The Truth Behind Bit Drama

WMClaraTackDo you know how your bit works? No, I mean really. Not some cowboy-on-YouTube’s fantasy about horses needing to learn to carry cold metal on bone. Not some idiot in an English saddle that rides with a twisted-wire in his horse’s mouth.

I’m still stewing about this: A new rider explained that his horse had been professionally trained and successfully shown before he bought him. His horse was finished and as such, wore a finished horse bit. (It was a spade bit. It was capable of doing equine brain surgery the slow, excruciating way.)

This was the second time he had instructed me about how this soul-killing bit works. Maybe he thinks that I’m just not bright enough to understand. Or if he repeats his misguided explanation a few more times, I’ll palm my forehead and giggle like a school girl. Instead I hold eye contact and tell him it’s an illegal bit and I don’t allow it on my farm. The look on his face tells me that he has no more respect for my profession than he does for his horse.

Yes, I require my clients to use legal bits. It gets worse, I mean legal dressage bits (page 12). I took a look at the Western Dressage (WDAA) Equipment Guide (page 4) and sure enough, there are some pretty severe bits that are legal. Now I wish the group would take dressage out of their name. And shame on the USEF.

Then it dawns on me: There’s a stinky part of me that envies trainers who promote these bits. It’s easier to put a severe bit in a horse’s mouth so the new owner can force a “frame” and everyone can pretend the horse is finished. Anything is easier than teaching a rider the feel of good contact on a gentle bit. Anything is easier than learning to ride force-free to fluid, soft contact.

Contact is like holding hands with someone you are so comfortable with that there’s overlap where they begin and you end. –Me.

For all of my professional years training, I can’t say I’ve ever met a finished horse. I have met horses so shut down from bit pain that they have dead eyes and no will to go forward. Does that term actually refer to a horse who’s finished with people?

But let’s go with the fantasy of buying a finished horse in the way that he meant it. Does having the purchase price make you a finished rider?

Here’s where someone says that a bit is only as kind or cruel as the hands on the reins. Sure, I’ve seen horses totally brutalized by a snaffle bit in the hands of a monster. At the same time, having slack reins on a shank or spade bit doesn’t impress me; an extreme bit causes a threat and pain, even with no reins attached. A harsh bit that hearkens to a cultural tradition still isn’t good horsemanship if the horse suffers. There is no beauty in domination. Control is a cheap substitute for partnership.

What if the goal was to ride in such a way that the horse moves with the same liberty he does while not under saddle?

I was talking with a client about their bit. The horse was tense in her jaw and had a nervous habit of kind of chattering the bit in her mouth. We were talking about other options for the mare, and after I described how a comfort snaffle worked versus a mullen mouth, my client asked which I liked best. I said my preference didn’t matter in the least.

So instead of yammering on and on about bits, take the conversation to the barn and ask your horse. Saddle up like usual, put your helmet on like usual, but skip the bridle. Use a neck ring or clip reins on a web halter. Go to a safe arena and begin your ride, as usual. Be ready to learn something.

If you horse moves more freely; if his neck is longer and he blows, that’s a message you need to hear. Has your bit been working like a passive parking brake? Does the mere existence of a gentle bit in his mouth back him off? That’s pretty common.   As you feel his stride lengthen, his back lifting, and a lightness to his hooves, be happy. It means you can do better for him.

Warning: humans who feel out of control have a tendency to get testy. Do you notice that you want to grab something for a quick submissive result? Does it occur to you that without a bit, you feel unarmed and have no means to punish your horse? So then, are you using your bit like a weapon? Have you just proven to yourself that you ride more with your hands than your legs? That isn’t a bit problem at all, is it?

 It’s time to challenge ourselves to pursue the art of riding, instead of asking our horses to tolerate our bad horsemanship.

Just in case you could possibly think that there has never been a day in my life that I dropped to my knees and begged for a stronger bit, you’re wrong. Or that there were times that I hoped that the issue was a broken, abscessed tooth and not my hands? Back then, his head flipping around made me look bad and I lusted after a cruel bit. But I never worked with a trainer that allowed stronger bits, even back when I was still riding in a saddle with a horn. Instead of a stronger bit, I was told it was my hands that needed finishing, along with the mentality behind them. I’m still grateful for that clarity and I pass it on.

If you listen to your horse, he’d say there’s a problem behind the bit problem and underneath the hand problem. He’d say that a cruel bit is the sign of a fearful rider and the real problem is trust.

Kinda changes the whole picture, doesn’t it?

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro



This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “The Truth Behind Bit Drama”

  1. I think that trust is a key component to any successful relationship, whether it be with a human, a dog or a horse. Without it you have coercion, game playing, or, at it’s worst, harsh dominance on one side and withdrawal on the other. When I ride, it’s without a bit and if I’m afraid of that, then I realize I need to work on the relationship I have with the horse from the ground. I love what you write and how you write it. Keep up your wonderful work.

  2. After a horse wreck left me with cracked neck, broken back and ribs, smashed face, a torn up left knee, I realized there was no such thing as controlling a horse with a bit.
    My next horse I tried bareback and in a halter and lead rope. I needed to know that I could communicate clearly with the minimum before I used “more” and while I developed my seat and hands. All horses deserve that.
    I will have respect for horse show organizations when they allow bitless or halter riding. I’ve been told the issue is “safety”. Too bad their rules are not fur the safety of the horse. In fact their idea of safety actually endangers riders when a horse decides they’ve had enough of the pain and the head shaking, crow hopping, rearing and bucking begin. I’ve witnessed it then watched in horror as some poor horse was “disciplined” into submission.
    I just sold my beloved Fjord mare. She indicated the right person was there and I agreed when he asked if she liked to be rode barenack in just the halter and lead rope. My enthusiastic response was to hop on and demonstrate her lightness and power steering, legs only or just the rope on her neck, her gait changes and her fantastic whoa achieved with just a word or just your seat/light pull release.
    Far more finished than the horse world can see, yet so capable of more and still willing to do so.

    • Wonderful “rant”! I like bitless riding and hope the movement to legalize it succeeds soon. And forgive this dressage queen for playing devil’s advocate, but would it be possible to ride in a bit with the lightness used in a halter? I hold that possibility, but it is a hard learn for us humans. Thanks, Kristen.

      • I think it could be. I have a dressage bridle (with the strap that holds the mouth closed tossed in the trash, lol) with a three piece curved egg butt snaffle that I use to test myself as i work to develop my soft feel hands. But imo a bit can only bring out what is all ready there.
        I have a new bitless bridle bookmarked for purchase as well in the hopes that one day I will actually perform an entry level dressage test subsequent to a rule change such as the Dutch approved a couple years ago. Until then I’m going to ride in the halter to help the rescue gelding get his top line back and eliminate the slight ewe neck he developed before we got him. I wonder how that happened…

  3. I started using a bitless bridle several years ago, and won’t go back to a bit. Well, confession: I have from time to time put a bit back in his mouth, to no good end. No more.

  4. Hurrah for the bitless bridles! Shamefully – I started out with a long shank, high port western bit – moved to a low port, short shank, then western snaffle, finally found a French snaffle – which he liked! (cant blame him) Tried a hackamore – but some of those are as harsh as a bit! He would have loved a bitless bridle – he was good with just a halter & lead rope.
    There is a lot of ignorance & laziness in people changing to harsher methods, plus the non-acceptance that you & you alone could possibly be the reason things aren’t working.
    And I agree with Nina – you ARE wonderful.

  5. Thank you for this! A couple of years ago I stopped using a bit at all with my Racking Horse. I’ve been told I have “good hands,” and I am always trying to improve on that. The day I discovered that any bit in my sizable collection worked fine with him (so long as I didn’t “use” it!) was the day I went to a fat bosal and then a hackamore with a soft leather noseband and very short shanks. The only reason I put anything on his head at all is that I ride on multi-use trails and people freak out if they see no bridle on a horse! My reins typically loop and my horse and I “decide” what we’re going to go through some kind of combination of telepathy and/or body language. Way back in 1988, John Lyons dispelled the myth of “contact” in dressage for me, saying that the only time you make contact with a horse’s mouth is when you want something from him, and that dressage riders typically have 1/4″ of slack in their reins which is why they can move their little finger and get a response. It’s been a journey from there to where I am today that I’ve enjoyed. And so have the two horses that brought me here.

  6. Another vote for Dr. whatshisnames bitless bridle. My mountain horse was 7 when I got her. First we had to get a new saddle with room for her shoulders. Then we had to figure out what all the head flipping was about and why she darn near busted my nose whenever I took off her bridle or even her halter by flinging her head up. I got the bitless bridle because she has a really good ‘whoa’ and at first she flipped her head, then seemed a bit puzzled and then sailed serenely on. She still wants to flip her head when I take the bridle or halter off. I figure somebody was pretty rough and probably banged here teeth or something but I just keep my nose out of the line of fire. I don’t have to worry about bits as I don’t compete at all, only trail ride and now I have more $$$ invested in her equipment than I paid for her!

  7. I remember the odd rig Rudd used, there were no bits, he didn’t believe they were necessary. He had made his own riding bridle which we learned to put on and use properly. There was nothing in the horse’s mouth. I did some searching to find a bridle like his and did find something very similar and another interesting blog ( Rudd did a lot of the same things Joe Camp does now. His horses were barefoot, they didn’t have bits, they were engaged and interested and had no problems communicating if you, the human, were paying attention. If you have to force a horse to do what you want, you haven’t really accomplished anything, just proved beyond doubt that you’re a bully. The same holds for dogs, kids and just about any other life form. I am hopeful that the time is finally coming where we do understand that we, the human, must be a partner, not a domineering jerk, with our horses and other animals (people included). The Native Americans didn’t use bits, the Arabs/Bedouin didn’t use bits and I’d bet that if you do some research the other more “primitive” or early horse cultures didn’t use them either. I know that if there is a real partnership a horse will give his life for you, he will protect you and that’s more than worth getting rid of a bit.

  8. Another exciting chapter about Considering the Horse! Thank you, Anna, and Commenters!
    I particularly like this quote from Charles de Kunffy. I think it sums things up beautifully.
    “The horse knows how to be a horse if we leave him alone…but the riders don’t know how to ride. What we should be doing is creating riders and that takes care of the horse immediately.” Enough said?

  9. I have to admit that I know basically nothing about he mechanics of a bit in my horse’s mouth. Shame on me. But I don’t even know where to turn to learn – really learn, instead of opinion. I usually ride in a D-ring snaffle with a copper mouth, I also have a Myler comfort snaffle. Years ago, we rode our trail mares in mechanical hacks, but they were nice and not much rein was required. I’ve heard so many arguments about the pros of spade bits, but they look ghastly to me and I’ve never used one, nor do I aspire to use one. I’d love to ride in a bitless bridle, but my horse isn’t quite ready for that (I mean me, I’m not quite ready for that). Yes, I have some fear issues where he’s concerned. But my desire to get there remains. I’d like to always ride with soft hands, but sometimes I don’t. I have plenty to learn. I love your respect for the horse, and I would really enjoy learning better horsemanship from someone with your expertise, and especially with your heart. Kindness is much too rare in the equestrian world. Thank you.

    • What a sweet and wonderful comment. How lucky your horse is to have you. And we’re alike; I’m not “finished” either. Thanks, Lori.

  10. Thank you for writing what I have been thinking since the advent of “western dressage.” I’ve come to a place on my journey where I believe that if I need a bit to “bring my horse to higher collection” then perhaps my horse doesn’t need to be that collected. I can tell you that I have experienced my own definition of dressage nirvana on a 21 year old mare, bareback pad and bitless. It is possible.
    USDF only wants more money, and that’s why they have added western dressage. I can’t even go to a show anymore. It just makes me sad, and then it makes me mad.

    • For what it’s worth, bits aren’t used for collection in dressage either… and I hate that you think it’s about money, but you’re probably right. Thanks for putting your horse first….

  11. It’s pretty fascinating that people choose bits because they are “trendy” or their trainer tells them to use one. I try to find the right solution based on the horse — does it respond well to a bit that puts pressure on the bars? the lips? the tongue? Does the horse have a low palate? A thick tongue? I had one horse that told me for years that he hated bits — I finally stopped trying to make him into a dressage/eventing horse and went foxhunting in a bitless bridle and he was perfect (although he hated, hated, hated the Dr. Cook’s bridle because of the poll pressure and did much better in a simple sidepull). My TB can’t stand double jointed snaffles. Apparently he didn’t read the literature that says they are more comfortable :). And my draft x mare has made it very clear that she prefers a thin mullen mouth snaffle called a PeeWee bit because it leaves room for her tongue. I still ride occasionally in a bitless bridle but as a foxhunter, especially on my OTTB, that can get a bit too exciting.

  12. Love this explanation. Bella had bit issues so I put her in hackie’s bit less and she completely calmed down. This is my goal for pet. But would like to transition him from the ground instead of after the fact in the saddle. So thinking bending exercises. Have to make him a bit less because Bella’s is too small.

  13. Anna, I love this. I’ve loved every one of your articles. Thank you for taking the time to commit these ideas to words. It helps me so much.

    p.s. I’ve been riding my horse in a Dr Cook bridle since the spring. There was a bit of a learning curve … for me, not him. Overall, it has deepened my respect for him and made communication a two-way street. As a result, he is a happier saddle horse.

  14. Oh my…Lori Lundgreen brought tears to my eyes with her humility.
    The post by our Mentor,Anna, was poignant…and all of the conscious comments…I am very grateful.

    I have a dear sister-friend in the UK who invented this gorgeous bit less bridle
    and she is a nn judgemental voice for the horse as all of you are…what a blessing to hear your voices in the horses behalf!

    And,i, only 2 years into riding and with a myler bit…am humbly able to be her kindred spirit- friend without judgment by her. Though a true aspiration is to ride in that gorgeous Orbitless!

    Now about that energy of trust…that is all the bit a true partnership needs.

    Developing this with a Beloved equine is so different than with a homosapien…I am working on in it breath by breath…with a little help from you all…

    • I’ve seen three versions of that “wheel” sort of design and I have one. They are popular in Europe and I’ve seen more than a few upper level dressage horses in them. It’s a good alternative to the cross-under design… and I spent a day with Dale Myler a few years back, talking about bits. I do love those comfort snaffles of theirs. Again, hands are the real issues on any bit or bitless design.

  15. Dear Anna,

    I absolutely love this entry! Again I say . . . Please put your posts into a book so we can flip through the pages and be encouraged and reminded when we are fearful, doubtful, discouraged, frustrated. This one made my heart melt. You express the thoughts of so many of us so eloquently.

    Thank you! Jeannetta Kurth

    On Friday, September 30, 2016, Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: “Do you know how your bit works? No, I mean really. Not > some cowboy-on-YouTube’s fantasy about horses needing to learn to carry > cold metal on bone. Not some idiot in an English saddle that rides with a > twisted-wire in his horse’s mouth. I’m still stewing ” >

  16. I like reading and learning about bits. I find it so interesting all of the things that you can ask your horse to do with them. But it seems to me and hey what do I know, that the stuff they’re asking for is natural in a horse who is comfortable and is fit enough to do the task. Seems to me too that folks use bits in place of communication. I dunno. I’m just learning. Peaches and I use a bosal. I’m thinking she likes it because she puts her face in it herself. I like it because I have reins and a lead all in one, not the horse hair kind, I sold that one, I like the nice, soft marine rope. On my two other horses I use the halter and tie the lead for the reins. Either way it isn’t the rein that sends the signal nearly as much as them learning what I do with my body when I want to turn or stop. I guess neither of us is finished in anything at all so like I said, what do I know, but we all get along and nobody hurts anybody… on purpose. So we’ll keep learning together.

    • I don’t think people use bits instead of communication, but a bit might be how to make sure your voice is the loudest… and the tricky part about reading about bits is that there is so much wrong information out there… I think they call it salesmanship. But it sounds like you are on the right track. Thanks, Joan.

      • Oh good heavens I totally get what you mean about shouting. Like speaking English slower to an Italian I guess lol. But shouting gibberish isn’t communication is it?

        Bad information all the way around in most things sad to say. Some folks want to be told what to do rather than… Never mind, my soap box for another day 🙂

  17. Hi Anna, I’ve been using the LB Zaum bitless (not too dissimilar to the UK one listed above) on Xino for a year and a half–we trail ride, do working equitation and dressage all in that bridle with absolutely no problems and I can even get him licking and chewing in it–no bit required! I started both my horses under saddle in a halter, then gravitated to the Dr. Cook, and then maybe a year or two later, a bit. Comet was happiest in the pee wee bit, having such a tiny mouth and Xino went very well in a multi-metal mullen mouth Pelham.

    My LG Zaum also has the curb shank, so I often ride with two sets of reins, or I can just knot one up on his neck and ride with the other, and I imagine you can do the same with the Orbitless.

    There’s a video on Dr. Cook’s website showing Summerwood Stables horses–100% of them bitless!!! And as a side note, I noticed Manuel Trigo in one of their photos giving lessons there–very open minded of him…I wonder what he made of that!

    • I have a LG, too. Some horses like it better than my Barefoot cross under, some don’t. As for Manuel, who knows? Maybe like me, he’s sick of seeing bit abuse and enjoyed the break… Thanks, Christina.

  18. While I generally agree whole-heartedly with your blogs,and while I agree with the spirit of this one, I do have one issue with it. I pony horses on the race track professionally. I ride western in my job and use a long shanked cutting horse bit on most all of my pony horses. The bit has a solid mouth with just the smallest of ports to allow for tongue comfort. I ride with a loose rein, which is how I was taught a western horse should go. The proper way to communicate with a western horse is through the reins on the neck, and the movement of the curb chain- not pulling on his mouth. If you are using more pressure on the bit than just your fingers, you need to go back to basics. Contact with a shanked bit is wrong, wrong, wrong in western (and I assume in English as well.) I can ride all my horses with no bit or bridle, but I prefer to use a bridle for more refined communication and for the very occasional reprimand. (It really is not okay for my pony horse to bite the race horse.) Everyone has their own preferences and riding style. Don’t get me wrong- I am against spades, twisted wire snaffles, or any other severe bit. But I feel that a mild-mouthed, shanked bit with no contact is easier on my horse’s mouth than the nutcracker action of a snaffle ridden with contact. Thanks for letting me putting my two cents in. I thoroughly enjoy your writing even when we don’t agree 100%.

    • Sandy, I do love hearing from you. How many hours a day do you ride, ponying a second horse along, and although I didn’t say it, those two piece snaffles are just the worst, I agree. If your horses trust you with the bit, then so will I. But I bet you have seen plenty of bit drama, too. Thanks, as always, for commenting.

      • The track is open from 6 AM until 10 AM 6 days a week for training. Morning work varies. I have taken as many as 14 race horses (I had 2 pony horses tacked up), but now I don’t travel so my business is much smaller. I take an average of 5 head a day now. Racing at one time was 5 days a week, but now most places have only 4. I haul my afternoon pony back to the track at 4 PM- usually riding up to work about 5. The last race will run about 9 or so- which puts me back at my trailer somewhere around 9:30. (That’s with a 9 race card. Again- in the past, 10 and 11 race cards were more common.) I generally work 7 or 8 races, although sometimes I work the card, and sometimes I have as little as 5 in. So I have spent a LOT of time in the saddle. I generally look for a horse that is 7-10 years old and retire him at around 20, so we have a great deal of time to work on our partnership. My old horse Bear is 31 this year. He didn’t retire until age 27 when arthritis in one hock got too bad. I have indeed seen a lot of drama with bits, as well as the lesser misuses- while not actively pulling on a western horse, keeping the reins short enough (even at rest) so he can’t drop his head into a comfortable position. People don’t seem to understand bits and their purpose. I took dressage in riding school, and we were taught that the curb and spurs were only to be used on the higher level horses and their purpose was to REFINE COMMUNICATION- not to coerce or force obedience. This mindset has made a huge impact on the way I ride and on the way I look at equipment. I have to say that learning the principles of basic dressage was one of the most valuable lessons in my career. But even before that, I was taught that the cues on a western horse (or any other good horse for that matter) should be so light as to be invisible to an observer. These teachings and the accompanying mindset have served me (and my horses) very well over the years.

  19. Thank you for this! When I bought my horse he wouldn’t listen to a soft snaffle. He had been started in a double bridle and had severe neck and back pain. Fought with my trainer about what I wanted in his mouth (he wanted something more severe than I did). I fired him and found a trainer who would restart him in a snaffle. It’s been a long process, but I have no regrets about finding a trainer who would work with us.

    • Thank you, Sarah. May I rant just a bit? Comments like yours make me nuts… it’s hard enough to hire a trainer. Most folks in the US are very slow to ask for help, but you did! And then found a trainer with no skills. That’s what a harsh bit tells me… but how many folks go along with the first trainer?

      So happy for you that you listened to your common sense. It doesn’t work to be too soft or too hard with animals…Great comment, thanks.

  20. Hi again Anna, after a long time! May I just add a PS to going bitless. Some riders, and horses, get insecure about suddenly giving up the habit of riding with contact (taking the trainer wheels off the bike!). I found keeping the headcollar, with a rein, on under the snaffle bridle we’d “reduced to” from a Spanish curb, made it possible to transition from one set of reins to the other in stages so we both got used to it – and from there to a bitless bridle. However, I don’t believe we can ever completely reassure the prey part of the horse’s brain anď in a spook/bolt situation, which can occur even with even the best partnership, I am glad to have the back up of a full cheek snaffle to at least be able to ask for turn, or circle in extremis. I know this says more about my lack of skill and confidence than I would prefer to, but sitting here with another broken leg after a non riding fall and with thinning bones, like so many of us “seasoned” horsewomen, there are times when we need a safety net! Be interested to hear your take, sending best wishes, Chris

  21. Chris! I’ve missed you. Sorry to hear about your leg; heal well.

    What a great comment! This blog wasn’t meant to be about bitless bridles, but everyone seems enthusiastic about them. In my training circle, I’ve had horses not like them, like different kinds, etc. I’ve seen bitless bridles be used with such hard, cruel hands, that I’m not sure it was any kinder. I still contend it’s about light positive hands and building confidence in the horse and rider. No matter how “seasoned.” I think you ride a Spanish horse; they are sensitive. If he was in a severe bit, I would make changes slowly. Jumping cold turkey isn’t a kindness to every horse.

    At the same time, change is hard. I love your method of weaning off of a severe bit to a snaffle. It’s safer for both of you. I have had the experience of thinking I was doing a horse a favor by getting a strong bit out of her mouth, but she was used to it and she lost confidence… When you talk about a “safety net,” well, I think horses need them too sometimes. None are bombproof, and neither are riders. What’s wrong with not doing everything the hardest way possible? It’s one of the reasons that I like a neckring in conjunction with a bit as a transition to better hands. No need to jump off a cliff. We don’t score extra points for adrenaline. Relaxed and Forward, and don’t give up one for the other.

    I like your method, I’m going to keep it in my toolbox, and let’s see what it looks like a year from now. Because change is a constant. Thanks for commenting, Chris. Take care.


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