Equine behaviourist and therapist based in Co.Kerry Ireland | LIMA science based horsemanship

Is the Equine Community Ready for Bitless?

Last year I decided for my horses, we were to go 100% bitless. I spent a few months transitioning my ridden gelding before throwing out my bits and since then our connection has improved dramatically alongside his performance. We’ve had a few bumps along the way, being welcome at some events and not others. Being ridden in a bosal most to the time, we do get looks and questions and I welcome this as I’m always happy to share our experience and the benefits. Since then I’ve spoken to many people about bitless. Some were positive and very enthusiastic and others remaining sceptical and even resistant.

So, I thought to myself. Is there any correlation between the rider’s approach to horsemanship and their views on bitless? Together with bitless bridle maker Hollie from No Bits 4 Bobs, we put together a survey which has received almost 300 responses. We deliberately didn’t target bitless groups as we were more interested to know what the bitted community thought and practiced.
The results were surprising to me, I didn’t realise such a large portion of the bitted community would be open to bitless riding. We didn’t however connect questions to competing, the questions were generalised.

Only 4 people answered not important, while 98.5% thought it was important or very important.
There is a lot to be said for adding relaxation to all aspects of a horses training. It is certainly popular with many trainers such a Warwick Schiller and Neil Davies. There are also many brands of bitless bridles claiming that bitless riding plays a big part in removing pain related behaviours, promoting relaxation.

In a research project by Festina Lente , it was observed that the bitless bridle (cross under) led to “a much calmer, more relaxed horse and one that listens better to the aids” (Lente, n.d.)

A recent longitudinal study looking at the welfare of horses before and after being transitioned to bit-less shows drastic reduction in pain signals. The average number of pain signals exhibited by the horses when bitted was 23 and only 2 when bit-less. Signs of pain included behaviours such as a resentment of bridling, evading capture in paddock, head-shaking, stiffness of the neck, head shyness, tail swishing, moving in an inverted frame, tongue over the bit, bucking, rearing and more. (W.R Cook and M.Kibler, 2018)

The results point to a link between bitless and relaxation. As this is such an important factor to over 98% of riders why would only 65% of riders would consider bitless riding?

Here are some of the answers given. (This survey was anonymous and the survey providers nor us have any personal details linked to any answers given.)

  • “I don’t feel I’d be able to control my horse enough in busy traffic to be safe”
  • “Horse is happy with bit and you can’t do dressage comps with a bit less bridle”
  • “I have seen so many horses being rode bitless, bolt with riders, it was dangerous and totally uncontrolled”
  • “I would consider bitless for a horse I wasn’t competing because it’s not allowed in the competitions I do, if bitless was allowed then i would 100% have all my horses bitless”
  • “My horse takes the bit easily and will actively seek it. I feel comfortable in the knowledge I have that control”
  • “Worried about lack of brakes!!”

There is a common theme amongst the answers including COMPETING, SAFETY & CONTROL.

In response to safety and control; I can only go by the work I have personally completed and the trainers who I have worked with. At the age of 12 I was riding through a farmers field, my horse got caught in barbed wire under the ploughed soil and bolted towards a 50MPH road. I was unable to stop the horse and fell off when the horse stopped of its own accord suddenly. Only recently I was riding bitless in an arena and someone threw sand against a board which spooked him and using a one rein stop he only went 2 paces without control. Much less than the bitted incident, which I now believe happened due to lack of training. The message I share is whether bitted or bitless the one rein emergency stop does not seem to be a widely known concept and scarcely practiced. The one rein stop is much harder on the mouth than in a bitless bridle and no more effective. If it was more widely known and taught perhaps the fears of bitless would be lessened. Control and safety are not bit related and interestingly less than 20% of those taking the survey believed that the hands were directly responsible for stopping a horse. Also, over 70% said that they practiced 1hour or more of groundwork per week and over 80% ride on a loose contact.

In regard to competing; Equifest UK have now agreed to hold a bitless class in 2018, TREC allow bitless competitors and bitless is accepted in show jumping and eventing unless under FEI rules (FEI, 2018). Bitless is still not permitted in British Dressage or with Horse Sport Ireland Dressage competitions, Pony Club and Riding Club dressage. It may be possible with a shift in competition rules that the bitted community would turn more towards bitless for competing.

Less that 3% said they had never heard of bitless before, hopefully from taking the survey they have now.

Thanks for reading.

Phillippa Christie, Equine Partnership.

 

Bibliography
Lente, F. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://festinalente.ie/equine-assisted-programmes/research/crossover-bitless-bridle-research-project/
W.R Cook and M. Kibler, (2018). “Behavioural assessment of pain in 66 horses, with and without a bit”. Retrived from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/eve.12916
FEI. (2018). “In all the work, even at the halt, the Horse must be “on the bit”, “The reins must be attached
to the bit.” https://inside.fei.org/sites/default/files/DRE-Rules_2018_Clean_Version_0.pdf

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