This month, both on the forum and on video, there have been discussions on whether use of bits constitutes abuse of the horse.


Let me be clear, if the rider does not know how to keep proper contact with the horse's mouth using a bit is abusive. From the pictures and videos I've seen in the last few years VERY FEW riders know how to keep proper contact, and yes, these riders abuse their horses mouths, often severely. I have seen this in all the riding disciplines that use contact, hunt seat, dressage, and saddle seat. The hunt seat and dressage riders' contact has worsened immensely from what was accepted decades ago, and to my initial surprise the ASB's saddle seat riders have deteriorated less than the other two disciplines, though some of the other saddle-seat breeds have deteriorated almost as much as hunt seat.


When I started riding hunt seat 40 years ago, good contact was 1) desired, 2) considered achievable by normal riders, and 3) taught. Way beyond the good contact of hunt seat was the contact of dressage, with some riders being admired for the supreme lightness of their hands and the responsiveness of their horses. When a hunt seat rider's hands got good enough and light enough to show true skill, then teachers often recommended dressage lessons to improve the hands further. Due largely to the influence of the Forward Seat teachers, the teaching of contact was systemetized with beginners riding with loose reins until their seats became stable, the intermediate riders learning contact, more refined hand aids, and the yielding of the hand, while the advanced riders learned proper timing, lightness, and flexions up to Ramener. Anything beyond this "belonged" to dressage. Also during this time, oh so long ago, riding the horse behind the bit was considered proof positive that the rider did not have good hands.


I remember asking several teachers how I could improve my already decent hands, and except for the Forward Seat teachers all the instructors recommended that I learn dressage. They had full faith that if I learned dressage that my hands would become lighter and more effective. Unfortunately that does not seem to hold true today.


It is quite possible to use a bit humanely. It is quite possible to get a horse to prefer contact for exacting riding. The way I ride now I ASK the horse to stretch out and establish contact, and the HORSE decides the strength of the contact. I get anything from contact that feels like the reins are cobwebs up to around 1/2 pound of pressure. If my horse goes behind the bit AT ALL I know my hands are too strong and I lighten up! If I was riding outside the ring, especially at a gallop or cross-country, the horse could well decide that he wants a stronger contact for support, say one or two pounds. This is natural for the horse when he goes faster. Galloping full speed across country and jumping fences the horse asks for more support from the reins to help him carry himself under the rider's weight. If the horse thinks that the bit or my hands are too strong and/or too inhumane the horse will not reach out for contact, and I have to ride with loose reins. Since I have MS and my hands are by no means perfect I think that this level of riding on contact should be within most people's reach.


I agree with the bitless people somewhat. If people cannot find teachers that teach good contact it is far, far better to ride bitless. This way the horse's mouth is not hurt (it does not mean that the horse stops suffering though, it is possible to be a horrible and abusive rider using a bitless bridle!) Most beginners would do well to ride bitless if not riding in a lesson with a teacher who can teach proper contact, and I think it a good idea for a rider's first 4 or 5 lessons be bitless. I join in with the bitless people who wish that the bitless alternatives were legal for showing. If people insist on showing even though they cannot keep good contact then bitless alternatives should be legal for the sake of the horse.


I have read of people's horses miraculously transforming when changed from a bitted bridle to one of the several bitless options. I myself have ridden bitless off and on for almost 40 years, me and the horses I ride consider it as a fun alternative, especially days that we just want to poke around. However none of my horses have ever shown any miraculous transformations when I change to bitless, and when I change back to a bit my horses obey my rein aids just as well and even better than with the bitless (6 systems so far.) I do not use a noseband so my horses are completely free to show any discomfort with the bit. I find that when the horses learn my language of my hands that they show LESS discomfort with the bit and they stride out better when in a bit.


Bits are not inherently evil and cruel. Bad, stiff, harsh, abrupt, unyielding and unsympathetic hands are evil and cruel. Talking with your horse through the bit can be an enjoyable experience for your horse if you have decent hands. The signals are light, clear and noticeable. So long the hand signals are given at the proper moment of the horse's stride with the proper degree of intensity, and so long the pressure is released immediately there is not much that can make the horse uncomfortable. But people have to learn how to do this, they must be taught and shown the way, because it does not come naturally to humans. What does come naturally to humans is stiff, hard, yanking, unyielding death grips on the reins. This is why we all need good riding lessons.


Have a great ride!


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Comment by Jackie Cochran on November 6, 2010 at 9:50am
Yes, I often have apologized to horses. I do it even more now.
In England McTaggart made up a pair of reins combining brown wrapping paper and silk thread, just to prove how sensitive a horse was to the bit. John Richard Young got those reins and used them in the USA decades ago.
Comment by April Keays on November 5, 2010 at 5:38pm
Great comeback! Abuse is not in the tools we use, but in the hands that control them! Though I never had an instructor use this method, I have heard of some teaching new riders hand softness by using binder twine rather than reins. Not sure how successful this was, but it sounds good. I have spent years developing soft hands, but I remember as a teenager (with no one to teach me better), getting frustrated with a horse and giving him a jerk on the mouth, but the pain he exhibited just from that simple motion caused me so much guilt that I spent the next 10 minutes profusely apologizing and conditioning myself to not do that again!!!!
Comment by Nora Robinson on November 2, 2010 at 1:25pm
Jackie.......thank you for your post! It has come at the perfect time for me and my horse. Being an Arab, I believe her "natural" inclination is to happily trot along with her head in the air LOL! And I have no problem with that, except when we are doing some "schooling" (for me and for her!). I am not a naturally gifted rider, as in one of those people who can jump on any horse and look wonderful.....but I can hold my own on a trail ride, if you know what I mean.....
My preferance is riding western, but due to saddle fitting difficulties I ended up with a dressage saddle that fits her great. Anyway, I'm not going to blah, blah, blah a big long history, but over the last year and 1/2 I have become very aware of how heavy handed I was riding. I was using the reins for balance and have been trying very hard to lighten up and have had some success. I know that Tango is capable of moving from back to front....but I'm not as competent getting her to move that way. I've got 3 different bits and a bitless bridle, and up to now, have not had much consistency bringing her head down in a way that seems to be acceptable to both of us. It is som much more comfortable for me when she gets off her forehand and reaches more from behind. I guess basically what I am trying to say is that regardless of what contraption I pop on her head, or put in her really all comes down to my knowledge and capabilities. She is a very willing partner with a soft mouth and I don't want to ruin those wonderful qualities of hers!

Mr. Buck......would you be able to post a video demonstration showing how your system works?
Comment by Jackie Cochran on November 1, 2010 at 5:43pm
Thank you for your comments Allan.
I am just tellng about what the horses show me. The Arab mare I ride tries to take off her head gear if it is not comfortable enough for her. Right now she is in a Micklem bridle (no chin strap) with a Wellep snaffle bit, and this is the only set-up that she has never tried to scrap off.
When I get a Spirit bridle next year I will be very interested to see what she says about it. She is in her late twenties, and as a grand old lady has no hesitation in showing her disapproval.
I do not use the bit to get collection as I do not ride in collection. The few times I tried showed out every problem you stated in your reply. This is the main reason I do not try and ride in collection in a bit, the horses have all shown that they do not approve of me using the bit for this purpose.
I highly value relaxed lower jaws and relaxed tongues since I can use the lightest hand aids. I am not perfect, but this is the goal I aim for in every ride.

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