Going Bitless: My Story
When I was younger, I never thought twice about putting a metal bit in my horse’s mouth. It was just part of the necessary equipment for riding–along with the saddle and saddle pad. And it still is for the majority of horse people.
But if you stop and think about why bits (and many other devices) are used on horses, you’ll realize that most of them are pain-based. They get certain results because the horse does not want to endure the pain that will result if he doesn’t do what is asked. Of course, not every rider will cause pain to the horse’s mouth with a bit, but the bit certainly has the ability to inflict pain–the horse’s mouth is quite sensitive.
I always prided myself on having ‘light’ hands while riding, and my horses were always very responsive to the bit. When I started barrel racing in my mid-teens, it seemed I was always searching for the ‘perfect’ bit–one that would give me the rate and turn that I needed to have those fast times. With my horse, Hershey, I thought I’d finally found the perfect one–a junior cow horse bit.
Then one day, something happened that changed my mind about running barrels in a bit. I was running Hershey at a local race, and when I came out of the arena and dismounted, I noticed I’d pulled the entire bit through one side of his mouth by accident. I was horrified.
I immediately switched to a light hackamore–called a Little S Hack. I’ve used this hackamore ever since.
Many hackamores (as well as bosals and sidepulls) are also pain-based, but again, the level of pain inflicted depends on the rider. I believed (and still believe) that hackamores are much less likely to cause pain and damage than bits, though.
A few years ago, when I started freelancing, one of the first articles I wrote was about a study on bit damage performed by Dr. Robert Cook. (Is Your Horse’s Bit Harmful to His Mouth.) This made me think more about my bit incident with Hershey. I realized that bit damage was much more prevalent than I had ever thought.
When I interviewed Dr. Cook on my blog, I learned more about bit damage. Here are just a few of the things that Dr. Cook witnessed resulting from bits during his career as a researcher and vet:
- laceration and/or amputation of the tongue;
- bone spurs on the bars of the mouth;
- chip fractures of the first lower cheek teeth;
- bruising on the roof of the mouth; and
- periodontal disease.
(You can read my three part interview with Dr. Cook starting here.)
I also learned more about Dr. Cook’s patented bitless bridle and how it works during the interview. I decided I wanted to buy a real bitless bridle–which is different from even a hackamore. And I finally did so just recently.
Dr. Cook describes his bridle as being humane, safe, and effective. I believe this to be true. Instead of relying on pressure on a localized area such the nose or mouth, his bitless bridle works by applying pressure on a larger surface of the horse’s head with its crossunder design. It’s really a neat concept.
I am not writing this post as a review for Dr. Cook’s bridle, nor am I trying to advocate buying any particular bitless bridle. His is just the one I chose to buy. (Being on sale on Black Friday was a big incentive, too!)
I would encourage anyone reading this post to consider going bitless if you haven’t already though. Here are a couple of the bitless bridles out there:
We’ve been conditioned to think that bits are the only effective manner of communication in riding horses, but I’m here to tell you that they’re not. I left bits behind long ago, and don’t intend to ever go back!