Friday, November 4, 2011

I have a stupid question


It's a stupid question, but it's serious.

Why do we use a bit when we ride a horse?

I don't mean this in a "I am a bitless convert and don't think we should put bits in horses' mouths" kind of way.

I mean I don't understand what the idea is.

Very early in my re-entry to horses I gave up the idea that bits = brakes. I had enough rodeo moments on a horse with a big ol' bit that managed to run right through it.

So I've simplified my approach to bits, opting for the ones that seemed the most mild. Then I read this post by mugwump and I thought I'd try a bosal since Smokey was the age of the horse she described. I don't have "shoulder control" - or rather I have no idea what that is. But I know the bit was bugging him.

And right now I riding both my horses without a bit. My young one and my old one. Both are riding better, dropping their heads with the slightest pressure, responding well to cues. The merest touch on the reins works, I don't need leverage. Smokey responds just to the tilt of the bosal. Lily neck reins and stops with my seat and, if needed, a slight pull.

And it got me to wondering what a bit is even for. What's the idea? Where does a bit fit in training? Why do we move out of a hackmore or bosal? Do you have to be working on things beyond my ability? What if you are only trail and hacking around - not jumping or trying to do dressage? Do you need a bit? Cuz both my horses are doing better this way, so I keep thinking I must be missing something. Or that there will "be a reckoning" or something. (They both will take a bit and ride in it, my hands are pretty quiet I've been told)

Seriously, I'm not asking this as a philosophical question, I just thought this was the best place to ask (I've asked others I know and they just shrugged.). Anything wrong with staying in a riding halter (like above) or a bosal?

18 comments:

BrownEyed Cowgirl said...

Easy answer? Because a bit makes it easier to control a less trained horse and let's face it...there have ALWAYS been people who are not inclined to learn the finer art of horsemanship.

On the other end of the thought process is, the highest form of horsemanship is being able to train a horse to the point of such total control that you can slap the biggest, nastiest bit you can imagine in their mouth and never have to touch it.

My one problem with always riding with a halter (I've never used a 'bitless' bridle) is that I don't think it does much toward a rider developing feel with their hands. A halter is not the same as a bosal and if you try to switch without truly understanding how a bosal works, you can damage the nose or underjaw of a horse. I would say (and not trying to be snarky here) that if you don't understand shoulder control...your not ready to try a true bosal. I won't try to explain how they work because it's been 20 years since I used one and that was only on WP horses. I never got the benefit of learning how to use one as they were intended to create a true bridle horse.

Funder said...

For me personally, I use a bit because I have a much better chance of yanking the horse's head around in an emergency stop if it bolts. You are utterly screwed if your horse bolts in a halter or bosal or probably even a bitless bridle. I personally feel it's unfair to fellow trail/endurance riders to have a potentially out of control horse on a ride. :)

With that said, ride in a way that makes you happy!

Kate said...

People will have all sorts of theories about why bits allow you to do certain things that you can't achieve with a bosal or other bit less bridle, but I think that's basically rationalization for the fact that bits are just used as a matter of tradition. A well-trained horse in a bosal is able to do just as much just as well as a horse in a bit, and there's Stacy Westfall and the video I've seen (can't find it now) of the horse doing Grand Prix dressage without a bridle.

I think of bits as subtle communication devices, pure and simple. And I think a properly fitted bosal is one of the most delicate and subtle communication devices there is. That said, there are bit less bridles out there that are "kludgy" - badly designed and just plain awkward, where the communication is muddy and it's like you've got static on the line.

My opinions of course and others may think differently.

Cheyenne said...

really good question. I dont have an answer, mainly because I dont have the technical knowledge. But I do know this! Since I moved away from bits some time ago, my horses are happier, easier, and respond better. that doesnt mean to say we shouldnt use bits, when you see a well trained Bridle horse, in the hands of an expert? Its truly amazing!
But I am happy with my horses response to the Bosal. I wont go back.

Shirley said...

So far, all good points. It's all about communication, isn't it? Like Kate said, bits are a subtle communication device. How subtle depends on the riders hands- and understanding of how the bit works. I use both snaffles and bosals on my young horses, but there is no way I would ride Beamer around other horses without a bit. I ride him around the pasture, by himself, in just a halter. A stallion on a mission can power through a halter or bosal.
You can bet that all those high performance horses that are being shown without a bridle, were started in a bit. The communication necessary for all those minute movements had to be taught,and the nice thing is that the more your horse knows and willingly responds, the less gear you need to communicate.

Carol said...

Who can resist a post title like that? :) It sure isn't a stupid question though - I'm interested in reading the answers too.
I'll share my thoughts and experience, but they're limited. I once rode my Appaloosa in a bosal for months, after discovering he had a broken tooth that needed to come out. I disagree that you can't stop a run away horse with this. I could stop him much better and had much better control of him with the bosal than with the snaffle (the only bit I'd use at my skill level). I probably wouldn't have gone back to a bit if I hadn't needed to for showing, but once his mouth was healed he was fine with either, didn't seem to have a preference. I think the nose and jaw pressure with a bosal or bitless can be a more severe aid than use of a snaffle in many cases. My perception is that people assume that bitless is more humane, and I don't think this is a given. As with most things, I think it depends on specific designs, the needs of the horse based on his anatomy, and the tact and feel of the rider.
I don't think there is any need for you to use a bit to achieve any training goal you have. I wish bitless were an option for dressage competition, not because I think it's better, but because it works well and some horses and riders are happier with it.

Dan and Betty Cooksey said...

Good response all, so far. Bits, bosals, haters, etc., are all just tools. A chisel in one person's hands can develop a work of art. In another's hands, it can destroy a good piece of wood.

I believe the results in our horses come not from our tools, but from us - our hands, our seat, our calmness, our confidence, our willingness to continue to learn how to communicate with our one horse.

Just my two cents.

Dan

Fragrant Liar said...

I don't like 'em one bit. Nor do I have one bit of an answer. Obviously.

Laura Crum said...

Breathe--My horse Sunny goes much better in a hackamore--he tends to root and pull against any bit that I have put in his mouth. My son's horse Henry, on the other hand, began to root and pull obnoxiously against the hackamore and I put him in a broken, shanked bit and he is going great. The problem absolutely went away and Henry seems completely happy and comfortable. I think it depends on the horse and the use. With my two little trail horses, I simply tried different things until I found what worked for them.

I'm with Funder--I think most bitless bridles won't give you much control in an emergency. I use the much maligned mechanical hackamore on Sunny because I can get his attention if I have to. That said, you can do a lot of damage with this bit and I absolutely don't recommend it for any green horse. It can be a good choice for a broke horse who knows his job and doesn't like having a bit in his mouth.

Mikey said...

I agree with Laura. Good question though, interesting discussion.

eventer79 said...

Quite simply? Because my sport requires it. So my youngster who is learning the sport wears a bit.

With my horse who is not competing? Because he hates nose and jaw pressure and enjoys his bit.

For me, it is that simple. If I was not competing and my horse liked the bitless option, I would totally go for it. Much nicer on the trail when I can let them graze unimpeded.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Good post and interesting responses. I just have a memory of my mentor warning me to never use a bosal on my horses because I could damage their noses. (Arabian breeders are very protective on their horses' profiles.) I guess she thought I was a terrible rider. That was when I was first starting out, so I probably was. I tried switching from a snaffle bit to a curb once, and my horses hated it, so I've just always ridden in snaffles. I really don't use the reins much anymore. They are just a security blanket, I suppose.

Shannon said...

The only stupid question is the one you don't ask. ;)

This is a very good question, and one I don't think enough people explore. As several people have pointed out, every piece of equipment we put on our horses aids in our communication with them. Of course, used improperly they are a detriment to our communication.


I like to think of it this way: would you rather be hit in the jaw, or the nose? Me, I hate getting hit in the nose. It hurts so bad! In self defense training, they even tell you to hit your attacker in the nose, because it's so sensitive. The jaw and mouth are made for taking impacts when an animal chews, but the nose is much more sensitive. I have seen horses whose noses were broken by bosals and hackamores, as well as horses whose noses were permanently dented from cavessons that were too tight.

Bosals and hackamores (and cavessons) work by applying pressure to the nose and jaw. Bits work by applying pressure to the mouth and, for curb bits, the jaw. It takes a much more delicate and sensitive hand to work bosals, hackamores and curb bits.

In the end, it comes down to a personal preference. Some horses prefer one or the other, some riders prefer one or the other. They are just tools and we should educate ourselves on the use of all of them.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Good question.

Many people ride in just a halter or bosal, even on young horses as well as older horses and they do so successfully. Heck, some riders only ride in a neck rope and have complete communication and connection with their horse (I'm not sure I can say 'control', because a horse can run through anything...even the strongest most severe bit, and a horse will even break it's own jaw if it feels the need to escape).

As you know I rode Baby Doll in a Bitless Bridle and she was very happy in it. She tossed and jigged when anyone else rode her in a bit in her mouth, even for me, and my friend/neighbor Val, that couple times we tried her in a side-pull snaffle. And I've been told that I have very soft hands....sometimes even too soft and that I should have more contact.

But I felt better about using the bitless bridle because I was still learning horsemanship skills and my horse was happier wearing one.

Even when she bolted on me one day out on the trail, it was easy and quick to stop her by doing a one-rein-stop in the Bitless Bridle.

Recently my Physical Therapist told me how she was bucked off a paso fino horse that was wearing a bosal. She had no way to pull it's head up and it just continued to buck. Pulling it's head to the side didn't work because it just twisted around and kept bucking...and finally tossed her off when the saddle twisted to the horse's side.

That is probably the biggest concern regarding safety while using a bitless bridle, bosal or halter.
But it seems that a bit is also useful in dressage in creating those finer movements....

But on the other hand, then I watch someone like Stacey Westfall, and see how she is able to get those finer movements with her own horse...without the use of anything, but her own seat and legs.

So, who knows why a bit is all that useful. Good topic to discuss, though.

~Lisa

Grey Horse Matters said...

Good question and good discussion. Personally, I've always used one and think it does give you a little bit more control if you need it. I've never used a harsh bit and always trained with a light following hand so don't think there is any harm to the horses mouth. I know there are lots of people against bits because they think it's harsh to put metal in a horses mouth and they are right if that's the way they think or if their horses go better for them with no bit. Maybe it's personal preference.

joycemocha said...

One thing that I've read in Al Dunning (I think, could be someone else, maybe even Ed Connell) is that after a while the horse will lose sensitivity in the bosal. Or maybe it was Benny Guitron? Whoever it was characterized the bosal as a big bluff, and that once the horse blew through it, you were in trouble.

I've got to go along with what BEC says. Schooling a horse well in the bosal requires a specific skill set and knowledge of what you are doing. I don't use one because I've not had that training and I've got a lot of respect for the process.

Mechanical hacks--ugh, unless you have a specific reason to use them.

I do use a leather sidepull occasionally, either while ground driving or while bareback riding. My trainer strongly suggests it needs to be limited to casual, relaxed riding rather than asking for a lot of precision work. It really isn't that precise a tool for higher level riding, where you're going to be asking for collection.

Of all the tools you can use that are bitless, I've got to say that I think the leather noseband sidepull is what I'd recommend to folks. Unless you've got access to someone who knows what they're doing with a bosal, and then that's a different story.

jme said...

hi! someone fwded this to me and i just had to add my 2 cents ;-) sorry, this is going to be long-winded! feel free to delete...

i've always been fascinated by all the different types of bits and their history and uses. bit wear on ancient horse teeth is pretty much the earliest proof we have of the horse's domestication, so bits go back a long way. but there's no way to know whether horses were driven/ridden first in halter-type bridles first, and it's likely they were.

the reason bits were developed initially is obvious - they gave early horsemen greater and more precise control by acting on the most sensitive part of the horse's head possible. for early horsemen whose lives depended on their horses for transport, hunting and battle, that was kind of important.

and you can see the different types of bits that were developed for different types of work. for simple riding/driving and, say, mounted archers who mostly rode flat out without too many stops or sharp turns, the snaffle was the main bit, while those who fought up close with lances and swords developed curbs for more 'dressage' style control and precision. (i'm guessing riding into a hairy situation like that would be tough in a halter.)

i think we still use bits partly out of tradition, partly out of habit/expectation and partly because, once you have that kind of easy control, it's not so easy to give up and look for a gentler way that might take more time and skill.

but, for many, a bit is not just a one-way line from rider to horse - a good rider with a light, sensitive hand will also receive feedback straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak, which is very active and informative to the educated hand. so i think bits still have their place in educated riding if used properly.

but are they necessary? certainly not. what's at the other end of the reins is not nearly as important as the hands holding them. i make sure all of mine will go the same in a halter, cavesson, sidepull, bitless bridle, etc. (though, sorry, not a fan of bosals - they're kind of blunt instruments, imo) as they do in a bit. i even find that, if i'm riding into a situation where things might get tense, i prefer not to have a bit when i might accidentally catch my horse in the mouth and make things worse....

anyway, there's my rambling on bits ;-) between bits and bitless tack, i don't think either is inherently evil or superior - both are legitimate tools in riding and training when done right. so, i say ride however you and your horse are most comfortable!

Sarah said...

I really like and agree with a lot of posts here, especially the last one:) I ride my OTTB in a bitless bridle ONLY because he kept telling me he didn't like every bit I tried with him. After I tried him bitless, he got even WORSE when I tried him with a bit again. Now I ride him in a Dr. Cooks, and I can honestly say I've never felt safer or more secure on him. When he does spook, I don't "catch" him in the mouth, thus heightening his fear.
Then again, my 2 horses before Miles I rode with a bit and it never occurred to me to do otherwise, because they never objected. It takes a special horse to educate, I think:) I loved my "bitted" horses, but we didn't have the relationship under saddle that I have with Miles...I think really listening to your horse is key. Some horses really object to any pressure on their nose, so a bit is the logical choice. I do know that I can do everything with Miles bitless, including trail riding, low level dressage and jumping, that a person could do with a bit. Sometimes (not always), I think a bit gives a false sense of security to people.