To Bit or Not to Bit – What Would Your Horses Say?

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I’d like to begin by stating a few obvious, but very important facts:

  • Do most people with horses use a bit? Yes
  • Are there numerous companies that offer a vast assortment of bits? Yes.
  • Does every tack store sell bits? Yes.

So why are we discussing whether or not to use a bit, in the first place? Because it is a conversation that is long overdue! I will also tell you up front that I do NOT use bits on any of my horses and haven’t for years. My bias against bits is no secret, but what I’d like to share is WHY I became so biased against something so common in our industry.

My horse experience may be a bit different from yours, because I was 41 when I got my first horse. I remember the first time someone was showing me how to put the bit in the horse’s mouth. Hearing it clunk against his teeth made me very uncomfortable. I have been to the dentist and didn’t like him clunking anything metal against my teeth, so I wasn’t at all convinced the horse felt any different. But the veteran horse person that was guiding my first horse experiences told me, it was OK, everybody does it. So who was I to argue?

At That time I knew I knew nothing about horses, so I listened and did as I was told. The bit was used…As horses became my profession My goal was always to do what is best for the horse, and in some cases that is to go against what is considered the norm. And I am sure we will all agree that using a bit is quite normal! But does being NORMAL make it RIGHT? The answer to that is of course not. It is also important when disputing something so widely accepted as bit use, we should look at examples of NOT using a bit to see how that worked out.

Many people feel it is unsafe to NOT USE A BIT, so they are unwilling to not use it. Safety is usually mentioned as a reason for the bit, and the control it provides. Or should I say is supposed to provided. In the past 20 years I have been called in to help many people whose horses were running away with them. In every one of those situations the rider was using a bit. If the bit provided the needed control, the runaways would have stopped and I would not have been called to help! Control is a good thing, and a primary part of my training clinics. If you cannot control your horse, you are at risk, and to some degree so is your horse. Worse case scenario might be a runaway horse. Let me share my first hand experience from years ago, having a horse runaway with me. And he did it 43 times!

After almost 2 years of riding a wonderful, older horse, I decided I wanted to do endurance riding so I needed a younger horse. My choice was a 5 year old stallion that had a reputation as a ‘rogue stallion’. He was known to rare and buck and kick and bite, etc. I had a good reason to overlook his problems; he was SO PRETTY! I immediately gelded, him as numerous people told me that being a stallion was the reason he was so much trouble. Our first 2 rides were great but the third ride ended early after he galloped home from 3 miles out. The next 2 rides were great, then he ran home again. As a novice, I knew I needed help so I hired a ‘trainer’ to fix my runaway problem. More runaways and another trainer hired. Over the next 8 months, I hired and then fired 5 trainers.

Only one was ever able to get on the horse and she wouldn’t go out of the round pen on him. I was riding this horse in the Colorado Mountains 4-5 times a week. And I did get to experience 43 runaways! That is NOT a misprint, he ran away with 43 times in 8 months! And you know what the trainers all tried? Different bits! 7 different bits to be precise. From a mild snaffle to the most severe bits made, we tried them all. Not one bit ever stopped the runaway horse! 43 runaways did make me a better rider, but I cannot say it was fun. And the point to this story is that the bit was NOT a solution. It in fact can be a problem. Anyone that says jerking on a severe bit (or even a mild bit) is not painful is wrong.

My runaway horse problem was not solved by a bit, but it was solved by earning the horse’s respect and changing his attitude. After that was done I was riding him with a halter and never had a runaway again. Lets call that example #1 of no bit riding, and to me it was a life changing experience. You see once someone DOES something, it is proved to be doable. But how about a much bigger example of successful, non-bit riding. How about the Native Americans? They not only rode with no bits, but they fought wars on horseback. That is more severe riding than anything you or I ever do! That’s example #2. They also didn’t use spurs, tie-downs, or even saddles in most cases! Says a lot about their horsemanship skills!

A few years later I had the privilege to become friends with an incredible man, Dr. Robert Cook. He is an experienced veterinarian, and has done some serious, in depth clinical studies at Tufts University, on the effects of the bit, and the results were amazing. From a physiological perspective the bit causes numerous problems for the horse, including reduced breathing capability, increased saliva production (beneficial when eating, but NOT when working) as well as the obvious discomfort factor. Dr. Cook’s wonderful book, (Metal in the Mouth) should be read by everyone that owns a horse. It defines in no uncertain terms the problems caused by using a bit. It provides diagrams and details that are irrefutable and based totally on scientific evaluation.

It is safe to say, that my personal opinion about the use of a bit in a horse’s mouth, is that it’s a bad idea. And it is reasonable to point out, that is just one man’s OPINION! But I would ask you to consider that my opinion is based on two decades of experience, working with all forms of problem horses. It has been my PRIVILEGE to have worked with all breeds and disciplines, and yes all kinds of problems. The problems that I have been called in to help correct run the gamut of anything you might imagine. But most of them go back to the word we mentioned earlier, CONTROL! Unfortunately I have seen far to many so-called trainers, resort to force to gain that needed control. One area that many of them have in common is they usually have one or two certain bits that will get the horse to give into the their demands. To me this is NOT training, it is abuse.

You see, fundamentally ALL control issues come from the MIND of the horse. But since all the behavior is displayed by the BODY of the horse, we tend to go after the BODY (crops, chains, spurs, bits etc) to change behavior. And despite what most people say, those devices do inflict pain, and the horse is forced to endure it. You CAN get a horse to give in to your commands by inflicting pain with a bit or any of the equipment mentioned above. But he will not like it! Horses are very good at ignoring pain, but it is not a good way to live. It will create stress in the horse and can even lead to resentment, which can lead to defiant or aggressive behavior. That in turn often leads to more forceful methods such as severe bits, applied to control the horse. Can you see a cycle in this? At some point most horses give in and that is where the term BROKE evolved. A well BROKE horse is often considered a well-trained horse, but they are not necessarily the same. I don’t like the term BROKE, as if my horse is BROKE I’d want to fix him.

It is a fact that many horse owners compete with their horses in events that REQUIRE certain bits, so they do not have a choice. Use bit or don’t compete. The only option here is HOW do you use the bit? If you are fighting with a horse with an attitude, you will have to use more force in the reins and employ the bit. But suppose you went back to the basics, and worked on the horses’s attitude FIRST. Then the more severe use of the bit will be reduced and the horse will be more comfortable. Make your horse more comfortable and he will become a more WILLING PARTNER. And a willing partner will always be better than the alternative! Suffice it to say that if you MUST use a bit (or any of the other stuff like tie downs etc) use them as little as possible, to make your horse’s experience as pleasant as you can.

Let me conclude by saying that our industry has been around for a long time, and many things in that industry were developed and used when controlling a horse could mean whether or not you put food on the table. Basic survival was in many cases the very reason for having the horse. The horse HAD to do what you needed him to do, and there was no alternative. So people resorted to whatever possible to get control of this very large, strong animal. Fast forward to today and although many of us make our living from horses, the era of control the horse at all costs, is long since passed. Most of us love our horses and appreciate them for the incredible, powerful, sensitive creatures they are. We have evolved into treating our horses with more respect and consideration for their well-being. And that is a good thing. But we cannot ignore that being around horses, or on the back of a horse provides a degree of danger. So control is always going to be a priority and the bit is perceived as necessary. I hope this and the other articles about bits, will help you rethink the use of a bit or at least HOW you use the bit. Your horse will thank you!

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About the author

Dan Sumerel

Dan Sumerel, founder of Sumerel Training and the Sumerel Therapy System, was introduced to the world of horses in 1988 was enamored with them immediately as most of us horse lovers are! While Dan was working with his first horse, Sunny, he was introduced to a technology that enabled anyone to go over a horse's body, locating and treating that horse's physical problems. The exposure to this technology led to the advent of the Sumerel Therapy System, which has helped many thousands of horses all over the world. www.sumereltherapysystem.com

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