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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