Oral injuries caused by bits are a painful equine welfare problem. Despite being such a common problem it isn’t something that’s widely discussed or acknowledged in the equestrian world.
The conversation around it has become deeply polarised, with the bitless camp crying bloody murder every time there’s a photo posted of a horse being ridden with a bit, and the bitted camp saying that you need to use a bit to communicate effectively with a horse and that, used correctly, bits are not harmful.
There’s little constructive discussion around the use of bits and you’re typically seen as either for or against – and judged by that opinion alone. The worst thing about it all, is that we’re focusing on anecdotal evidence and personal preference rather than pushing for more research, development of products and teaching riders to become better at a wide variety of tools and techniques.
What are the signs of bit induced trauma in horses?
The signs of discomfort or trauma caused by a bit include pain on palpation of the oral cavity, damaged facial nerves (facial neuralgia) and your horse avoiding the bit.
Some research has been conducted into the types of injuries caused by bits in the soft tissues of the mouth: on Swedish trotters, Icelandic horses, polo and racehorses as well as ridden horses in show jumping, dressage and eventing.
The research that does exist isn’t directly comparable, as different systems of classification and observation of the injuries were used.
Finnish veterinarian Kati Tuomola conducted a study as a part of a welfare program for trotters, carried out by The Finnish Trotting and Breeding Association, to assess the extent of damage caused by bits in Finnish racing horses.
The results are disheartening
- Out of the 261 horses examined, 84% had some kind of soft tissue damage caused by the bit.
- Over half of the horses had more than one injury and one in five horses had severe lesions.
- Visible bleeding outside of the mouth was observed in 2% of the horses.
- 5% had blood on the bit when it was removed from the mouth (even though there was no blood visible outside of the mouth).
The study found that soft tissue lesions were common in the horses examined. It also concluded that the absence of blood outside the mouth doesn’t rule out serious injuries inside the mouth.
In Finland, according to the competition veterinarians’ instructions, the horse is examined by a veterinarian if bleeding is detected in the mouth.
I find it tragic that the oral health of horses doesn’t become a concern until there is visible bleeding. Even without bleeding extensive damage can occur in a horse’s mouth – too many horses have very visible scars in the corners of the mouth that can be easily seen with the bare eye.
It seems inconceivable that the standard logic seems to be “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t hurt.”
Could we have standardised, regular monitoring of oral injuries?
Rather than waiting for the damage to become severe, extensive and recurring, wouldn’t it be better to require regular oral exam certificates from all horses entering a competition?
The same way as vaccines need to be up to date if you want to compete, so should your horse’s oral health. If a horse’s dental care isn’t up-to-date or if damage was detected in the previous exam – and the issue hasn’t been remedied and the trauma healed – the horse shouldn’t be given permission to compete.
In addition, oral checks could be performed on-site at the competitions by certified vets. And ideally, this would apply to all equestrian sports and all participating horses – though I realise this is unlikely to happen as smaller venues simply won’t have the motivation or opportunity to cover such expenses.
But how can we expect owners, riders and drivers to do better if we don’t raise the bar for what’s acceptable?
The use of bits is regularly justified by the need to control a large animal – but the quality of that contact is too often a secondary consideration
Your horse is a large prey animal that may decide at any moment that it’s time to head in the opposite direction of where you’d like to go. By using a bit, you’re able to exert an amount of leverage over your horse that doesn’t exist without a bit.
You’ll also regularly hear that the problem isn’t with the bit itself but in how it’s used and that a skilled rider can ride with a “soft hand” – and this is true of any tack.
However, I’m going to assume that every rider at some point, for some reason, is going to lose their balance and lean too much on the reins or unintentionally yank them.
Extremely skilled and experienced riders may be able to ride with a soft hand and have a level of mastery over their own body that allows them to move with the horse in almost any situation – but this isn’t most riders.
Considering how easy it is…
- for a rider to accidentally pull on the reins,
- to learn how to ride in a manner that has you leaning on the reins rather than exercising your own balance
- to ride with tack that doesn’t support your particular body type to sit your horse correctly,
…is it any wonder that so many horses resist the bit and become difficult to ride with a bit?
It seems incredibly illogical that using a bit is justified with the argument that there is no other way to control a horse
If your horse is difficult to control or ride, there’s most likely something else going on and the horse is experiencing discomfort or pain, is afraid or unsure.
If you have a horse that is already experiencing pain or fear, I fail to see how adding a bit (a tool that can easily cause more pain and discomfort) to the equation makes the situation any better.
Humans tend to delude themselves that by using tools and methods that subdue the horse and restrict her ability to move freely and effectively, somehow increase their control over the situation.
The bottom line is, that those types of tack and methods typically make the horse less secure because using them doesn’t make the human communicate more clearly than before. And they will cause pain when used incorrectly (if not sooner).
You wouldn’t drive a car with broken brakes or a faulty engine, so why ride a horse that isn’t calm, relaxed and ready to work with you?
A horse that isn’t safe and reliable when you’re on the ground, will be even less safe when you’re sitting on her back. A horse in pain, experiencing fear or unproperly trained is never safe and needs to have the relevant issues addressed.
The only way to get a safe horse is to systematically train your horse with methods that do not cause pain, fear or confusion in your horse.
The bit is a tool of communication (not control) and you need to build a good base for that communication to be received and understood effectively by your horse. If pain is involved in how a bit fits or in how it is used, what you’re trying to tell your horse is going to get lost in translation.
I mean, how well are you going to listen to someone who pinches you every time they tell you to do something?
You should constantly evaluate your contact with your horse
I learned to ride with bits. I was told to put three wrinkles in the corner of the horse’s mouth to adjust the bit properly. It never occurred to me to question this logic or to go against centuries of horsemanship principles.
I tried to keep my hands light and thought that was enough to make my horse comfortable. Then a trainer made me see that having the winkles wasn’t necessary because the horse can hold the bit in her mouth.
She had me put my fingers into the corners of my mouth to simulate a bit – then pull back to make three wrinkles and relax to no wrinkles. When was it easier to feel a light touch, a light pull, on the “rein”?
It was definitely easier to feel the light touch without the wrinkles when the bit was loose, so I adjusted bridles to sit without wrinkles – and the horses began responding to smaller signals.
I kept evaluating how I was using the bit and kept discussing it and reading more about it. It was definitely more comfortable without the wrinkles and the horses liked it better.
But even so, it wasn’t comfortable to have my fingers (or a pen placed sideways) in my mouth for a longer period of time. I could only imagine what it felt like to have metal there instead, especially when a horse would relentlessly chew with the bit on a loose rein, and I began to wonder if I could do better.
With the teachers and trainers I’ve had over the years, there’s been an unbalanced focus on riding my horse with rein and leg
Rather than with a good understanding of biomechanics and practising and improving my own balance. I’ve only had one trainer who was truly focused on developing my balance and capability as a rider to enable me to move in harmony with my horse.
So, considering that even the lightest pressure – especially when it’s applied repeatedly to the same spot – can cause bruising and soreness in your horse’s mouth, I want to know that the bit has been properly fitted and, more crucially, that the horse prefers the bit; because the most important consideration when choosing what tack to use isn’t you – it’s your horse.
A horse’s mouth is narrow and the bones of the lower jaw have sharp edges. Horses have not evolved to accommodate bits in the mouth.
Simply placing the bit in the mouth can cause pain and discomfort to some horses and it’s your job to be aware of what tack (not just the bit) gives you a good line of communication to your horse.
My personal preference is to ride bitless – or bridleless altogether – but it isn’t my preference that’s the most important. It depends on what the horse is used to, what she’s been trained to work with and what she’s willing to accept.
It’s my job as a rider to adapt to the horse’s preference and level of training, not the other way around.
If you find that your horse becomes round and soft with a beautiful presence bitless, where she was resistant to move forward and tense on the bit, you have your answer.
Conversely, you may find that your horse becomes confused when she loses the contact from the bit and is unsure of what to do, your horse may prefer a bit, or may just need more time to get used to new ways of communicating.
Never discount your own role, as the rider, in how you communicate with your entire body
Karen Rohlf, the creator of the training system Dressage, Naturally rides both with a bit and bitless and hopes that the wider discussion on bitless riding will inspire riders to stop and think about the tools they use.
“We need to ask if the contact with the horse’s mouth is more or less important than the biomechanics,” she told Dressage Today. “If bit contact is the most important part of dressage, then we need to ask why we allow tightened nosebands.”
Some horses will prefer a bit, some a bitless bridle, some a bitless bridle with a hackamore, some a bridle like the Micklem and some horses will be so sensitive they won’t tolerate anything on the head and do wonderfully in just a neck rope.
Sussing out and testing different ways of communication is half the fun of working with your horse, so don’t be shy – get out there and start thinking outside of what you’re used to doing!
One thing that’s for sure: no horse has ever wished that you’d be more heavy-handed or had poorer balance.
Bitless bridles can also cause damage and have the same potential for abuse as bitted bridles
As with any tack that is misused, bitless bridles aren’t a guarantee that there won’t be any damage to your horse.
Your horse has a lot of nerves in the head and horses are incredibly sensitive around the head and poll. Simply switching to a bitless bridle won’t ensure that it’s comfortable for your horse – you may need to consider using a Micklem bridle that was designed with the horse’s anatomy in mind instead.
As with all tack, it needs to be fitted to the individual measurements, needs and preferences of your horse.
Finding a bridle that fits your horse may not always be easy but a necessary process to get right. Thankfully, there are a lot of options on the market and you can always get custom bridles.
“I doubt we would see as many blue tongue scandals if the hyperflexion riders used bitless bridles,” says Jan Ladewig, professor emeritus of domestic animal behaviour at the University of Denmark and an honorary fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) in Dressage Today.
“A horse with a heavy-handed rider on his back would probably be better off without a bit in his mouth. On the other hand, a horse with a bitless bridle in the hands of such a rider would not necessarily be better off psychologically. The truest thing you can say about the equipment used for horse riding is that it’s not so much what kind of equipment you use. What is much more important is how you use it. And that is true of bitted and bitless bridles,” Ladewig continues.
I’ve heard a lot of people justify their use of a bit by the fact that more research has gone into bits and their use than into bitless bridles. I think more research into both bitless and bitted bridles is warranted – especially with a focus on soft tissue and nerve damage.
Fitting a bitless bridle is easier for the average horse rider (and this is especially true for the Micklem bridle) because all the parts of your horse’s head are easily accessible and visible – and you don’t need specialised training or equipment to see if a bitless bridle fits.
To truly have an accurate assessment of a bit that will suit your horse, you need to have a veterinarian measure and assess your horse’s oral cavity. When your horse is getting her teeth floated you can ask you vet to check the oral cavity and to recommend a type and size of bit that is suitable.
You need the bit for control, right?
Not so, I say. When you understand that you can never hope to control a large animal like a horse with a small piece of metal, you realise that the cooperation you command from your horse has to be psychological.
The horse needs to do what you ask because she knows it’s the best thing for her too.
Thinking back on how I learned to ride as a young child, there is no way I would have possessed the necessary balance and soft hand to make it a nice experience for the horse. Is it any wonder that a lot of riding school horses sink into learned helplessness and meet their daily work with a deadening numbness?
When the damage is on the inside – and isn’t immediately visible – and you use the bit day after day, applying pressure to the same sensitive or already damaged spot, even a small injury can easily grow and become chronic. And it’s more difficult to spot a deteriorating situation when no swelling, sores or wounds are outwardly visible.
I’m not condemning people who ride with a bit if the situation truly is that the horse is happy with it, there’s not damage to be found in an oral inspection and the rider is sufficiently skilled in the use of the bit (which includes fitting, riding with and without a bit as well as assessing what the horse prefers).
But beginners? I think especially riding schools should move to using bitless bridles (probably even Micklems) and demanding a higher level of performance of their riders from the very beginning – with an empathic and encouraging approach to coaching, of course.
I think that this prevailing idea that riding bitless is for hippies who aren’t serious about performance, is (at least in part) caused by having once tried riding bitless with a horse untrained in bitless riding and with some kind of makeshift setup for a bitless bridle.
This will only lead you to the conclusion that your horse cannot be ridden bitless
But as your horse was once systematically trained to accept the bit, your horse needs to systematically be trained to respond to your bitless aids. I think when you take the approach that you must retrain your horse, you may find that once you take off the bit, you never put it back.
Horses are intelligent animals that have a strong will to please. Instead of trying, year after year, to add more tack and change up to stronger bits, there’s a more sustainable and safer option that is also better for the health and well-being of your horse: train her from the first with less tack and fewer aids.
Challenge yourself to see how in-sync you really are with your horse. Can you take away the bridle, the lead rope and the halter – and still achieve the same results when you can’t rely on the tack to do a lot of the work for you?
And maybe one day, when we will train our horses in a way that is motivating and without the threat of pain or fear, bitless will become the new normal.