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Claims about Horse Bits

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Claims about Bits, or Bitless
( Part Three )

by Bonnie J. Hilton  ( Horse Training Article   copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle magazine . )

The article that I just completed about the bitless approach led me to notice what has been stated in print about bitless equipment and bit use. I took exception to some of the seemingly factual statements made for equipment use in some promotional material.  Is the general public believing what is said on face value?

For the uneducated, to read and believe what they see in print about some products is dangerous. To believe something said about the training of the equine in a product advertisement without a good understanding of what is being talked about, is not wise. Please remember that in most cases the advertisement is there to sell the product. Unless there is a major outcry, the statements will remain, even if they are not all that factual.

So I want to provoke discussion and thought with the following questions and statements.

Are bits painful and cruel?
No bit produces action of its own volition. Anything put in the mouth of an equine and controlled by either ignorance or temper will produce pain and can be considered cruel. Only through education and a return to horsemanship basics are we ever going to stop the quick fix trend of reaching for another, supposedly, better working bit. I have lived through the expansion of this trend, fallen victim to it at times and remain working because of its spread and deceit.

The answer is most often not in the bit!!!  However, are we suddenly going to put every difficult, dangerous, problem, badly started horse on the planet back into training? Who is going to pay for it? In order to survive getting from point A to point B in the short term, a bit change may be the only answer. Where do we draw the line in design and who will dictate what is acceptable? If we keep promoting ridership, the trend will continue. Ridership often needs a quick fix and savvy product design entrepreneurs will meet the need. In my opinion, if we swing the pendulum back to the teaching of horsemanship, the trend will cease and desist.

A student of horsemanship will introduce the bit slowly and with much care so that the young equine learns to accept the bit and understand what contact to the mouth, through the bit, means. The student of horsemanship will also produce a fit equine, capable of self carriage and able to calmly perform in the gaits, both in hand and under saddle, with no reliance on the bit. It is assumed that all attempts are made to keep the kindest, gentlest bit in use that will be effective in the performance being carried out.

Performance achieved slowly over time, with consistent training practices, will have little to do with the bit. Welcome to my fantasy land where equine sport is not business and money is not dictating the means whereby to achieve a result. A fantasy land where the beginner horseman learns that the bit is ruled by the hand and the corresponding structure of the total rider.

What does it mean to have a set of good hands? How do we rebalance ourselves, even when in motion? Don t we use our anus? How does a horse rebalance itself in the natural? Doesn t it use its head and neck?

So is our goal to aid and help develop better and better rebalancing and thereby better performance in our equine. We have to have the ability to self balance ourselves first, without balancing on the reins, which are attached to something, which may not be a bit.

The student of horsemanship who encounters an equine with problems, will attempt to determine what needs to be done with the equine to make it more comfortable, even if it means a complete change of performance goal setting. By comfortable I don t mean just the mouth. I mean the total horse, range of motion, side to side flexion ability and production of forward. None of this has anything to do with the mouth. A lot has to do with what is going on between the ears. However, all this assessment takes time and as I have said so often of late, it comes at a cost. How do we change the economics?

Are bits necessary? 
I ll answer the question with another question. Can you achieve the performance you want without a bit, with a properly applied and adjusted alternative application? As long as you don t place yourself in a situation where you have to comply with existing standards or rules, you don t need a bit.

 I trail rode as a youth with a halter and two leads. However, I would like to put the quality of the performance under scrutiny. I have seen with my own eyes one notable horse so terribly inverted, hollow backed and ewe necked, being bumped upon by a rider who remarked how wonderful it was not to be using a bit on their horse. They were riding their equine with bitless equipment, but the hapless equine, now horribly ill trained and unable to carry itself correctly, would eventually break down with sore back syndrome and front end issues.

The equipment was painless for the equine? My opinion was that the way the horse was being used was inhumane, with equipment that is touted as being more humane and kinder. Ignorance is ignorance and we should call it like it is. If you are going to ride an equine, then it is your responsibility to learn and understand how the equine must change its way of movement so as to carry you in good form. It doesn t make any difference what you decide to use for communication/control. You must learn how to train the equine to do this or you purchase an equine already trained and you maintain that level of training by  learning how to do it yourself or you pay someone else to do it for you.

I don t care what marketing hype you fell for, a horse will not maintain performance without being kept in the fitness level needed for that level of performance. Pasture statues are the exception. Too often, horses fall out of fitness and all kinds of problems develop and suddenly a new bit must be the answer or some other piece of control equipment or gimmick new to the market. Although the horse uses it head and neck to rebalance, for performance under saddle (and in harness) the head follows the rear. Simply put, you either keep the rear end working to push forward and lift the back upward or you are going to have performance problems develop.

The over use and misuse of bits or bitless under saddle to supposedly slow the horse and help activate the hind end in reality do the opposite. The same is true of any alternative equipment being used under saddle for the same result. A horse falls out of fitness over time and to bring it back up into performance fitness takes time, coupled with a program designed to increase carrying capacity of the hindquarters. In hand and under saddle this is slow, methodical work.

Communication, lateral control, stopping ability, etc., etc.
 I could scream at this point and I hope that many readers, who have some training background, feel the same way when they read some of the lingo used to market bit and bitless equipment.  I am not going to pick away at every adjective I found, this article would turn into a book! The lateral control remarks do upset me when I find people who think that shoulder control is all there is to lateral. They need to learn what true position right and left, shoulder fore and shoulder in really mean and where hindquarter placement and activation relate to lateral.

Do you stop a horse from the front end backwards or the back end forward? What do hocks and hindquarter ability to lower have to do with stopping ability? Is the poor horse bracing itself out of pain that has nothing at all to do with the bridle equipment and all to do with lack of fitness training and range of motion ability to perform? As for  ommunication.   I have years of experience teaching people, who have been riding for years, to finally learn how to communicate with an equine. The fact that it rarely has much to do with what is on the horse s face is what is so difficult to comprehend. Many horses are now kept as recreational vehicles, kept for reasons I have no right to judge, but I do take exception when marketing starts to make accusations not based on sound principles.

Some points to ponder on this whole issue can be found in the first chapter of The Allen Illustrated Guide to Bits and Bitting by Hilary Vernon. Under A prebitting logical approach the following points to be thought about before you take action over a supposed bit problem are given. Please, before you believe what you read about a product, may it be a new design of bit or something in the alternative equipment line, answer these questions. I will just list them, but I hope they help steer the reader away from the advertising hype and more toward an intelligent decision as to the training of your equine:

 1. Is my horse completely comfortable in the mouth? Teeth checked recently? 2. Does my saddle fit well? Is his back  mfortable?    3. Eating the correct food for temperament, work done, etc.? 4. Getting out of the stable for an acceptable amount of time each day! 5. Is the horse temperamentally suited to the work required? 6. Is he old enough for the work expected. 7. Is he fit enough for the work asked. 8. Have I the right mouthpiece and cheek for the shape of my horse s mouth. 9. Does my horse have an easy conformation to bit? 10. Is he in any discomfort or pain caused by a badly fitting bit? 11. Have I enough experience and ability to achieve my goals? 12. Have I allowed enough time ?

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