Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Going Bitless?

Going Bitless?
By Lindsey Partridge, President of the Natural Horsemanship Association and owner of Partridge Horse Hill,

I was asked recently about my opinion on using bits versus going bitless – the person was wondering if I thought using a bit was cruel and if I thought everyone should be working towards going bitless. I imagine a lot of other people are wondering the same thing – there seems to be an uprising in the number of people that are choosing to go bitless, as well as a larger number of people going bridleless – do some searches on youtube and you can find some spectacular displays of bridleless jumping, reining, mountain trail, cow cutting, dressage, and more!

At our farm, Partridge Horse Hill, you might think I was against the use of bits because if you come watch some of our lessons you would quickly notice that most of our horses are riding bitless – even a quick browse in our tack room and you’ll see that none of our school horses have a bridle with a bit on their hook.

The reason for this is not at all that I think bits are cruel. To me, any tool can be cruel or soft depending on the hands that are using it. 

There are two main reasons why we rarely use bits at Partridge Horse Hill:

1)      Rider’s need to prove they are ready for finesse: A tool is only as soft as the hands that use it. Even a bit with a chain can be super soft and subtle if the hands using it are very soft and subtle. Even a plain snaffle bit can be wickedly painful if the hands using it are harsh and out of balance.
At our farm we teach having solid basics comes before riding with finesse or collection. Before we give anyone a bit to ride with, they must first show they can ride with a soft and consistent contact through all of the skills that they would be doing with a bit. This is because to have true collection the horse needs to be willing to take hold of the bit – being accidentally bumped with the reins can cause the horse to be fearful of taking contact. Many riders today force a horse into a frame, without having true collection of the horse stretching over their topline and taking on more weight from the hind end. They do this by riding too much from their hand. It can take a very long time to gain a horse’s trust to accept collection and contact if they’ve had someone be harsh on their mouth. 

  This is one reason we keep our horses bitless – so that if student’s accidently bounce their hands, or take too much contact it won’t matter as much and won’t damage the ability to ride with a bit later when they are ready. If both the student and horse are ready for a bit and wanting to learn with one, then we do have bridles with bits that we can use for those lessons.

Having students begin bitless also means that they learn proper technique and balance and don't rely on making pain in the horse's mouth to cause the horse to stop. 

2)      Some horses just don’t like bits: not all horses are the same. Some horses have really sensitive mouths or have had such harsh riders that they don’t like bits – you can spot these horses as the ones that stick their tongue out the side of their mouth, they run through the bit, or people feel the need to put flash nosebands or other contraptions to tie their mouth shut. 
Some horses get more anxious and flighty with bits because their mouth is a sensitive place, and if they aren’t ready for a bit it will get them feeling nervous and more in the ‘fight or flight’ frame of mind. A lot of horses that tend to be flighty and too quick tend to ride better when they go bitless because being bitless can help horses feel less anxious. At our farm we have a couple horses that I just don’t feel the need to ever introduce them to a bit – one is an off the track Thoroughbred that gets really stressed when she has a bit and even with light contact she will sometimes take her tongue out to the side of her mouth, and another is an older mustang that only got started under saddle as a 16 year old – they both ride beautifully bitless and I just don’t feel the need try and make them ride with a bit. It’s not to say it can’t be done – but why fix it if it works?

There are other reasons someone might not want to use a bit – injury in a horse’s mouth, an older horse with bad teeth (might hurt to put the bit in and take the bit out), if you like to graze your horse during the ride or use treats during training (easier to eat without a bit), or even just that you may like the idea of staying out of your horse’s mouth.  

I do have some students who choose to ride with bits because they and their horse are ready for learning collection with a bit – but if they aren’t learning that, then we typically stay bitless. I find learning collection is easier with a bit – a bit in the right hands can be the ideal tool to help master collection and skills of finesse, however, it’s not needed and most of our students ride with no bit, even the ones competing in jumpers or practising upper level movements like canter half pass. 

It is important to remember not all bitless bridles are created equal. I actually had an article that came out in Horse Power magazine that talks more about that (the spring issue) – but it’s important to know that there are many types and just because one type doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean another wouldn’t (the same goes for bits).

I have come across some bitless bridles that really don’t work well for me or the horses I train (the ones that cross under the chin). I prefer a basic side pull design for a bitless bridle. Some people might think bitless bridles give you less control – this isn’t true providing you’re using the right kind of bitless bridle. I actually start all of my horses bitless, and only introduce a bit once I’m working on collection. Even horses previously trained with a bit I find can transition to a bitless bridle in one session very easily.

All in all, I think what matters more than the bit or bitless bridle someone chooses are the techniques they use. I would encourage all horse sport associations to allow bitless bridles and for all coaches to be open to using them – as it’s probably the best choice for many horse and rider combinations, especially at the schooling levels where there are green horses and riders that could really benefit from staying out of the horse’s mouth until solid skills are developed.

No comments:

Post a Comment