Do Bits Hurt Horses? (Yes, they can; here’s why.)

How Bits Can Cause Unnecessary Pain To Horses

Curb Bit and BridleIn the video below, Arno Hendriks recounts his own early experiences as a rider and why he now has compassion for horses whose riders use bits.  He then goes on to explain how bits work.

Bitted horses often open their mouths.  Using models, this video demonstrates what a bit does and why the horse opens his mouth (to avoid contact pain.)  When horses feel the constant threat of a bit on their palets while being ridden, they may adopt avoidance habits such as attempting to place the tongue over the bit, grabbing the bit, becoming fidgety, opening their mouths wider, or placing their chins on their chests.

In response to these avoidance behaviors, riders often don’t adjust their own habits and may simply resort to using stronger bits or devices that make it harder for a horse to relieve itself of pain.

When choosing to ride with a bit (and in many places you may not even have a choice as the majority of rental barns use bits), it is important to appreciate that a bit, no matter how “gentle” is still a foreign object being placed in a horse’s mouth and some will handle a bit better than others.  Many equestrians say when used properly, a bit causes no discomfort for the horse.  The problem is, what constitutes “properly?”   Obviously, few, if any beginners are going to know how to properly use a bit, but are also not likely to ride safely without the control of a bit.  But beginners aside, even advanced riders (as can be seen clearly all over YouTube) often violently yank and pull on reins clearly causing frustrated, high horses pain.

Even a single jointed snaffle, which many refer to as a “gentler” bit can hurt the soft pallet.  The double jointed snaffle adds pressure to the side jaw bone.  The jaw bone of a horse is sharp as a knife and applying pressure to push tissues (or on some horses, even the tongue) down along this sharp bone can cause excruciating pain.

Learning To Drive vs. Learning To Ride Horses

Cars are powerful and potentially dangerous machine that require mastering certain skills in order to maintain proper speed, stopping distances, and control.  To prepare for this responsibility we take the time to learn how cars work and take classes to how to safely drive them.  If we make a mistake, we may even cause an minor accident, but cars, unlike horses, don’t think for themselves, or experience pain when we make mistakes.  Cars, being machines, do not react emotionally, but only react to the way in which we steer and operate the gas and brake pedals.  In order to drive we are even required to take a written knowledge based test (for a learner’s permit) and a driving test to ensure we have the proper skills before being issued a license to drive.

This is not the case with horses, who, unlike cars, have a mind of their own.  Beginners learn by riding poorly at first.  All beginners should work with a trainer who can help them learn to use more than just a bit to control a horse, including how to develop a proper seat and use leg aids.  But virtually no person new to riding is even taught what a bit does before being handed the reins.  As a result, riders simply pull back hard on the reins to stop a horse — or worse, are so nervous or inexperienced that they hold onto the horse’s “chops” throughout the ride, never offering any release from the pressure.

Few trainers would be willing to put a novice rider on a horse bareback and without tack and start teaching them to walk, trot, and canter.  Riding takes balance, and for the beginner, it is always easier to learn with tack than without.  For this reason, bits can be a safety net for novices, but that does not mean what is good for the rider is good for the hose.

I do not consider myself horse savvy enough to offer an educated opinion to the bit vs bitless debate (my articles on bits is part of my learning process and I hope will elicit feedback from others who do know more.)  As a rider and horse owner I believe it is my duty to educate myself on bits and the responsibilities that come with riding with one in a horse’s mouth.  But I do feel confident in stating that all new riders should be under the supervision of an experienced trainer; not only for the safety of the rider but for the welfare of the horse who has a bit in its mouth.

Arno Hendriks’ video (below) is a good public service announcement about why I feel riders need to be supervised so that they may learn how to use as little pressure as possible and can learn to rely on other important aids to guide a horse rather than make it submit to avoid contact pain.  It also serves as a good argument as to why people who know nothing about bits should not be arbitrarily switching them around without the advice of a professional.  The wrong bit is always wrong, but sometimes the right bit for the rider is still the wrong bit for the horse.