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Although bitless bridles are getting increasingly popular, most horse riders today still use a bit to control their horse.
Many people consider the bit essential to riding, while others suggest it’s unnecessary and cruel.
Horse bits are not necessarily cruel, though they can cause discomfort and pain for the horse. It all depends on the rider’s hands and the type of bit. However, if used harshly, any bit can do permanent damage to the horse’s mouth.
Unfortunately, even the gentlest bits such as a snaffle still cause discomfort to the horse. However, if used kindly and responsibly, bits can become an effective means of communication between rider and horse.
Why Do Riders Use Horse Bits?
The tradition of using horse bits has stood the test of time remarkably well. First used in the Bronze Age (3300 BC to 1200 BC), bits are still the primary way riders control their horses from the saddle.
The main reasons why riders use horse bits are:
Bits sit directly on the soft tissue of the horse’s mouth, in the gap between the incisors and the premolars. As this is an extremely sensitive area, horses will respond to even the slightest pressure immediately.
Because there is little to no delay between the rider’s signal and the horse’s reaction, bits are a very effective training tool. Riders can achieve goals much quicker with a bit than without, which is why they are so widespread in equestrian circles.
In most situations, bits guarantee the rider full control over the horse. Horses cannot ignore the pressure in their mouth for too long and will be keen to relieve the discomfort by responding to the signals.
However, this level of control comes at a cost. Some horses might grow to hate and defy the bit, which can cause a whole array of problems.
At times, bits can even be counterproductive, according to Dr. Robert Cook, a professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts. If used too roughly, bits can make horses “run from the pain” and cause them to speed up instead of slowing down. Hence why the careful and responsible use of bits is so important.
Horse bits also give a feeling of security and confidence to equestrians. Many riders consider it unsafe to ride without a bit and rely on its power when riding in traffic or on the trails.
Drawbacks of Horse Bits
While bits offer several advantages to the rider, the same cannot be said about the horse. In one of his many studies about the effects of horse bits, Dr. Cook identified over 200 negative behaviors and 40 diseases that can result from wearing a bit.
A fairly obvious risk of using a horse bit is damage to the horse’s mouth. Structures that tend to suffer the most damage are the bars, premolars, tongue, hard palate, and the corners of the mouth.
Although pressure is most concentrated on these areas, the horse may also feel pain throughout the face, nose, jaw, eyes, and ears. Bits that use leverage action such as the Pelham or Tom Thumb exert additional pressure on the poll and the chin groove.
Bone spurs are small protrusions that form on bones that have undergone trauma and remodeling. An area that is particularly prone to bone spur formation is the bars of the horse’s mouth.
According to Dr. Cook, the thickness of the gum over the horse’s lower jaw is only around 2 mm. Therefore, it doesn’t take much for the bit to damage the bars and cause excess bone growth. Bone spurs can go undetected throughout the horse’s life and will further increase the discomfort in the mouth.
Pressure on Nerves
All types of bits put some degree of pressure on the nerves of the horse’s head. A nerve that’s often badly affected by bit use is the trigeminal nerve.
This superficial nerve travels down from the base of the ear to the muzzle and controls the muscles used for chewing. Through excessive jarring of the bit against the jawbone, the trigeminal nerve can become oversensitive and cause headshaking, a condition known as trigeminal neuralgia (Source: Horse Sport).
Studies have shown that bits can interfere with the horse’s breathing by triggering an “eating response”.
Bits naturally encourage the horse to salivate, chew and swallow as they constantly move in the mouth. According to Dr. Cook, the throat prepares for swallowing by narrowing the air channel and widening the food channel. This restricts the amount of air that can reach the lungs, which impairs breathing.
Hindered Balance and Movement
Since the bit directly controls the position of the head and neck, it can hinder the horse’s balance and movement if used by an inexperienced rider. What’s more, bits can alter the horse’s gaits by shortening stride length, says veterinarian Joyce Harman.
According to Dr. Harman, certain muscles of the equine tongue attach to a set of bones known as the hyoid apparatus. These bones are also the origin of two major muscles of the neck that attach to the breast bone and the shoulder blade.
Therefore, tension in the tongue translates to tension throughout the neck and shoulder. The result is a stiff horse performing below standard instead of being relaxed and supple in these areas.
Last but not least, bits can trigger a range of undesirable behaviors in the horse. Examples are head shaking, bucking, bolting, napping, rearing, and excess salivation.
Are Horse Bits Ethical?
The use of horse bits is not ethical as it involves knowingly inflicting discomfort and pain on the horse. Many people argue that horse riding itself is not ethical.
There’s a wide community of vegans and animal rights activists who are against the use of horses for human entertainment. From their point of view, horses don’t need humans to survive in the wild, and taking advantage of them in any way is an unethical act.
On the other hand, some scientists argue that domestication by humans might have saved the horse from going extinct in the past. Several large Ice Age species have disappeared from the face of the Earth due to overhunting by humans.
Therefore, the new role of horses in human society likely saved them from encountering the same fate.
We explore this subject further in our article Is Horse Riding Cruel?
Do Horse Bits Cause Pain?
Bits often cause pain to the horse, especially if used by rough hands. Bits that are incorrectly fitted or the wrong size for the horse can also cause discomfort and pain.
When riding a horse with a bit, riders should not forget that they are in direct contact with the horse’s mouth. Because this area is extremely sensitive, riders should always use the lightest aids possible in combination with leg and weight signals.
When attaching a bit to a bridle, two wrinkles in the corners of the horse’s mouth indicate a good fit. A bit that is too tight can easily cause cuts and sores in the mouth, making it impossible for the horse to accept the bit.
Here is a demonstration video of how horse bits work and can cause a horse pain:
Can You Ride a Horse Without a Bit?
Bitless bridles make it possible to ride a horse without a bit and still have full control over the animal. They come in various designs that range from mild to severe and are becoming increasingly popular.
There are many advantages to riding a horse bitless. Without the pressure of a metal piece in their mouth, horses are generally more relaxed and willing to work. Riders have also reported more expressive movement as a result of freeing the horse from the restrictions of the bit.
Do Horses Like Having a Bit in Their Mouth?
As a general rule, most horses don’t like having a bit in their mouth. However, some enjoy playing with the bit and are able to focus more on the rider’s aids as a result.
Strange as it sounds, there are horses that rely on the guidance of the bit and get confused without it. This is most typical of horses that have been trained with a bit from a young age and haven’t had bad experiences with it.