Rethinking a Bit
In November 2008, I wrote a post titled Why Ride Bitless?
My answer, ultimately, was “why not?” Basically, if I’ve trained properly and won my horse’s trust and compliance, and can control my horse with a light touch during groundwork, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to ride her without a bit.
I also discussed the obligatory “pain principle” and “safety” factors. I touched on fine communication and collection. I made sure to note that while I preferred riding bitless, I didn’t fall into the category of anti-bitting activists that believe all bits are cast by the devil in the fiery pit of hell.
I simply didn’t need a bit, so I didn’t use one. And I stand by that post.
But…I also bought a bitted bridle. Just at the end of this summer. For Consolation. And yes, I’ve used it.
I suppose this will piss a few of you off, or at least disappoint you. A few more are reading with “I told you so” smirks. I hope, though, that the majority of you are simply interested in my logic — as well as the logic of anyone else having intelligent conversations on the subject — so you can add it to the collection of ideas on which you’ll base your own decisions.
Up until recently, I always rode Consolation bitless because I didn’t need a bit to safely do with her whatever we needed to do. So why apply a bit? Because circumstances changed, and the need for one developed.
Remember those first two years of Consolation’s endurance career, when I desperately hoped for (and nearly despaired of) the day she’d discover a love of the sport? Well, that day arrived. With her newfound enthusiasm, however, came competitiveness. And with competitiveness came race-brain, and with race-brain came pulling on the reins. Hard.
We never had a bad experience, and she never ran away with me, but it was apparent that I wouldn’t be able to hold her in forever. Once a horse learns that it can push past you (whether in the pasture, being caught; or on the ground, being led; or from under saddle, through the bridle), you’ve lost. You’ve taught the horse something that isn’t good for the horse to know. Neither of you is safe.
Ideally, of course, I’d have backed up to do some re-training on giving to pressure. My problem was that Consolation gave to pressure just fine when we weren’t at the start of an endurance ride — and when we were at the start of a ride, she was too strong and emotional to restrain completely. I could manage her pace (barely), but didn’t have the tools to enforce an actual lesson.
Any time you have a training problem, you’re obliged to solve it. If the tools you’re using aren’t working, you employ new tools. For example: If a horse refuses to trot around the corral, do you continue waiving your arm? Of course not; that would only teach the horse that it can ignore you. You get a lunge whip to extend your reach and add just enough pressure to get the job done.
Sometimes, a bit is the right tool for the job.
Some of you are still frowning. What about the horse’s pain? The horse’s fear? Is that really the basis on which I want to control my horse? What kind of “partnership” is that?
But hold on a second. Is Consolation really controlled by pain, or fear of pain, when I ride her with a bit?
I have very light hands. I have never yanked Consolation’s reins, never applied more than a soft and steady touch, to which she has responded with the most beautiful curve beneath me. I’m confident that the bit has never caused her pain. Therefore, she has no reason to be afraid.
But it could cause pain.
Of course it could. That’s why I wouldn’t use it with a horse that didn’t understand giving to pressure. That’s why I wouldn’t let an inexperienced rider touch the reins while she was bitted. Her bit certainly could cause pain. But it hasn’t.
You see, we mustn’t anthropomorphize. Horses are not people. They lack most of our brand of deductive logic. They do not think “My mouth is a sensitive area, and this bit is in my mouth. Therefore, this bit might hurt my mouth.”
Initially, a horse will regard a bit with the same suspicion it would apply to anything new — from a 30.06 to a harmless saddle blanket. That sort of trepidation is born of survival instinct, not logic. Once an object is proven harmless, the anxiety disappears. This is as true of a bit as it is of any other training tool.
Consider the whip again. I could use it to cause my horse pain, and the horse would then respond to the whip out of fear. Instead, I use it to leverage my inferior strength and speed, applying just enough pressure to guide the horse, and the horse responds without fear. So it is with the bit.
I still ride bitless 95% of the time, because my Crazy Ropes Indian bosal suits the task at hand. But when the task changes, I’d be a fool not to change things up — just a bit.