consciousness and the emotional lives of horses. I would probably present a more tempered, gentle argument. In the intervening years, I have developed my riding skills and I have worked with appetitives to gradually introduce naïve horses to bits and to train them in a very positive way how to respond to rein aids. I have found that, in those cases, the bit can be used in a very refined way. That doesn’t change my personal choice though, which would be to avoid using them, where possible. But one thing that does please me, when I remember how lonely I felt to even be questioning the use of bits, and pressure in training, is to realise just how many other people there now are out there, speaking their thoughts, and waking the horse world up to the habitual use of aversive stimuli, fear, pain and threat that lies at the heart of traditional horse training. More importantly for me, I feel blessed to be able to say that I have my beautiful mare Rosie, who I bred, who I have trained from scratch with the use of appetitives, and who I can ride in the field without saddle and bridle, without the need for pressure or the threat of pressure, either in the training or the execution.