Is the Bit Really so Cruel?

An exchange of correspondence

Robert Cook FRCVS, PhD


I have read the articles on your website about the downsides of using a bit. I was curious, as my pony prefers bitless with anyone but me (due to bad experiences in a previous home) and I wanted to learn more.

In good hands, I cannot see that an English French link snaffle is such a bad thing. It doesn't have the leverage of a curb bit, allows room for the tongue, and in the mouth of a horse trained in the classical style, the amount of pressure is negligible. My pony, ridden in a bit, goes nicely in a classical outline, such that I cannot feel her mouth on the end of the reins, just the reins in my hands. She stops and turns to seat and weight aids, the bit is light in her mouth and her tongue is where it should be.

With anyone who isn't balanced and doesn't have good hands, she doesn't like the bit, but I don't blame her, neither would I! My horse, likewise, drops straight into an outline as she has been trained to do, and is perfectly happy. When galloping or jumping, my hands follow her head, allowing it the full reach.

So in horses like these, trained correctly, I cannot find things in your articles to say that their bits are cruel - can you help?

My response…

It is apparent that you are a good rider and that your pony is very discerning. You have good hands and, as a result, your pony works well for you. Quite understandably, however, she prefers to be ridden in a bitless bridle by anyone who does not have good hands. She makes her preference known by a change in her behavior – presumably a change that expresses her dislike of a pain in her mouth.

Cruelty is defined as the infliction of avoidable pain. The development of the crossover bitless bridle (CBB) in 2000 has provided, for the first time, a painless method of communication. The existence of an acceptable and workable alternative leads to the need to reclassify the bit method of communication. No longer can it be defended as acceptable practice as a painless alternative is available. As the pain of a bit is now avoidable, its continued use by the majority of riders (who are unable to use it without causing pain) has to be regarded as cruel.

The concept of cruelty is, of course, an abstraction. Just as there are degrees of pain, so must there be degrees of cruelty. A horse may exhibit no easily detectable response to slight pain. But horses have evolved to try and disguise their pain as much as possible, as obvious evidence of pain indicates a handicap and this, in turn, may attract a predator. So we should be careful how we interpret the body language of the horse. Signs of slight pain may be quite subtle and easily overlooked or mistaken for something unconnected with the bit.

Because of this, the CBB can be used as a test of a rider’s skill. If you can take a horse that has routinely been ridden in the crossover bitless bridle and now introduce a bitted bridle without triggering any adverse change in behavior, this is reassuring evidence that you are not causing your horse any pain. Can you do this with your pony?

Many riders who thought that their horses were perfectly happy when ridden in a bit have discovered that all sorts of problems disappeared when the bit was removed. In other words, they had not realized that these problems were caused by the bit.

Of course, there are many other reasons for not using a bit, apart from the question of pain. If you have read enough of the articles on my website at you will already know, for example, that the bit interferes with a horse’s ability to breathe and, because of this, with his ability to stride. This interference is more apparent in racehorses than in non-racehorses, nevertheless, competition horses and even pleasure horses are also affected by these problems. In the wild, a horse does not run with anything in its mouth. We humans prefer not to exercise with a bunch of keys in our mouth and the horse would feel the same. Unlike us, a horse cannot breathe through its mouth and an open mouth is a sign of abnormality, as is excessive salivation during exercise.

These are still early days in the availability of a painless method of communication. Use of the bit has been standard practice for 6000 years. It cannot be expected that everyone is going to be immediately aware of a painless alternative that only became fully available for the first time in 2000. It is perfectly understandable that many a rider might be upset at the suggestion that they are continuing to use an inherently painful method. In particular, a master horseman, with perfect hands, might resent being told that they are being cruel by continuing to use a bit. Putting aside the defense that a bit is still mandated for many FEI sponsored competitions, they can probably be exonerated from a charge of gross cruelty, in that the amount of pain they inflict on their horses is at least minimal.

If, however, we now consider the horseman with less than perfect hands, who lacks an unshakably independent seat on every conceivable occasion (i.e. the vast majority of horsemen) the situation is quite different. Looking back on my own riding days, I now realize that, without intending to be inhumane or cruel, I must - unwittingly - have caused my horses a great deal of pain. My defense is that, in those days (1950-1970), there was no known alternative. I could not be criticized for using a bit as no one knew any better. The research that I have done in the last ten years had not been published. It was regarded as good practice, for example, to use a double bridle for foxhunting. In fact, anything other than a double bridle was regarded as foolhardy.

Even the master horseman has had to spend years developing ‘good hands.’ If he/she used a bitted bridle to gain this expertise, how much pain was inflicted in the process? This pain being now avoidable, is the ‘master horseman’ able to say that he/she has never inflicted avoidable pain? Is it justifiable to use a bit, when learning to use it without inflicting severe pain may take a decade or more?

Accepting that most riders do not have ‘good hands’ it can be seen that if such riders continue to use a bit they are, in the light of the new knowledge now available, inflicting avoidable pain. Just as ignorance of the law is not an acceptable defense in court, neither is ignorance of new knowledge an acceptable defense in the world of horsemanship. Even such an august body as the FEI cannot be exonerated from criticism if they continue to mandate the use of a cruel method of communication. Some allowance can be granted them on the grounds that there is always a time lag between new knowledge becoming available and the time when this knowledge is regarded as having been thoroughly tested and accepted. The FEI is a ‘big ship’ and cannot be expected to change direction quickly. Nevertheless, in this age of information, it should not take long before FEI rules and regulations are updated to recognize the new situation. It is probably unrealistic to expect, in the first instance, that the bit might be banned but at least the rules should be changed to permit competition riders the option of using a painless (and safer) method of communication.

This has been a rather longer answer to your question than you might have expected but I hope that the above thoughts will help you to understand the new situation a little better. I will close by asking you a few questions. As you are a good rider, your pony remains balanced and collected when you use The Bitless Bridle.

Riders have no need to shout their messages, a whisper is quite enough. In fact, a polite ‘whisper’ of a request is much more likely to achieve the desired result than a rude ‘shout.’ The pain of a bit ‘command’ will often trigger the exact opposite of the rider’s intentions. Horses are prey animals and they run from pain. The bit is the most common source of pain causing a horse to bolt, rear or buck. It says much for the forgiving nature of the horse that they react to such pain as infrequently as they do.

We should apply to the horse what Thucydides recommended with regard to man,

"Of all the manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most."

Primitive man, who invented the bit method of control in 3000 BC, chose to apply his greatest force at one of the weakest parts of the horse’s anatomy. A metal bit applies highly focused force on the knife edges of the jaw, the so-called ‘bars’ of the mouth. A cross-section of the jaw at this level shows that, even in a draft horse, the jaw is smaller than a cross section through a standard hen’s egg. With the development of the CBB we have the option to forego such a display of power and use restraint.

You say,

"I cannot feel her mouth on the end of the reins, just the reins in my hands"

and I would ask you, on behalf of your pony, whether this is reciprocated. Does your pony not feel your hands and only the weight of the reins? With all due respect, I think not. Your pony’s mouth is very much more sensitive than your hands. This is not an equal exchange. The effect of rein pressure on a rider’s fingers is not the same as the effect of a metal rod on a horse’s mouth. That the rider feels no pain cannot be taken as assurance that horse feels no pain. Consider how much more accurate your tongue is in detecting a hair in your mouth compared with the tip of your finger.

Again, you claim that a French link snaffle "allows room for the tongue" and my response is to say that an exercising horse should not have any foreign body in its mouth. The tongue should fill the oral cavity and an exercising horse should not even have an air space in its mouth, let alone a metal rod.

You ask,

"So in horses like these, trained correctly, I cannot find things in your articles to say that their bits are cruel - can you help?"

I hope that I have already answered this question but if you will excuse me I will add one more comment. The classical way of training a horse is only a means to an end. For historical reasons, a bit has been used as part of the ‘means’ in the search for a balanced and collected ‘end.’ But we now know that a bit is not an essential part of this equation. A horse should be ‘on the aids’ but does not have to be ‘on the bit.’ In fact, in order to achieve the harmony of horsemanship that is the ultimate objective, it is much more likely that the average rider will achieve this in the absence of a bit.

I have documented 120 problems that the bit causes both horse and rider. Any method of communication that produces so many negative side-effects is not a method that can be recommended, especially now that a more humane, safer, simpler and more satisfying alternative is available.

I hope that the above thoughts will help you to understand that, even when a horse is – as you say - ‘trained correctly’ (by current standards, i.e. by using a bit), that this is no longer the most humane way to train.

August 2006

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