Dwyer's Philosophy of Bitting

The last two weeks, stuck at home, I have been reading, re-reading and digesting the bitting information in Francis Dwyer's “On Seats and Saddles, Bits and Bitting.” I have been questioning all of my old assumptions about bits and riding with bits. While reading and thinking about this information I have wondered if many of the modern fads in riding, which many of us old-timers decry, come from easily corrected mismatches between the horses and their bits.

I will be quoting Dwyer in spite of his rather verbose writing and long sentences, because what he wrote could be the answer to an infinitude of problems that riders have with their horses. The stuff in parentheses are my clarifications and I put some important statements in all caps or I underlined them.

One of the modern fads has been to throw out all the bits as inherently cruel and to change to riding bitless. Often the proselytizers include in their writings pictures of horses obviously in great pain from the misuse of the bit. Some people seem to think that it is impossible to use bits on horses without equine distress and pain. I have written before that in spite of me trying out 6 different bitless systems on several of the horses I ride, that I find that the horses protest LESS with the bit than they do if I keep contact with any bitless bridle. Because of my MS I have hand tremors, I have difficulties following the horse's mouth with my arms (I have to use my fingers), I often do not know where my hands are, and I am uncoordinated. You would think that the horses would ALL prefer that I use a humane bitless system than any bit, but I get more resistances from the bitless bridles than from the bits.

From page 18 “...how many horses, especially young ones, are made restive, and become plungers, bolters or rearers through the intolerable pain occasioned by bits that are wholly unsuited to their mouths, and sometimes fitter for a rhinoceros than so sensitive and delicate an animal as the horse.”

Page 26 “A ship with a damaged or badly constructed and ill-fitting rudder is not more awkward and difficult to manage than a horse with a bit that is not perfectly adapted to his mouth and his whole frame, or which has been ill placed (in his mouth.)”

Page 119 “...the art of bitting and bridling is a very useful and essential one, because it enables us to AVOID THE INFLICTION OF PAIN, whilst it secures to us a perfect control over the horse's movements. It consists in enabling us to exercise the mechanical action of the reins in the proper degree and the right direction, for every horse and for every movement.

The influence of good and judicious bitting and bridling on the breaking-in and training of horses is incalculable, whilst ignorance on these points, and abuse of these instruments, are a very frequent cause of restiveness, and the ruin of young animals, especially of highly-bred ones (TB, Arab. Barb or high concentrations of this blood), with their delicate organizations....It is scarcely credible THE AMOUNT OF TERROR WITH WHICH SOME HORSES REGARD THE BIT, and the blind fury with which they take it between their teeth, throw up their heads, and bolt in consequence.”

Reading these words made me remember the difficulties that Hat Tricks, my first horse, and I had as I learned to ride. Luckily for Hat Tricks the school of horsemanship I follow (Forward Seat) emphasizes getting the horse's cooperation by immediately correcting whatever I do that drives my horse crazy, instead of doubling down and getting harsher with my aids. Whenever I misused the bit Hat Tricks would make SURE that I knew I was irritating him (flinging his head, gaping with his mouth, and resisting the bit completely), luckily for me when I corrected myself Hat Tricks forgave me until the next time. I was fortunate, I do not think Hat Tricks ever viewed his bit with terror.

However I did have one mare who came to me terrified of the bit. My parents had bought her when they got some land, and she came with a horrible bridle, whose bit was a 5 ½ inch Western “Tom Thumb” curb with a jointed mouthpiece. The mare had a 4 ½ inch wide mouth and this horrible bit caused a LOT of problems with her. Even when I changed her over to 4 1/2” wide bits it took me months to get rid of the bolting, balking, gaping, inversion, and refusal to keep good contact. However once she lost her terror of bits she was very nice in the bridle.

Dwyer again, page 122, “...the great importance of well understanding the principles on which bits and bridles should be applied and constructed, both as a means of ensuring to the rider and driver perfect command over their horses, and also of SAVING THESE MOST USEFUL AND DOCILE ANIMALS FROM ILL TREATMENT AND UNNECESSARY PAIN.”

Dwyer claimed almost immediate results from putting a properly sized bit in the right place in the horses mouth. Page 122--”The writer of this has on more than one occasion converted, in the course of a few days and at very moderate expense, a body of this kind (a troop or squadron of light cavalry) that had become almost unserviceable from bad bitting into a model of steadiness, the bolters and restive horses all disappearing as if by magic. No doubt, in order to affect this, every single horse's mouth must be measured and fitted.”

Please note, Dwyer got this change ONLY from changing the bits and where the bits lie in the horse's mouth. He DID NOT cut their feed, use some calming supplement, send their riders to months of lessons, retrain these horses for months, lunge the horses to death, use draw reins or spend a lot of money on the newest “miracle” bits. All he did was measure the horse's mouth at the proper places and change the horse's bit(s) to ones that fit his mouth. That is all it took to change these horses from being a danger to themselves, their riders and anyone or any horse around them to docile, cooperative and easily controllable horses. “As if by magic” indeed!

I read a lot in some horse forums, and a lot of the problems I read about I now suspect are just caused by improperly fitted (usually too wide) bits that are put in the wrong place in the horse's mouth. Instead of months and months of expensive training, expensive riding lessons, and trying out expensive bit after expensive bit, maybe it would profit these riders to be like Dwyer who went back to the basics, a properly fitting bit for each horse.

Next week, if I have enough energy, I will get into how Dwyer measured the horses mouths and his theories about the right place in the horse's mouth for a bit, as well as his theories about the shape of the mouthpiece of the bit.

I own a lot of bits. A lot of riders who ride for decades also own a lot of bits. Right now I am thinking that I could safely get rid of a lot of them. From what I read from Dwyer the basic bits available to him, if properly fitted, were sufficient for a lot of different horses. He used a basic ported curb (cavalry or Weymouth) and a basic single jointed snaffle or bradoon. He did not need fancy mouthpieces and he did not need thick bits, he did not need tight nosebands, and he writes against a lot of modern mouthpieces including three piece snaffles, curved mouthpieces, and wide ported curbs. All he needed was a wide variety of widths of these basic bits and an accurate measuring system.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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