Tradition & the Status Quo or Science & Advance?

Robert Cook FRCVS, PhD

Official bodies such as the FEI [International Federation for Equestrian Sports] and a number of racing administrations are aware of my arguments for a rule change to permit use of the crossover bitless bridle but none have, as yet, agreed to such a change. Their reasons for not doing so do not include any scientific arguments but are based mainly on a wish to retain the status quo. For example, a national federation affiliated to the FEI has recently stated that they follow the lead of the FEI in formulating their rules. They refused repeated requests for a rule change on the grounds that they cannot permit the crossover bitless bridle (CBB) for dressage as this would constitute a rejection of the classical tradition.

The answers provided by this national federation highlight a serious misunderstanding about the proper nature of tradition and represent an unnecessary obstacle to advances in welfare. Not once did they defend the use of the bit on the grounds that it was safer, more efficient or more humane. They simply repeated the explanation that the bit was traditional or classic.

Such a defense with regard to a question of animal management is ludicrous. The same argument in human affairs would support the continuance of the 'traditional' practice of blood letting and the drowning of witches.
Tradition should not be invoked as a barrier to humanitarian and scientific progress. Tradition may be acceptable over matters such as whether or not the British flag should be flown the right way up, or whether, when pouring a cup of tea, one should put the tea or the milk in first. But tradition should not be invoked in deciding questions relating to the welfare of animals, the science of ethology, and the safety of a sport.
Cruelty is defined as the infliction of avoidable pain. Now that an acceptable alternative to the bit is available, the pain of a bit is avoidable. It follows that the bit is cruel. A first step in addressing this matter would be to obtain agreement that at least a painless option should be permitted. One might hope that, as the bit can be shown to be cruel, administrative bodies claiming to be guardians of the horse, with objectives stating their avowed intent to advance the horse’s welfare would, in time, ban the bit.
Every horse is physically handicapped, not to mention psychologically harmed by having a metal rod placed in its sensitive mouth, to which rod (or rods) a pair of straps are attached that enable highly focused pressures of 30 lbs and more to be applied to the soft and hard tissues of the mouth. If waivers of the rules are allowed for "physically handicapped horse," every horse qualifies.
A bit is not an indispensable piece of equipment, without which dressage is impossible. The Duke of Newcastle made this clear 200 years ago, when he declared that he could 'dress' a horse with a scarf around its neck. Dressage horses do not have to be 'on the bit' but they should be 'on the aids'. The bit is a Bronze Age invention and the FEI and all the national federations that comply with FEI regulations should be glad that an acceptable alternative to this primitive and barbaric device is now available.

The FEI admit that many a horse is 'mouth shy' and warns its inspectors to be careful when checking the equipment after a competition. Have they never asked themselves why so many horses are 'touchy' about their mouths?
Webster's dictionary defines 'tradition' as "the delivery of opinions, doctrines, practices, rites and customs from generation to generation by oral communication." Civilization has surely advanced a little since it was dependent on oral communication. There is the matter of the written word to consider and scientific evidence. Tradition has 'the effect of an unwritten law" and that is where it should stay. It has no business in written rules and regulations which, to be valid, need to be constantly revised and brought up to date in the face of new knowledge. The bit has not been handed down to us by divine revelation. It was the invention of primitive man in 3000 BC. Do we really need to observe such a prehistoric custom?

John Maynard Keynes was right when he said that

"The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds…like the clinging roots of an old juniper."

One very persistent and incorrect old idea is that the bit controls a horse. Let me quote here the opinion on this of Dr. Jessica Jahiel, an expert horsemen, lecturer, instructor, author of many books on all aspects of horsemanship, and the founder of a treasure house of information on every aspect of horsemanship through her independent (and free) Question and Answer Newsletter at

"By giving up the use of the bit, you don’t sacrifice any control but you DO make it less likely that the horse will bolt, buck, or bite because of mouth pain. One of the great myths of horseback riding is that the bit stops the horse. The bit does NOT stop the horse. A bit can hurt a horse, frighten a horse, cut through its tongue, or otherwise damage the horse. A bit can be used to signal a horse, crudely and harshly or gently and lightly, depending on the skill of the rider. But no bit ever stopped a horse. All the bit can do is to tell the horse that you would like it to stop … and you can say this WITHOUT a bit."

July 2006

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