In the Night Farm…Your Ride is Here.

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.

Your thoughts?

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16 responses

  1. funder

    I’m glad you didn’t potentially endanger yourself and others at a ride by letting Consolation get out of control. 🙂 A ride start is almost impossible to train for without *just doing it.*

    I certainly won’t say I told you so – I was committed to riding in a snaffle (insert noble dressage-y phrases about the snaffle being the pinnacle of refined communication, etc.) til I came to the same realization you did. Dixie gets fired up at the start of a ride. She rates extremely well from a light hand on her myler curb. She rates much less well with the snaffle. Better to use a more effective tool with a lighter hand, IMO.

    December 10, 2011 at 9:35 am

    • Well said! Use the tool you need, properly and effectively, rather than trying to force an inadequate tool to do the job. Glad I’m not the only one who can’t figure out how to manufacture a “ride start” scenario for training purposes!

      December 10, 2011 at 10:05 am

  2. Ayla

    Totally makes sense. There are latex wraps(usually from tack stores- they are used in the racing industry as wraps outside of bandages for running in the rain but you can cut them shorter) that can make the bits less severe? Not neccesary for soft hands but probobly presses on the bars a little less.

    December 10, 2011 at 10:55 am

    • Interesting. I actually chose not to go with the mildest available bit because I didn’t want Consolation learning to push through a bit like she pushed through the bitless. Instead, I started with something that would command respect with an extremely light touch, right from the get-go. (cowboy snaffle)

      December 11, 2011 at 7:20 am

      • Ayla

        That makes sense. What is a cowboy snaffle?

        December 11, 2011 at 9:41 am

      • It’s a snaffle with shanks (technically, a broken-mouth curb), and is sometimes referred to as a tom thumb.

        December 11, 2011 at 9:50 am

  3. Sounds like I could have written this. 100% my opinion!

    December 10, 2011 at 2:18 pm

  4. So much depends on the horse and the circumstances. You have plenty of experience and I totally trust your judgement. No need to question your decision.

    December 10, 2011 at 2:31 pm

  5. Jacke

    As sometimes seems to happen…we are EXACTLY ON THE SAME PAGE. Only I’m not as good at it as you ☺ I wish I had been able to overcome my “fear” of the bit when I was starting Phebes. The better communication may have given us a partnership instead of a clashing of wills. The one thing that made her so hard to get through a ride successfully was my inability to rate her during the excitement of a ride. On our training rides? Loose rein, rating nicely…get to a competition, pow! Brain out the window. I’ve been accused that it was “my” excitement causing the issue. Having had Journey run away with me bitless a few weeks ago, I said I’m not going to do this anymore. We will try communication with a mild bit, and when she is working right that way in all situations, at some point I’ll try to take her bitless again (I honestly like how easy bitless is). Since the advent of the Myler suddenly I have this very soft bend, and I’m seeing a little vertical bend. At least I ask, and she responds. I’ve even kicked around starting Phebes over in a bit with a trainer and seeing if we can give LD a slow go again at some point. Bitless as the ideal? Yes, if your horse can (kind of like hoof boots/ shod). Do what is best for your horse, and in distance riding nothing is as important as the ability to rate your horse IMO. ~ E.G.

    December 10, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    • LOL Jacke. 🙂 There’s nothing worse than being run away with! Personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to try a bit in that situation. I, too, have seen a dramatic improvement in vertical impression with use of the bit.

      December 11, 2011 at 7:18 am

  6. I love riding bitless. ….and I love hearing others’ stories riding bitless. With that said, however, I have absolutely nothing against bitted riding. I used a bit for many years on my guy and decided to switch to mostly bitless riding because I discovered he was not only happier bitless, but also more confident.
    I think it’s ridiculous to say that all bits cause pain. A HALTER can cause a horse pain if the person on the end of it is rough with their hands. Just as you said….it’s a tool. There are a lot of tools out there and their severity is dependant on the hands that use them.
    I also think that every horse and every person are individuals and what works best for one pair in one circumstance (or discipline) isn’t going to be the same for another pair in another discipline. I don’t take much stock in the “cookie cutter” approach to ALL horses and riders….(and unfortunately, this is what I see when people are so dead set against bits….and it’s the same thing when people think one training method is “gospel.” They close their mind so much that solving any glitches in training or problems becomes difficult). Without an open mind and a willingness to try new things, a problem might not get solved…..and sometimes at the expense of the horse as well as the rider.
    If anything — I am so very happy to see the variety of possibilites that DO exist for horses in both bitted AND bitless styles. Bits come in rubber, plastic, and different types of metal mouthpieces in varied thickness. Bitless bridles also come in a variety of styles and modes of action. More variety means more possibilites….and more possibilities means the chance of finding that comfortable “sweet spot” with your equine partner are greater. …and that is a fantastic thing! Good luck with Consolation and her new bridle 🙂

    December 10, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    • Well, said, Carol. I completely agree, and your “gospel” analogy is apt indeed!

      December 11, 2011 at 7:15 am

  7. You have such great logic 🙂 One of my horses gets “race brain” as well and I use a bit with him. I tried bitless, and he is fine at home bitless, but definitely we are safer with a bit at rides. Especially at the beginning of the ride. I personally believe that ALL tools can be abusive (even a halter!) if in the wrong hands. However in the right hands there is nothing wrong with using a bit. Every situation is different and requires different methods, tools, thinking. It is great to be able to read these situations and adapt well.

    December 11, 2011 at 8:49 am

  8. Kathy

    This is an example of communication between horse and rider. I hope you find it as inspiring as I did.

    December 11, 2011 at 10:17 am

  9. Rosanne

    Your reasoning makes sense to me. We had one horse that was a total beast without a bit. We used a tom thumb on him with a light hand…and he was a dream to ride. We didn’t aquire him until he was about twelve years old, so we were never sure what he’d been through before us. Our current horses all go well with snaffles. My hubby usually waits for the bulk of the riders to get out of sight before he starts his ride on one of our boys though. Sometimes he gets race brain and just can’t settle down otherwise. (We are always willing to make adjustments to the horse and the situation.)

    December 11, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    • I like that strategy too, Rosanne — no point being up front if you aren’t trying to win! Around here, though, we have so many other riders that feel the same way that holding back just puts you in a slower crowd. LOL

      December 12, 2011 at 7:50 am

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