Friday, November 14, 2008

Horse Bitting, a favorite subject of mine

I have often wanted to post in depth about horses and the use of bits. I was browsing over on the Myler Bits website and liked this caption by Julie Goodnight on the home page so much that I decided to add an excerpt here:

"...There’s been a lot of discussion lately that all bits are bad and that if you really want to be kind to your horse, you’d go bitless. Have you been in on a similar discussion? While I agree that there are many horses that work just fine in a bitless situation, I think it is overly simplistic to say horses shouldn’t use bits.

To me, there’s one really important fact. Bits don’t hurt horses, people’s hands hurt horses. There’s a concept dating back thousands of years (about 3500 years ago) that’s attributed to Xenophon, who wrote the oldest complete book of horsemanship (there are older pieces but they are only partial documents). He said that the harshest bit in the world can be soft in a horse’s mouth when in the right hands and the mildest bit can be very harsh in the wrong hands.

Having said that, I think that there are many bad bits that shouldn’t be used at all. There are some bits that I wouldn’t use but could envision a use or a horse I might try it on. And then there are the bits that I love that horses work great in. Through the years I’ve learned that there are few people involved with horses that know much about bits or even how and why the horse responds (or not). Worse yet, there are people out there that are flat out wrong about what they think about bits.

The most common example I can think of is the Tom Thumb bit. It’s a classic Western bit that many people refer to as a snaffle—showing a level of ignorance about the difference between a snaffle and curb bit. There are only two types of bits—direct pressure (snaffle) and leverage (curb). People think because the Tom Thumb is single jointed that it is a snaffle and therefore mild—and they are incorrect on both accounts. There’s an article in my training library about the Tom Thumb misconceptions but the point is that when it comes to bits, most people are not only ignorant but often what they think they know or what they have been told—sometimes even by a trainer-- is flat bass-ackwards.

When a horse is struggling with the bit, there are two fundamental considerations to make, which are overlooked by most people. First, how does the bit fit the horse? Secondly, how are the rider’s hands contributing to this problem? The amazing thing about the Myler bit system is that it is born of decades of hands-on research and innovative design features (like shaping the bit to the horse’s mouth—what a concept!) which are all about making the horse comfortable with the bit. It is a passion and mission of the Myler brothers to help as many horses as possible be comfortable and relaxed in the mouth..."

Granted, she is endorsing Myler's bits, but I think most of her premise is right on point. I have ridden at various times on various horses with some very strong bits. Early in my riding career, these bits were never introduced without my trainer's supervision but now I am able to work with them on my own. No sensible rider without properly established independent and light hands should ever attempt to use one of the harsher bits without qualified instruction.

My own examples are that Monty rides at home quite happily in any of the Sprenger or KK bits with the lozenge in the center. If I were competing in dressage, these bits would move smoothly from training arena to dressage arena.

When jumping in the show ring, where the aids must be subtle and the ride must appear smooth, I may change to a Myler Dee with a twist and copper roller but without rein hooks. Monty can get forward over a course of fences and this bit enables me to get a quick response from him without exaggerated effort. By "exaggerated effort" I mean the difference between merely closing your fingers tighter on the rein vs. pulling on the bit with your entire arm.

For hunter pacing or riding in large groups of horses, I may use a 2 ring elevator bit with the same lozenge mouth with double reins, riding mostly from the snaffle rein will allow me to offer him relief from the gag effect of the bit but if we are galloping and I need to "rate" his speed, a stronger contact on the rein attached to the lower ring increases the leverage and helps control the pace.

And these choices are not set in stone. I have used a Happy Mouth Kimberwicke for trail rides and even schooled with a hackamore at home.

I have a large and ever-changing collection of bits. They fascinate me. How so many designs exist all with a fairly similar purpose in mind. I like to browse Ebay and have found some gems at great prices and have sold others there from my collection that I feel I don't need anymore. My favorite find was my most recent purchase, a KK "B" ring baucher bit at less than half of what it sells for new!


Grey Horse Matters said...

Food for thought. Most people haven't a clue about bits and need to do research and know what to use for their situation. I firmly agree that it's not the bits that are harsh at times but the riders use of their hands. Good post.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

My mare goes in a Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle and she has also used a Hackamore when I've taken lessons on her.

I chose the Bitless because I'm a beginner rider and didn't want my inexperienced hands to be too rough on her mouth while I was learning how to ride properly.

I have nothing against humane bits in the right hands, though.

That being said, I've had my horse for almost a year and still only ride her in a Bitless on trails, in the arena and round pen because my horse and I work well with it and haven't had any problems, not even in an emergency situation.
She has a very sensitive mouth shaking her head and leaning into the jointed snaffle bits when they've been used by myself, other riders and my instructer.

I'm not opposed to ever using a bit on my horse, but at this point, haven't felt it necessary.

Good post. I'll have to check out those Myler folks. :)

New Mexico

jme said...

great post! bitting is one of my favorite subjects too, and like you, i have a growing bit collection - sometimes i'll even buy bits i'll probably never use just so my collection is complete :-\

i couldn't agree more that it's the rider's hand and not the bit itself that causes the problem. you see plenty of riders who think just because they are using a mild snaffle it's ok to yank and saw on it, and others who use more severe bits with great tact... but there are also bits that have been badly designed or are intended to cause pain, and no good hand is going to help that.

i also agree that there is nothing inherently evil about bitting. i own a dr. cooks and i love it, but it's not suitable or desirable for every horse in every situation. i have a horse who rears when he's spooked, so i like to use the bitless when i hack him out so i don't accidentally grab him in the mouth if he gets excited. but it's not as if he rejects bitting - he goes equally well in a double bridle or a halter and lead rope. i have another horse who ignores the bitless entirely, even in the arena.

i've never used a western tom thumb, but i'm familiar with its english equivalent: the jointed pelham, which is a horrible bit. i'm not opposed to curb bits (you can't make a double bridle without them)or pelhams, but any time a bit with curb action also has a joint, it's going to get messy...

as for myler bits, i'm probably the only person in the world who doesn't like them. i love the philosophy behind them, but every time i've tried one the horses have responded negatively. maybe i just haven't found the right one...

a good baucher like the one above is becoming one of my new favorite bits, particularly for a horse that prefers the bit lifted into the corners rather than pulling down on the bars (and what horse doesn't?) let us know how it works for you :-)

SolitaireMare said...

I'm glad to see this post was well received so far! I have been intrigued with the Dr. Cook's bitless bridle system but have not found anyone with one to borrow or found one used on Ebay at a reasonable price. I'm curious how Monty would react to it.

The Myler bits can be tricky. I've played with a few of them. My horse HATES the level 3 ones with the jointed port. Even when hacking with minimal contact he was visibly unhappy with it and when I increased rein pressure to collect or transition, he tensed up so badly I stopped riding and changed back to the lozenge bit. The simpler Myler bits seem to be the very best ones.

The "B" baucher is a very nice bit. Schooling at home, Monty is very happy with it and even hacking at a walk or trot on trail he's soft and responsive. However, I tried using it on a hunter pace last weekend and unfortunately, with the brisk wind and crisp open fields, Monty took me for a RIDE! LOL! I thought I was being nice but I think the loose ring elevator would have spared us both a tug-of-war.